The Joys & Challenges of Food Photography

  By MikeHeywood

Often thought to be one of the more difficult of the photographic disciplines, food photography is the perfect storm of all the technical challenges a still-life photographer can face. The subject matter is beautiful but also moody and fragile. It can turn on you when you least expect it. If you’ve ever photographed ice cream you know what I mean.

There is a fine line between the subject matter appearing tantalizing or downright unappetizing. How the food is presented in front of the camera is as equally important as how well it is lit and composed. On a professional food shoot It is somebody’s job to make that food look good. Enter the food stylist! A good food stylist has the ability not just to present the food on the plate but also the eye to understand how that food will photograph… which are very different things.

I began working with stylist Sue Spicer nearly ten years ago and she has been my stylist of choice ever since. Aside from having the perfect food stylists name, Sue Spicer is a trained home economist, experience food industry marketer and is deeply passionate about the art of food styling. We also communicate well, which is probably the most important aspect of why we work so effectively together to get the best results.

Even if it’s not possible to work with a professional, the job of food styling still must happen. For example, If I’m on an editorial assignment it is often a chef or restauranteur that I will be working with. Sometimes a client has their own stylist or test chefs who will act in the stylist role. Regardless, the food must be styled properly or no amount of fancy lighting will help.

Once the food styling issue has been resolved it’s now time for the me to go to work. First, the appropriate angle and focal length must be selected. There may be several other props in the shot that have to be arranged or prepared. I like to have a “dummy” plate of the food we’re shooting so that I an judge size and scale of the dish prior to the real or “hero” plate arriving.

Food photography lighting has taken on many different styles over the years and I find that it can date a photo very quickly if the style is not current. For example, in the 90’s it seemed that all you needed to shoot food was a great big soft box directly over the table and you were done… I’m glad that phase has passes us by and I intentionally do not use large soft boxes if I can help it. I prefer to use smaller, more focused light sources to wrap around the food and reveal it’s shapes and textures. More contrasty light also tends to emphasize the rich colours and shiny surfaces that speak of the mouth watering flavours of the dish. Fill light can then be brought in to reduce the shadow areas if they are too intense. This technique requires professional lighting gear and provides the most consistent and repeatable results, but can be time consuming and not always possible for every assignment.

Another popular technique is to use natural window light, especially from behind the plate to bathe over the table creating a soft, dreamy effect. This technique is great if you are working quickly or do not have a lot of lighting equipment to work with. The addition of a couple of well placed mirrors can reflect the window light back into the subject to reveal it’s colour and shape otherwise you might find this technique silhouettes the subject and looks flat.

If you are interested in food photography and want to learn more about some of the techniques I’ve mentioned join Sue and I for “Food, Photography and Fun!” an evening presentation being held on November 29th at the fantastic ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen learning centre.

I will also be teaching an all day workshop at Studio 1826 on January 25th, 2014 which will delve even deeper into lighting techniques and composition of various forms of food photography. Please email evelyn@thecamerastore.comfor details.