This week’s guest post is by 20 Years Hence who are Tony and Steph. Tony Kuehn is an American photographer who swapped blustery winters in Minnesota for sweltering summers in Tennessee when he moved south for college and found himself unexpectedly charmed. After 11 years in Nashville, he and his wife, Steph, decided it was time for a change, so they sold all of their belongings, dropped their two adorable dogs off with family in Toronto, Canada and boarded a one-way flight for Tokyo, Japan in August 2012. They have now been traveling for 14 months, and despite their plans to travel all the way west back to North America, have yet to make it out of Asia.
As fellow food lovers, I’ve been following their journey as well as being constantly mesmerised by the stunning photographs on their blog. This is why I have asked them to share with us their best tips for better food photography.
Five Tips for Better Food Photography
Whether you’re shooting for a blog, Twitter, Facebook or just your own memories, food photography can be a tricky proposition. How often have you eaten something delicious, only to show the photos to your friends and have them wonder what you won’t eat? Don’t feel too bad – professional food photography is a rarified art. For example, did you know that fake ice cubes made from Lucite cost $40 each, watered-down flat Diet Coke photographs better than whiskey and if you see ice cream in an ad that isn’t specifically for ice cream it’s probably instant mashed potatoes?! I could tell you more, but then I’d have to go into hiding.
All of this is to say that getting a beautiful, ad-quality food shot involves a lot of visual trickery and preparation. So what to do when you’re presented with the real thing in a crowded restaurant lit by only one dim bulb? Read on for some tips that will help you get the shot you’re looking for.
1. Follow the Light
When you arrive at the restaurant keep an eye out for an area with good light. If it’s during the day, try to sit near a window or open doorway, as natural light is always best. If that can’t be managed, look for the seat that has the most or best light, even if that means the seat closest to the only fluorescent bulb hanging from the ceiling. Work with what you have. Try not to pick the smallest table in the place as well—you’ll want some space to work with the food. If you have to lean dangerously far back in your chair or get in the way of wait staff to get a shot, that’s not only a hassle, but it will negatively affect your shot.
Also, if you’re dining al fresco in the evening or a restaurant is particularly dark and cavernous, you may simply have to accept that this is a meal that will live on best in your memories and not in your photographs. If it is so dark that you feel tempted to use a flash, it’s probably not worth it: this kind of harsh lighting produces poor, unappetizing results and can annoy your fellow diners.
2. Get Your Colors Right
When it comes to the quality of your food shots, white balance plays a big role. Simply put, white balance determines how accurate the color in your photograph is. The whites are the most obvious area where this can be seen, but it affects every color in some way. The way the colors are affected depends on what kind of light you are under. A regular light bulb makes things yellow, fluorescent lights make things green. The sun is considered “normal”, but things in the shade can look blue. Fortunately for us, our brains are super crafty and know what things are supposed to look like regardless of the type of light, so they make our perception of the color of light consistent, no matter what. Unfortunately, our cameras are not quite as good at this. Most of the time, we leave their white balance setting (usually under a button labeled WB) on “auto” and the camera tries to make the colors as accurate as it can, but sometimes — especially under dim, mixed or odd light sources — they get it wrong.
So what can you do? Most cameras let you pick other pre-sets for white balance, like “fluorescent” and “cloudy.” Try some of the more relevant of these and see if you like the results better. If the setting matches your situation, it’s likely you’ll get better results than auto will give. If this isn’t helping, and you feel ambitious, you can try a custom white balance. Essentially, your camera will want you to take a picture of something that is white (or a neutral color like gray if you don’t have something white) and then it will set itself based on that. The process is a little different on every camera, but with a little tinkering you should be able to figure it out. Just remember to change the setting back to auto (or whatever you want) when you’re done!
3. Blur That Background
Ideally, the only thing you want your viewers to pay attention to in your shots is the food. One of the best ways to do this is by making sure your background is blurry, leaving only the food in sharp focus. There are a few ways to do this, but how effective they are depends on your camera. First, set your camera to its “A” mode. This stands for aperture, and it corresponds to the opening in your lens that lets in light. What you want is a smaller number. Set your aperture to the smallest number you can for the blurriest background. Because most restaurants are also dimly lit, this will help you get a better shot in low light as well.
The second thing you can do is zoom in. The more you zoom in, the blurrier your background becomes. Be careful, though, because if you zoom too much and your camera doesn’t have anti-shake capabilities, your shot might be blurry.
The last thing you can do is get closer to the food, especially if you can’t zoom in very much. The closer you are, the more blur you get in your background. The zoom and the distance from the food are a bit of a balancing act, because every camera has limitations in these departments, but if you have your aperture set to its lowest number, you’re already halfway there.
4. Capture the Whole Scene Too
On the other hand, sometimes the environment around the meal can really enhance the viewer’s reaction to a photograph. Capturing those extra elements around the dish can add a sense of place and scale to a photograph that might be missing in a tight shot of just the food on the plate. The golden rule is to always shoot as many shots as you can think of to highlight the food, but make sure you always take a few that capture the setting as well, if for nothing else than to remind you of where you enjoyed this meal. This is doubly true in Asia, where the condiments on the table are usually an essential part of any meal you’ve been served, so it can do the dish justice to show them, even if only in the background.
The last consideration you need to make as a photographer is how you’ll place the food in your frame. There are a few basic things to keep in mind when shooting (and these all apply to non-food photography as well!).
Don’t put it in the middle — Essentially, if you can keep the subject of your image slightly off-center it will be more interesting. If you have trouble visualizing this, many cameras have a grid you can turn on that they will overlay on the image for reference to remind you to stay out of the exact middle of the frame.
Perspective — Should you shoot from above, or head on? At an angle, from the side, or from eye level? Take a few shots, try different angles and don’t be afraid to take a shot you’re not sure of. It’s hard to tell how things will look until you get them on the computer and look at them on something other than your camera’s screen.
Interaction — Sometimes it’s nice to just let the food sit, other times it’s more interesting to get a utensil or hand in there and lift some of the food up. A soup isn’t very interesting on its own, but if you show a spoon holding up some of the soupy goodness hidden below the surface, it adds a new dimension to the shot. Maybe a fritter is more interesting if it’s in someone’s hand, or a stack of cookies is better than just a cookie on a plate. The moral of the story is: don’t be afraid to play with your food. That playfulness will come across in the shot and make it more interesting, and you’re just going to eat it anyway, so don’t be scared to mess it up! Just remember to start simple and get progressively more wacky, because once food is all stirred up you can’t go back, unless you order another.
Hopefully my tips have helped you think about how you approach you food photographs differently. In the end, there isn’t that much to it that won’t help you out in other areas of photography as well. The key is knowing your camera, a little planning, and a little extra thought and effort when the food shows up on your table. The rest is instinct and experience, which comes with time and practice. Soon enough, you’ll make that roadside stall look like a Michelin-starred establishment… and who knows—if you’re in Asia, it just might be!
Thanks for Steph and Tony for sharing their tips on better food photography. I’m not sure about you but I can literally taste the food in my mouth by just looking at those photos. Thanks to their advice I’m already scouting the restaurants for a well lit location before the waiter even says hello.
Tony & Steph share stories & photos from their adventures at:
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This food section of JimmyEatsWorld is dedicated to those want to be creative with their meals without breaking the bank. Those who want to get the most out of the limited ingredients available when on the road, on a budget or faced with a limited choice such as being gluten free.
If you have any ideas you would like to share then please submit your details through the contact page with your thoughts. I always look forward to seeing what my fellow travellers and food lovers come up with. Keep on eating on…