MoFo #18: A few words on food photography

I struggle with photography a lot. Isn’t this the truth? Not a day goes by that I’m not in photography classes, shooting, editing, printing, and talking or thinking about photos. A light stand with a flash affixed to it is a permanent fixture in the corner of my room because I’d be collapsing and setting it up everyday. Being around photography 24/7 really makes me question what the hell I’m doing all the time, especially in an art school setting that focuses deeply on the ideas and concepts of photo and turns its nose up at commercial work (feel free to slap me across the face if I ever think like that!). I already overanalyze everything that happens and everything I think about every waking minute of the day. I’m also a perfectionist and stubborn as fuck and there’s a few thousand photos and several series of work that have never seen the light of the internet. Analyzing every little detail about photos, content, and meaning gets me burned out really easily, which makes even shooting food a lengthy frustrating ordeal sometimes!

Pretty food photography is not allowed in art school, but I can do whatever I want on my blogs! Even after prefacing what I do day in and day out with a sprinkle of cynicism, I think an art background is very beneficial when working in the kitchen and photographing food. And I’m a cynical mofo anyway. There’s so much color, design, and creation just making food. Then, photographing can be approached in so many ways. Composition, color, still life objects, and creating a mood that really considers the subject. White plate on a clean background? That’s a standard for product photography and some food shoots that is worth knowing how to do if the need arises, but hello, boring! Google stock photography. Yawnfest!

Lots of things are going through my head when working with food. I’m going to say things that conflict with the first post I made about food photography on here and probably other food photography articles. I don’t think there’s one right way to approach food photography, so I’m skeptical about food photography guides or “tips and tricks”. Now watch me eat my words and write up a list of tips and tricks! But really, these are just my opinions, how I currently approach my work, and more focused on thinking about photographing as an art rather than listing technical tricks. I’d say this is directed toward the “I know how to use my camera, now what?” crowd:

Knowing the mechanics of a camera and what they mean is far more useful than having a “good” camera. Someone well-versed and in control of their point and shoot in any given situation is way better off than someone with an SLR in auto mode. Now use that knowledge to your advantage and create what you’re envisioning. Don’t rely on happy accidents to create interesting photos. Figure out how to create that and have control over it! Reading books and taking classes would be immensely helpful.

Step back. Consider the space you’re in and how it relates to what you’re shooting. Just like there are environmental portraits of people, the same can be done with food as the “character”. Intensely close shots with a shallow depth of field become repetitive and don’t make you think about your photos. When I started doing food photography, the 50mm f/1.8 lens at f/1.8 all the time became a crutch. Hello there. I read that using a shallow depth of field would really focus on the subject, and not so much on the “less important” background. When the background is blurred, it doesn’t matter what’s there and the subject becomes a floaty glowing muffin or something. Now, maybe the composition is nice, but what sets your muffin apart? A distinguishable background isn’t out to work against you, but set up a scene. When I think blueberry muffins, I think picnic baskets, red checkers, and bright yellows and blues. Put that pumpkin muffin in a still life of autumnal abundance.

There are so many ways to use light, and gasp, natural light is not the be all end all. I use both studio lighting and natural light, depending on the food in question. A sultry dark chocolate truffle would be more suited to an environment with dramatic lighting, lace, reds, and satin-y fabrics. A lemonade cupcake goes by the window with bright colors and a whimsical composition. I still get overwhelmed with constructing this kind of still life sometimes because it involves collecting a lot of random kitchen crap and carefully considering what to include in the photos. Doing research is incredibly helpful. That’s true for anything. Look up all kinds of photography and artwork and draw inspiration. Maybe you have a diner-style meal. Research the atmosphere and visual elements of 1950s diners and make note of the colors, patterns, fabrics, and lighting in the photos you find. It could be as simple as a checkerboard placemat, or as elaborate as setting up a metallic backdrop, including props, and neon lighting. It’s not what you do or how intricate it is, but your individual approach that makes it interesting!

Mix up your collection of plates, tablecloths, and utensils. Or don’t. Maybe a certain color, texture, or plate is a constant in all your photos. I like working with bright, vivid colors, and dramatic lighting. And a lot of yellow. Mostly because my kitchen walls are yellow, but I try to bring different things into the shoots so it’s not all YELLOW WALL in everything. Sometimes I’d like to have a completely different kitchen to play with (who wouldn’t?), but I know the way I shoot and the things I’m visually interested in will show through there too, so working in the same environment all the time isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Even if your soup looks like vomit in a bowl, you can photograph it! Just no Instagram close up shots please. Put more emphasis on the bowl, the table setting, and everything around the soup, and create an interesting composition.

So, that was a little view into some of the crap I think about all day and night. I hope it was helpful!


2 thoughts on “MoFo #18: A few words on food photography

  1. Haha! I don’t have time to really put much thought into my photos since someone (namely my kids) is waiting to eat, so I go for close up and interesting fabric n background almost every time. I’m so envious of blogs that have really nice scenes to accompany a recipe.

  2. enjoyed this post – wish I had more time for photography but I like the idea of environment when photographing food – just wish there was a bit more space in my kitchen but I recently bought a few pretty tea towels just for the blog photography and think maybe I will start a collection as a start to some prettier photography

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