Wednesday, June 3, 2009

5 Indispensable Food Photography Tips

A typical food blog is part recipe emporium and part "food porn" gallery. A food blog without photos is just like a cookbook without photos - it may still be fantastic, but it's not the one that you're going to linger on at the bookstore. There have been times - like when my niece ate the last cookie before I could take a picture - that I decided not to post a recipe because I didn't have a photo. There have also been times when I've been sifting through my archives and thought, "That was a great recipe, maybe I should post that," but have been stopped by the sub-par quality of my earliest food photos.

So I think it's fair to say that one of the biggest challenges among food bloggers is taking amazing photos. While I don't think that my photos have become as wonderful as those belonging to some of my favourite food bloggers, I have learned some tricks along the way that have improved my photos, and I'm learning new tricks all the time.

If you're looking for ways to improve your own food photography, I offer the following five suggestions:

1. Stop me if you're heard this before, but natural light is your friend. I say that begrudgingly, as I currently live in a basement apartment and have very limited access to natural light - the sole window in my apartment is two feet wide and eight feet up. Still, the easiest way to take appetizing food photos is to photograph food in natural light with no flash. Never, ever use your camera's built-in flash when photographing food. It washes it out and makes it look slimy.

The good news is, there are alternatives. This is also helpful for the many times that you'll need to bake or cook something at night. You'll need to compensate for unnatural lighting, and there are a few ways of doing this.

2. If you don't have natural light, you can try to fake it.

Buy lights that emulate natural light. There are high/low options here. I've heard fantastic things about the Ego light by Lowel, but since I'm cheap, I use two $3 lamps from a thrift store and two $1.50 light bulbs that emulate natural light for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder. I found these at my local Home Depot, right alongside the other light bulbs. You're looking for something like the GE Reveal. You can even buy more than 2 lamps and create your own table-top lighting studio by placing the lamps around the table until there are no shadows. Again, don't use flash!

3. Learn the ins and outs of colour balance. Take a look at the following photo comparison. Which one of these photos of lemons looks more appealing to you? The blue-yellow lemons on the left, or the sunshine-yellow citrus on the right?

Your camera's white balance settings aren't always perfect, and can sometimes create a blue or red tone in your photos, usually in photos taken indoors. Not good. The best and easiest way that I know to correct this after the fact is to use Adobe Photoshop and add a colour adjustment layer.

Here's how you do it: in the menu bar at the top, select Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Color Balance. Then move the sliders around until you're happy with the way your photo looks. For the above photo, the image was obviously way too blue, and so I moved the bar away from blue and green and closer to the warmer colours.

Photoshop works wonderfully for me, but if you can't get your hands on a copy, you can use free or less expensive image editing software or websites that let you tweak the colour balance of your photos. I've heard good things about Picnik.

4. Macro is your friend.
Whether you've got yourself a fancy schmancy DSLR or a point-and-shoot, macro shots are the way to go when it comes to food photography. Macro is what allows you to get detailed, up-close photos. On your point-and-shoot camera, look for a flower symbol on the controls - this is the macro symbol - and press the corresponding button. Your DSLR will likely need a separate macro to get the best macro photos, although it may have a pre-programmed macro setting. My Canon Rebel XS has a macro setting, but won't let me take macro photos without flash in low light, and also doesn't deliver the kind of quality that my Sigma 50mm f/2.8 Macro Lens does. Macro lenses are expensive, unfortunately, but if you're serious about food photography (and you own a DSLR) I really believe they are the only way to go. You'll feel like an instant pro when you use a good macro lens.

5. Don't worry about the perfect staged setting - but do invest in some cheap props.
When it comes to food blogs, my favourite photos don't look staged or perfectly styled, like those in a cookbook. I don't believe that you need to let your food grow cold while you create the perfect setting, and I also don't believe that you need to invest in tons of props.

Simple backdrops are the best way I know to give a clean look to my photos when my kitchen, after cooking dinner or baking dessert, is anything but. Many of my photos are taken after I've thrown a swath of fabric over the contents of my messy kitchen table and placed my latest creation on top, moving quickly so I can enjoy my meal before it gets cold. You can buy plain fabric from a fabric store (I own a metre each of white, pink, cream, and blue fabric that was on sale for $2/metre), buy bristol board, or if you're really desperate, even tape a few sheets of plain letter-sized paper together and use it as an all-white backdrop. Lolo of VeganYumYum spray paints foam core board to get the exact backdrop colour she wants.

When it comes to plating, plain white tableware complements food very well. But unique tableware works well too, and can add a lot of interest to your photos. I got a lot of positive feedback when I posted photos of chocolate cupcakes which were placed on a turquoise cake stand. You can slowly and inexpensively accumulate a collection of interesting bakeware and tableware by scoping out local thrift stores, although of course, if you don't mind spending the money, you can buy new dishes, too. I stick to thrift stores because I've found a lot of cute dishes that way, like this Harkerware plate I found for 25 cents at a thrift store in Philadelphia.

So, that wraps it up for me. Feel free to leave suggestions of your own in the comments, or ask me a question.

For some supplementary reading, here are a few links to food photography tips I've found helpful:


Leslie June 4, 2009 at 11:38:00 PM EDT  

Great tips! My photos are SO terrible that I finally invested in a DSLR that I hope to master sooner rather than later.

Anonymous June 5, 2009 at 12:41:00 PM EDT  

Great tips! Especially about those light bulbs. I have to look into those.

Tonya @ What's On My Plate June 7, 2009 at 7:33:00 AM EDT  

Wonderful post. I'm heading out to buy lamps today!

Kaitlin June 7, 2009 at 1:42:00 PM EDT  

Thanks everyone, I'm glad you found these tips helpful!

Phyllis January 19, 2010 at 12:24:00 AM EST  
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shobha April 23, 2010 at 6:21:00 AM EDT  
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