Soup is not the most visually stunning subject in culinary photography. But it is both simple and complex as a subject. Perhaps it isn’t very attractive, and the color may be somewhat glum and monotone, it may lack in texture, and with all of that, it may be a real challenge to show it off and capture any real gourmet interest.
Here are 10 points, my advice to improve your photographic work with broths, porridges, soups, and consommés. For each point, I will share some images with you, but I suggest you look at them all as a whole. Each point can help communicate their appeal.
1- Find the right viewing angle
When you’re looking through the viewer or the screen on your camera, your distance from the scene and your position in space will inevitably define the angle of your shot.
The choice is significant because it will influence how the image will read and the atmosphere that will emerge.
Parallel to the scene : that’s the view you’ll find in the first photograph above. That will enable you to take an original peak view. With this method, you totally lose the notion of volume and everything becomes flat and all that matters are the geometric forms. It can sometimes be interesting but when the scene doesn’t lend itself to a graphic image, I advise you to open the diaphragm and maintain a clear point of emphasis (here, the soup) and the rest of the scene can be more indistinct. This works all the better if the container you’re using is high.
30° : Place yourself in front of your scene and angle your camera downward slightly to get a 30° angle. This is a very natural vision since this is how we see our plate when we’re sitting at the table. It’s a pleasant view, however you can go a little farther by moving closer to the dish. Place yourself almost at the height of the scene and slightly orient your camera downward to create a confined, almost intimate effect. Frame your dish in the upper part of the shot. With this view, you get closer to the way a child sees when he’s stretching on tip-toes to get a glimpse of the delights waiting at the table. Try it out!
Get a perpendicular view on the scene : Place your camera perpendicular to the scene for a frontal view. It’s an interesting view if you use transparent containers to show the color of the soup (Example, left photo at point 3).
2- Emphasize the point of focus
The biggest difficulty when you try to photograph soup is to successfully focus in on a point. On a totally smooth surface, it is difficult to find a point of interest, so focus can be lost.
The simple trick consists in placing a decorative element onto the surface of the soup. Maybe some pepper, some herbs, a dollop of cream, croûtons, etc…(We’ll go into further detail in point 9).
It will not only help the auto-focus to latch on, but it can also bring relief and a more attractive decorative and appealing quality.
3- Add some color
If your soups have bright colors, show them off by pouring them into clear containers and by adding harmonious notes of color to your scene.
On the photo to the left, I created something of an optical illusion, since my readers thought this was a photo of a smoothie. It’s the colorful effect of the scene, the use of a glass, and the addition of the straw that create that impression.
Sometimes you have to dare to introduce bold color. Here the orange color of the soup beautifully harmonizes with the rose/mauve of the boards. Then I added some decorative elements that match the soup: carrot peelings, oranges (these are the ingredients in my recipe), and a yellow cloth.
On the photo to the right, there is a cold gaspacho of tomato and strawberry. I brought in touches of color by placing some strawberries on the scene and some tomatoes in the background. No need to overdo it. Just a few hints of color may be all you need.
4- Carefully direct your lighting
I am particularly keen on this question of light. With light, you can reveal the texture of your soup with great simplicity. To do this, I advise that you place your source of light half-way between lateral light and back-light, as you can see in my photo below.
When the light comes in diagonally, it is both gentle and hard. There’s nothing like it to give the viewer the desire to plunge a spoon right into the bowl. Try this technique for smooth, somewhat thick soups, and make a trace on the surface with a spoon.
Back-lighting also works (in fact, you’ll see it in certain photos in this article), but the result is sharper. It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If you have a circular polarizing filter, you can use it to measure the reflection of light on the soup.
With lateral lighting, the result will be softer, more cozy, and with less relief.
5- Try a different type of container
Lend some originality to your presentation of the soup. You can use more than just soup bowls or deep plates. There are some photographs above that feature some very unique soup dish ideas. Find some small glass bottles, jam jars, or a pretty casserole dish. Maybe some coffee cups, glasses, containers, or a carafe…the only limit is your own imagination.
6- Include a reference to your soup’s ingredients
Jazz up your scene and include a glimpse of what your soup is composed of. In the frame you can include various vegetables, herbs, and spices you just cooked with. You can put the ingredients whole in the background so they don’t overtake the scene. Why not throw in some trimmings, some slices of the vegetables left over, sprinkle some herbs or spices over the base, etc. Placing these various elements around the scene will bring color to your shot and help create an ambiance of “country cooking”. This is a natural lead-in to the next point.
