Food Photography Tips for the Blogger: Shoot Fast, Eat the Model
I am often asked, especially by food bloggers, about my food photography. I'm always flattered, especially since I know that I am a loooonnnnng way from a good food shooter. But I have done reasonably well given the constraints under which I operate.
My style is pretty simple and uncomplicated. I don't do any fancy food styling. That's because I want you to see what the recipe actually looks like. I'm not making photos for an ad designed to make you buy something. That means the grill marks come from the grill, not a hot poker in my studio.
I cannot afford to prepare three plates of every recipe and slave over the shoot for an hour spritzing it with oil and fussing with lights. I do a recipe, shoot it, serve it to my wife, and we discuss it. So my motto is shoot fast and eat the model. And that's the way most food bloggers work. So I've organized some tips on technique and info about my tools.
But first, let's begin by discussing the different types of food photography:
- Foodpron (misspelled deliberately so this site will not be flagged by search engines as a pron site). People gobble up pictures of beautiful food. They love looking at food they cannot make at home, like looking at the bodies of models and athletes they cannot have at home. Alas, most foodpron is like real pron, low production values. Most are bad pictures of fabulous dishes on food blogs and message boards, often shot in a restaurant, often taken by a cheap point-and-shoot digital camera with head-on flash, usually annoying everyone in the dining room. Sadly foodpron also appears on many restaurant websites.
- Food sculpture. These are the photos that appear in ads, on packaging, menus, and some cookbooks and magazines, often created from non-edible products to look super realistic. Photographers spend hours on a shot with the help of food stylists, prop stylists, art directors, and assistants. They use chemicals, paint, and non-edible products to get the effects they want.
- Food verite. Thankfully these pix are becoming more popular, especially in cookbooks and magazines. They are carefully arranged, lit, and composed, but the food is real. They may spritz some water or oil here and there, but everything is real. We look, and we drool on our keyboards like voyeurs watching our beautiful neighbors in the hot tub. This is what I try to do on AmazingRibs.com.
Although I do have formal training as a fine art photographer, I have had no training at food photography or even studio photography. The differences between these disciplines is like the difference between a barbecue chef and a Chinese chef. Both make great tasting meals, but they approach their art very differently and with very different tools.
I have come to realize that food photography is the craft's most difficult discipline and, although I am climbing the learning curve rapidly, I am still an intermediate.
At the outset, let me make it clear that the kind of pictures I take are a lot different from those taken by the commercial food photographers. I am shooting the food that I cook from my recipes and I want it to look like the food you will get if you follow my recipes. I use very simple lighting setups and minimal props. I shoot fast because my wife is waiting in the dining room for me to join her for dinner. So I don't spray the food with glycerin to make it glisten and I don't use Elmer's glue to simulate milk. I work with one or two lights, white cardboard, and aluminum foil. Click here for a look at how professional food photographers and the food stylists they use make commercial food ads look better than reality.
Why do I call food photography the hardest photography? Because the line between appetizing and disgusting is very very fine. Especially when it comes to red meat. Think of those snapshots of rare beef, duck breasts, or lamb, where the meat is purple and slimy looking. Getting it to look mouthwatering is the whole trick.
The answer, as with anything photographic, begins with light. Remember the word photograph comes from Greek words meaning light (photo) and drawing (graph). Below is a description of my setup and gear. Links to the products are at the bottom of the page.
Alas, they never taught me studio lighting when I was getting my Master of Arts degree, so I had to teach myself. Books came in handy, and some of my faves are on this page. I promptly figured out that any light from the built-in flash is just plain awful. Horrible. The worst.
The biggest problems are light placement and color balance. Strobes are the industry standard because they pump out a lot of perfectly balanced light and they don't melt chocolate and ice cream. The problem with stobes is that it is really hard to visualize what the light will look like. Poof and the light is gone. Continuous light bulbs are so much easier to work with, but incandescents get too hot and are too yellow.
At first I chose not to invest in big studio strobes and used small portable strobes that I could also use in the field. Since I've used Nikon single lens reflex (SLR) cameras for 30 years, when Nikon introduced its SB-800 strobes, I went out an bought three immediately. These are amazing devices that can be fired wireless from their high end digital cameras. But they were still tricky to use in the studio to get exactly the right light (I laughingly call my basement my studio). I have since added one of the newer model, an SB-900.
