Where Local and Global Appetites Collide

Foodie Photography

About 10 years ago or more I read an article about all the different “tricks” food stylists would use to make food look good on camera. Everything from cellophane “ice” and “milk” glue to browning agents and tweezer-applied sesame seeds–the works!

Oh, sure, we know folks put their best food front-loaded and forward when it’s time for an advertising campaign or cookbook shoot, but can the average foodie can make their not-so-average food stand out in a still shot?

Lighting

Regardless of subject, lighting is one of the major factors between blah and beautiful. Natural light is, by far, the most prized but, well, Mr Sun and my dinner don’t always cooperate. Not only is a lot of my cooking done in the evening when the light’s not so hot but it’s not always feasible to cart each item out onto the deck for a few snaps before supper. A well-lit window is the next best thing to the great outdoors, I’ve read, but it brings with it some of the same issues.

Stuffed Mirliton--no retouching!

What I found, completely by accident, was a way of working around the wonky indoor light. It happened while trying to take a picture of our Christmas tree this past December without each and every light looking like flares. Turning the setting dial on my Canon PowerShot S2 I came to “SCN” and it turns out it had tons of useful pre-sets that saved me having to crack open a dusty manual and figure out how to manually set the white balance and so forth. The “Fireworks” setting turned out to be great for the lit Christmas tree and the “Indoor” has done a wonder for my food pics!

Angle

Okay, so we’ve figured out the lighting situation, what else is there?

Do you find yourself automatically aiming the camera straight down onto the plate or platter? Do you do this because maybe there’s other stuff around the dish that you don’t want to be in the shot? Not that I’d know anything about that…

I blame part of this habit on my early experiences with food photography. A lot of decorated cakes look the same from a side view, the fun stuff is on the top! So you shoot the top. Then, in culinary school and after, at the Plantation, the point of taking photos was usually to see the plate clearly so someone else could recreate it. (Very useful in buffet settings or when you want to avoid having to work the dinner shift yourself but must ensure consistent presentation–again, not that I would know anything about that).

Anyway: overhead shots are second nature.

Salsatini
Bar Towels make an instant back-drop!

I’ve been trying to remind myself, though, that it’s not the only way to go and practice close-up shots at a 3/4-view–hey, it’s flattering for faces, why not food? And when the counter isn’t providing the right backdrop do you know what can come in handy? A hand or tea towel “hung” in the door of the cabinet above. Keep a few of different colors or materials on hand and you’re golden!

The Extras

Which leads me to another thing… Props. I’m not a huge fan of too many props in a food picture. If you’ve ever seen those recipe cards from the 60s and 70s with their odd table-dressings, you know exactly what I mean! But a well-chosen plate or place mat certainly would not go amiss.

The plate, glass or other vessel should be your main prop and, in a perfect world, would contrast the color of the food nicely. Does this mean you need a butler’s pantry worth of serving-ware in order to take good food shots? Absolutely not! First of all, most foods fall into the white, red, green, brown or orange color-categories. Having a few white, yellow and purple plates for picture-purposes will cover most contrast requirements along with whatever other fun pieces you might find at thrift stores and garage sales. Choose a few cloth napkins or place mats in fun colors or patterns from a housewares open-stock section and you’ve got your primary needs covered! Keep in mind that salad plates rule for this sort of thing and are generally less expensive than the full-size options.

Catching mouth-watering images of your favorite foods doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. Keep your shots simple, your props uncomplicated and the focus on the food. My camera now hangs out in the kitchen while I cook, where’s yours?

Happy snapping!

Jennifer Walker
Jennifer Walker

  1. Great article!

    It would help if I read the directions for my camera for starters.

    What’s a mirliton? It looks good enough to eat but I don’t know what it is. Wait, I just looked it up in my Barron’s Food Lover’s Companion book. It’s a chayote. I was familiar with the latter term but not the former.

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