The holidays are coming and food is everywhere; it's glistening, it's colorful, it's iced and diced and dipped. How can you savor your beloved holiday food moments the whole year through? By taking extraordinary food images.
Don't have a DSLR? Composition, styling, propping, and lighting still play a key role in enhancing your imagery. Even if you only have a point-and-shoot camera, these tools will take your photographs to another level.
This time of year is about capturing mood, moments, and all of the things that truly express the excitement and spirit of the season. If you don't have a professional camera you can still use some simple techniques to enhance your imagery, and if you do have a DSLR then these food photography suggestions will make your photographs look like a pro’s.
Lighting is one of the most important aspects of food photography. With bad lighting your food could have been prepared by a Michelin starred chef and it still wouldn't look appetizing. Photographers have different preferences on lighting for food photography; some prefer to use artificial light, while others prefer natural light. Natural lighting will be the easiest approach if you are just starting out, and is a preference of many professionals.
Side and backlight are common lighting options for food photography. If you can position your dish or scene next to a window then you are on the right track. If the light outside is harsh and producing dramatic shadows then use a white curtain or hang a bed-sheet over the window to soften and diffuse the light. (Check out these articles on food photography for more details.)
Lens choices can make anyone feel overwhelmed, but it is very easy to narrow down your tools when you are taking food photographs. You cannot go wrong with a Macro lens (the EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM for crop sensors and the 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM for full-frame are excellent choices). Why Macro for food photography? A Macro lens, also known as a close-up lens, allows you to photograph your subject at a close distance, thus enabling you to capture all of the details clearly. Think about icing on a holiday cookie, or droplets of moisture from a hot cider mug. Macro lenses will let you get close enough to your subject to get these tasty details that make for exciting food photography.
Composition, or "putting together," is the placement or arrangement of visual images in your photograph. Composition is important for any image, and learning a little bit about the rule of thirds is the easiest way to begin. This doesn't have to be overwhelming. The rule of thirds is the concept that any image can be divided into nine equal parts by two horizontal lines and two vertical lines. Many cameras offer a grid function that shows this very rule of thirds through the viewfinder or in the Live View option. Placing your subject within the intersecting points or “power points” on this grid helps to create interest, tension, and energy in a photograph. For best results in an image don't center your subject, but place it along the power points instead. This will create a more balanced image and will help you to engage your viewer.
Food photographers typically use a variety of angles in imagery for different effects. A beautiful table setting full of food can be showcased by photographing from overhead. Use a ladder to get above the table, looking down on the scene. For a close-up image of a specific element like a bowl of vegetables, for example, you can try taking an image from overhead to illustrate the entire dish, from 3/4 to show the dish and some of the scene, or from straight on to show the veggie mound rising from the bowl.
Try these holiday dishes for great results:
- Turkey & sides
- Holiday cookies
- Pumpkin pies
- Bouche de Noel
- Bundt cakes
- Hot cocoa
- Cider & mulling spices
Include people in your photographs for an added element of interest. Telling the story of where the food comes from and how it will be served, or who will enjoy the food are all such interesting aspects of the experience. Food is the one thing that all humans have in common. Cultural stories are shared around the table, people fall in love over meals, news is expressed, events are celebrated. Food photography can showcase each of these things. Remember to consider not only what the table looks like, but the context in which the food will be enjoyed as well. Telling this aspect of the food story is so meaningful.
Was the food prepared at home? What does that space look like? Was the person who made the food wearing a traditional outfit from a specific culture? A chef hat? An apron? Showing the torso of someone in an apron holding a finished dish is a wonderful way to illustrate food. This pairing tells more than just the ingredients of a dish, it also tells a bit of the background story.
Do you love holiday cookies made by your grandmother? You can tell an entire story of your time together in a short, memorable photo series to cherish forever. Photograph a close-up of her hands preparing the dough. Photograph her icing the cookies and use a wide-angle lens (or move yourself back far enough) to fit the entire scene in your image. Get in closer and photograph the tops of the cookies, the baking sheet coming out of the oven. You can create a series of beautiful images from just this one experience, and you can do this in an hour or less.
Have your "models" stir the pot, and crop the frame to show an arm and hand with a long wooden spoon. Show a hand pouring steaming gravy from a beautiful serving dish onto a fluffy mound of mashed potatoes. Photograph a drink being mixed with a straw, apples being cut on a board, pie crust taking shape. Think about photographing hands kneading fresh cookie dough. Let motion and human elements interact with your food. Crop into the image and isolate the hands for some of your shots, and then pull back and photograph your subject from the waist up.
If you are photographing a 3/4 shot of a prepared dish, arrange the dish with a place setting, drinks, and even candles as you would at a real table. This will draw your viewer into the scene and will tell a bit more information than simply the ingredients of a dish.