In 2008 Scott Kelby of PhotoshopUser magazine turned his readers on to the Westcott Spiderlite 5. It has changed my life. The reason: It uses special Compact Fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs that are beautifully balanced at 5500 kelvin (that's the color of the light) and exude an elegant soft light that wraps around the food and caresses it lovingly. No more guessing what the light will look like. It's WYSIWYG.
Nowadays my main camera is a Nikon D600 digital SLR. I often attach the camera to a computer with a USB cable and download immediately in order to view the image on a real monitor. That's a lot better than viewing the image on the camera back. When I've got what I want, I eat the model.
For shooting in my kitchen, on my grill deck, on location, or on road trips, I typically use my camera with a Nikon flash fitted with a Lumiquest Softbox. This handi-dandy folding gizmo fits in my back posket and does a great job of softening the light. I can hold it in my left hand and shoot with my right. Or I can set it on a table and walk away. Great light, quick and easy.
Tips for shooting food
- Carry a camera everywhere. I don't lug my backpack fully loaded with me when I run errands or go out to dinner, so I carry an iPhone.
- Learn your camera. Modern digital cameras have a lot of bells and whistles. Read the manual and experiment until you have mastered the different settings and controls.
- Shoot a lot. Shoot several times from several angles and distances. That killer shot will surely have a fly on it when you look at it up close, so have backup shots.
- Have a big storage chip on your shoulder. The memory cards that come with cameras are almost always too small to hold more than a few dozen high resolution images. Buy a bigger one. Buy more capacity than you think you'll ever need. These chips are relatively inexpensive, and you don't want to have to stop what you are doing to go back and delete images.
- Carry spare batteries. Nothing is more aggravating than a battery going dead in the middle of a shoot.
- Don't use auto mode. In auto mode, the camera makes all the choices. If you switch to P (program) mode, it is almost the same as auto, but you can override the settings in order to let in more light or to improve depth of field.
- Use natural light or available light whenever possible. When shooting outdoors, bright sun is usually too bright. It casts harsh shadows. The best light outdoors is open shade. Open the umbrella on the picnic table to get open shade.
- Avoid using built-in flash whenever possible. It casts harsh shadows, makes ugly reflections, and flattens contour. If you are going to shoot a meal in a restaurant, go for lunch and get a window seat.
- To shoot without flash you usually need to use a higher ISO setting. But beware, the higher you go in ISO, the grainier or "noisier" the image. Noise is not a big problem when viewed on a computer screen, but it can show up in prints. If you are shooting in bright light, set the ISO for 100 to 400. If you are shooting in low light, set the ISO for 400 or more.
- Consider buying another flash. If your camera has a flash shoe, use a flash that you can bounce off the ceiling or walls. This light is much softer and prettier. Modern flashes are mini computers. They can think for you.
- If you are shooting in a restaurant, don't be a jerk. Respect your dining companions and the people sitting around you. That means one burst of light is all you get. Make it count. Better still, skip the flash and use a mini tripod or use your water glass, a wall, or a chair back as a tripod.
- Use a tripod at home. Away from home, carry a pocket tripod so you don't have to use flash.
- If you are not using a tripod, pull your elbows in to your side, breathe gently, exhale, press the shutter gently, and hold steady until the picture is shot.
- Study the pros. Look at the pix in food mags and try to figure out where the light is coming from and how the lighting was done. You'll notice that most of the best pix, the light comes from behind the food or over its shoulder, not overhead or in front.
- Trust your camera's auto white balance. White balancing is like putting a filter on the lens because there are different colors of light. Incandescent bulbs are yellow or orange and give everything a warm hue. Fluorescents are green to blue. They make people look sickly and food looks yucky. Most modern digital cameras can figure this out and compensate. If you need to you can often adjust the white balance later, especially if you shoot in RAW mode.
- If your camera has it, shoot in RAW mode. It captures more info and allows you to adjust white balance and exposure later. Otherwise shoot the highest resolution you can. You can always make it smaller, but not larger.
- Get a photo editing program. Photoshop is the industry standard, but there are others that will allow you to crop, shift the color balance, sharpen foregrounds and blur backgrounds, and remove crumbs. Adobe Lightroom is a less expensive and very powerful option. iPhoto is free on new Macs and it is remarkably good.
- Shoot fast before sauces get opaque and fresh greens droop.
- Move in tight to shoot, but not too tight. Leave room around the subject. In the computer, crop tight. Really tight. Make the food look huge.
- Step back a bit and zoom the lens in. That flattens the image and gives you greater depth of field.
- Get the object closest to you in focus. If the background blurs, that's usually OK.
