Shooting Food

By Dennis Davis

Food photography is considered one of the most difficult specialties for professional photographers. There is a saying in the industry, “if you can shoot food, you can shoot anything.” The primary reason for this difficulty is how little time you have to shoot before the food looks like garbage. Within 1-3 minutes after putting a beautiful plate on a table to shoot, whip cream runs, wet food dries, fried food becomes greasy, ice cream melts, and steaming food doesn’t. Sometimes you only have time to get off 2-3 shots before the food is no longer at its photographic best.

So how do you achieve perfect composition and lighting with food that only looks good for a few moments? You use a stand-in. Set up all the real props on the table that are stable, such as napkins, glasses, silverware, flowers, etc. Then put in a substitute for the real food that looks as much like it as practical. If possible, place the stand-in food on the same color and style plate or bowl as the “hero” or real food item will be on. This way you can finalize your lighting, place your reflectors and check your exposure. If you are shooting digital or have a Polaroid back you can look at test images with the stand-in, and make adjustments to the arrangement and lighting then get approval from your client. When everything is perfect, bring in the hero dish and place it exactly where the stand-in dish was and shoot.

Food Styling Tips

My larger food clients always have a budget for a professional food stylist, and I have learned a lot from these food artists over the years. The food stylist creates the “hero” plate and often helps arrange props on the table, so that I can concentrate on my photography. However, many cookbook, magazine and smaller corporate clients do not have the budget for a stylist, and so the photographer’s skills are called upon.

One thing I always take to a food shoot is a bottle of glycerin and several sizes of artist’s paintbrushes, maybe several of different sizes depending on whether you want drops or a complete surface. Glycerin can be purchased from larger pharmacies. Food dries out quickly sitting on a table under 500-1000 watts of modeling lights, and the glycerin makes it look wet, shiny and fresh. I use glycerin on meat, fish, fresh and cooked cut fruit, and cooked vegetables – almost anything that should look wet and have lots of highlights. I have also seen stylists use vegetable oil or corn syrup for the same purpose, but neither of them last as long. Glycerin mixed with water and put in a spray bottle is also good for salads, salsas and other large areas where you would like long-lasting water droplets.

Steam and smoke make food look hot and appetizing, and can be created in a variety of ways. Cotton balls soaked in water and micro waved will give you up to one minute of steam. Dry ice placed behind the food item works well, but gives off more vapors if you place the dry ice in water. A cigarette or piece of incense is another option, but you must blow on the smoke to make it look natural like steam and not smoke. Some photographers have an assistant blow cigarette smoke through a straw placed behind the food. Movie prop and special effects supply houses sell smoke pellets that some food stylists use, but once again you must blow on it so that it is not so strongly directional. I have used all of these options, but have found dry ice and smoke pellets the most useful.

A small propane blow torch can be used for quickly melting butter on waffles, creating grill marks on meat, or reheating a skillet or wok without returning it to the stove. I requested a turkey prepared for a photo shoot once, and the food stylist painted the turkey with kitchen bouquet – a brown gravy base sold in grocery stores - and brown shoe polish, then browned the legs with a blow torch, and varnished it. It was photographed raw, but looked beautifully cooked and glossy, ready for Thanksgiving dinner!

Other Tools
Tweezers are used for moving and placing small food items.
Cotton tipped swabs are used for picking up crumbs and small liquid spills on plates.

Epoxy glue and super glue are used for assembling stubborn food items that won’t stay in place.
Fun tack is a type of sticky modeling clay that is used for placing under small items to keep them from moving.

Dulling spray is used on chrome or reflective items like silverware, to create a soft, even reflection without showing your soft boxes or umbrellas in the reflection. It can be found in larger photography stores.

Sandwiches, pastries and pies are often held together with toothpicks. The toothpicks may actually be photographed, and later removed in PhotoShop.

Fake Food

There is a law in the USA regarding truth in advertising that requires that advertisements about food show the actual food item that a consumer would be able to buy and eat. However, the food surrounding the item being advertised can be artificial, and food used to illustrate cookbooks or magazine articles can be bogus as well. It is often easier to work with imitation food that with the real thing.

