By Valérie Derome-Massé
April 5th, 2021
We have all wanted to immortalize a successful dish at one time or another. However, food photography is much more complex than it may seem. Here are 5 tips that I recommend in order to succeed in your photos of your dishes in natural light.
As in any photography genre, light is possibly the most important ingredient for a successful picture. In this article, I talk about natural light but note that food photography is also commonly done with artificial light. I give here a small preview of a simple setup to have optimal natural light that will enhance your dishes.
To do so, you need a window, a background, a diffuser and a reflector. Ideally, it is best to work close to the window that will provide you the most light. Personally, I install myself next to a large patio door and since it faces southeast, I get plenty of light in the morning and in the middle of the day.
On cloudy days, there is no need to use a diffuser since the light is already diffused. On the other hand, I strongly recommend it for sunny days when the light is direct. The diffuser will allow you to have a much softer light and less pronounced shadows. The reflector is then placed on the other side of the window to soften the shadows and balance the light in the image.
The two most common types of light orientation used in food photography are from the side and from behind. Side light is probably the most used technique and is suitable for almost 100% of the scenarios. I recommend using light from the back when the dish you are staging has an interesting texture that you would like to emphasize or for drinks. Note that you have to pay special attention to the appearance of the food since it is a light that tends to bring out imperfections.
There are many ways to use natural light to create effects on your image. I suggest that you purchase black and white foam core boards and place them in front of the window to focus the light on different subjects in your composition and watch how your images change.
The composition is the part I find the most interesting. This is when you can tell the story you want by adding secondary elements that support the dish you are staging. The idea is to approach our staging a bit like we would do with a canvas. Whenever possible, I try to draw my composition on paper beforehand and stick to clear concepts. Then, I choose my props and tableware according to the story I want to stage and place them on the background. For flat photos, I strongly recommend using a tripod with a side extension and a "TetherPro" cable to control and trigger the camera directly from the computer. This way, you will be able to adjust your staging and see the result on the screen in real time. It is a technique that allows more control over the final result and gives you more latitude for creativity. In addition, you will be able to keep a very low ISO, which will improve the sharpness of your images.
For side or angled shots the basic principles are the same except the background, the mid-ground plane and the foreground are of primary importance. By designing your staging with these 3 shots in mind, you optimize your chances of creating a harmonious image that tells a clear story.
In food photography, there are unfortunately not many options for equipment. It is best to stick to what is most commonly used to get good results.
For flat shots, 50mm or 85mm focal length are ideal if you have enough height to do so. I use a Sigma 50mm f1.4 DG HSM Art and occasionally a Canon 50mm f1.2. For side and angled shots the ideal focal lengths are between 85mm and 105mm. These focal lengths allow to isolate the main subject and to have practically no distortion in the image. Additionally, for better rendering of textures and details, consider using macro lenses. For the bodies, I use a Canon EOS R and a Canon EOS R6 for most of my food pictures. Whenever possible, I use a tripod for the majority of my pictures to maximize the sharpness of my images and it also allows me to have better control over the staging.
Earlier in the "Composition" section, I advised you to create your stagings as you would with a painting. This is also the case with the colours you choose. Every element used in your image, whether it is the props, the background, the dishes or the ingredients, nothing should be overlooked. I invite you to familiarize yourself with colour theories such as the colour wheel to create harmony in your images. I like to work with complementary colours: whenever I can I use side dishes or accessories that are the opposite of the colour of my main subject on the colour wheel.
Accessories and Props
The props we use to stage our dishes are just as important as the dishes themselves. They must support the story but also let the dishes speak for themselves without stealing the spotlight.
Ideally, you should choose medium or small plate and bowl sizes. It is rare to choose to show large dishes in food photography. The best is to show small quantities at a time and focus on the quality of the image. Smaller plate and bowl sizes will also allow you to create repetition in your staging and make a visually pleasing composition. For the materials I advise you to choose dishes that do not reflect light (stoneware for example) so as not to create distracting reflections.
I hope these tips will make you want to explore the facets of food photography and let your creativity run wild. Happy shooting!