- Make it sparkle to convey the impression the food is moist. Move the lights or put up reflectors made of white cardboard, called bounce cards, to make little white reflections called specular highlights. Keep a spritzer bottle of water in the studio to add moisture if the food begins to dry out.
- Move the lights in close. When the light is close to the subject it is actually softer than when it is far away, like the sun. Far away light casts harder shadows. I know this is counterintuitive, but it's true.
- Open up the shadows. Try to illuminate dark shadows with a bounce card to throw some light into the shadows. A bounce card is just a piece of white cardboard that you place on the dark side of the food to bounce light into the shadows.
- Paint your kitchen and dining room ceilings white so you can bounce flash off them. Red walls will add a red cast to the food.
- Asymmetry looks better than symmetry. Don't just put everything in the center of the plate or the center of the image.
- Beware of details such as drips and splatters on the plate or lipstick on wine glasses.
- Edit ruthlessly. Find the one best shot. Not three. Be ruthless. Save the best, trash the rest. This goes for family shots. You don't have to upload everything you shot to Flickr. Nobody wants to see 10 shots of the birthday cake.
- Use the tulip. Most point and shoot cameras have a close-up or macro mode. It's usually a little tulip icon. You need it for shooting in close because other modes don't focus up close. Read your manual and find out how close you can get before switching to macro. It's usually 12-18".
- Watch out for the background. Learn to look at everything in the viewfinder, not just the main subject. Get rid of distractions in the background and include things that tell the story. "Previsualize" the final image.
- Make backups of your work and keep a copy off premises in case of a fire or flood. Download images to your computer and use Carbonite to make a copy off premises. If you are in a hotel, download before bed and make sure Carbonite backs up overnight.
- Keep shooting until you drool!
In my camera bag
Here are the products I use and recommend. I have been a Nikon man since 1967 so don't tell me about your Canon, OK? I know it's a fine camera. But I like Nikons, Macs, ribeyes medium rare, Miracle Whip, etc. No need to make a religious argument out of this, OK?
Now I am serious about my photos, and I am into gadgets, so you may call my toolbox overkill. You can do very well with less.
Nikon D600 24.3 megapixels FX-Format (full frame) CMOS Digital SLR with 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 AFS FX VR ED Nikkor Lens. This is not a top of the line digital SLR, and yes, I lust after one of Nikon's fancier units, but this baby does everything I need and it costs a lot less money than the slightly more tricked out high-end Nikons. A key feature is that it can control my flash units with the pop-up flash but the pop-up flash does not illuminate the subject when an external flash is being used.
Nikon D7000 16.2 megapixels DX-Format CMOS Digital SLR with 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S DX VR ED Nikkor Lens. This is my backup camera, and I have my 10.5 mm fisheye mounted to it. It was my main camera until I bought the D600. I almost always carry a backup in case cmy main camera croaks or if I drop it. Helluva camera for the price.
Apple iPhone 4S. The iPhone has a high quality point and shoot camera that's with me wherever I go.
SanDisk Extreme III 8 GB SD card. Digital cameras never come with anywhere near the storage you need, especially if you shoot in RAW mode which captures large high resolution images. So buy a big chip. Get fast read-write times so you can hold the shutter button down and capture action with the motor-drive feature of your camera.
Rechargeable Li-Ion Batteries. I carry three spare batteries.
Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8G ED AF DX Fisheye Nikkor Lens. I adore this lens. It is perfect for panoramas or interiors. But it doesn't work on my D600 which is full frame, so I leave it ounted to my D7000.
Nikon 70 to 300mm f/4.5 to 5.6G ED-IF AF-S VR Zoom Nikkor Lens for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras. I rarely use this lens, but it's good for sports and I like to shoot my friends' and neighbors' kids at play.
Marumi Achromat Macro 200 (+5). This is a really handy gizmo because some foods look best in close-up. An achromat is a two-element multi-coated lens about 1/2" thick. It screws on the end of a lens like a filter and enables you to move in really really close, just like a macro lens. Only it sells for under $80 while a macro lens is about 10 times that price. And it's pretty darn sharp. There are some cheap one element achromats. Avoid them.
Nikon SB-900 AF Speedlight Flash. The Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) is amazing. With my D90 I can control all three of my flash units wireless (and more if I had them). Actually, I have SB-800s, not SB-900s. The SB-800 is being discontinued. The menus on the SB-800 are difficult to understand and master, and the manual is no help. I'm told the SB-900, which is more expensive, has easier menus. You should get a good book or DVD on the CLS if you buy one of these. I use Duracell rechargeable NiMH AA 2650 mAh batteries, and I carry a dozen fully charged. The higher the number the better. I use a Rayovac 1 hour speed charger.