7- Create an ambiance
I wasn’t about to forget the all-importance ambiance we talked about last week. 🙂 Generally soups are synonymous with family cooking, comfort food, and warm, traditional fare.
But that’s not always the case. Sometimes soup is chic, if you use some noble ingredients, and it can be refreshing, if it’s served cold, for example. Let the type of soup guide you so you take a coherent shot. The photos above feature two very similar styles.
On the left, I have created a table scene. The photo is taken in such a way as to create the impression that you’re seated at the table (remember the 30° view). Note the bowl placed in the back left with plates and glass. I also put a salad bowl with salad to foreshadow the next course. All of this conveys a family style ambiance.
On the right, it’s a little different since I placed the elements that are used for actually enjoying the soup: a pepper mill, some fresh cheese (including a fork that’s just been used). All that’s left is to taste it!
8- Carefully plan your composition
Culinary photography relies on the same well-known rules that apply to other genres of photography.
Plan as soon as you can to place the subject at a focal point in the image according to the rule of thirds. You should also not hesitate to boldly move your subject out of the focal point instead of scrupulously obeying that rule, going so far as to cut half of the bowl out of the shot at the corner. The idea is to create a dynamic image and more original perspective.
Integrate the elements of the scene into the frame in such a way as to create a harmonious distribution. For example, don’t place all of the elements in the back and thereby leave the front of the shot completely empty. Add some balance back in by de-cluttering the background and putting some of the elements in the foreground.
A final tip. When you want to photograph individual portions, like on the photo of the glasses on the right, put them in groups of three and spread them out around the picture.
9- Showcase the style of the dish
If the culinary photographer is working alone, he or she has to take care also to showcase the stylistic aspects of the dish. This involves presentation and enhancement of the dish through proper presentation, just like a culinary chef would do. Lovely presentation does wonders for increasing the appetite! Between a bowl with some of the soup spilled over the edges as it’s being served or this same soup in the same dish wiped clean and dressed up with some croûtons, some herbs, etc., it’s the clean dish and beautiful presentation that will win out every time.
To dress up the soup, don’t do anything too complicated. Just sprinkle some golden croûtons, fresh chopped herbs, some fresh-cracked pepper, or some dry roasted nuts.
In the first photo, you see a gazpacho I decorated with some slender radish rings, small basil leaves, and pepper. They add some texture, color, and freshness.
In the second, you see a carrot soup with some spiced bread croûtons. Of course, I added them to the soup. I also put a little carrot stalk that I pre-cooked and then placed in the mug. You can reuse the ingredients you used to make the soup or ingredients that will accompany the dish.
10- 1,2,3, ready…enjoy!
Add a human quality to your photographs of soup. This type of recipe is wonderful to enjoy when it’s cold outside or when someone is sick. Place your hands around the bowl and add some extra warmth to the recipe. On the first photo above, I put on a big scarf and I’m wearing a wool sweater to help create a story behind the photograph and reinforce the idea that it’s cold outside. Technically-speaking, I used a tripod and remote control to take the picture. It requires lengthy testing because you don’t have any way of seeing your frame and your focal point.
On the image to the right, I’m simply holding the cup with my right hand. I framed it so you can see some fingers. For this type of photograph, I did not use a tripod. I can hold the reflex in my left hand and use my index finger to set it off. Of course, it’s a lot more simple to hold with a compact. If you think it’s too complicated or if you are afraid of dropping your camera, use a tripod.
You can take it farther in your photo series by showing an empty bowl or a spoon directed toward the viewer. Then the viewer finds himself in your place. You’re putting him in a specific context.
I hope this article has inspired you. These tips are useful for soups, but they also apply to other dishes. Now you simply have to head to the kitchen to try it for yourself!
Under the pseudonym of chefNini, Virginie has kept a culinary blog by the same name since February, 2008. It features her creations, her inspirations, and her tips presented through instructive articles.
Passionate and self-taught, she decided to leave her career as a web developer behind to devote herself entirely to her blog. In September, 2011, she became an auto-entrepreneur and began providing creative, photographic, and culinary writing services.
She is also the author of a book on culinary photography that has been published by Pearson.