Does ice-cream have a "good side?"
April 17, 2010 7:34 PM   Subscribe

Help me take pretty pictures of food.

I'm going to start a recipe blog and I'd like some tips for taking pictures of food specifically. Books, articles, anything. Assume I know very little about taking pictures; I know a few basic rules of composition and that's about it.

However, I will be using a digital camera: a Canon PowerShot S90. For the time being, I have no money or inclination to get another camera. These don't have to be the best photos in the world anyway, just something nice enough to look at while you're reading something else.

Also, I will be taking pictures of stuff I make at home, so I have some control over the lighting, surroundings, containers used, etc.

posted by Nattie to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
If I were doing this, I'd practice with some everyday items (banana, screwdriver, books, et cetera) to make sure I had the right location & light before taking pictures of the food I've just made. Food looks best when it's fresh and if you're fiddling with the surroundings while it's cooling you might end up with a less-than-stellar picture of what you've put the effort into making.

Also, a tripod is great if you have one.
posted by JV at 7:43 PM on April 17, 2010

Best answer: A few years ago I took part in an online food photography "workshop." The lessons are online and they're very practical.
posted by HotPatatta at 7:52 PM on April 17, 2010 [5 favorites]

I don't really do food photography, but I think you'll be amazed with what you can do with window light hitting the side of what you're photographing (make sure to turn off the flash if the camera has one, and set the exposure manually if you can). Also, simplify the pictures as much as you can. Look at what's in the background, and make sure it doesn't compete for attention. Especially try to make the surroundings and background complement the color of whatever you're photographing.

And JV's advice is spot on. Practice with non-perishable items and find an easy set-up that you can do quickly and reliably.
posted by msbrauer at 8:10 PM on April 17, 2010

I use a Canon A630 when taking food pictures for my blog. If you have a macro setting on yours, learn how to use it. One tip is to watch out for is steam rising from hot food and blurring your lens. When looking back over your shots, zoom in on them a bit to make sure they aren't blurred.

Having worked someplace where food was being photographed often: lighting, lighting, lighting.
posted by cmgonzalez at 8:42 PM on April 17, 2010

It turns out that professional food photographers use a lot of tricks. I saw a documentary about it one time, and it's rather offputting.

For instance, when they take pictures of cereal and pour milk into it on camera, that's not really milk. They take white glue and thin it about half and half with water. Milk looks thin and unconvincing when photographed.

When they take pictures of a roast turkey, they don't really roast it. They cook it for maybe an hour, so that it doesn't look raw. Then they paint it with a solution of instant coffee.

Pictures of ice cream usually aren't really ice cream. Usually they are scoops of Crisco. The photographer said that real ice cream is extremely difficult to photograph because it starts melting almost immediately under the hot lights.

This was about a commercial photographer creating photos for advertising and for women's magazines. For a blog you won't need to do that kind of stuff, I assume -- but it also means that your pictures won't look as good as the ones produced by guys who know these tricks.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:03 PM on April 17, 2010

Always use natural light. Never use a flash or even normal kitchen lights, try and always use light from a window.

While professional food photographers may have special tricks, there are tons of food bloggers who do take excellent pictures of the food they are actually making. One good example is the pioneer woman.
posted by kylej at 9:50 PM on April 17, 2010

You may be interested in this, which is a currently ongoing question thread with someone who actually does this for a living.
posted by sanka at 10:28 PM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I spent some time analyzing photos to determine why I liked what I like.

I found I wanted to get closer to the food, so I needed a bellows or those ring things that go between the lens and the camera. Or, as CM says above, maybe you have a macro lens.

I like using 3 lights, one soft and two hard. I like pinspots for hard light, they are 20 bucks mail order. If you use daylight for your soft light, you will need a bit of blue gel for the pinspots to color correct.
posted by rakish_yet_centered at 10:33 PM on April 17, 2010

get a roll of diffusion gel and put it up over the usually comes about 3-4ft wide (ask at your local camera store). this will soften your light and make everything look dreamy...
posted by sexyrobot at 10:40 PM on April 17, 2010

You may be interested inchdk to add more functionality to your canon camera.
posted by beardlace at 10:42 PM on April 17, 2010

To elaborate a bit further on what Chocolate Pickle said, professional food photographers can't replace the product being advertised with a substitute, but they often replace supporting products, for example Crisco as ice cream when shooting ice cream cones. Typically a food stylist will prepare many (3 to 20+) of the advertised product in order to get one with the right color and texture desired for the final photo.

For blog purposes, I think the above comments about lighting are correct and you should try to shoot with natural lighting (or at least not your camera flash) whenever possible. Also try shooting from both a low and high angle. Shoot up close and far away, with zoom and without. Take a ton of pictures and see what looks best to you.