LumiQuest ProMax SoftBox. These inexpensive plastic diffusers fold flat, fit in your back pocket, and take little space in your bag. The greatly soften light from your flash. When I am in the field I typically put one of these on a flash and hold it in my left hand and use it as fill or a main light source. You usually cannot tell I am using artificial light.
Giottos Mini Compact Tabletop Tripod/Monopod with Ballhead. I always have a mini tripod with me to hold the camera steady in low light (any shot slower than 160 second), if I want to fire the camera from a distance, or to hold a flash. I even will rest it against my chest or a wall or a handrail with the camera at my eye. This one telescopes from 4-16" and supports 11 pounds.
Kata KT DR-466 DPS Digital Rucksack with Laptop Compartment. This is the well padded comfy backpack I carry. It has plenty of loops and is stitched well. The zippers can be locked with a small padlock I bought.
Westcott Ice Light is like a Star Wars light saber. A straight tube CFL with 1,600 lumens at 5300k it is a wonder. Camera in right hand, Ice Light in left, and I can shoot anywhere. Move it in close to make it the main light source, move it back to make it a fill light. Move it up down, front back, Click click click, just rip off shots, each with different lighting. It's not cheap, but it's amazing. I keep it in the kitchen.
In my studio
Westcott 4892 Spiderlite TD5 Fluorescent Light Kit with High Wattage (900w 5500k), 24" x 32" Softbox, 10' Lightstand, Carrying Case, and Instructional DVD. Lovely soft light that wraps around the food. Make sure to get the 900w light kit. It is bright enough to allow you to stop down the lens and increase depth of field. Add a bounce card and you're all set.
Lowel Pro Pak, Pro-Light Kit with 250 watt 3200k, Lightstand, Barn Doors, & Accessories. I use this hotlight occasionally when I need lots of light or for video.
Manfrotto 3090 Super Boom with Stand. I use this rather than the light stand that came with the Spiderlite. It lets me fine tune the location of the light and with the crank I can change the angle of the light.
Manfrotto 055XWNB Aluminum Wilderness Tripod with Leg Protectors and Spiked Feet. Tripods are the cure to blurry photos. Get a solid one.
Manfrotto 222 Joystick Head. I love being able to control the camera angle with one hand rather than two knobs. Fits better in the carrying case, too.
In my office
Both my computer and monitor are on articulated arms because I work standing up. I have a chair but I rarely use it.
Apple 15" MacBook Pro 2.5 GHz with 16 GB RAM and 487 GB flash "hard drive". Besides Apple's legendary user-friendly operating system, think about this: There are no, zero, zip viruses in the wild on the Mac OS. OK, one or two relatively benign viruses have been created for bragging rights, but they were rapidly defeated. And Macs never, ever crash. Lots of RAM and no hard drive makes Photoshop happy.
23" Apple Cinema Display. I hook the laptop to this big monitor and I have two screens. If you buy a large monitor, shop carefully. Cheap monitors do not show color and detail well.
Apple Airport with Time Machine and 1 TB for backup on premise. This is my wireless router and it has a huge hard drive built in so my computer backs up every hour in the background. Sweet.
OWC Mercury Drives. I have several of OWCs drives and none has failed yet. I use some for image storage, and some for off-premise backup.
X-Rite Eye-One Display LT. Every now and then you need to adjust the color and contrast of your monitor and you cannot do it with the naked eye. This baby looks at the monitor and the software sends it flashing colors, and it makes appropriate adjustments.
Wacom Intuos5 Touch Medium Pen Tablet (PTH650) I finally broke down and bought a tablet. It lets me touchup and edit images with a pen rather than a mouse. It makes a huge difference when I want to erase backgrounds.
Epson Stylus Printers. Epson is the leader in high quality photo printers with archival ink. I have an old 2200 for color photo prints, and a cheapo C88 for printing office documents. My buddies with the 3800 & 4880 (17" wide prints), 7880 & 7900 (24" wide), 9880 & 9900 (44" wide) love them. I have one complaint. Their utility software doesn't run properly if you have it connected to the Apple Airport, a wireless router.
Epson Perfection 2400 Photo Scanner. Not a high end unit, but it's good enough.
