Seeing Food

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Photography provides the perfect excuse for enjoying sumptuous, delectable meals without remorse. The joy of sampling local delicacies while traveling is a great reason for dismissing your stringent diet. After all, passing up French cheese in Paris or Teppanyaki in Japan would be unjust and wrong.

I love to photograph food whenever it looks presentable. This is somewhat unfortunate, as it means that the best food often gets cold by the time I get around to relishing it. If you can tolerate lukewarm food and some occasional curious stares, food photography can be fun and add valuably to your travel chronicles. If nothing else, it also lets you justify dining at a fancy restaurant that serves an exquisitely presented dish. If you worry that you might look too odd or awkward snapping away at your food, get crafty and request a table at a quiet corner where you’d be more inconspicuous.

Of course, professional food photographers enjoy freedoms that may be out of reach to ordinary fine food connoisseurs. They often coat food with oils to improve its textures and add sheen, however artificial and concocted. They microwave soaked cotton balls to make steam; some even attempt dry ice and cigarettes! And yes, in desperation, they will resort to shooting fake food, however flagrant or rude.

But taking intriguing food photographs is possible even for those who refuse to cheat. It just takes some creativity, planning, and pompously exquisite, delicious food.

Dress It Up

To capture an intriguing photograph, the food and its surrounding tableware must look neat and elegant. You might have little control over how the food is presented, but you can certainly arrange its surroundings by organizing the silverware, shakers, napkins, flowers, and wine glasses. Consider everything on the table and see how they might fit in. Also pay attention to the table surface and include more or less of it depending on how well it complements your dish. I like to compose shots by including different items in the foreground and background to see what works best.

A mushroom pie at the QV Bar Café: Ironically, what I miss most about Sydney is its ubiquitous collection of savory pies. You can find them everywhere you go, in any variety you can imagine. I ate more pies here in a week than I normally do in a year. Here, my mocha and glass of juice are convenient props.

Find Light

As with any genre of photography, light is important but often uncontrollable. To make things worse, we are often so close and we want enough depth of field, that fast lenses can’t help much. We simply need to find more light, one way or another. If I’m shooting for a restaurant, I use studio flash and life is good; if I’m dining in as a guest, I can often make do with a flash or a small table tripod.

Quiet, romantic steakhouses are the worst; they are so thrifty with photons that you may well be forced to bounce your flash, feel self-conscious, and garner the attention of the whole restaurant. Alternatively, a table tripod might come in handy for the more timid. During the day, I would request a table by the window to get some natural light; shooting in mixed light almost always messes up white balance, but shooting in RAW helps me deal with it.

Fish and Chips: This café serves quick, simple food, so I wasn’t expecting to get any good shots. The food turned out much better than I’d imagined, so I quickly relocated to a table near the window to get more light.

Don't Wait

More often than not, photographing food means that we forfeit the right to enjoy our meal at its best. We need to work quickly because our appetite can’t wait. Neither can food. Sauces run, butter melts, and crusts soak through, really quickly. A bit of preparation is key to making the most out of our food’s limited half life.

I always try to get my shots within a minute or two, and if you’re well prepared, that should be plenty of time. I rarely get bored waiting for food to arrive because I always find myself playing with silverware and shakers like a restless child, rearranging them endlessly in hopeful preparation. I’d shoot a stand-in—an empty plate, a glass of water, my watch, anything, really—to get my exposure and white balance right. When the food finally shows up, I’m all ready to go.

Breakfast: The pancakes came with an inconsiderately large scoop of butter. It was almost wrong and rude. I had to work quickly before it melted and ran.

Look Around

Of course, different dishes are best portrayed differently, so it’s worthwhile to try different angles to see what works best. An oblique angle works well at revealing details of foods and their layers, but getting enough depth of field might be challenging if you need to shoot wide open in low light. A good alternative is to use a vertical, overhead perspective, which often requires less depth of field. This works particularly well for arrangements of many items on a plate, or mostly "planar" foods like soups and stews.

Crawfish pasta at the Père Antoine Restaurant: It was tough to find anything that wasn’t deep fried in New Orleans, even though the food was generally good. On my last day here, I finally got to taste crawfish that escaped the deep fryer. An overhead view works particularly well for "flat" dishes like this.

