Sunday, October 21, 2012

advanced food photography :: a discussion

Food photography is a photographic specialization all its own. Just like shooting people, shooting food requires careful preparation, production, direction and execution. Shooting people and food have many similarities but many differences alike. Today I want to share some knowledge bombs of how I have taught myself, through much reading, trial and error, to make mouth watering images of delicious gourmet meals.

I've done small amounts of food photography in the past but nothing that was really drawing me into the discipline. Past projects were merely lighting experiments, working with specular light and shadows. Back then I was working with minimal light (one strobe hard wired and some reflectors) and not much gear. Having increased my arsenal of lighting and modifiers, I have since once again explored shooting one of humanity's most important commodities, food.

More after the jump...

If you are shooting food for personal reasons then you may find this part to be quite a challenge. If your skills in the kitchen are like mine, able to only cook a bad ass slice of Ellio's pizza in the oven or microwave (yup, I even microwave that delicious frozen treat), then you may need some assistance. If you are shooting for a restaurant or publication, you should have an easier task of getting food to look the way you want it to. Shooting for the later will lend you the help of a professional chef and someone to plate the food and present it in a beautiful gourmet fashion. This helps to reduce your woes while trying to figure out how to compose, expose and light the shot.

Now, let's talk about the former, a guy like myself, who, besides whipping up a burnt yet delicious piece of boxed frozen pizza can sometimes even reheat leftovers, on his own, like a big boy. If this sounds like you then fear not, you have some options with your lack of artistic culinary abilities.

If you decide to try and pull it off on your own, well, my only advice will be to K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid). Those words can sound harsh but can carry you well beyond any barriers that you have lying before you. If you don't know what the five mother sauces are or the difference between a roux and a beurre manie, well, keeping it simple will be your greatest weapon. Many are there photographs of simple meals such as burgers and fries that look absolutely incredible. The secret is how the meal is presented and most importantly, how the photographer composes, exposes, lights and shoots the artery clogging staple of American dining.

Exploring further than simplicity and wanting to shoot gourmet will cost you. The fee, one awesome chef. Again, if you are shooting for a restaurant or a food publication, the culinary artist is provided. If you are shooting for a personal project, you had either find someone that knows what the hell they are doing or you'd better buy some books with interesting recipes and learn to mimic their plating styles. I, on the other hand, have lucked out. Stefanie, my wife, has spent some time working along side some great chefs. Luckily, before exiting the field, she took with her some advanced wine and food knowledge (I'm well versed in wine and food, but only know how to do one thing with this knowledge, put it in my belly). Stefanie's knowledge yields amazing meals at our dinner table. Sure, we have the typical crappy fast meals from time to time but the majority of our nourishment comes from a compilation of fresh ingredients that few ever get to see, not only in their homes but in restaurants that few can afford the luxury to attend. The point I'm making here is that I have a lucky opportunity to be able to work on personal projects, regarding food, with meals that are already prepared on a weekly basis.

Ok, so you have a meal that you want to shoot, whether it is a burger and fries or Korean lettuce wraps (second photograph), then it is time to get to work. First, make sure your plate is clean or you will have lots of post processing to do later. Don't worry about scratches on plates too much as your lighting can blow those out with little difficulty. Next, once the meal is prepared, you need to also be prepared to shoot. A fresh meal, no matter what it is, will quickly lose its beauty over time. Let's just say that you are shooting a loaded burger with a bottom bun, meat, cheese, onion, lettuce, etc. It won't take long before the glistening grease begins to solidify at room temperature. The onions will soon wilt and lose their bright crunchy texture. The melted cheese will soon begin to crust over. And trust me, it matters. That glistening grease will play a large roll in how tasty the meal looks. Light it just right and that ordinary burger will look orgasmic. Just sayin'. Do you ever see crusty melted cheese in any food advertisements? Nope. Sure there are some tricks of the trade to assist the "look" of the food but remember, K.I.S.S. If you want to buy a bottle of glycerine, to spray on your meal to help maintain the moistened look, well, be my guest but you just rendered that yummy burger inedible. I, on the other hand, prefer to work fast and reward myself following the shoot with putting the meal where it belongs, in my belly.

Presentation goes a long way. Remember those television commercials showing fancy restaurants serving the diner a plate with a single pea, and maybe two other tiny items on the plate. It was an exaggeration but a good point to make here. Fine restaurants often put less on the plate, not to rip you off as a customer but to allow you to not only use your senses of taste and smell to enjoy the meal but to get your visual senses stimulated as well. Less is more. K.I.S.S. Presentation plays a huge role on how you perceive the meal you are about to eat. Hell, you may hate the dish but if it is plated and presented properly, part of your brain may tell you that it actually tastes better than it does.

Along with the less is more strategy when plating the food you are about to shoot, consider height as well. Adding height to food with garnishes is a technique chefs have been using for ages, to help in adding visual appeal to a dish. Hard to do if you are only shooting a burger? Not really, you don't need fancy ingredients to make your dish look fantastic. Simply, pile on the toppings very lightly, careful not to mush them down. Each layer will gradually help your burger become taller than you ever imagined.