Adobe Photoshop. I download the images with Adobe Lightroom and convert them to Digital Negative (DNG) format. I do most color correction and editing in Adobe Photoshop. Photoshop is the undisputed king of photo editing tools. I've been using it for more that a decade and I still haven't mastered it. I bought the entire Creative Suite package which also includes Dreamweaver & Contribute for website development; InDesign for page layout; Illustrator for drawing and graphics; Flash for animation; Acrobat for making pdfs; Photo Downloader for importing pix from the camera, naming, and conversion to dng; and Bridge for finding and sorting.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. This software allows me to quickly sort and organize my images after a shoot. It allows me to hook my camera to a computer with a large monitor (called tethered shooting) so I can see what I am shooting in detail right now. Food photography is all about detail and selective focus and sometimes you just can't see the detail through the viewfinder. Viewing it on a big screen can save you from having to re-cook and re-shoot the next day because there's a fly on the meat.
Smugmug. This is the online service I use to display images to clients or family and friends. I think it kicks Flickr's butt (and all the other services). Loaded with features a pro needs. Click the link to see how I use it.
National Association of Photoshop Professionals (NAPP) membership. The Association's magazine, Photoshop User is worth the membership fee alone, but the websites tutorials, reviews, discounts, and more, is an unequaled resource. I work a lot with Photoshop and I've gotten pretty good at it but I feel as if I've only scratched the surface. I read the blog by Scott Kelby religiously. I've attended his seminars, and bought his tutorials and books. He's not only a wiz with this most complex program, but he's a heck of a shooter, and a foodie, too.
Some good references
Digital Food Photography by Lou Manna. Simply the best book on the subject for the contemporary digital photographer. He has all kind of food styling tricks for commercial food photographers including how to use Elmer's glue instead of milk in cereal shots, how to make bacon curly and fresh looking, thicker pancake syrup, fake grill marks, etc. These are the kinds of tricks that I never use for actual recipe shots since I want them to look exactly as I cook them, but they are the kinds of things pros might use if they are shooting a cereal box or pancake ad. His website has a lot of good tips, too.
Food Styling for Photographers, A Guide to Creating Your Own Appetizing Art by Linda Bellingham and Jean Ann Bybee. Linda Bellingham is a food stylist and Jean Ann Bybee is a photographer. Food stylists are the magicians who make the food look beautiful. They have a magic bag of tricks, and this book describes many of them. There are lots of step by step tips and tricks well documented in photos. They start by showing us their toolbox and then they show us beautiful shots and how they created them. There is very little here for the cookbook author or blogger, because they use acrylic for ice cubes, artificial ice cream, and coloring to darken burgers. Still, it is fascinating stuff. The best book on styling I've seen.
Lighting: For Food and Drink Photography by Steve Bavister. This guy's into the latest trend of really tight shots. There are scores of images with excellent diagrams of the lighting setup.
Food Photography and Styling by John F. Carafoli. Carafoli is a top stylist and in this book he shares his secrets.
Food Shots, A Guide to Professional Lighting Techniques by Roger Hicks and Frances Schultz. Part of the excellent Pro Lighting series, this book, sadly out of print, shows killer shots and detailed diagrams the lighting setup with comments from the photographer and stylist. If you can find it, snap it up.
The Adobe Photoshop CS5 Book for Digital Photographers by Scott Kelby. Kelby is the acknowledged reigning Photoshop wizard, a great teacher, talented photographer, and prolific author. His books are the best way to learn all the tricks of the pros, shortcuts, and the whys as well as the hows.
Nikon AF Speedlight Flash System: Master the Creative Lighting System! (Magic Lantern Guides). If you want to get the most out of the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS), the manual isn't much help. But this book will make your head reel with the possibilities.
Uelsmann: Process and Perception (Text by John Ames). Uelsmann is a man ahead of his time (that's one of his images above). Considered one of the 20 most influential photographers of the 20th Century, he is so much more than the conventional idea of a photographer. Yes, he is a great technician, making perfect negatives and prints with conventional film and silver paper since the 1960s. Yes he is a magician in the darkroom, creating techniques that allow him to combine images with as many as eight enlargers. But more importantly, he is a visionary who can create visions in our heads of stirring juxtapositions and scenes from our dreams. His work has been the subject of several books by critics and poets. His work is inspirational.
Photo Synthesis (Introduction by A.D. Coleman). Great images accompanied by the deep thoughts of the respected critic.
Uelsmann/Yosemite: Photographs. Definitely not Ansel Adams' Yosemite.
Jerry N. Uelsmann Photographs 1975-1979 Out of print but available used.
Approaching the Shadow. Magnificent retrospective.