Five tips for more mouthwatering food photography


posted Wednesday, July 11, 2012 at 7:07 PM EDT

Food-tips-shorbet-logoFood makes us crazy and we love it. It even makes us crazier than photography.

The proof is that they are dozens of food channels and not one photography channel, not even on cable. If you carry a camera or a smartphone, when that plate of mouthwatering, super-sized food arrives in front of you, you are going to want to take a shot of it.

Thanks to the modern digital camera, whether shooting at home or at a restaurant, you don’t need a studio or a stylist to take great food shots. You just need to keep a couple of things in mind and have a good appetite.
All the photos in this post were shot with available light.
A suggestion for politeness: before you start shooting, talk to the restaurant owner and tell them what you are doing. Most restaurants love it when people appreciate their food, but may be concerned when they see a customer seriously photographing it. Let them know that you are not with the competition and, who knows, if the shots are good they might even want to buy them.

1) Be natural and no flash please
When the food is brought to your table think about what you are responding to. Is it the steam off the hot juices? Is it the color of the fresh vegetables? Or is it simply the presentation of the food — the plating — that makes it look so good. Whichever it is, that is what you want to capture in the photograph.

Take a minute to look at the light because you need to work with the ambient light there. Using a flash is committing food photo murder. If you can, use a high ISO such as 800-1600, and shoot with the lens wide open.
Whenever I can, I like to dine and to shoot outdoors on a restaurant’s terrace or on a home deck in the shade of umbrellas. Additionally, on a few occasions, when I’m shooting from the hip, so to speak, I have my assistant, usually my dinner partner, hold up an unfolded white napkin which serves as a reflector to bounce some light into the shadows. 


2) Don’t play with your food!
Watching the video we recently posted on How to Photograph a Hamburger, I was flummoxed by the way the McDonald's spokeswoman abused the burger she bought. Taking it out of the box and shoving it back in and schlepping it in the van to the photo studio, I was surprised she had anything left to shoot.
Especially, when the cook has gone to a lot of trouble to prepare a dish and present it beautifully, you need to respect it. When I get a plate of food, the most I will do is to gently rotate it so I can see how it looks from different  angles. It helps me to think that I am shooting little still-lifes.


3) Find the color
Color is a key ingredient in our response to food. That’s why chef’s cleverly garnish dishes with bright colored spices or flowers. Look for the key colors in the plate, and be aware of how the chef has used it. For McDonald's, their “colors” are tiny spots of mustard yellow and ketchup red, with a subtly hint of pickle green, all tucked beneath a bun.


4) Go vertical
Food lying flat on a plate is boring. It doesn’t really fill the frame or whet our appetites.

Side views, like the McDonald's burger are almost worse than looking down shots. Both views have no dimensionality, no volume.

Food is robust and needs to look like it weighs something. We normally see food from something like a 45˚angle. Food shot at an angle looks like it exists in three dimensions.

For magazine food shots, I would always look for verticality in the plating. Occasionally, I’d ask the chef to stick a sprig of rosemary or lavender in the food, or to stack some vegetables up, to give a little height to the dish.


5) Shoot hungry
No kidding. I have found over the years, that when I have an assignment to shoot food at a restaurant, I always get better shots if I work just before lunch or before dinner. Hunger sharpens the senses and really makes you think about what you are shooting.
And, okay, shooting close to meal time also means that chefs, getting busy prepping for the service, would suggest that I might as well enjoy myself and eat my subjects.