Throughout my career as a food photographer, I have made many mistakes, spent hours experimenting with lighting and compositions to get the final shot. It’s all part of the learning process and being self-taught, I probably made a lot more mistakes than most. When I started out I was expected to source props, cook, style, photograph and colour correct all of my images. It was tough. But by doing so, I learnt every step of the process. Understanding the roles of… let’s say a ‘food stylist‘ is crucial when directing a shoot, and helps when things aren’t going quite to plan. Often I hear people say “Surely anyone can follow a recipe and put it on a plate, why do we need a food stylist?”. The answer is yes, anyone can cook-up a recipe and place it on a plate, but not everyone has the skill in turning a plate of food into the most mouthwatering picture. A food stylist understands composition, colour and trends, they are worth every penny. But my advice for anyone wanting to be a food photographer is to start by learning the process.
Here I’m going to break down my process and give you a few tips on the way. So before starting any project or shoot, the most important thing is to decide upon a style, but to do this successfully you need to do your research.
Look at your favourite food photographers and food magazines for inspiration and select a few reference pics that you like the look and feel of. I’m not suggesting you copy these images, far from it, but like music production (which I have a degree in) you are taught to use a reference track which you like the sound of. So when you finish recording all your musical instruments etc you will use the reference track to mix your levels and EQ to. But here’s the important point, your track may have similar tonal characteristics but the song is completely different. The same idea is applied to using reference images, your image may have a similar style in terms of lighting etc, but your image is fundamentally different. The point of doing this is to learn how to recreate the styles you like and to keep on top of the trends. By experimenting with different styles you will become more diverse in food photography. One thing I do often is cutout pictures from food magazines which I like, I put them in a folder under categories and use them as references.
Once you have decided on a style, you need to choose the right props to achieve this. Now there are hundreds of places you can get props from, but depending on time, style, and most importantly budget, there are a few places that are worth highlighting. Firstly, if you are starting out with no budget, then obviously start with what you have around the house or borrow from friends and family. The next place to look would be high street departments stores or your local kitchen shop. However it will be difficult to find anything old or worn. A solution would be to buy something new and distress it, but this will be time consuming and reasonably expensive.Therefore you really only have two other options if you’re after something old, worn, or something more specific. Flea markets and prop houses are by far the best places to look. Flea markets are a brilliant source for buying props at an affordable price. I have found some great old cutlery, lanterns, coffee sacks and many surfaces which I often use. You can find modern, retro, and antique items here, but it will require a day of searching and you may still come away empty handed if you are after something more specific. That’s where ‘prop houses’ come into their element. The prop houses I visit in London (China & Co, Backgrounds, Topham Street, and Lacquer Chest) are tailored for food photography and TV, so they are full of all types of cutlery, crockery, cooking equipment, tables, chairs, and glass wear etc. You name it, it will probably be there. Everything is sorted by colour or type, and it makes the whole process much easier. They also have areas where you can work, so you can make little sets to see if your props are working together. Props are hired on a weekly basis and can be quite expensive, so make sure you only hire what you need.
So now your research is done and you have your props, it’s time to photograph your subject. Depending on the style you have chosen, you are either going to use natural light or strobes to achieve ‘the look’. I usually use strobes, but I use them in away to create a natural look. I do this by using one Bowen Flash Head and a Scrim Jim. Lighting doesn’t have to be too complicated, keep it simple. The sun is one light source so by using one strobe you are replicating the sun. By doing this you will achieve a more natural look. However, you will need a fill card (I use a piece of A2 white foam board or a linen sheet depending on how intense I want the bounce to be) to bounce some of the light back towards your subject. I usually start by placing my light source behind the subject at either 10 or 2 o’clock. I fit a Bowens 75 Degree Softlight Reflector onto the head which provides a soft but directional light. I then place a large Scrim Jim in front and depending on how soft or hard I want the light to be, I move the strobe closer or further away. I personally prefer a softer look for food photography, hard light tends to be very harsh and makes the food look ugly.
Use Gobos to shape your light. Gobos can be made using black card or foam board. Using a large light source you are inevitably going to have light that spills into areas of the pic that are not wanted. By using a Gobo you can block this spill light.
The next step, you need to choose the angle you are going to shoot your subject from. Obviously this can be restricted by a layout that you maybe shooting to, but generally pick an angle that shows the food type at its best. For example a whole chicken is best to shoot from a higher angle so that you can see less of the neck but concentrate on the shape of the bird. It sounds obvious but many people get this wrong. Ask yourself what features makes your subject recognisable to the human eye. If you were to photograph a blubbery muffin, it would be wise to show a group of muffins with one muffin torn open revealing the juicy blueberries. Without seeing inside the muffin, it may not be obvious that they are in-fact blueberry muffins.
Use props to tell a story. Using the example of blueberry muffins, you could use a cooling rack to suggest that they have just been taken out of the oven. Or have in your background a used mixing bowl with a wooden spoon, some ingredients that were used to make the muffins and some empty paper cake cups. By doing this you have created a story line, you have created a story which tells the viewer that someone has made these muffins from scratch, has baked them in the oven and people are about to eat them. All this helps create interest, and makes the food look more appealing and believable.
Once I have ‘the shot’ I would then take that image into photoshop. Using ‘Camera Raw‘ I would make any changes I felt would enhance the picture, but keeping in mind that I want the image to look natural. Don’t go overboard with the settings, make small adjustments. I would then import into photoshop and retouch any unwanted artefacts, make colour corrections using LAB colour, and lighten or darken any areas that may need adjusting. As almost 100% of my images are used for print, my images will be converted to CMYK. So when I’m colour correcting I keep this in mind at all times. Photoshop is such a big topic that I couldn’t possibly cover it in great detail in this article. But I will aim to cover my process in more detail in the future.
Hopefully by reading these food photography tips, you have a better understanding of the processes involved. Please feel free to ask any questions. Happy shooting!
As a London based food photographer, over the past seven years, Ryan has worked with some of Europe’s largest retailers, local restaurants, and food suppliers. With such clients he produces sensational images for advertising, packaging, and editorial purposes. His images have been used for both local and national campaigns: store merchandising, brochures, magazine editorials, TV advertisements, in-store/billboard posters, and national press advertisements. Now based in Tooting, South West London, he continues to work regularly with some of the best food stylists in the industry, creating appetising images with a natural and contemporary look.