My understanding of photography is ultra-basic. I have struggled (and often failed) to understand much of what is written about photography – things like stops, white balance, histograms and many other terms that are refusing to readily come to mind. I like to look, keep fooling around till I like what I am looking at, and click, and hope that it will make the viewer think about what they see in a new or different way. That, approximately, is the sum of my point-and-shoot philosophy.
One place where I enjoy taking pictures is in the kitchen. While the missus puts together things and aromas that promise a great meal, I make things difficult for her by insisting on pauses, rearrangement, angles, and action replays. So when the need came for some food photography for a personal project, I naturally raised my hand. My selection for the project was not based on my skill but on the fact that I came at no charge. Well almost no charge, since the havoc that it unleashed on the home for the next two weeks must have been very costly. Of course, I have no clue.
This post is to share some lessons learned the hard way. It is not a post that will make you a food photographer of the professional type. It is not for the kind of photography where you have a paid-for, ever-generous kitchen staff, a full range of studio lights, and a gang of helpers. Neither is it a comprehensive guide to the pitfalls that lie in wait for food photographers, but only a report on some of the things that I faced in my work, and ways to avoid them. Hopefully, you will be emboldened after reading this post to go into the kitchen and announce your intentions. Wish you all the best. I am not responsible for anything that happens after that.
Prepare by studying examples of what you want to achieve. Look up food blogs, magazines, and art photography books and journals. Watch food ads closely. Learn to distinguish between good food pics and bad ones, and ones that are obviously flawed. Try and understand what might have gone into getting the perfect shots and what could have rescued the disastrous one. Read up on the working styles of the photographers you admire.
Next, study the subject and the setting you will be shooting in. Different kinds of food subjects need different approaches. If it is a restaurant or an event and you are shooting in a live setting, you have to be prepared and on your photographic toes. If it is in a small kitchen, you have to deal with the space and light constraints. If it is spacious setting with lot of outdoor light and you are among friends, with no rush on time, pinch yourself to make sure you have not died and reached food photography heaven. Similarly, your approach will necessarily have to change depending on whether you are shooting soups, starters or a dum biryani on a wood fire.
This is definitely the most valuable lesson I have ever learned about all types of “event” photography, food being one of them. Make a list of shots and settings that you want to bag, and try and work out of it. Make notes about possible problems, preparation, requirements, and specific camera settings that each shot might need. A shot list is a very handy tool, since it allows you to plan, and then organize your plan into the most practical work flow. For example, you might want to get a snap of herb being chopped, or the chef in a contemplative mood looking at the whole red snapper, but if you have not got it planned, you will miss it forever. Such things cannot be staged. Similarly, no one but you might know that you want the peels and waste in the backdrop of the diced vegetables, slightly out of focus but tangible. Working out of a planned shot list lets you alert people beforehand that this is what you want. It also allows you to optimize by relegating shots that are not time (or heat) specific, shots that can be easily staged, or shots that are incidental to the core food process, to the end of the shoot, so that you can approach them in a relaxed manner. Every few shots, get back to your shot list and cross out the ones you are satisfied with, and concentrate on getting the ones that are still pending.
The amount of styling and setting up that is needed for taking good pictures of food, and the fact that food responds poorly to time and exposure, necessitates a lot of quick lending of hand. It becomes very cumbersome trying to do it yourself, and then looking through the camera. Having someone who understands what you are trying to get done, preferably a fellow photographer, or an understanding partner in a good mood is, well, essential. Working as a team, especially taking pictures together, also helps in getting the creative juices flowing, and helps you innovate through imitation as well. I had the good fortune of working together with close friends, but then at the end of the day, I had items on my list that were not covered. I tried doing them on my own over the next few days and while it was definitely meditative and instructional, I not only enjoyed working in a team much more but got much better pictures too.
When I say cloth, I mean all kinds of cloth – from kitchen towels and aprons, to swipes and tissues, to table linen, bedsheets and cotton gloves. Two reasons. Food is about liquids and oil and wetness. These can get on your hands and get on surfaces where you don’t want them. They can ruin your setting by spilling from a careless bump. If you are like me, you will want to handle and re-style. And then you will want to change the setting on your camera. And get korma gravy under your aperture priority.