Now, your meal is ready to rock and roll. Hot out of the oven, plated clean and elegant. Where to put it? Don't have a pretty table? No worries. Now is the time you think of shapes and lines. Have a circular plate? Place it on a square patterned cloth or placemat. Bright colored plate? Think contrast. Think complimentary colors, think lines, think opposites. This will help make the meal pop in the final image. But, as I say, again and again, K.I.S.S.

At this point, if you had assistance from a chef or a culinarily gifted significant other, your help is officially over. The ball is now in your court. Time to get busy. Remember, time is of the essence. That freshly prepared dish will not, I repeat, will not, look that delicious forever. You have only a matter of minutes to capture the meal in all its glory. Hey, glycerine is cheap but don't forget, the meal will be garbage at the shoot's end. In my case, I don't think my wife would approve of destroying the meal she worked so hard to cook, just for my artistic purposes. I'd be eating Ellio's seven nights a week if that were the case.

As the food is lying before you there should already be some things that you have decided before this point of the shoot.

First, are you shooting ambient or strobed? If shooting ambient, you had better have some awesome diffuse window light coming in. Many food photographers only shoot with available light. I do too, I have strobes, they are available to me! Old photog joke. Get it? Ah, never mind. I'm not sure how a food photographer can only shoot with available light. On assignment, that can be quite tricky. What if you can only shoot the food on location and the location has crap window direction? What if it's dark out? What if it's a solar eclipse (or lunar, forget which is which)? Point is, I prefer to be prepared. I pack my strobes on every single shoot, no matter what.

Where was I? Ok, so, before even smelling the food cook, you had better made some decisions. For both images in this post, I had already chosen my exposure, light and modifiers, prior to a single ingredient being removed from the fridge. I knew what was being cooked and had an idea of how I would shoot it. A little secret I caught from reading Strobist was to work on getting exposure and light right by crumpling up some paper and putting it in the place where the food will lie. Works like a charm.

When deciding on exposure, consider DOF. Often, as the photographer, you will want to draw the eye of the viewer to a specific spot on the plate. A shallow DOF is typically ideal for food photography. I tend to shoot anywhere between a very shallow f/1.4 but sometimes get up to a f/5.6, depending on the presentation. Examples here are the first image, the fire roasted tomato soup with grilled cheese, shot at 2.8. For that image I wanted the plane of focus to come across the bread, showing the detailed texture of the toasted dough. For the later photo of the Korean lettuce wraps, I went a bit wider at 5.6, bringing the viewer deep into the wrap, allowing them to explore each layer of ingredients. Matter of taste I suppose.

The food is now in front of you, camera is set, exposures, light, everything ready to go. All you need to do now is simply trip the shutter. Simple right? Point the camera at the rations and fire away. Ah, this is where things tend to get tricky. Camera angles are something that can boggle the mind of the newbies. Often times, new photographers of food have the urge to shoot straight down, directly over the food, thinking this angle will flatter the meal. Not the case. The ever so important hight is lost from the presentation when shooting from that angle. Now, this is not to say that shooting directly from above is always bad. Shooting food such as soups, from that perspective, is often very creative and flattering for the dish. Small appetizers can sometimes be shot from the high angle as well. Other meals find their beauty in front of the camera from low side angles or from slightly above.

Macro lenses are great choices for food photography as they allow you to get super close to the food, capturing every detail of the dish. Great but not necessary. I don't own a macro lens. My go to lens for shooting food is my Nikkor 24-70 2.8 nano coated, yada yada yada. Yes, it has a whole lot of letters and labels on it and a price tag to match but I shit you not, that glass is worth every penny. The reason I like using it for food is that, even though it is not macro, it allows me to get in super tight and still grab focus. I can't get nearly as close shooting my prime lenses.

And how do I mount my camera? I don't. I DON'T USE TRIPODS FOR SHOOTING FOOD! Well, mostly never. I watched a great online class the other day, with Scott Kelby. It was all about composition. He mentions over and over again, to "work the scene." By working the scene, Kelby means that you got to move around. don't stick yourself in one spot, taking bad photos, over and over, hoping one will magically look fantastic. No. You have to work the scene. As with the food, I work handheld, shooting from every which way, even from above, until I find the angle that works. Using a tripod in such a situation will cause you to immobilize yourself and limit your creative decisions. If you really need the tripod to stabilize the image, wait until you've found your angle and only then should you plant the sticks and mount the camera.

Last but not least, post production. Remember the key word of the day? K.I.S.S. Don't overly process the images or they will end up looking like your Shitake mushrooms were swapped out for the kind that grown on cow poop. Get the hint?  Personally, I like to pump the colors just a bit, to help bring out the vibrance of the ingredients. Besides that, I really just work the white balance and curves. Not much else.

Hope this has been helpful and if I forgot anything (I'm sure I did), feel free to shoot me a comment or an email and I will gladly assist you in your time of image making need.

Finally finally, for real finally, I kept mentioning Ellio's pizza. Challenge. Make Ellio's look awesome.

More to come...