How to Take Food Photos That Will Make Your Friends Want to Lick the Screen
LA FoodCulture is something that is completely unique to SoCal - nowhere in this country is there a more densely clustered map of wildly diverse options when it comes to choosing a place to eat. As a thoroughbred photographer from the East Coast, the most immediately striking aspect of this often mind-boggling phenomenon to me was the heavily present custom of food documentation, especially for social media.
Whether the consumer is armed to the teeth with cutting-edge gear or simply capturing the experience for friends and family through the keen lens of their smartphone, it's always so exciting for me to see what the people I know are eating.
Now, if you're anything like me, it's hard to watch the festivities without being tempted to join in. No matter the setting, be it the trendy new Kosher deli down the block or in your very own kitchen, there are plenty of things you can do to maintain your status as the culinary alpha of your digital inner circle.
Today, I'm going to show you how. While I certainly cannot divulge all of my trade secrets (mostly because I don't know any), the following ten tips, tricks, and techniques will be more than enough to shock your foodie fam into helpless, ravenous submission. Included are some photos I've taken around town and on my countertop at home for reference.
1. Harness the Power of the Sun
One very fortunate thing about being a photographer living on planet Earth is the fact that we have a giant globe of light beaming down at us from heaven, which we're allowed to use at any time of day, in whatever way we want, for free. The sun is criminally undervalued in the world of professional photography, especially in this town; tech-heads are quick to poo-poo on natural light, as it makes their very expensive and overly-encumbering lighting packages for rent much less valuable.
As an anarchist in every sense of the word, I say nay to those who doubt the power of the sun; some people (like me) generally prefer to muffle it with a sheer, skinned flex-fill, but allowing it to hit your subject at full-blast will set the stage for some very stunning compositions under exactly the right conditions.
This says nothing of how useful having a reflector and one or more light-cutters on hand can be in terms of giving you even more control. If you're indoors, try to inquire about the option of potentially shooting near an open window, and always have a fat sheet of diffusion on hand or in the trunk of your car for when fate comes a'knockin' unannounced, as she is well-known to do at times.
2. Put on the Ritz
If you're looking to raise the production value of your snapshots without making a significant investment in your set-up in terms of equipment, your best bet is to style the food to look as appealing as possible - this can mean a whole bunch of different things requiring varying levels of effort, the most basic of which would probably be the way it's arranged.
Neatening up the dish and wiping away any errant splashes of gravy will do wonders for the final product and takes four seconds to do. More advanced means of enhancement include garnishing and balancing out the color palette being presented to the audience; if you're somebody who's had the blessed experience of working with a real food stylist, you already know that the real pros are always ready to do so.
They're the type to come prepared with a baggie full of basil and scallions to brighten up a bland pot of soup or sauce, carefully adjust the position of individual French fries with a pair of forceps, and spritz down any visible produce with a spray bottle just before the big moment comes to give it that just-harvested look that is so vogue right now.
Using portable blowtorches to sear the surface of any meat products being photographed and then mopping the surface down with shoe polish to keep that freshly roasted gleam going all afternoon long is also a practice that is quite common in the big city.
This part of the process is admittedly something I'm not great at. I'm a woman, but if I'm being completely honest, I utterly lack any meaningful sense of adornment and aesthetics. Use your imagination. Put some fucking sprinkles on top.
3. Listen to the Plate
I know, it sounds a little new age-y, but taking the time to walk a full 360 degrees around the object of your attention will give you a better idea of how to seize your desired image in the most engaging, exciting way possible.
Crouch down low; go up high on your tippy-toes. Yank off your workin' boots for a moment and ask if there's a chair or a sofa you're allowed to stand on to get a bird's-eye view of the situation.
It may sound pedestrian to the point of banality, but the fact of the matter is you can't see what you can't see. So make sure you see as much of everything as possible; you'd be surprised at how much taking on a new perspective can significantly change the character of the dish.
4. Fill the Frame
The rule of thumb, especially when you're juggling a lot of different elements at once, is to strike a balance between keeping the viewer's eye moving throughout the frame while also not overwhelming them with a messy, confusing overall composition.
Giving them something tasty to drool over at every turn and intersection will keep things interesting; if you run out of food, try occupying the space with raw ingredients, utensils, or perhaps the tools used to prepare the food, if applicable.
