The following is a comprehensive guide to learn how to photograph food to get professional pictures for your restaurant website and menu. I will tell you all the secrets to take better food photos with DSLRs, compact cameras and smartphones.
Sometimes you spend hours and hours preparing a dish, refining the recipe with love and passion. And then when it comes to the time to photograph food, the picture does not convey all its goodness. Instead, it penalizes the dish, making it less tasty and inviting in the eyes of prospects.
Remember that you are on the internet, not in your kitchen. On a written page, customers don’t feel flavors or tastes. They savor your food through the pictures.
Pictures are crucial in the web space and you must pay them proper attention. What you present to a reader of your menu or a visitor on the internet is the image of your restaurant. The dishes that represent you and your passion must be pleasant and delicious to see.
There are whole books about how to photograph food. The Food and Beverage industry knows how important presenting a product is. For this reason it is demanding when it comes to the decision to hire a photographer for this service. If you want to learn the techniques used by professional photographers, you should change your approach to food. It is not about flavor and smell, but the sight.
I recommend reading these books to gain comprehensive knowledge about professional food photography:
There are some things that can help, and not just a little, to make a good food picture. Unless you are a professional photographer, it is important that you understand some basic things. You should face the photographic techniques from the bottom up, in a simple way.
How to photograph food: 8 things to consider
Shooting food photos contains many pitfalls, especially with regards to the lighting, which if not handled in the right way can lead to disaster.
Here are some helpful tips to learn how to photograph food:
1. DON’T USE THE BUILT-IN FLASH
Exploit the natural light. Your restaurant definitely has windows and more than enough light. If you try to use the built-in flash you will only complicate things.
It features hard light that creates unpleasant shadows behind the subjects. These are difficult to manage, making the scene less than appreciable.
Worse yet, if you take pictures of moist food, the flash creates an awful side effect: the food will look greasy rather than wet.
2. THE LIGHTING
One of the major factors that influences the final result of food photographs is the quality of light.
Natural lighting (the one coming through windows) is the favorite of professional photographers. The softness and dispersion of the light from windows gives a perspective of reality to the final image. Generally the best illumination is from the front side (from over the shoulder of the photographer), but all the corners are more or less good to get a good shot.
If you want to disperse light or mitigate some shadows, you need a panel light reflector. You can build one with light-colored material (white paper or cloth) or reflective material (kitchen aluminum foil).
Obviously, the natural light will not always be available, which means using a source of artificial illumination. Use of lights or flashes on the food varies depending on the type of food. Given that frontal lightening is to be avoided (such as the built-in flash of the cameras), you need a softbox and reflectors to soften the light produced by the lamps that you are using.
Alternatively, if you don’t have external artificial lights, you can follow a recent trend: photographing food in low light. It is a technique that aims to generate mixed feelings in the observer and seems to be working.
3. USE THE TRIPOD
If you cannot use the flash, it is necessary to use a tripod to cope with the slow shutter speed. Moreover, the best food pictures are not always snapped at a 45° angle. Many compositions need to be taken from above, with an angle of 90° to express the best of themselves. In these cases a good tripod is needed. There are several tripod models which allow you to extend the central rod arm horizontally, giving you a way to take shots from above without any problem.
Another point in favor of the tripod is that it allows you to have your hands free. This will make you much more comfortable with the task of paying attention to the composition.
Don’t have a tripod?
Not having a tripod to give an accurate picture of food is not a wise choice. However, as you might be a novice photographer, if you find yourself in these conditions, don’t make the mistake of keeping the ISO sensitivity too low.
It’s true that the high ISO sensitivity involves the side effect of increased noise in the image you get. However, an image that presents digital noise is easily manageable in post-production, while a blurred photo is virtually unrecoverable.
Also, consider that the photos you are going to shoot will be used primarily on the web at low resolutions. This determines a lower incidence of noise visible in the images themselves.
4. CHOOSE THE ANGLE
In food photography, there are mainly two ways to compose the image.
The first method is to take the picture from above the food. However, this causes the food to lose its three-dimensionality, and the image might appear flat.
The second method is to take from the side so you can include both the close-up (our subject) and the background. An angle of 45° to the food represents the best solution if you want to stay on the safe side. It’s essentially the equivalent to photographing the plate on a table while we are sitting in front of it (but not too close).
Analyze the dish you want to photograph before getting started with the shooting session. Also, try to create your composition in advance. During the shooting you should not waste time re-arranging glasses, cutlery and napkins.
5. PREPARE THE PHOTO SHOOT AND COMPOSITION
Remember that you will not photograph only the food, but also the surroundings. The pot that contains it (or tray, the bowl, the cutting…), the cutlery with which you recommend consuming it, the surface (wood, fabric etc.) on which the food lies and some other small decorative elements. Make sure that all these aspects are taken care of.
