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How do I make my food photography look professional?

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Nicky Evans Nicky Evans | 16:30 UK time, Tuesday, 26 October 2010

From drooling over that oozing M&S chocolate pudding to regularly seeking gastronomic titillation on the internet, at some point we’ve all got hot under the collar about a delectable dish that’s been primped and preened for our pleasure. That’s why the pastime has the slightly unsavoury label of food porn.

Sticky toffee pudding by James Martin.

 

Despite what you might think, food can be quite the diva to photograph: it doesn’t strike a pose and it never smiles. Step forward food stylists: the people who work the magic behind the scenes on photoshoots.

Now, we’ve all heard rumours about the black arts of home economy: varnished tomatoes, mashed potato scooped into ice cream cones, and micro-waved sanitary products steaming from behind painted turkeys or popped into stone-cold pies. However, contrary to popular belief, good stylists now coax the best out of their subjects without resorting to subterfuge – which is heartening news for us amateurs. These days, the stylist’s wand is no more than a pair of tweezers, a spritz of water, a steady hand… and the nous that comes from experience.

So what can us mortals do to make our food photographs cut the mustard? I’ve directed many photoshoots for the site – a tough job, I know, but somebody has to do it – and have asked the experts for some tips.

First and foremost, all agree that buying the best digital camera you can afford is a worthwhile investment. But there’s no need for expensive lights, says food writer, stylist and blogger Jennifer Joyce – make the most of the sunniest room in your house and set up a temporary ‘studio’ there:

“As far as the set up goes, the best thing to do is to pick the best light in your house – a porch or back door where light floods in is perfect”, she says. “Get a table set up and use a tripod or lamp stand to put your camera on.

“Next, get some different coloured sheets of cardboard from stationery stores to use as backgrounds and use clamps from hardware stores to clip them to the table. You can also buy a reflector from photography specialists – it’s a simple screen that reflects whatever light you have back onto your food.”

Once you’re set up, visualise how you want your images to turn out.

“Think about what style you want the image to have – such as rustic, contemporary or minimal,” advises Joyce. “Think about whether to do an overhead shot or one at an angle. With an overhead shot you can get away with as little as possible props-wise.”

Baked Camembert by Richard Phillips.

 

Professional stylists hire their props – crockery, cutlery and linen – from specialist companies. However, there are always interesting pieces knocking around in charity shops and second-hand stores.

“Have fun with what you have in your house – chopping boards, tea towels, skewers and cups,” says Joyce. “For a rustic feel, try putting your dish on a wooden board and a very simple linen tea towel. For barbecued dishes or canapés you could present little skewers of food in glasses.”

Halloumi cheese

 

There are ways to lift an image without using more props. On a recent shoot for BBC Food, food writer and stylist Mari Williams used a stencil to add a cocoa snowflake to a picture of egg nog. “For a similar effect,” she said, “use the edge of a doily.”

Egg nog by Patrick Williams.

 

And what about the hero of the image – the food? Nine times out of ten your dish, however delicious, will need a little TLC in readiness for its close-up, and that’s where the food stylist shines. Joyce recommends using colours and textures to your advantage.

“If you’ve got a soup or curry the ingredients will look much better chopped up chunky and graphic,” she explains. “With a soup, chop everything up roughly and serve less liquid in the bowl than you normally would. That way, you see all the big stuff on the top.

“If you’re shooting something that doesn’t have bright colours of its own, like a brown stew, then you definitely need a bay leaf or some fresh herbs to make the image pop. For a curry you could use chopped spring onions, coriander or red chillies to bring it to life.”

Beef rendang by Merrilees Parker.

 

Williams agrees that judiciously placed greenery can do wonders for the finished image.

“You only need to add a few leaves and herbs to the plate,” she warns. “Less is more: if you pile a normal-sized portion of salad leaves next to the food, it will look much bigger on camera.”

Chef Peter Gordon, who writes and styles all of his cookery books, agrees:

“How the camera sees the food is a lot different to how your eye sees it. Sometimes you’ll have a beautiful fish like salmon with a lovely crispy skin, but it can look like a big mound on camera. In that case we might angle the food a bit differently or put fewer components on the plate. I roll my finger and thumb together to make a telescope and look at the shot through that.”

And have I picked up any tips from my time on photoshoots? While no expert, I’m always impressed by the way a little salt and pepper or a drizzle of olive oil can bring a shot together. I’ve also realised that it’s best to build up the components of an image gradually and keep it simple. But the most important rule? Never ever eat the food unless you’re sure that shot is a wrap…

Oatcakes before...

Oatcakes before...

...oatcakes after.

...oatcakes after.

Do you take photos of your dishes or do you salivate over other people’s? Share your favourite sites and your own tips for making food photos look fabulous.

Nicky Evans works on the BBC Food website.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Are the baked Camembert and the cheese board with olives and what looks like sun-dried tomatoes photographs meant to have the edges cut off so that you don't get the whole picture or have they been over-cropped for the blog?

    There are plenty of amateur blogs around where the photos are much better than your examples which is a pity as they are the amateurs and this is supposed to be a professional BBC blog isn't it?

