Taking Food Photographs
A great meal is memorable, and even a so-so meal captured in a photo can bring you back to a fun time and place. We sometimes encounter new dishes that we'd like to show to others. Sometimes we may even come across foods that we do not recognize, and a photo will facilitate an Internet search. Whatever the reasons, the web is packed with photos of food, so people are taking them. We're not taking about photos in which the milk on cereal is replaced with Elmer's glue because it looks better, and a highly trained food stylist arranges each corn flake. We are after pleasant photos that show food as it is.
Avoid flash. Natural light at a farmer's market shows
the shape and texture of fresh ginger root.
Rule one is to shut off the flash on you camera. The lighting from a flash is horrible. It conceals the shape and texture of the food, and it will make nearly anything unappealing. In restaurants, put both elbows on the table to steady the camera. I know that's bad manners, but it is only momentary, you have a good excuse, and your mother is probably not watching. That amount of bracing with a reasonable camera lens (f2.8) and an anti-shake mechanism in the camera will yield an excellent image.
If you are in a restaurant and want a general view, rest the camera on the rim of a water glass. This holds the camera both steady and level. You can pan around by jockeying the camera around the rim. Get the camera back from the edge of the glass so the rim contacts as much of the flat bottom of the as possible. That way the camera will not tilt.
For most dishes, looking down at about forty-five degrees provides the best view. If a the food has a large, essentially flat, surface, like a bowl of pudding or a plate of noodles, then looking straight down may work well. If you want to show the spread of many dishes or include some of the background, then a low angle may work well. The water glass tripod may come into play in that case.
The vast scope of a Southern breakfast
demands a low camera angle.
Take some photos that you think may be too close. They don't cost anything, and it's surprising how often they turn out to be the best. To take close photos, put the camera in macro mode. Many cameras use an icon of a flower on the button that activates that mode. Check your camera manual, sometimes macro mode will work out to two feet, so you can use it for all the food photos.
Usually food is photographed at its untouched pristine best. However, a steak ought to be cut to show the rare interior. (If you like well done steak, then just keep the camera in your pocket for the sake of decency.) A burrito, lasagna, or omelet will benefit from being cut to show the interior. Foods like puddings benefit from carving out a spoonful and placing the spoonful on top. That shows the consistency as being neither solid nor too soupy.
Restaurants most often have artificial lighting, sometimes even oddly-colored fluorescent lights although those sorts of places tend not to have food worth photographing. Cameras have controls for white balancing. I ignore those controls and adjust the color later in Photoshop using the Remove Color Cast function. To color correct in Photoshop, something in the image has to be known to be white or gray. Usually a plate or tablecloth will serve. In places with green china on a purple tablecloth, you have to improvise. A white napkin might be available. In a pinch a small scrap of paper put near the edge of the frame will do. That might be soda straw wrapper, a chopstick wrapper, or a random receipt you find in your wallet. You can crop the paper out of the image after you've made the color correction.
Small scraps of paper might not be perfectly neutral. If you worry about that you can carry around a calibrated gray card made for photographers, or you can use the back of the certificate that declared you insane. It is not critical, and you can tweak it subjectively if it seems off.
Cut omelet shows interior.
The fork shows scale in a tight closeup.
People know the size of peas, beans, rice, and many other foods. There is no problem indicating the scale in the photo if at least one item of recognizable scale is in the image. Other times there is a problem. Key limes look like regular limes but are much smaller. Some sixteen layer cakes are four inches high and others are a foot high. Who knows how big a strange mushroom might be? In such cases a scale object should be put into the the picture.
A plate, fork, knife, or glass might be suitable. Plates can be a problem if it isn't obvious whether it is a dinner plate or a dessert plate. For small items, like pieces of candy, the texture of a napkin or table cloth may work well. In the kitchen the texture of a paper towel works for small items. If you have an old-fashioned counter top with two-inch square tiles and wide grout, most people will recognize that. Granite doesn't work because the pattern can be almost any size. If you are so modern as to have a stainless steel counter top, you are out of luck.