Someone once said, "If you can photograph food, you can photograph anything." There has never been more truth to a statement. Having never worked with food before, I had no idea how steep the learning curve was. The biggest challenge, other than preparation, is the limited amount of time once the food hits the plate before it loses its mouthwatering appeal. Based on my experience, I've prepared some tips that may make life easier for the first-time food photographer.
For the past six years, I've worked as a staff photographer for a nonprofit organization. My daily assignments range from studio portraits to PR and editorial photos. A recent assignment was to photograph food for 36 soffit panels in our newly renovated cafeteria. My background in food photography was very limited, which made the assignment challenging. The food categories ranged from fresh salads and entrees to delicious desserts. The dimensions of each panel were 2'x8'. My plate was full, as I was the photographer, food stylist, and chef. This assignment took place over the holidays, making shopping for seasonal food a bit tricky. I hope my experience can help someone who may be handed a similar task.
1. First things first: you need a kitchen! Though this seems trivial, thinking that you can photograph food without appliances within reach is a big mistake. I thought I could order hot food and work with it, but I quickly discovered that hot food gets cold fast, just as cold food gets warm fast. An oven and a microwave definitely need to be close at hand to pull off great food shots. I also tried shooting at a restaurant and found that even in off hours, I was still in the way of the staff. You need a kitchen you can control.
2. Plan ahead. Outline what dishes you want to photograph each day, and don't overcommit. Have reasonable expectations. Focus on one or two dishes at the most. Try sketching out how you plan to arrange the food on the plate.
3. Timing is everything. Be prepared. Have all your lights and props in place and make test exposures. There won't be a lot of time to adjust lighting/exposure when the food is ready. Shooting tethered to a laptop allows you to check exposure and composition.
4. Freshness counts. You want the food to look as fresh as possible. Have garnishes cut and side dishes ready to place. It's surprising how fast lettuce leaves can wilt before your eyes. Brush light oil onto your food to make it shine.
5. Buy in bulk in case you overcook something. You never know what challenges will arise. Surprisingly, the dishes I thought would be the easiest to photograph turned out to be the hardest. Pancakes with melted butter are much harder to shoot than I imagined. And don't get me started on grilled cheese sandwiches! Undercook your food a little so it doesn't look dry on the plate.
6. Be flexible. If something isn't working, chances are it just might not lend itself as a great food shot. I thought photographing a hot dog would be the easiest and simplest. After going through an entire pack of hot dogs, I realized it was time to move on to the next dish.
7. Consider colors and shapes of food. You want your images to have contrast and complement each other. Carefully look at what elements you have framing the plate so they don't take the attention away from the food.
8. Lighting. The most technical part of food photography is getting the lighting right. Light can make or break your food shot. Natural light has an amazing effect; however, you need a tripod to shoot at those slow shutter speeds. Artificial light such as a soft box and a strobe can really give dimension to your images. Food can be so colorful and textured, but, if you light it wrong, it can look flat and dull. If you're using strobes, use backlighting with a small amount of fill to keep the texture rich. A combination of soft box and grid spots works best to give your food the most dimension. Items such as mirrors, tin foil, and white cards all work well to give a nice highlight to your food. Highlight the most important part of the dish as your focal point.
There are many aspects to food photography that are technical and challenging. With these tips in mind, you'll be on your way to making fabulous food photos! [Editor's note: If the shoot's budget allows, you might want to consider hiring a food stylist, so you can concentrate on shooting.]
Ann-Margaret Hedges (www.annmargarethedges.com) is a staff photographer for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, TN. Her assignments range from portraiture and PR to biomedical photography. The images for this project were shot with a Nikon D3, Nikkor lenses, Photogenic lighting, honeycomb grid set, Chimera soft box, and Pocket Wizards. Children are her favorite subject to photograph.