5. Shoot Food You Like
We as human beings eat with our eyes, and that sentiment translates directly to the feeling of your photos when shooting food. It's a big reason why sleezeballs like to work in fashion and boudoir - the beautiful women excite them, hold their attention, and make work less grueling and demanding; the same goes for food.
If you're a die-hard carnivore, that's a strong indicator that you may be more inclined to shoot for a steakhouse of some sort over, say, the local, organic juice bar that just opened up a few blocks from your apartment. Not that a creative in that scenario would be incapable of producing competently under those circumstances; that essential sensation of food-lust just may not be as present.
When you take photos of food, your imposing eye should feel hungry, as that sense of enthusiasm and gusto will be the lens through which the viewer will be taking in your subject as well. You've got to make them want it.
6. Keep Editing to an Absolute Minimum
This is one of my core principles through and through - keeping things "real" ultimately makes for a more authentic photo and therefore a more inviting experience for anybody viewing it.
Ditto for taking photos of people. The further you get from the reality of what actually transpired on set or otherwise, the more uncanny and unreal the impression the picture leaves. If you don't like the way something looks, take the initiative and change it as you go rather than after the fact.
Getting your hands dirty and being mindful of those smaller decisions will only refine your eye and hone your skills in catching any potential trouble areas, which will allow you to make your work much stronger in the future.
7. The More the Merrier
Have you ever heard about that thing where if a hot girl is hanging out with a big group full of hot girls, their collective hotness enhances the hotness of each individual, creating a collective of sexiness greater than the sum of its parts?
I'm a big believer in the notion that this principle is equally applicable when photographing food - especially when it comes from one of those classic We-Ho spots that specializes in a variety of very Instagrammable delights, none of which deserve to be left out of the picture.
It also makes you look popular, which will only work in your favor.
8. Know Thy Camera
Oh, boy. This one was a tough lesson to learn.
As somebody who's flubbed more than my fair share of important shots, understanding the camera you're using and how not only all of the various functions it's capable of but also the conditions under which you're working affect the final picture is very important.
Arguably, objectively excellent photos of food are adequately illuminated and in crystal-clear focus. Any technical mistakes and wonky discoloration will only distract the viewer and divert their attention from the feast for the eyes to be had.
While there is certainly something to be said in favor of going for a more "artsy," "avant-garde" route, heed my warning: you will be judged for it in a professional context. This is coming from somebody who has had plenty of experience in that part of the business. I make the mistakes so you don't have to.
9. Think Ahead
This one is a no-brainer for anybody with even a moderate amount of experience in the field of the photographic arts. In the same way that you want to release the shutter at precisely the moment a human model is emoting most authentically, the same is true when photographing food.
Knowing what you want to capture before setting out will help you be prepared for when the right time comes. It doesn't matter how good you are at taking photos; if you're unable to capture that perfect moment when it happens, you're not going to get the shot.
For the above image, I had the hands of complete strangers popping into frame from every direction, all grabbing pizza slices in chaotic disharmony; my goal was to grab at least one decent shot of the coveted cheese-pull from all three pies of contention at once, knowing full well that waiting for the cheese to cool even slightly would make it look much less appealing.
Because I was able to articulate that desire mentally beforehand, I had the freedom to put myself in a position to make a viable attempt to do so. I'll let you be the judge of whether or not I was successful.
10. Be Present & Capture the Authentic Moment
Conversely, at the other end of the spectrum, if there is one thing that will guarantee stale, stuffy, formulaic photos. It's being too rigid and meticulous in your planning.
Part of the fun of the game is exploration and stumbling across ways of shooting the food that you would have never thought of before breaking ground and setting out on the task in the first place. Being open to the possibilities you see in front of you is difficult when your eyes are so glued to the itinerary that you fail to use your senses to see, smell, perceive, and experience the spread before you.
Part of being a good photographer is being sensitive to these subtleties that simply cannot be planned for; letting things unfold, especially when collaborating with others, is the best way to find those unique images and avoid getting the same four or five standard, obvious shots that every other yahoo with a camera snags during the first five minutes of the shoot.
Play with the set-up. Use unconventional props. Go with your gut, because that's the part of your body that knows when something looks good.
Emma Garofalo is a photographer and writer currently based in Thousand Oaks, California. When not toiling away over her laptop or sticking her camera in the faces of beautiful people, she can be found in the kitchen, making a mess.