Food photography is a subject most people can get behind. The subjects are relatively unchanging and cooperative and you can even eat them once you’re finished! The challenges are minor compared to other types and there’s a lot of room for artistry. So let’s take a look at how food looks from behind a camera lens and how to get stellar food photos.
What story is being told?
Food photography is often more than just pretty food and drinks. It’s also an accent to the overall flavor of the image. For example, a photo of coffee in a cup can be interesting but without any context, it’s fairly bland. But a cup of coffee with a notepad? Instantly, we start thinking about work, organizing, making lists… We’re sitting there in front of that notepad, thinking about a project. The cup of coffee and the notepad tell a story greater than each individual component otherwise would.
Cooking supplies, baskets, background elements like nature or farming tools… All of these have roles to play in food photography. If I want to create an image involving a bounteous farm or home harvest, I will need a larger number of peppers than I would if I wanted a simple macro shot. The wicker basket is reminiscent of walks through a home garden to collect a harvest. And the peppers seem to overflow onto the surrounding tablecloth, when in reality each has been carefully placed there.
Because food generally isn’t going anywhere, we should use as slow a shutter speed as we can without overexposing our images. Likewise, our ISO value should be close to the minimum sensitivity, which is usually ISO 200 for digital cameras. Why? Because in food photography, we should have full control over our lighting. Unless you’re taking a quick picture during a meal, the photographer will have full control over lighting, just like a model shoot. Since you should have plenty of lighting, you can use that low shutter speed to let light flood in and a low ISO to eliminate image noise. Aperture is the setting you’ll want to consider most of all.
What aperture to choose
Aperture, like the other two elements of the exposure triangle, will affect how much light exposure the final image has. But aperture has the unique quality of affecting the depth of field as well. Depth of field is how much of an image is in sharp focus.
If you choose a moderate aperture number, like f/5.6, more of the background of the scene around your subject will be in focus. Selecting a lower aperture number, like f/1.4, will give you a very narrow section in-focus, while leaving the background very blurry. What you decide upon depends entirely on the image you wish to create. For the above chili pepper image, a moderate aperture works better to capture the entire basket while leaving the background out of focus. But for a close-up of these juicy blueberries, a lower aperture number was chosen. As a result, our eyes focus on the subject, the fruit, and the other elements of the photo are under-emphasized.
Shooting in a lightbox
Lightbox photography gives fantastic results with any sort of photography where close ups and full environmental control is needed. And food photography is demanding on both counts. A lightbox uses one or several lights as well as a backdrop that’s either white, black, or one of any number of colors. Lightboxes are often full boxes that have covered sides and a slit to shoot through. But others often have an open front panel, especially if it’s a lightbox for larger subjects, or the lighting is meant to stream in from the sides of the box. Larger boxes also allow the photographer or an assistant to manipulate the subject as needed, like in the photo below.
A curved backdrop of a lightbox is used most often in product photography, as it gives the illusion of a subject floating in space. The effect also works well with food photography. Intensely white or black backdrops are usually the best choice as they allow the subject to stand out without distraction. And if one is shooting stock photography, the resulting image can be isolated with programs like Photoshop and used in new photo compositions. The below image was shot using a lightbox with a black backdrop. The pasta, vegetables, and fork are isolated by the background and the lighting has been carefully controlled. An artist could easily cut out the subject and use it with a different background if they so chose.
One of the best things about food photography is that you should have full control over your environment. As a result, you can take all the time in the world to get your settings exactly where you want them. Your subject choice is very nearly infinite. And food is universally appealing. Whether done for practice or looking to create professional art, food photography is something every photographer should experiment with. And after you’re finished, bon appetit!
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