For example, ice cream base is often made with mash potatoes, or with Crisco and powdered sugar plus food coloring that looks VERY real. Fruit pieces, chocolate chips or and food coloring are added to make various flavors. Cereal can be photographed with white glue instead of milk, because the cereal does not get soggy quickly, and the flakes stay where they are placed. Whipped cream might have thickener added, pies have glue holding them together, and vegetables that appear to be cooked are raw and touched with a blow torch and coated with glycerin to make them appear cooked.

Most of the ice cubes you see in drink shots are hand-carved acrylic, and almost all of the splashes in drink shots are free form acrylic made by a model maker. Yes, the photographer blasts the drink with compressed air or additional liquid to make droplets fly, but the primary splash above the glass is acrylic. Most alcoholic beverage shots have water added to them to make them more transparent so the back lighting will work better. Other drink shots are diluted tea or coffee, or just water with food coloring added.

Early in my career as a food photographer I decided to make an ice cream shot for my portfolio. I had read about using fake ice cream, but I wanted to find a way to use the real thing. So I bought 20 lbs of dry ice, called a food stylist friend, and we went to work. The food stylist took out a perfect scoop of ice cream and left it in the scoop. I hollowed out an area in the center of the flat side of the ice cream scoop, and placed a chunk of dry ice in the hollowed opening. Then I placed the ice cream on a plate, and stuck the plate on a slab of dry ice in an ice chest and left it there for an hour. While I got my lights set up, the stylist decorated a plate with yogurt swirls, and we were ready. I took the ice cream scoop out of the chest using gloved hands, and slid it onto the hero plate on the table and photographed it. I was using a Hassleblad CM 500, and shot two rolls of 120 film in about 10 minutes. The ice cream didn’t drip, melt, or move for the next half hour. It was so hard I think you could have thrown it at somebody’s head, and knocked them out with it!

Shooting Style

If you are shooting for a client, or shooting for your portfolio hoping to get a client someday, you should shoot the “safe, expected” images first, and get them out of your system. Maybe capture the overall shot from above, then standing height, then table height. After you are comfortable that you have captured what the client expects, start exploring. Look at the food arrangement like a landscape and you are a part of the Lewis & Clark team exploring the Pacific Northwest. You are looking for the most beautiful angle and the part of the arrangement that is the most appetizing. Get in tight with a macro lens, then shoot with a wide angle both up-close and then from further back. Shoot with a small aperture and everything tack sharp, then reduce your lighting power, open up your aperture and shoot with the background items out of focus. Find an image that you love, that makes you feel something. Make a shot that makes your mouth water, and makes you hungry. Shoot what you feel, and you are developing a style - people will pay you for your eye. Only shoot what the client asks for and expects, and you are a camera operator .

Lighting Tips

Food photography is generally done with studio strobe lighting, rather than tungsten or incandescent. The reasons food photographers use strobes is that they are cool, and do not affect the temperature of the food. Some digital food photographers use LED, HMI or daylight balanced florescent lights, but strobe is still the most common light source. I shot about 85% of a recent cookbook project with strobe, and ten percent with daylight coming through defused skylights or windows, and controlled by reflectors or defused by tracing paper. The final five percent was with the tungsten modeling lights built into my strobes. I used tungsten when I wanted to show movement with a long exposure, or when I wanted to match the warmth and color of fire.
Light that is defused, directionless and shadow less is flat and lackluster. That’s one reason that overcast, cloudy days are not as cheerful as bright, sunny days. Light needs to have direction and cast shadows to be interesting. Many uncreative photographers place one large softbox directly over their subject, and shoot. Although this certainly cuts down on hot spots and specular highlights, it is also boring.

Most of my work is done with at least two and as many as eight lights. If you count the reflectors, there are sometimes as many as twelve light sources in my images. However, there is always one main or “key” light that has more power than any other light source. I always want to see the shadow cast by this light, regardless of how many lights fill those shadows. The correct placement of the key light can be determined by asking yourself the question “what is the most important feature of my subject, and what do I want to make sure people see? What is the main selling point I want to emphasize? Is it texture, shape or color?” Once you have answered that question for yourself, place your key light following the guidelines below.

