Thursday, May 6, 2010

Playing With Your Food


Pasta Framed*
Pasta Framed

It's funny what spurs me to write on certain topics. This idea came to me in two forms. First, I viewed an online photo of someone's recipe that was, to put it plainly, a very bad image. I distinctly remember looking at it and stating, "I would not want to eat that." (It seems to me the purpose of food photography is to make the food look appetizing.) Second, someone sent me a website that made me want to eat everything on the page - Tastespotting.

There is something appealing about well-crafted food photography. It takes essential elements from photographing other forms of still life: proper composition, good lighting, etc. Yet there are a few additional importance procedures that must be followed to do it well.


The biggest negative to any food photograph is things looking dirty, damaged, or broken. Considerable time must be taken to clean any dishes or tableware. Dirt and spots will show up in the photograph more than you think. There IS a certain charm to including "used" items in your photograph. Grandma's cookware need not look like it is just out of the box - it should be clean, but some amount of "use" is okay.

However, aging and decaying foodstuffs are not too appealing. Food should always look to be at its freshest. If you are including fresh fruits or vegetables, find those with the least amount of damage. If there is some damage, turn it away from the camera. Some flaws can be fixed in post-editing, but eliminate as much work for yourself afterward as possible.

If you are photographing the end result of a recipe (a piece of pie or slice of cornbread), cut the slice as evenly as possible. Messiness in a photograph just looks, well, messy. You always want your food to look its best.

Green Pepper


Sometimes I like to include other objects in the image. I like the simplicity of the pepper above, but a group of objects often tells a broader story. This is where you can be creative and have fun with it. I have taken most of my food photographs using what was available to me. A clean dish towel, a sheet of white computer paper, or a piece poster board work wonders as backdrops.

I have a multitude of different dishes in my kitchen in all styles and sizes. You want the size of your plate to match the size of your food item. Be sure to choose carefully and pay attention to any decorations. Your props should never distract from your main subject. Coordinate the color scheme between objects to create an atmosphere. Also, don't go overboard trying to combine too many props or your photograph will just appear to be crowded.

Preparation for Thanksgiving
Preparation for Thanksgiving


As you set up the image, look through your camera's lens and ask yourself if any one item covers up another. Avoid creating lines which might confuse the viewer. I have found that a lot of the time where I place the objects in the image looks out of place when viewed in person. For instance, a table setting as you'd set it to actually use it doesn't always photograph well. In the photo below, the placement of the dishes looked odd as I was standing above it, but it looks normal in the photograph. Try several shots moving each item gradually until you see the right placement in your camera lens.



In food photography, closer is better. Watch carefully your use of negative space, looking at what is around, underneath, and behind the food item. Being nearer your subject removes annoying background or foreground objects.

Check your camera angle. I usually don't want the photo to look like it was taken on my kitchen counter. I have found I can exclude this many times by altering the perspective of my camera. With the correct object placement and the right angle, you can fool the viewer and isolate your subject.


I prefer to use ambient light. If you can afford studio lighting, then that is a definite plus, but flash photography often opens up a whole "other can of worms". The use of a tripod or other sturdy object beneath the camera is a must for slower shutter speeds. Use your camera's self-timer to avoid camera shake, if you don't own a camera remote.

Pay attention to your white balance settings. All cameras have adjustments for different types of lighting - incandescent, fluorescent, outdoor daylight. These will make a different in the color cast of your end result.

Lastly, watch for unusual glares. If you have a lot of glass objects in the image, reflections can be a negative issue. Some highlights are expected when using glass or metal objects, otherwise the image will seem too flat. But pay close attention to avoid any that aren't wanted or needed.


Food photography is a great way to build the creative eye of a photographer. Unlike a lot of outdoor photography styles where things are in motion, food photography gives you more time to prepare each shot. It also helps develop an ability to choose proper exposure in unusual lighting situations, and it is a great way to learn more about good composition. Most of all, however, it can be a lot of fun, and a great way to further illustrate holiday events or share family recipes.

My Grandmother's Homemade Pear Relish
Homemade Pear Relish

* This image was not photographed, but scanned on my photo scanner. I entered it in an online contest a number of years ago and won. Funny thing is I won rolls of film, some of which I have never used.

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Suzanne Williams Photography
Florida, USA

Suzanne Williams is a native Floridian, wife, and mother, with a penchant for spelling anything, who happens to love photography.

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