    Sorry but not one of the photos inspires me to make the dish and would not titillate my taste buds in any way... I do agree with you about the term 'food porn' though.

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Luca,

    Yes, those two images were shot as they appear - I didn't crop them in at the sides for the blog. I actually think that this effect can work well, because it emphasises that the food is the hero of the image, and the more empty space you have in a shot the greater the temptation to fill it, which can sometimes make the image look cluttered. It also makes the photos look less 'posed' - in my humble opinion! What do the rest of you think?

    We do sometimes crop the images we have to fit them into an area with a different aspect ratio from the one we shot. However, we try not to, because an important part of the photoshoots is always thinking carefully about how the finals shots will appear on the site.

    Another thing we also try to bear in mind is that the purpose of the images - apart from getting people salivating! - is to show home cooks what their dish should look like! So we can't really justify shooting more 'lifestyle' pics where the food is just one part of a larger composition.

    I agree that some amateur photographers showcasing their stuff on the web really do rival the professionals. Which amateur bloggers/food photographers do you admire? And where do the rest of you get your fix?

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Nicky,

    Thank you for your reply. I shall have to give it a shot and see how the pictures compare I think!

    Good point about the lifestyle pictures.

    There are so many blogs I admire that it would take up a lot of space but here are a couple where the pictures usally get me salivating.. and yes..... a lot of them are cropped or deliberately shot like that! :)

    http://www.latartinegourmande.com/

    http://fxcuisine.com/Default.asp?language=2&Display=141&resolution=high

  • Comment number 4.

    Just a minor point but I believe that "nouse" should have been "nous".

  • Comment number 5.

    Greetings from across the pond! I love to photograph the food I create, and while it rarely turns out as lovely as some of the shots in the various blogs, I have a phenomenal time anyways! :)

    If you haven't seen it, I'd definitely check out http://thedaringkitchen.com/ as a food blog. The whole idea behind the site is to have a "challenge" every month where the site's members try their hands at new dishes. One month it'll be creating your own nut butters (and subsequent dishes from that) or home-made doughnuts, or perhaps a Bouillabaisse or stuffed chiles... there's separate challenges for the cooks and the bakers. And then we report on the results. My results have varied from really great to "well, that was a learning experience" but it's always fun. And my food styling and photography are improving, too!

    I also like http://smittenkitchen.com/ though I tend to feel the photography on the site is mainly super-close-ups of the food without much in the way of context.

  • Comment number 6.

    Ooh, the spiced applesauce cake by Smitten Kitchen looks gorgeous: http://smittenkitchen.com/2010/10/spiced-applesauce-cake/ Thanks for this Ulkesh. I think doing close-ups is a clever way to go if you don’t have the luxury of a studio full of props. They still have the desired effect – to make you want to start cooking! As Jennifer Joyce told me, all you really need is a piece of card, some natural light and a camera, so this style of photography can be a good way to start out.

    Luca, I LOVE La Tartine Gourmande but I can’t look at her blog too often as my own life then feels so inadequate by comparison!! Her photography just makes me want to step into the screen and enter her world – it’s like a movie, and the colours are so lush. Her recipes and photos really are inspiring.

    Another site that I can’t get enough of is Cannelle et Vanille: http://cannelle-vanille.blogspot.com/

    I made her Churros with spiced chocolate bisque earlier this year – wow. Although sadly my photos were less inspiring than hers… http://cannelle-vanille.blogspot.com/2009/11/churros-with-spiced-chocolate-bisque-to.html

    Can anyone beat these sites as a destination for the ultimate visual feast?

    (And Rosie, thanks for spotting my error - a slap on the wrist for me there. I will amend it.)

  • Comment number 7.

    I'm not a fan of churros Nicky, but that chocolate looks amazing and my youngest son wants to make it with me and have it with pancakes... Do you think it would go well?

    Her blog is certainly mouth watering and I think I've put on a few kilos just looking at it!

  • Comment number 8.

    Hi Luca,

    The chocolate sauce is delicious but it's full of quite grown-up flavours - spices, coffee, orange zest, etc (none of which I liked as a child!) But I'd still say give it a go - it will definitely work with pancakes and if your son isn't a fan I'm sure you'll be able to find other people to take your culinary efforts off your hands!

    Nicky

  • Comment number 9.

    I found this blog item really interesting. I photograph some dishes for my b&b website and what looks appealing on the table doesn't always transition so well to the screen. Some good information and some great links. Thank you Nicky - and Luca and others who posted links.

  • Comment number 10.

    I was really interested in reading this, I take photos for my blog Feasts and Festivals and I try really hard to get them looking good, I have a porch with a glass roof which is a useful place and I turn my camera's macro button on and switch the flash off. I am known however to run around the house - or even to my neighbours to get the right atmoshpere for the shot. I find charity shops areally good source of bric a brac. So thanks very much for all the tips..
    Here's a shot I really like: -
    http://feastsandfestivals.blogspot.com/2010/08/24th-august-bartholomew-fair-and-honey.html
    Liz

 

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