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The Most Important Basics of Photographing Food Well

Quite apart from the Instagram crowd that can’t stop themselves from posting a photo of every bowl of cereal they come across, there’s also professional food photography. The best food photographers can command very high rates, since the ultimate purpose of their work is always to make somebody money, whether it will appear in a cookbook or on a restaurant’s website.

It’s also a job that requires some specialized skills and rigorous attention to detail. Unlike with most other kinds of product photography or portraits, screwing up a shoot often means having to do it over from step zero rather than just catching any mistakes in Photoshop or Lightroom.

No single article can turn you into a specialist in this area, but there are certainly a few simple principles that can help any semi-pro photographer do a good job if working for a food blogger or local restaurant.

Color Is (Almost) Everything

The whole point of food photography is that we “eat with our eyes,” as they supposedly say in the Far East. It’s a well-known fact that red and yellow dominate fast food logos, since these colors have an emotional association with the kind of food they serve. More upscale places will use muted colors, while an ice cream shop can get away with including bright pink in their logo.

Much the same happens with actual food or pictures thereof: an apple that looks slightly brown won’t make your mouth water, just like a steak that looks slightly green will be sent back. Aspects such as shape, composition and plate design are also important, which is why “Food Design” is an actual job.

The color balance can, of course, easily be adjusted in Photoshop, but tiny errors matter a great deal and you’ll need an exceptional eye to get it right. Also remember the subtler differences between working in RGB (for screen display) and CMYK (print); and make sure your monitor is calibrated. In general, though, the best approach is simply to shoot in natural light and not mess with the camera’s white balance setting (i.e. keep it on “neutral white”). This displays the food as it looks in real life, and nobody can ask more than that. If you’re going to be off, though, it’s generally better to have food looking too red than too blue. If a white plate ends up pinkish, this is easy enough to fix in software.

Temperature Is Not Your Friend

It’s understandable that a restaurant manager will want to have (say) a $50 steak photographed, once, just as it leaves the kitchen and then serve it immediately. They can’t sell it once it has gotten cold.

For a food photographer, though, this represents a problem. Steam fogs up lenses, juices run out onto the plate, grease starts congealing, and of course you have a limited time to get multiple shots. There are numerous ways to get around this, though: spraying cold food with oil to make it glisten, using coloring and a blowtorch to “cook” that steak perfectly, or taking a hair dryer to cheese slices to make them look beautifully melted are just some of the better-known hacks.

In fact, photographing cold objects such as bottles is even more of a chore. As one example, ice cream and lamps don’t go well together. As another, you’ll often want a bottle of beer or white wine to have just the right amount of condensation on it without soaking the label. Since condensation forms evenly over a whole surface, it’s really difficult to achieve a natural effect by taking a spray bottle to it.

Serving wine at the correct temperature is surprisingly complicated and an expert will likely notice if “something” is off (assuming reasonable temperature and humidity), even if this is a subconscious impression. You first need to decide (along with the client) if this particular detail is worth the candle.

What Photoshop Can Do For You

Shooting is one thing, and you may be surprised how much the process of photographing a still-life can make you literally want to shoot somebody. There are plenty of things to get right while actually holding the camera; luckily, various functions in Photoshop are still extremely useful.

Firstly, it’s quite possible that your lens collection doesn’t allow you to get quite the depth of field you really need to make the food stand out, especially with diagonal shots. This is easily fixable, though, with the Gaussian Blur function. Steam and decoration can be composited, and in fact there are a number of pre-made actions you can download.

So, in conclusion, you can (and should) edit food photos, but starting with a bad image will make it impossible to get a good one by the end of the process, regardless of what you do. Photoshop isn’t magic, so learning the basics of the photography trade is essential.

References

Photoshop Actions
Food Photography
Cooling Wine