Pictures of food in pots and pans (except in rare exceptions) have no pleasant effects. You should always arrange your creations on a plate. Try to match the colors of the food to those of the plate (to avoid dishes too showy or elaborately decorated). Bear in mind that simplicity is the best ingredient of food photography, and the same goes for tablecloths, napkins and towels.
When you set up the photo shoot you may fall into the trap of exaggerating with decorations. Remember, you’re not doing a Christmas tree. If when you frame the subject you notice that many elements are marginal, remove them.
6. DON’T LET THE FOOD GET OLD
Many herbs such as salad tend to wither pretty quickly, especially if you are in a hot environment or under studio lights. Even meat tends to dry out at a high speed, so be as rapid as possible when snapping the pictures.
Prepare in advance the photo shoot without putting the subject in until the last minute. Try angles with another subject and add the dish at the end. Finally, it is advisable to have a spray bottle of water (or oil) to reinvigorate the dishes.
7. RESPECT THE PROPORTIONS
Another very important aspect is represented by the proportions between the various elements: the portion, the dish, the decorative elements and so on.
A few examples:
- If you want to photograph a single slice of cake, do not put it on a plate much bigger than it because it will appear isolated.
- If you are about to photograph pasta, don’t overfill the plate. Instead, make the portion beautiful to behold.
- If the subject is a slice of meat, an egg or a piece of cheese, try to surround it with other decorative ingredients. Sprigs of fresh herbs, vegetables, sauces, bread and so on can provided added value. There is nothing sadder than food alone and abandoned at the center of the plate.
8. THE DISTANCE
Another important factor is the distance between the photographer and the dish. Never get too close because the risk of blurring is always lurking. You may lose the whole sight, showing only a couple of macaroni, some salad leaves, or just a corner of a steak.
Try to make the viewers understand how the dish was composed but without framing the entire table, especially if the mise en place is not particularly accurate.
How to photograph food quickly
Are you in a hurry? Do you want to get the same results you see in glossy magazines and books fast? The following are tips to improve food photography when you don’t have much time but still want good images.
● Prepare the photo shoot in front of a window to take advantage of the natural lighting.
● Limit depth of field with a wide aperture (f /1.8 – f/5.6) and focus near the front edge of the food.
● Zoom onto food to cut off the right amount of background (especially if you haven’t had time to prepare it).
● Garnish the food with something colorful. Bright colors such as green (chives), red (chili) and white (Parmesan) do a good job.
● Photograph the food when it’s fresh; don’t let it get old and dry.
How to photograph food with a smartphone
Perhaps you didn’t know it, but smartphone cameras are adjusted so they can take pictures under all circumstances – during the day, at night, in the shade and with a backlight. The phone camera doesn’t care about anything, it just shoots. It allows you to take pictures even when it would be better to keep the mobile in your pocket.
It is obvious that the camera gives us a lot of potential, but there are also many limitations. However, if you learn about these limits you will be able to make the most of your food photographs.
Let’s discover how to photograph food with smartphones.
1. Set the camera for food photography
Every smartphone has program that allows you to set the camera, but it is always very limited. When it comes to professional food photography, you need more. Thus, you should download apps that allow to control your smartphone like a real camera. On iPhone iOS, I recommend Manual, and for Android FV-5 Camera.
These applications allow you to manage color balance and specially ISO. Do you know why when you take a picture in low-light conditions the result is a real disaster? It’s all because of ISO, which is a parameter that indicates the sensitivity of a photograph to light. The lower the ISO, the more light it will take, but the higher the ISO, the less light will be necessary.
What happens when you try to take a picture in low-light conditions? The phone camera automatically increases the ISO, but adds an annoying grain called “noise“. The photograph is filled with white pixels and the result is an awful image. Being able to manually adjust the ISO means you can maintain good quality of the image. Also, it’s important to remember that modern smartphones only allow you to manage up to ISO 300/400.
2. Use both hands to prevent blurring
A lot of pictures taken with smartphones have an annoying blur. This is an effect caused by holding the smartphone not sufficiently steady, especially in situations of low light. By using both hands you will get more stability and avoid the problem.
3. Shoot as close as possible
Unlike using a digital SLR, if you don’t get close to the dish you will hardly get the food’s details. Shoot as close as possible to the subject, but without cutting the dish from the photo.
4. Don’t use filters.
The use of filters in food photography is not recommended in most cases. The “food porn” effect is not only something related to aesthetics; it comes from the emotion resulted from having observed a particular dish. It is an impulse that starts from the eyes, passes through the brain, and goes to the palate, but only if we are recognizing what is in the picture.
A picture of pumpkin cream with a saturated orange is as good as shooting with a black and white filter, as we can hardly make out what it is. So, what to do? It’s better to rely on professional photo editing programs like Photoshop or Lightroom.
These are only a few tips. Food photography is a vast subject area and hardly explainable in a few lines. If you want to improve your photography fast, no matter what camera you use, get these sure-fire digital photography tips.
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