Finally, practice! Take a picture of every meal you eat for a week. Try to make those leftovers or squashed McDonalds burgers look appetizing. Eventually you will figure out a process that captures the look you are after.
posted by Max Camber at 10:49 PM on April 17, 2010

I'd highly recommend this post from Smitten Kitchen, in which they explain their food photography strategies. Quick summary: she actually does often use a flash, apparently (contrary to the above), but uses a very high-end, expensive, self-calibrating one, and seems to agree that the built-in ones make everything look washed out. She also uses a nice SLR, but doesn't use the kit lens, and, instead, uses a low-f-stop fixed one.
posted by andrewpendleton at 10:58 PM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

You may want to consider making a homemade light box. This will create a nice even lighting and neutral background for your lovely food items.
posted by platinum at 1:20 AM on April 18, 2010

I run a recipe blog. I used a point-and-shoot at first, and now I use a DSLR. The important change I noticed w/ the DSLR is the depth of field (one item in focus, the rest kinda fuzzy) - it really makes the pictures look more professional. I am not a professional photographer at all, so my explanation of DOF is not necessarily the "proper" definition. Be sure to use the same white balance setting for all pics relating to one post, so there's continuity (I usually find the "tungsten" setting to be the best for my pics). Replace your kitchen lightbulbs with bulbs like the GE Reveal brand - your pics will look more natural and less yellow-y. If you have a macro setting on your camera, that's good for taking close-up detailed pics, which is great if you're trying to show a texture or something. From a practical point of view, a tripod or a cross-body strap for your camera can be really helpful when you're in the middle of cooking something. Good luck!
posted by melissasaurus at 6:35 AM on April 18, 2010

professional food photographers can't replace the product being advertised with a substitute

I worked for a TV commercial production house in the 1980's. The director often replaced one product for another. He like the color of cheap beer, or maybe how it foamed, I never asked, so when you were watching an expensive beer commercial you were actually seeing cheap beer poured.

What you can't do is misrepresent the product, the marbles in the soup incident comes to mind
posted by rakish_yet_centered at 6:46 AM on April 18, 2010

A bunch of friends and I have ventured meekly into food blogging in the past few years, and I'm talking as amateur as it gets when it comes to knowing how to take decent photos, etc. If that's where you're coming from, and you get the vague sense you're just not artistic in that way and even tips and practice won't ever give you photog's intuition, the number one tip in general then I'd say is make it as easy as possible for yourself by shooting whenever possible while you've got lots and lots of natural sunlight. That alone can make even the crappiest photographer (raises hand) come out with alright looking amateur photos. Of course, that can be very frustrating because (at least for me) the most ambitious, porn-worthy entrees tend to be made for dinner after it's dark...this is such a common thing it's a joke among food bloggers (I can't find it offhand, but one blogger posted years ago a joking entry about living with a food blogger and some of the points were stuff like "your partner insists on standing on top of the dinner table shooting down at your meal before they'll let you eat, and the food is always cold because they make it 6 hours in advance because they need the natural light, of course" etc.).

Another general thing: if you have food bloggers whose photos you adore, chances are high they have a section or entry somewhere about how they shoot their stuff. A lot of them are pretty forthcoming about that stuff. So dig around that way for tips...a common one is something like having a makeshift screen that diffuses bright concentrated light, sort of like a big umbrella made of certain materials, etc.
posted by ifjuly at 11:47 AM on April 18, 2010

The New York Times just posted an article about people who photograph food followed by a Q&A with one of their photographers who is a food stylist.
posted by Gortuk at 12:20 PM on April 18, 2010

kylej: Always use natural light. Never use a flash or even normal kitchen lights, try and always use light from a window.

Always be suspicious of absolutist advice. In photography, or elsewhere.

Without artificial lighting, you are at the mercy of the clock and the weather (not to mention the local layout, if you are traveling to the food). That's just not acceptable to a pro, nor should it be for you. Half an hour getting things set up right, and then the sun drops below the hill...

However, do control your light. You can spend as much money as you want to on photography lighting equipment, or settle for daylight-spectrum incandescent bulbs and cheap, wide reflectors, using white ceilings and posterboard for bounces, and a DIY snoot for creating highlights.

Don't settle for existing room lighting, or non-daylight bulbs, as you run the risk of having color washes (from differing lightbulb types) in the shadows of your food - your eye will never detect them until viewing the photos later. (That was an hour of Photoshop cleanup, for one damned shot.)

Thanks to HotPatatta, kylej, sanka, and andrewpendleton for the links.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:33 PM on April 18, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! This is all great and I'm gonna try some of it out this week. :-)
posted by Nattie at 11:07 AM on April 19, 2010

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