Monday, December 14, 2009

Food Photography

Yesterday I was talking to an experienced photographer and asked him to rank the most important factors in taking a good shot. At the top of his list was light; composition came second. This was very interesting to me. My own ranking had those two reversed, with composition as number one. I suspect there are many of us amateurs out there who would like to believe that composition can trump all else, that those of us with a capable eye can frame a photo just so to make a good shot no matter what the light conditions.

Is this just my romantic notion of the artist? Certainly it's true that poor light conditions can flummox professionals, while really good light can make even amateurs such as myself seem competent. Somehow I'd like to think that an inspired shooter can get it done even in the basest of conditions. But my friend's point remains: Light is king.

Last week I took a half-day food photography workshop organized by Seattle Bon Vivant and taught by Penny de los Santos, who takes pictures for Saveur, National Geographic, and other magazines with exceptionally demanding photo editors. The workshop was held at Spring Hill restaurant in West Seattle, and over the course of four hours we looked at slides, talked shop, and photographed dishes prepared by the staff (including the four photos in this post, my best of the day). Penny went over basics such as light source, angle, styling, and so on, but it was her off-the-cuff remarks that really made an impression on me. For instance, Penny doesn't use a tripod. And because she's often on the road with limited kit and time to fuss around, her go-to lens is a zoom.

Well, both these facts fly in the face of what I've read in the past about how to take good photographs of food. With all the talk of tripods, you'd think you were committing a serious photographic sin without one, yet in Penny's words: "I just hold my breath and shoot." After all, how else are you going to get several different angles in a short time-span before the food dies on the plate? Also, because she uses only natural light (with the added aid of reflectors and diffusers), she must be ready to move quickly with a sudden shift in the clouds—or, if you're shooting in Seattle in the dead of winter, those few hours of workable daylight.

As for the debate over fixed lens vs. zoom—just look at Penny's photos and you'll be persuaded that it's possible to take a good shot with the latter, albeit a very nice and very expensive zoom lens. In short, don't be afraid to break the so-called rules.

The last nugget of wisdom I want to pass along is this. When I told Penny a little bit about what I do, she immediately got excited about the possibilities of taking pictures of landscapes, people working in the outdoors, the tools and implements of the forager. She was thinking about wild food foraging from a more journalistic viewpoint. Here at FOTL I see a lot more of those sorts of photos when I scroll back to the earliest days of this blog. More recently I've concentrated almost entirely on the plated food. This is in part because I was finally able to get some half-decent food photographs after bumping up to a DSLR a year ago. It's also due to the fact that much of my readership—much of the food blog readership at large—seems to be drawn to beautiful pictures of food.

I want to keep working on my food photos, but I think I'll try to capture more of the visual narrative in the future. The people, places, and stories. Oh, and no more cheating with automatic settings. It's all manual from here on out.


Fresh-Picked Seattle said...

Thanks for posting these tips! After months of not paying attention to Seattle food blog photo scene, I got a good camera for Xmas and now have to catch up!

Also, I would love to see more foraging photos! I went on a mushroom walk earlier this fall and found that by coming home and reviewing the pics I took, I retained a lot more info than I would have otherwise. I would be very interested in checking out the pictures of an experienced forager to help continue the learning process.

Unknown said...

Great write up! Wish I could have been there!

Nurit said...

Yes, I am "drawn to beautiful pictures of food" but I like your special angle, the wild foraging part :). That's "beautiful pictures of food" too, even more!

Tea said...

I'd love the foraging photos as well. Really, when you think about it, every one of your posts tells a story of food from field (or sea) to plate. I think the entire journey is fascinating, with the final plate being part of the story but really only the end.

I loved the shots you took on Friday. Really lovely, especially the cupcakes.

HomerTheBrave said...

I apologize in advance here, but that first photo really makes my eyes hurt. You want the focal point to be in the middle somewhere, and stop down a couple stops so more of it is in focus.

This is one of problems with a lot of food photography I see... People seem to think that narrow focal range yields a more attractive image of food, as if having your nose touching the plate makes the meal.

I think it grew out of the natural-light aesthetic. If you have only the slight romantic light coming through the restaurant windows, then it makes sense to shoot at f/1.4 and blur out the last few inches of the plate that's only 10 inches away. But really all you need is a couple strobes and a few assorted reflectors and before you know it you're in control of the light.


Julia said...

I'm starting to come to the same conclusion about light... my photos (which are amateur at best) always look better when I have good light -- they seem crisper in the right places, and slightly blurred just where it should be.

Sounds like a great workshop! I wonder if they have anything like that here in Boston...

