Thursday, November 25, 2010

Quick Tips for Food Photography

  1. Shoot quickly — food fresh out of the oven or refrigerator looks better.
  2. Use natural sky lighting. Food often lacks definition, so a small or fairly distant window can produce good shading. Generally, you want the light to provide sharp, well-defined shadows to enhance the texture of the food. You may have to use fill-in reflectors, otherwise color and texture will be lost if large areas of shadows are too dark. Aim for a 1-to-2 E.V. range between large lit and shadowed areas: of course, dark shadows under a plate for example are completely acceptable, just not on the main parts of the food itself.
  3. Avoid using the camera's own flash. Avoid mixing natural and artificial lighting, unless both have a close color balance. Authorities in food photography state that it is difficult to use artificially lighting well:  when they do use it, they prefer small, distant light sources to provide sharper shadows.
  4. Set your exposure and post-processing so that you get good highlights on the food: having a full exposure range will also bring out the colors of the food (in Photoshop, using Levels or Curves in RGB mode will enhance color). Be sure that you don't overexpose too large of areas because you might get muddy color shifts. It is OK to overexpose specular highlights.
  5. The color of food is very important to make it look appetizing. Be sure to do a good color balance. Contemporary food photograph seems to prefer a slightly cool color balance, while traditional food photography preferred slightly warm: both look good, as long as the color balance is close to neutral.
  6. Use props to good effect, such as tablecloths, utensils, glasses, napkins and shakers. But be aware that the food itself is the main subject and shouldn't be overwhelmed with secondary items.
  7. Contemporary food photography uses very shallow depth of field, and prefers lenses with excellent bokeh or background blur. This is tricky to do right, for you have to judge the correct focus point. While I think this effect is attractive, perhaps it is a bit overdone. Some use tilt/shift lenses — or even bellows cameras with these motions — in order to precisely control the plane of focus.
  8. Food photography is essentially still-life photography. There is an immense body of work in still-life, particularly with painting. Do some research and use still-life theory to good effect.
  9. Your image may not look like you remember seeing it, due to the dim-light adaptation of the human eye. In particular, your image and texture may look a bit flat. In this situation, food photos may benefit from having the blue color channel blended into the image to give greater contrast to specific colors. See my articles on the Purkinje Correction.
  10. Get low. Typically, we look down on food at about a 45 degree angle; this might not be best for getting a good shot. Get a bit lower.
  11.  Check your background. Be sure it doesn't detract from the food, which is your main subject. Classical still life preferred a black background, while contemporary food photography likes a white or pastel background, completely out of focus. You don't want the eye to be distracted by the background in most cases. Alternatively, your photo may only show the table top.
  12. Food benefits from extreme lens sharpness. Macro lenses are particularly prized for this sort of work. Use a sturdy tripod and focus carefully. In post processing, use good techniques to preserve and enhance sharpness.
  13. To give a good perspective, most food photographers use a slight telephoto lens for this work, and set their camera several feet away from the food, and six feet would be better. If you have a stylist, be sure there is plenty of room for working between the camera and the subject.  The wider angle the lens, the more area you have to control for your photo: but some have employed wide angles and great depth of field to portray an entire kitchen along with the food.
  14. Food styling — that is, preparing the food itself to look good in photography — is a an advanced specialty, and can be quite involved. I recommend the book Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera by Delores Custer.
  15. My food photography can be seen in the book Thursday Night Pizza, by Fr. Dominic Garramone. Click here to see larger photos of the pizzas: these photos were taken from directly above with no photo styling, per instructions from the publisher. Otherwise I used natural sky lighting, reflectors, and accurate white balance. I used an antique Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 Micro lens for sharpness, with the camera being located about six feet above the pizzas.

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