The other reason you need to keep cloth handy is to wipe surfaces. With reflective surfaces of containers and utensils, smudges and blemishes show up very easily. Always keep a napkin or kitchen towel handy for last minute wipe-downs. I discovered the hard way that with dark glass and see through containers, even handling them can leave fingerprints that show up in hi-res images. One way out is a cotton glove. The only problem is you will need to strip it off to negotiate the settings on most small cameras. So the best bet is to have cloth handy with which you can give the whole setting a wipe down before you click.
Food looks great when it is being cooked, but it gives off steam and if being fried or boiled, tends to splatter. There is no way you can predict the behaviour of either. And steam and splatter can put the food equivalent of a spanner in your lens. However, this does not mean you have to abandon your desire for those delicious macros. There are several ways around it. The first is to shoot through a splatter guard if you have one, and set your focus manually. If you do not have one, you can improvise with the kind of fine sieve that is used for sieving flour. Put your lens right behind the mesh of the sieve and adjust the focus manually. Unless the dish is steaming and splattering violently, this will help you get close safely. You can also use a tripod (or use higher shutter speed) and use your zoom from a distance.
Spend a moment reflecting on what your subject would have to say about how it would like to be photographed. Look at the shapes, colors, textures, consistencies. Look for the associations that the visual aspect of your subject evokes. See if you can bring in accessories, backgrounds, or perspectives that help accentuate those associations. Remember you are trying to create through a purely visual medium the complex multi-sensory aspect of food. Food is not just about looks and taste and smell, but also about eating, about letting the juices flow, about the company or the ambience in which it is consumed. Keeping these in mind will lead to more evocative captures. Food need not be shot in isolation as food by itself. Get shots of people eating, food being cooked or being served, being prepared, or even being bought in ingredient form. Sometimes a finished plate of food can be the best portrait of your subject. It also helps to be in tune with your subject since sometimes the most unexpected settings can make for a great shot, one that wasn’t in your dreams, let alone your shot list.
Not everyone will be keen on getting up early and helping you set up your shoot outdoors so that you get the best lighting. You can overcome this by going up a little on the ISO and choosing longer exposures. Food anyway tempts you to use the largest apertures, so let whatever light you are working with be your friend. Shoot near windows or on balconies to make the best of natural light. You can easily set up a small shooting platform by draping a thick white sheet over the backs of two chairs set at right angles to each other, and use the seat as a tabletop. If you have a whiteboard, you can create a third surface either on top or on one side. If you do not have a flash diffuser, you can improvise by sticking a couple of layers of paper adhesive over the flash. Food and the crockery you use are highly reflective, so a direct flash can sometimes spoil the image with excessive highlights and burns. You have to be careful about the other reflections it might pick up too. It helps if you dress in dark colors and use your body to block off reflection when taking close-ups. You don’t want your grandmother’s portrait behind you looking back at you from the side of a serving bowl.
Keep a paintbrush, a liquid dropper, a paring knife, and a toothpick handy. You will want to touch things up, snip an errant fried onion, remove crusted layers, add a drop of gravy or dip to the plate, line up the asparagus, and prick bubbles. I learned this the hard way, and as I went along, I was amazed at how useful they were. I used a small oil paint spatula instead of a knife along with a small scissor and they worked fine. I used a dessert spoon to get delicate amounts of fluids where I wanted, and it was a mess. A dropper would have saved a lot of time. Bubbles will inevitably form, and they look ugly in images. You can use the toothpick for that.
One of the greatest pleasures of food photography is the feast that usually follows, but there are no rules that say you cannot kick off the festivities while you are working. I found that it actually is rather inspiring. At least till the time I realized that there weren’t enough galouti kebabs left to make for a full plate!! Don’t let such small problems get in your way, make up for it by taking another bite and getting sinful close-ups of the kebab, crust and inside, and possibly your teeth impression.
My list has been drawn from my limited and amateur experience of taking pics of food. I know many of you reading this are expert photographers and food bloggers, and have much larger treasure chests of tips up your sleeves. It is likely that some of the fixes that I have written about are actually second best ones. I wrote this post to share what I learned and to glean your teeming brains of what it has to offer, so that I can improve as a foodie who likes taking pics of what he eats. So please do loosen your sleeves and share some of your food photography tips with me and other readers in the comments section.