The different lights I use as a key light are as follows:

A small softbox 2 foot by 3 foot
The same softbox with the front diffusion panel removed
A large softbox
A lamp head with a 7 or 9 inch reflector with a grid (a grid attaches to the front of a reflector and has holes in it to makes the light more directional and focused.)
A lamp head with reflector and barn doors
A lamp head with reflector pointed through a panel of tracing paper or diffusion cloth.
A lamp head with a snoot ( a device that fits on the front of the lamp head or reflector and creates a spotlight effect)
The sun low in the sky – usually defused through cloth or tracing paper
The sun coming through a skylight or window

If the texture on the top of the item is the most important, or if you want to show steam rising from the subject, put the key light low and behind the item and light from the rear. The light will rake across the textured top of the subject, and the shadows cast will emphasize the texture. In the case of steam or smoke, light from the rear shines light through the steam, making it bright white and draws the eye to it. Drinks are also usually lit from the rear, to bring out the translucent character and color of the liquid. I have used rear lighting for shooting pie with a crumb topping, steam rising from grilled chicken or coffee, and for water splashes.

If you are shooting soup or something wet and glossy, top lighting will create nice reflections and highlights. I have used top lighting for grilled meat, fruit salad, soups, cobbler and salsa. Softboxes usually work the best for top lighting. You will want a second light source with top lighting, usually coming from the front left or right. This could be a reflector or a second softbox.

Side lighting is useful when you want to show the shape of something, or to emphasize texture. I have used side lighting for a display of bread or pastry, and for raw fruit or vegetable arrangements.
I use lighting from the front and to one side or the other if I want to create bright highlights on the front of the dish, or to show its wetness or texture. I usually use side/front lighting for extreme close-ups or food macro images. I never put my key light directly in front of the subject at the same angle as the camera, as this creates flat, boring light shadows falling behind the subject. Besides, you want to make the food look like you just sat down to eat it, and light from directly in front of the food would be blocked by your body if you were sitting at a table.

Bottom lighting is used when I want to show light coming through my subject. I did a shot of a bottle of beer sitting in ice with bottom light. I had two wooden apple boxes set about two feet apart, with a piece of glass sitting on top of them. There was a clear refrigerator storage box full of ice on top of the sheet of glass. The beer was laid in the plastic box, and the ice placed around it. A lamp head with a snoot attached was on the end of a boom, and was underneath the set up pointed up towards the sheet of glass. The bottom light showed through the ice and the bottle, making the beer look cold, wet and refreshing. Without bottom light the ice looked dark and dirty, and the beer could not be seen.

Reflectors are vital to food photography. Beginning professional or amateur photographers with a budget for only one or two lights can create photographs with dozens of light sources by using reflectors. In addition to the large round reflectors sold in photography stores and large flat white foamcore sheets from art supply stores, tabletop photographers need many small reflectors. Small shaving mirrors can be used to pick up light and put it exactly where you want it; however, they are very bright and can create odd looking rectangular pools of light if not used carefully. Small pieces of aluminum foil can be shaped into reflectors and placed around the table, with either its shiny side or dull side out as needed.

The most useful small reflectors I have are those I have made from silver cardstock from my local art store. (See the side bar for construction details.) Place the tabletop reflectors where they pick up your key light, and bounce the light into the shadow areas of the food. Angle the reflectors so that they create glossy highlights in the wet areas of food. Use white reflectors for softer fill, silver for bright fill, mirrors for strong fill and gold for warm fill.

Table Top Reflectors

Indispensably useful reflectors can be made from cardstock found at your local art store. The paper that I use is a light 12 point card stock, shiny silver on one side, and white on the other. It is called “mirror silver” in my store. They also have mirror gold, which can be used for warming up an area of your photo.
You want to cut the paper up into strips of about 6 inches, 10 inches and 14 inches wide. You will want some tall strips and some short ones. You will then put three folds in the paper so that it forms a tall triangle, with a 1-3 inch flap at the bottom that can be taped to the inside of the triangle.

The reflector has to sit on a table by itself, so the base of the triangle needs to be large enough to support it. Changing where the flap is taped on the inside changes the angle of the front surface of the reflector. You can create white or silver reflectors by changing which side of the cardstock faces out.

Author Biography

Dennis Davis Photography is based in Long Beach, California and we shoot food photography anywhere in Los Angeles county, Orange County or Riverside County. Dennis Davis has shot cookbooks, restaurant menus, food packaging, retail posters and food advertising photography.

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