Poached eggs over toast: One wouldn't normally associate Sydney, Australia, with food, but I enjoyed amazing culinary delights here. My favorite meal was a breakfast of poached eggs over toast. It wasn’t very filling, but it was simple, delicious and exquisite.

Pick Your Glass

A macro lens is a good bet since you are typically shooting up close. Nikon’s 105mm f/2.8G VR and Canon’s 100mm f/2.8L IS are both excellent, with fields of view that are quite suitable for photographing food on a full frame. (On a cropped frame, try the Nikon 60mm f/2.8G or the Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8.) Without a macro, you might have to move your plate to the far end and stand away a little. Fast lenses help in dim restaurants, but the depth of field might be too shallow when shooting wide open, especially when focusing up close. If you want to get enough detail of multiple planes, you might have no choice but to stop down and use a flash or tripod. And now that you’ve found another reason to enjoy great food, bon appétit! 

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Great informational blog post - on Photography and food - it brings to my mind another food blog site that i like it is www.tigerchef.com/blog/8-summer-skin-first-aid/146 actuly  www.tigerchef.com/blog.

I love food and photography topics - please keep it going great blog posts.

If you are going to give advise on food photography please use good photos. These are horrible. They have muddy contract, bad color balance and look unappetizing.

Anonymous wrote:

If you are going to give advise on food photography please use good photos. These are horrible. They have muddy contract, bad color balance and look unappetizing.

unvortunately, im going to have to agree with this statement. these photos do no justice to the points being made within this post. hopefully future posts come that feature more enticing photos of food.

Anonymous wrote:

If you are going to give advise on food photography please use good photos. These are horrible. They have muddy contract, bad color balance and look unappetizing.

Perhaps you'd care to share some of your own so that we can see what a "good" example looks like?

Just sayin' that it's easy to be an armchair critic...

Anonymous wrote:

If you are going to give advise on food photography please use good photos. These are horrible. They have muddy contract, bad color balance and look unappetizing.

for on the run theyre not too bad - but yes they relied very heavily on natural blue light tones for foods that needed more warm incandescent yellows.  the pasta with the light cream sauce worked out well in the blue. needs work on composition and macro shooting but its a good little observation piece for beginners. 

I have to agree, that these are particularly unimpressive.  The students at my college are currently doing a joint project with culinary students, and producing a lot better work.   Usually I enjoy B&H's articles, but this one definitely falls short of professional.  I'm not shaming the author, but B&H.

I think this post is excellent. The pictures are a perfect demonstration of what "off the cuff" food photography is about. There is no studio or photoshop involved. It's a real edible meal that we can order at any restaurant. That is exactly what the pictures are meant to portray. So to all the "negative nancies" out there: try to embrace the imperfections that go along with everyday life through photography like the author did. The author has the guts to leave the studio and touching up behind. Do any of you?

Jerard Berber wrote:

I think this post is excellent. The pictures are a perfect demonstration of what "off the cuff" food photography is about. There is no studio or photoshop involved. It's a real edible meal that we can order at any restaurant. That is exactly what the pictures are meant to portray. So to all the "negative nancies" out there: try to embrace the imperfections that go along with everyday life through photography like the author did. The author has the guts to leave the studio and touching up behind. Do any of you?

Bravo! Food for thought for all of us.

Alex, what sort of camera do you typically use to obtain these food shots?

Thanks everyone for reading and commenting. I suppose this post was more geared toward everyday travelers and yelpers who love snapping pictures of food. It seems like increasingly (especially within the last year or so), the first thing people do upon getting seated at a restaurant is check-in on Yelp and 4Square. Then they take and post photos of the restaurant, the food, the menus... I think that's a great trend (even if it's just a fad), but I also know that many restaurant owners are very, very annoyed about this. (And plenty of people think it's plain rude.) For one thing, they have no control over who posts what and how their food gets portrayed; they also hate that people take so long shooting the dish that they don't get to fairly enjoy it at its best; and of course, flashes are disruptive. I think that some very simple things can make a big difference on how food turns out on a photo. Of course, nothing beats shooting in a studio with strobes (and fake food), but I think most people can do reasonably well even with a minimal set of gear and causing minimal disruption to others, by considering simple things like sitting near the window and making do with shakers and vases as props. (And hey, if this fad continues long enough, maybe restaurants would help by providing nicer table settings...wishful thinking...)

