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A Photographer’s Insight: How to Shoot Food

I’ve been asked to share some tips with shooters who are thinking about doing food photography. The first place to start is to ask why. Why food photography? What about it gets you excited. My answer is part of a four decade (you heard right) journey/career that started with summer internships in Dallas studios, passed through the new studio startup phase, and is now transitioning to more and more motion.

For most of that time what I shot was market driven; shooting whatever people hired me to do. I learned that every shot starts with a vision of the end result, and few get there. There are always compromises made, and visual opportunities taken along the way. For me, the journey was as much fun as the final shot.

When a new rep wanted a food shooter I started testing and found several things that really worked for me. From a technical point of view, there was an unlimited variety of color and texture that was lacking in previous subjects. The biggest difference was that every single shot, every shot…got a reaction. People would talk about the cakes their mother made or the chili they made over a fire in Boy Scouts, the summer fish fries by the lake. The photos engaged people.  For me, that’s a game changer. That’s my why.  Now, on to the tips.

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Discover your light

I believe each of us has a gift that we can nurture and grow, but we can’t exchange for another. So find yours. When I was in school, we had an assignment to pick an ad from a magazine and match it perfectly. It’s still a great exercise. Pick several styles you like and work at them. You’ll learn a lot about light, and you may discover yours along the way. Keep your eyes and heart open to what unfolds in front of you. Although you should never take your dog’s opinion of you as gospel, you can listen to those around you. They may see your light before you do, so listen to their reactions.

My light 

I shoot for a very natural light look. To get that, I looked at how nature does it. I see a soft light very far away (i.e. the sky), and light bouncing off of nearby objects, like the building next door or the walls in the room, and sometimes a local light source in the form of a sheer curtain or other window dressing. I mimic that. I repainted my entire studio to all white and use my 40’cyc and ceiling as that primary sky source. I simply bounce a strobe (HMI or Tungsten if shooting motion) off the cyc and ceiling.

Then I create a faux “room” out of foam core and shoot inside that. I get a very nice north light look that, unlike natural light, is consistent from shot to shot, never changes color, and doesn’t set earlier in the winter. Inside this “room” I’ll set my shooting surface and simply rotate the entire thing so that the hero catches the light at just the right angle.

Discover your tools

Once you have that hero spot lit and composed correctly, you can focus on the rest of the dish and set, bringing the shadows up or down, adding highlights where needed to enhance texture or juiciness. Lots of food I see clearly has two lights on each side of the subject. I avoid that at all costs. Of course, it CAN happen in nature, but most likely there is a primary light and that’s what I shoot for.

The tools I have next to my set are simple:

  1. Two mirrors to add highlights
  2. Black screen to knock them down
  3. Tracing paper to smooth reflections on busy plates
  4. White and black paper.

I’ve found that most often these things will do their job best if they are actually in the shot. Keeping them out of the frame and keeping them from affecting something I don’t want them to almost always cause two problems. One, I’m compromising the look of the food by not letting them be in their best position.  Two, I’m spending a lot of my clients’ time trying to create a less than my best shot. So, rather than try to do it all in one shot, I rely on Photoshop.

My crew and clients gather around the monitor to sign off on composition, focus, and base exposure, and then they walk away while I add the mirrors and fill/black cards as needed.

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*Tip: I always wear a gray t-shirt so I don’t cast a colored light back on my subject when I’m in close.

After the shoot, I do all my own Photoshop. I consider it part of the creative process and would not rely on someone else to make those decisions for me or my client. The downside of this process is that it’s hard to show the client the finished product on set. I’ve missed many a communal lunch while I combine images. I assume my crew is singing my praises all the while, right?

The Hardware

Regardless of the platform or camera system, get some tilt shift lenses and learn to use them.

The Crew

You have a new facet to your creative team, the food stylists. I LOVE these folks. I’m not a foodie. I don’t know much about it. I know what is beautiful, but I rely on them to tell me what is right. Salmon and ice cream? Not right. Trust me, I’ve asked.

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Find who works best with you. My light is like being on location. I can move the food and the surface but not the light. I have to work with my stylist to plan that plating and light marriage. If the two don’t match, either the dish is re-plated, or I go through the sex change of relighting (you move all the important stuff, and there’s no going back). You need someone who understands your needs, can bring their vision to the table and shares your work ethic which is the subject of a different blog.

Questions…questions…anyone…anyone…Bueller?

Andy Post

For over 30 years Andy has been creating stellar images for some of the best agencies, award-winning art directors and respected manufacturers in the country. Clients from American Heart, Frito-Lay, Giant Food Stores, Southland Corp., Taylor Farms, and Whataburger (to name a few), love his work for its sensitive lighting which they describe as real and comforting. Yeah, comfort lighting. It's a gift.

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Join the conversation

  • Pam - 7 months ago

    How do you use the tracing paper to smooth reflections?