How do I make my food photography look professional?
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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…
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.