One of the most important elements of any destination is local food. Food plays such an important part in our experience of a destination and should be a must on any travel shot list. But photographing food can be challenging. Professional food photographers will work with stylists to prepare the food. They would then light it in a studio to ensure it looks natural. As a travel photographer, you won’t have the luxury of this. But there are ways to capture great food images without stylists and studio lighting. Here are 10 tips for photographing food out of the studio.
Seems obvious, but you should photograph the dish whilst it is still looking fresh before you start eating. You could always then take photos along the way as you eat if, for example, you want to show what’s inside. But a fresh dish will always look more appetizing than one that has been half-eaten.
Use natural light
The biggest mistake people make when photographing food is using a flash on their camera. The light is too harsh and as a result, it washes out the beautiful colours and textures of the food. Not to mention that it ruins the ambience of the venue. Flash is best used to fill in the shadows. If you do have to use it try to bounce it off a surface rather than directly onto the plate. The best lighting to use is natural light. So try to sit near a window or even better sit outside.
Avoid bright sunshine on the food as again this light is too harsh and creates strong shadows (this is very fill-in flash can help). Instead, position the plate under shade like an umbrella to avoid direct light. Cloudy days are best for photographing food outdoors. This is because the soft, diffused light gives an even light across the dish.
The hero of the photo should be the main dish so try to avoid cramming too much into the composition. If you are adding other elements into the photo such as a drink or other dishes, this should very much be secondary. Use a wide aperture to blur out the secondary elements so that it doesn’t clash with the main dish. You also need to think about the background. A simple wooden table is much better than a shiny metallic surface.
Portrait or landscape?
If you are planning on selling your photos you need to think about the composition carefully. Decide whether you want to shoot in landscape or portrait. When it comes to food photography, portrait mode if often better. But it is always a good idea to cover a few different versions. Keep in mind that food photos might be used in small sizes as well as big as a big single page image. so compose your images to work in a few different scenarios.
One of the biggest challenges of photographing food when not in a studio is being able to focus correctly to avoid blurred photos. This is a combination of your shutter speed and depth of field. How slow you will be able to go with your shutter speed depends on how steady you can hold a camera. But I wouldn’t go any slower than 1/60th sec (I tend to aim for around 1/100th sec for food shots).
If you find that you can’t have a fast enough shutter speed, increase your ISO. But be aware that the higher your ISO the more noise you are going to get in your photos. You also need to consider your depth of field. If you want more of the image sharp you will need a smaller aperture (higher f/number). For more blur use a smaller aperture (lower f/number).
But without a doubt, the best was to capture sharp photos of food is to use a tripod. A good investment is also a Gorillapod. It’s much more compact than a tripod and you can place it on a table.
Shoot in RAW mode
If you are photographing food anywhere other than a studio, one of the main things you need to watch for is colour casts. Everything restaurant lighting or umbrellas can give your dish an unwanted colour. Photographing in RAW allows you to correct this in post-production. This will give your photo a more natural look and feel. But be aware that RAW files are much larger than JPEGs so ensure you have enough memory space.
Shoot at an angle
Photographing food at an angle if often a good way to show different elements of the dish. Things like layers and texture can become more prominent. But you can also try some over the top shots. These work well when there are lots of dishes in your composition.
Remember that you don’t have to always show the entire plate when photographing food. So don’t be afraid to crop some of the dish out. Or you can even get very close to pick up the details of the textures, colours and ingredients. The key is to think about what the main ingredient or a hero of the plate is and compose your photo around that. You can always try a few different crops and see what works best in post-production. Keep in mind that for extreme close-ups you will need a macro lens.
Look beyond the plate
One of the best ways to showcase food photography is to capture the preparation of the dish. Not only will this diversify your portfolio but it will give your food photos a much more interesting story. So whenever possible try to capture the chefs making the dish as well as the ingredients that go into creating it. But remember to still think about your composition. Also, be aware of camera shake in kitchens that are often low in light.
Visit food markets
Markets are a great place to practice photographing food. Besides all the fresh ingredients, most food markets are full of vendors selling food as well. The best thing is that they often prepare food right in front of you. The majority of the time if the vendor is not busy or if you are buying something they will be more than willing to have their photograph taken.
Photographing food can be very challenging and is often not done very well. Capturing great food photographs takes some planning. But also a lot of creativity to compose and set up the scene as well as the technical skill required to execute it. But if done well food photographs can look vibrant and stir a real emotion of wanting to visit somewhere. Follow the steps above for photographing food and it’ll help you on your way.
Kav Dadfar is a travel photographer and author of over 350 articles on photography. He has years of experience shooting assignments with his images having been used by some of the biggest brands in the world.
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