I am lucky enough to be told, on occasion, that I take nice photos. Sometimes I am asked for advice about photography.
So here is my advice.
I’m going to start with light, because I think it is the one thing you have to get right. A close second is composition and food prep/styling. Least important is gear. Yes, I use an expensive camera and some other things, which I will cover at the end here, but the quality of the light is truly what makes a photo good or not. The skill of a photographer is to make or find the light that works for the subject, more than anything else.
Light is photography and photography is light. You can get the most expensive camera and it won’t take good photos without good light. All a camera does – even the latest and greatest technology out there – is sense and record light. With great light, an iPhone can take a great photo. With bad light, a $4,000 professional DSLR will make a terrible photo.
So what is good light? For most food photography, good light is diffuse. It has direction, but it’s soft and scattered. It does not add additional color or cast to the food. It’s purposeful, controlled, and clean.
Avoiding bad light is simple: don’t rely on overhead lights or indoor fixtures, which cast multiple ugly shadows on your food and cause color problems. They also create little highlights on plates and food that don’t belong there. Turn them off; and don’t use direct on-camera flash to flood your subject directly with light, which is about the worst thing in the world.
There are three ways to create good light: natural filtered sunlight, diffuse artificial light, and bounced flash. I’ll cover each.
Sunlight is harsh (think of a hard noon shadow) when it directly hits the subject. Instead, place the food near a large window indoors, or in the shade outside, where the sun filters through and bounces around the subject but does not directly shine on it.
This is the cheapest and easiest way to shoot with good light. A white card (or anything large and white) placed opposite the light source creates a soft fill in the shadows. Moving it closer or farther away will change the intensity of the fill. Shooting in mid-day will ensure that the light is relatively colorless; otherwise white balance (color of the light) may need to be adjusted in the camera or software. Then it’s just a matter of finding an angle and composition that you like (overhead, 3/4 or side view.)
This simple setup is often the best way to shoot, and many pros use nothing but this sort of technique. You can add black cards or other modifiers to mold the natural light if you like.
If you are like me, however, you may find yourself frequently cooking at night, when the sun is decidedly not very bright. In this case, we’ll need to create good light ourselves.
Lowel EGO lights:
These are great little tools. Each light is a compact powerhouse of pure, filtered white light. They are inexpensive, lightweight and yield very professional results. I think they are perfect for food and small product photography. Food bloggers have definitely been making good use of these, and for good reason! Each comes with two daylight balanced fluorescent bulbs.
The material across the front of each diffuses the light, providing gentle, clean, wrap-around light that is so good for food photos. Usually I place one light to each side, or one light behind and one to the side of the subject. Picking these up has definitely improved my food photography, and has allowed me to get accepted at sites like Foodgawker and Tastespotting when I couldn’t before.
Some simple examples of some garlic shot with EGO lights:
Above: one EGO light, to the right side of the garlic.
Left: one EGO light to the right side of garlic with a white card on left, which fills and softens the dark side a bit. Right: two EGO lights placed on both sides of garlic at different distances provide a full main and fill light.
As you can see, it’s possible to get a range of natural looking light effects with these lights.
Another example shot with the EGO lights.
And yet another.
So, I really like them. I think they are ideal for any food photographer and especially bloggers who want great photos without a lot of fuss. At less than $100 per light, it’s cheap, small, and very easy to use. Just turn them on and place them where you need them. The camera does most of the work because the light source is constant and easy to meter from.
The third option you’ll have is to get a flash (I use a Nikon flash) and point it anywhere but the food. I find the best shots result from bouncing the flash upwards at the ceiling, which then bounces down at the food. Sometimes it helps to bounce off a wall/ceiling combo, especially if you can position it behind the food and get the light coming from behind the subject. This effectively makes the ceiling or wall into a large diffuse light source.
I don’t think these shots are as good as those the natural sunlight or the Lowel EGO lights provide, but they do work and they are consistent. It just takes some fooling.
Whatever you do, don’t point any flash directly at the subject. It looks terrible.
The limitation of using bounced flash is that the wall, ceiling, whatever you are aiming at must be white or at least very close to white. Light takes on the color of the material it bounces from, so if you bounce off an orange ceiling, guess what? Orange food.
Composition and food styling.
Buying gear is easy. Creating good light is fairly simple as long as you understand it. Creating a beautiful food is definitely the hardest part. This is your actual subject, and it needs to be as beautiful as you can make it. A few good tips I’ve learned from workshops and experience:
- Get good product. Start with beautiful ingredients. Look for food that is truly good – think farmer’s markets, etc. It will show in the photo, and it will also make you a better cook.
- Beautiful doesn’t mean complicated. Keep things natural. Be creative, but don’t use weird stuff that wouldn’t realistically go in the scene. Just make it look delicious and natural. Choose subjects that are not complicated. If you are shooting something complicated, break it down and shoot bits and pieces.
- Shoot from “clean” to “messy.” In other words, get your “perfect” shots done, then dig in to the food and break it up with your fork, spoon, or whatever for more photos. Often the best shots will not be the cleanest ones. Juices, fillings, etc can be colorful and compelling once revealed.
- Consider the background. Start with plain dark, white, or out-of-focus backgrounds until you get comfortable with arranging multiple things on the set such as:
- linen cloth or canvas dropcloths
- bread boards
- painted boards, tables or beadboard
- books, old letters and newspapers
- antiques, silverware, etc
- cast iron, pans, or old cookware
- If your food doesn’t have color naturally, add color to the scene. Consider:
- pomegranate seeds or other colorful fruit, peels, etc
- shiny utensils
- parchment paper
- green herbs – chopped, or whole sprigs add a burst of color to a scene
- powdered sugar
- colorful dishes and serving ware that are different in color and value from the food
- Hot or cold items can cause unexpected things to happen such as fog, condensation or melting. Be aware of these.
- If you need the appearance of moisture, brush the food with a little extra virgin olive oil or lightly mist with water.
- Don’t shoot super close to the food or it will become abstract. Zoom out a little – show what the subject is.
- Consider both portrait and landscape orientations, don’t get stuck in a rut with one composition.
Gear and other stuff.
Again, light and composition/styling really are more important than this stuff. Once you’ve got those down, I suggest learning how to use a DSLR camera with manual settings and controls. You don’t need the most expensive ones to make good photos, but you do need something that will let you take control over your shots. Camera bodies go out of style like there is no tomorrow, and shutters don’t last forever. Better to invest your real dollars in lenses. Lenses hold value, go from camera body to camera body as you upgrade, and have a large impact on photo quality. Good lenses offer a wider range of creative possibility (such as that lovely shallow focus seen in many food photos). Spend more on lenses – which will last many years and still be very useful – than you do on the camera body – which will last several years and then break down or become outdated.
Learn to shoot RAW, and learn to use Adobe Lightroom. RAW files are digital negatives, and allow for an impressive amount of adjustment after the fact. There are many reasons to use RAW images: white balance can be fixed, highlights saved, shadows filled, and more. Lightroom is a great application for editing and organizing photos. It’s non-destructive (meaning you can always go back and adjust each image) and quite intuitive to use. It’s definitely the best way to organize and work with your RAW files and I couldn’t even imagine working with anything else.
Besides the EGO lights and flash, here’s the camera stuff I use the most for food photography:
Nikon D700 Camera
I like this camera because of the full-frame sensor, image quality and durability.
Nikkor 24-70 2.8 Lens
Generally the best all-around lens for Nikon in my opinion and my personal favorite.
Nikkor 50mm 1.8 Lens
A little lens with an incredible aperture range for under $150. Although it only does 50mm, it does it as well as a $1,000+ lens.