Contrary to popular belief, the key factor in achieving enticing images of food is not the camera you use and how many megapixels it has, but how you choose to light the scene. For many professional photographers, this means buying numerous pricey studio lights, not to mention the never ending list of accessories, tools, and toys needed to properly manipulate the quality of that light. As more hobbyists have discovered a passion for food photography and food blogs became ubiquitous, however, this industry standard is rapidly changing. Preferring a softer, more “realistic” look as you might find the food in your own home, natural light is frequently the best choice for creating the most appealing shots, and one that I typically go with as well, despite easy access strobe lights. Knowing a few tips and tricks, put to use with plenty of practice, can enable anyone to capture luscious food photos worth drooling over.
The list of essential equipment is very short: A serviceable digital camera or camera phone, a dish you’d like to capture, and light are the only absolutely essential ingredients. For best effect, it’s highly recommended that you save your photo sessions for bright, sunny days, and aim to start shooting any time from late morning until sunset, for the best intensity of light to work with. Taking photos at different times of the day will yield varying results and some interesting, more atmospheric or moody effects, due to the higher or lower positions of the sun, so don’t be afraid to try different hours to see which you like best.
Though you’re always looking to use bright sunlight, avoid placing the dish in direct sunlight, as this will cast harsh shadows and highlights, making it difficult to properly expose. Make sure that all indoor tungsten lights are turned off so that subject doesn’t cast two shadows, giving the scene a clearly staged, unnatural look. Additionally, be aware of any ambient lighting inside that might cast confusing colors or shadows over the set. Tungsten bulbs, the most common type found in household lamps, can give off a slightly yellow-tinted light, as they range from 2500 – 3500 degrees Kelvin, so they’re never a good choice when photographing food.
It’s generally a good idea to arrange your food with the window light shining in behind it, to act as a back light. This tends to be most flattering, as it gently showers soft shadows evenly over the front, from the angle which you’ll be capturing it. The sunlight can also work nicely at either side, but if the light is too bright, it will give the food an overly-dramatic feeling, much like split lighting for portrait photography. As a rule, I never place the food so that sunlight hits it from the front, for the same reason that I would suggest never using the flash built into your camera: It flattens out the subject, giving a “deer in headlights” appearance. Font-flash is as unflattering on inanimate objects as it is on people!
If you find that the shadows are too dark, there’s still no need to bring out a secondary source of light; carefully placed mirrors can be just as effective, not to mention the fact that they’re far more budget-friendly. By adjusting the mirrors so that they bounce the sunlight back into the darkest areas of the subject, you’ll be able to keep the same natural, soft lighting all over, but bring out more detail in the textures that would otherwise become lost due to low light. In a pinch, you can fashion a close facsimile with aluminum foil covering a piece of cardboard, folded and propped up at your desired angle. The same technique can be used with white poster board, or even gold fabric reflectors, to lend a warmer hue to the image.
On the other hand, should you find that your window light is too “hot,” meaning that it’s blowing out the detail in the highlights, you can very easily diffuse it with everyday household items. Taping a large sheet of white parchment paper over the entire window will soften the light very effectively, as long as you ensure that there are no gaps where the light can escape and create a dappled look on your subject. If there’s just one small area of your food that’s too bright, you can use the opposite tack as you would with mirrors; Use a black card, or piece of cardboard covered in black construction paper, angled to block the offending highlights. These cards can be cut to any size needed, so they’re very versatile.
With experience, the proper lighting setup will become second nature. With just a bit of creativity and a willingness to experiment, you’ll be able to create food photos that look every bit as delicious as the pros. Once you learn to master the light already at your disposal, the only thing you’ll need is a sumptuous dish to feature, and you’ll be well on your way!
Rarely does one have the opportunity to see first-hand just how one of their favorite foods are made, from raw material to comfortingly familiar final product, which is why my visit to the Hodo Soy factory was so extraordinary. It didn’t hurt that my guide, Henry Hsu, was so generous with his time, allowing me to poke my camera into every step of the process. For the first time ever, I took this opportunity to experiment into the realm of motion pictures, so what you see above is still fairly rough. Regardless, I couldn’t wait to share this peek behind the scenes.
You may have heard the name before, or perhaps you’ve eaten their tofu without even realizing it. Hodo Soy provides the soy base for Chipotle‘s famous tofu sofritas, but their commitment to creating innovative foods that remain true to ancient art of soybean wrangling doesn’t end there. Increasing demand has brought their firm blocks, nuggets, and yuba noodles farther across the country than ever before, turning this homegrown company into a national brand in the blink of an eye.
Consider this just a small taste to whet your appetite; Coming soon, I’ll have a more typical recipe and photo post to share, using some of those incredible soybean savories I watched come to fruition before my eyes. Stay tuned, and stay hungry!
Nothing is off limits when it comes to capturing the perfect photo. Fulfilling a vision, watching it come to life, and being able to share it with others, no translation necessary, is the most satisfying aspect of the craft. No one said that reaching that goal was ever easy though, which is why I’m willing to go great lengths in order to see a concept through to completion. Even for your garden-variety food photo, every frame counts. Shooting on location presents its own unique set of challenges, but posing a pie for its closeup on the beach is far from my craziest idea yet.
A week of planning, a day of preparation, and day of meticulous baking later, the photo was everything I had dreamed of. With the recipe completed and fine tuned well in advance, the styling went off without a hitch. My Island Breeze Pie from Easy as Vegan Pie looked radiant, a true beach babe if I ever did see one. Never mind the fact that it was a chilly February morning, the wee hours of the AM affording us a quiet, undisturbed spot on the shoreline; the sun’s gentle golden glow suggested otherwise, and the soft ripples of sea water coming in with the tide seemed to lovingly cradle the dish itself. It was perfect, that one moment that every artist lives for when everything in the world feels right.
And the next moment is what every risk-taker dreads.
Splash! Right before my lens, one cruel wave silently crept up from beyond my viewfinder, sneaking around the edges of my painstakingly styled pie, and maliciously scaled the walls of the ceramic vessel, crashing through the latticework in one fell swoop. I never saw it coming, but with camera poised and a finger on the trigger, the devastating attack was inadvertently captured for all eyes to see, detailing the full destruction in a multitude of frames.
“No, not the macadamia nuts!” I howled in anguish, helplessly watching the waters recede. They were one of the rare edible souvenirs that made the journey with me back from Hawaii, you see, much more sentimental than your average ingredient.
Leaving behind a soggy but fully intact pastry in its wake, my rescue efforts came too late, but the whole dish was nonetheless toweled off and taken home. This poor, brave pie made the ultimate sacrifice- Who could be so cold-hearted as to simply shrug and throw it away? Not I; loathe to waste food, and turn my back on this valiant fighter.
Only out of desperation, and only due to one overly optimistic suggestion did the pie return to the oven in an attempt to dry out. The water was removed, but the sand, grit, and salt remained, tasting of of detritus and sadness. Officially beyond salvage, all I could do was honor its memory, publishing that glorious photo to inspire generations of Island Breeze Pies to come.
Don’t forget to enter my giveaway for a chance to win a copy of Easy as Vegan Pie for yourself! Pretty please, don’t let any of your baked creations anywhere near the water, for your own eating enjoyment.