The society of today is plagued with the affliction that is the unending desire to share every entertained piece of dross from our daily lives with the rest of humanity.
Thanks to social media, we are inflicted with relentless images of the activity or scene currently occupying our beings, whatever that may be. Be it the sunset which isn’t actually that pink so best apply a filter (‘I just LOVE London in the summer!’), the rodent-dog we managed to avoid drop-kicking in the park (‘I SO need a chihuahua in my life right now!’), or the heart-attack meal complete with a side of defibrillation we’re about to devour (OMG this is the most AMAZING burger I’ve EVER eaten and it’s as big a my head!).
With mine hung in shame, I hold my hands up as a frequent sinner when it comes to the topic of photographing and sharing what I’m cooking or eating.
I actually don’t mind this when the subject is food. These pictures can promote dining establishments, advertise producers, encourage us to get in the kitchen, inform, tantilise and generally exacerbate our already grumbling stomachs.
A very good example of this done well is foodgawker.com - a gallery of photography submitted by food bloggers from around the world, providing users with a vast search-by-picture recipe catalogue. It retains its high quality thanks to the site editors exercising ruthlessness when it comes to what makes the cut from submissions.
But if done badly, as so many are, food photography can at best cause face contortions of disgust, at worst put you off your own dinner.
I certainly don’t have any food styling, photography or technical qualifications when it comes to taking good pictures, but I know what I like to look at and through a frequent necessity to photograph for my blog and constructive feedback from peers, I like to think I’ve at least improved from when I first began. And hopefully, I’m still doing so. I’ve acquired a few useful tips along the way which some may find useful, to help the snap-happy folk of today make me want to eat what they’re eating. Which is ultimately what taking pictures of food is all about.
1) Natural light is the thing
Everything looks better under natural light (including people) so if it’s daytime, utilise this. Take your subject out of the dark corner of the kitchen and position by a window. Avoid direct sunlight as this can create harsh shadows and have a similar bleaching effect to a camera flash. Backlighting is key so whatever your light source is, keep the subject between it and the camera.
A room flooded with natural light creating excellent conditions for photography
An example of direct sunlight causing harsh shadows
2) Lose the flash
There are few things worse than a plate of food bleached from a flash, casting dark shadows between items on the plate and causing any colour that was present to become insipid and unappetising. If you’re in a dimly lit location such as a restaurant, it’s best to opt for a higher ISO setting, than a picture with a flash. You can always edit it after using a basic photo editor to increase the brightness. If it’s night time and you’re at home for example, it’s best to switch on all the lights in the room (to minimise shadows), rather than use the flash. It’s still artificial light but it won’t be as harsh as a close up glare.
Taken at night under artificial room lighting rather than using a flash
Taken in a dim restaurant with increased ISO setting with the image brightened later - superior results to using a flash
3) Off centre
Don’t feel you always need to photograph a round plate sitting at the centre of the image. Symmetry is a trait us humans are naturally attracted to, but it can get boring. As with a lot of photography, images often look particularly good when the subject of interest is off centre. It also allows you to occupy the rest of the space with other things of interest. Try positioning your main dish so part of it is out of shot rather than the whole plate being in the centre. Then fill the rest of the space with other subjects of interest, such as bowls with sides, nice cutlery, a drink, some raw ingredients, fabric etc.
The accessories used in a photo composition can really make a shot. If you fancy investing a little in this hobby, source interesting crockery, utensils and fabric. The more mis-matched, antiquated and worn they look, the better. Lots of the plates I use in my pictures have chips in them, but I think it adds to the charm. Charity shops and boot fairs are great for finding these on the cheap. Other good accessories are the raw ingredients involved in the dish which will bring a natural quality to the image. Don’t make the image too busy though, you don’t want to draw the attention away from the main subject.
Beetroot dip dressed up with a bunch of contrasting green thyme, also a key ingredient
5) Utilise what you have
It turns out wallpaper and curtain samples make great backdrops - who knew. I have a whole swatch of fabric samples all of varying texture which help to bring something different to an image. The same goes for posh wallpaper samples I ordered online for a few pence each to decorate a room - these frequently make an outing when I’m taking pictures of my food.
A backdrop of curtain and wallpaper samples and a green tea towel!
6) Select your angle
The angle at which you take your picture very much depends on the subject. Some things look great with an aerial shot (i.e. a bowl of soup), whereas you’ll only see the value of others with the lens coming in from the side (i.e. the layers in a cake).
If you’re doing the latter, ensure you have something half decent in the background - you don’t want the the familiar orange from a Sainsbury’s shopping bag occupying the distant space behind your beautiful rack of lamb. I’ll often drape material over a cookbook and place it somewhere behind the subject, or fill this space with utensil pots to block the view of the bombsite of a kitchen post-cooking. If you are taking an aerial shot, you’ll need to get up high. If the plate is on a table, stand (carefully) on a chair. Should the subject suit various angles, take all of them for different and unusual perspectives of the food.
You’ll often find me by the back doors, one foot on a dining chair and the other on the kitchen worktop for balance. It’s a great look.
A blue and white tablecloth used as a backdrop to these pancakes
7) Make it messy
An image of a whole and perfect cake on a perfect plate with pristine surroundings is all very well and good. But an image of that same cake with a chunk taken out, crumbs on the table, batter covered spoons, and a half eaten slice in shot is better. Try to take a picture suggesting a moment in time has been captured and with movement involved if you can - think oozing, dripping, melting, drizzling, pouring. These will make those viewing it want in on the action.
A melting knob of butter - you know these crumpets are still warm
8) In focus
Step away from the subject and zoom in, rather than taking a picture close up. This will keep the main image in focus and render the background blurry, which always looks pretty good. Take a lot of pictures even if they’re the exact same angle. There will always be some sharper than the rest and it’s these you want to select.
Foreground in focus, background coffee out of focus
9) Invite colour
Photographing a curry and making it look more than just a plate of brown can be a challenge. A good trick to uplift an image is by including brightly coloured natural ingredients.
For example, the curry may well contain green coriander, red chillies, yellow turmeric, purple onions so have a few examples of these in shot to lighten the whole composition. If the raw ingredients are failing you, use your props. Taking a picture of a batch of brown ginger thins can be a drab affair (as are the raw ingredients) so I livened it up with some simple but contrasting fabric.
Brown ginger thins livened up with colourful and contrasting fabric
10) Time to edit
Take the time to tweak your photos before sharing them - and no, I don’t mean apply an Instagram filter. Transfer the images to a computer and open them with an editing tool - I use nothing more extravagant than Microsoft Picture Manager which comes with Microsoft Office, and it seems to do the job I’m after.
You can brighten images that were taken under low light, remove the grey wash often present, and increase the contrast to intensify bland colours. Be careful not to over edit though - you don’t want to make them luminous and unnatural. You are simply enhancing the beauty already there, the same way a slick of mascara does for the eyes.
I’m certainly not the best at this and I still have a lot to learn. However, hopefully these nuggets of wisdom I’ve acquired over time through trial and error and observing the experts will help those keen to share their food related photography on social media.
If you have any further tips on how to take great food photos, I’d love to hear them - please do share them in the comments below.
All photography subject to copyright © 2013 Leyla Kazim
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