Howard Gotfryd wrote:

Alex, what sort of camera do you typically use to obtain these food shots?

Hi Howard. I usually use whatever I have that day. I've used anything from the dinky FM10 to the D700, and for lenses, anything from the cheap 50mm prime to the 105mm f/2.8 macro.

Alex Chow wrote:

Thanks everyone for reading and commenting. I suppose this post was more geared toward everyday travelers and yelpers who love snapping pictures of food. It seems like increasingly (especially within the last year or so), the first thing people do upon getting seated at a restaurant is check-in on Yelp and 4Square. Then they take and post photos of the restaurant, the food, the menus... I think that's a great trend (even if it's just a fad), but I also know that many restaurant owners are very, very annoyed about this. (And plenty of people think it's plain rude.) For one thing, they have no control over who posts what and how their food gets portrayed; they also hate that people take so long shooting the dish that they don't get to fairly enjoy it at its best; and of course, flashes are disruptive. I think that some very simple things can make a big difference on how food turns out on a photo. Of course, nothing beats shooting in a studio with strobes (and fake food), but I think most people can do reasonably well even with a minimal set of gear and causing minimal disruption to others, by considering simple things like sitting near the window and making do with shakers and vases as props. (And hey, if this fad continues long enough, maybe restaurants would help by providing nicer table settings...wishful thinking...)

Howard Gotfryd wrote:

Alex, what sort of camera do you typically use to obtain these food shots?

Hi Howard. I usually use whatever I have that day. I've used anything from the dinky FM10 to the D700, and for lenses, anything from the cheap 50mm prime to the 105mm f/2.8 macro.

The equipment used is not important. Calling this 'food photography' is the issue, and as anybody who shoots food for a living will attest, these photographs are horrific.

Call these pictures 'travelogues' or 'food diaries', but to label these photographs as being 'food photography' is as insult to those who photograph food for a living.

These photographs are neither styled nor lit, and certainly do not reflect the craft they supposedly represent.

Perhaps one day B&H will post an article on food photography written and photographed by somebody more sensitive to the nuances of the craft as opposed to somebody who gets hungry 3 times a day and happens to own a camera.

fotothusiast wrote:

The equipment used is not important. Calling this 'food photography' is the issue, and as anybody who shoots food for a living will attest, these photographs are horrific.

Call these pictures 'travelogues' or 'food diaries', but to label these photographs as being 'food photography' is as insult to those who photograph food for a living.

These photographs are neither styled nor lit, and certainly do not reflect the craft they supposedly represent.

Perhaps one day B&H will post an article on food photography written and photographed by somebody more sensitive to the nuances of the craft as opposed to somebody who gets hungry 3 times a day and happens to own a camera.

The whole point of these pictures is that they are neither styled nor lit. They are off the cuff and impromptu. Want to call it a travelogue or food diary? That's fine with us. I don't think they are supposed to represent studio craft; that was the point of the post.

Perhaps you'd care to provide a link to your website with samples of your food photography? Please. I'm curious to see them. If you'd like to discuss writing a post for BH Insights in the near future, with your perspective and photos, feel free to e-mail me at howardg@bhphotovideo.com. We'd be delighted to follow up at some point with a post from a studio food photographer who can point out the nuances of carefully crafted food images made in a controlled situation.

BTW, I only asked about equipment to generate some conversation about how even a simple camera in the right hands can be the tool for making images like these. 

Great blog post! Beautiful job on the pics- couldn't agree more with Jerard Berber!

Alex, I have to say that pie looks delicious! 

I'm not sure where you live, but here in NYC we have an amazing place called Tuck Shop, in the East Village. They serve the same Australian savory pies (similar to what we eat in UK too) which look near identical to your pie picture. 
If you miss the Aussie pies, and are in NYC check it out. 

Nice pictures, I do like the way you made the best out of dim lighting in restaurants and cluttered tables and simplified your shots.

I look forward to more posts from you.

All the best

Sara