Ciao Chow Linda said...

good tips - I have long known about light being the primary requirement, but it is hard to get when you're cooking a meal at night and it's already dark. I need to get a digital SLR too - my wish list for next year. So great that you were able to take that workshop.

megan carroll said...

When it comes to food photography I agree light first then composition. As a visual artist I apply what I learned in art school documenting my 3D works of art and lighting was number one. Luckily we had full spectrum lights and didn't have to wait for the right time of day, but the intent of the process was to show the art not make art with the art. I think it is mostly true for food photography, you are highlighting the food and not so much the setting, but saying that there are always exceptions!

Michael @ said...

Good to see you at the workshop; I enjoyed Penny's "off the cuff" remarks too - her philosophy and her risk taking made an impression on me. I think you are right; what makes you and your blog special is the foraging, so I'd love to see more shots of that. I disagree with HomerTheBrave - I think that shallow depth of field works well on a lot of food photographs. I don't do it all of the time, but in many cases I find it adds that sense of timelessness/dreaminess that makes you feel like you are settling in to eat something great.

Langdon Cook said...

Fresh-Picked - Agreed. Photos of habitat can be really helpful to first-time foragers. Stay tuned for more of that.

Garrett - You should bring Penny to Sacto!

Nurit - Thanks for reminding me. I need to do more within my little area of expertise.

Tea - You're so right. Sometimes I think of the book as more of the storytelling while the blog is informational, but there's crossover for each, and the blog could benefit from a more journalistic eye w/ regard to the photos.

Homer - I hear what you're saying. Shallow DOF is all over the blogosphere, although sometimes it makes sense--and I don't think it needs to "make your eyes hurt." I used a shallow DOF in that top photo b/c I was taken with the oozing egg and wanted to focus on that. Several others really liked that shot so I think it's more a matter of taste. That said, your point is valid one.

Julia - You might check with LDGourmet in Boston area. She would know. Thanks for stopping by.

Ciao Chow Linda - It's true-a DSLR makes a huge difference over point and shoot. As for dinner photos, you might try making a light box. Not that I have, but I'm good at making recommendations!

Megan - Good point. The idea is to be transparent, not call attention to yourself.

Michael - I'm with you on shallow DOF--although I see Homer's point about it being over-used. Ask me the same question in a couple years and maybe I'll have a totally different answer.

Thanks for the comments everyone!

Neel | Learn Food Photography said...

Thank you for posting this article.
This is really a great help to those of us who could not attend the event. I couldn't be there but was following along with what many of the attendees tweeted so was missing the event all the more.

Thank you to you and the Web 2.0 for making it possible for me to attend even though I didn't.

r. hurd said...

"That's part of the deal with wild edibles-they're not domesticated. They don't exist solely for our pleasure and sustenance. They're unpredictable."

well put, sir.

Heather L. said...

Thanks for this post -- helpful for me as I am getting started in better food photography with my new dslr

Tom said...

I have been working on some of the same skills for The Tangled Nest and in fact followed your lead into a shallower depth of field. But maybe you could combine foraging and cooking images? I was just looking at Jamie Oliver's book Jamie Cooks at Home and there are tons of images of him out cooking fish and mushrooms and meat over basic rustic grills in the woods, on spits over coals, etc.

Kaj Bune said...

Excellent write-up. Reading your book right now and just bought some squid jigs...Ha!

I agree with the comment that light is more important than composition, but I'd like to add what I think is the critical factor that overcomes all barriers in photography of any kind: Passion. I believe that if one has passion for the subject being photographed even the worst light will still transmit emotion to the viewer.

Keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

really nice photos Lang.
the workshop sounds great--thanks for the tips and insight.

Term Papers said...

This is in part because I was finally able to get some half-decent food photographs after bumping up to a DSLR a year ago.

Term papers said...

This is just Your romantic notion of the artist Certainly it's true that poor light conditions can flummox professionals, while really good light can make even amateurs such as myself seem competent.

Unknown said...

You really need to capture the beauty of the food with proper lighting and presentation to pull the attention of the people towards the food itself. The task really needs a lot of preparation and an eye for beauty, in addition of your ability to know your camera's capabilities (by reading the manual).

Other than that, the hobby is totally fun to do, especially if you love food and taking pictures. Also, it was fun learning a lot from the photographers in Irving since they also give out tips to fellow enthusiasts to deepen the knowledge on photography. Irving, where I've first learned basic photography by snapping pictures of the streets and food I consume at various restaurants with my camera, and it builds up the skills I had up until now.

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