If you’re not particularly passionate about culinary photography, maybe macro will pique your interest.
Macrophotography consists of photographing a subject from very close up, enlarged to demonstrate a multitude of precise details.
Flowers and insects are among the most beloved subjects of macro photography buffs. But there are so many other subjects that photograph beautifully, especially in the kitchen.
I love to really get in very close to the foods I am cooking. I suddenly feel like a real Lilliputian and I discover a whole other universe that is magical and abstracted, just the way I want it.
To get started in macrophotography, you need a dedicated zoom that lets you get just a few centimeters from the subject without that interfering with the focus. In fact that’s what we call this distance, the minimal focus distance, which is found in the technical specifications of each lens.
For this photo, a macro 60 mm f/2.8 lens. This is an EF-S lens that adapts solely to the reflexes with APS-C sensor. It would correspond to a 90 mm on a full-frame sensor.
If you don’t want to invest right away in a macro lens, there are alternative solutions.
First, there are little caps you screw onto the lens, like a filter which acts as a magnifying glass. They also allow you to enlarge your subject.
There are also extension rings that are placed between the camera frame and the lens. They are plastic rings of variable thickness which you can use to increase the distance between the sensor and the lens. That way, you can get a little closer in and achieve a very interesting enlargement of your subject.
Here are three extension rings of varying thicknesses. As you can see on the right, they don’t contain any optical glass.
On the left, my camera combined with its 60 mm lens. On the right, I added an extension ring between the two.
On a compact camera, there is a macro function indicated by the icon of a small flower. Refer to your instruction manual to read about this function.
Other material to have for this type of photo: a tripod to avoid any unsteady blur. That’s right. The closer to your subject you get, the more you’ll need to close the diaphragm to maintain enough depth of field, and the more you’ll need to compensate for the lack of light by increasing exposure time.
Let me take a moment to give you a technical tip: forget about the automatic focus and take care of the focus manually. When you’re this close to the subject, the lens may not be able to target in on a particular detail. Sometimes getting the sharpness zone in the right place can be a matter of a few tenths of a millimeter. So it’s preferable to use a manual focus in order to get as sharp as you can. If your focus is off, your photo will not turn out.
What is prompting you to want to photograph this subject close up? So what was it about the subject that just “clicked” for you? Was it the texture, the transparency, reflection, color, etc?
Once you the know “why”, you’ll want to think about “how”. How do you bring out the true beauty of your subject? Just as with everything else in photography, it’s all a question of light!
Place yourself near a light source (window, door, picture window). You’re going to want to play with the light, maybe even more so than usual. Get close up to the subject to observe it. Look carefully at it in detail. Walk around it and take note of any changes you see. Do you see how changing the placement of your subject with respect to the light leads to very different results?
I distinguish two main lights in the interior: front and lateral.
Frontal light, or backlighting, will not only give relief to your subject, but it will be especially good at revealing brilliant surfaces and bathing these areas in light. On the photograph, they are characterized by a complete bleaching of the original color of the subject, which has turned white.
Also, if you want to photograph the wetness of an item, backlighting continues to be a good choice if it will still allow you to maintain its relief and its color.
If back-lighting leads to a result that is too strong or too flat, put your light source halfway between backlighting and lateral lighting to get varying effects. Sometimes all you need is a step to one side and then everything changes.
Photo on the left: Iso 200 – 1/100s – f/2.8
Photo on the right: Iso 200 – 1/80s – f/3.2
On the left, I got a shot of a beautiful and flawless blackberry. To highlight its brilliance, backlighting seemed to be a good idea. The light reflects beautifully on each segment so it shines, and the shadows accentuate their roundness. The surface the fruit is placed on is important. The white plate’s reflection allows you to get some light from below.
On the right, I prepared some candied clementines. I took a classic photo session for my blog and then I put on my macro lens. I really like the way the fruit captured the light. Back-lighting allowed me to bring its unique magic to the subject, showcasing the pearly bursts of light that are the result of the candying of the fruit (cooking the fruit in sugar over several days). You just feel like taking a bite!
Lateral light, placed on the side, will give a modeled effect, with shadows and sharpness that are more or less pronounced. This light will not really highlight reflections. Instead it will show relief and the color of the subject.
You can experiment with the chiaroscuro to plunge part of the scene into darkness and cast light only on the subject. For this effect, use a dark background – gray, brown, or black.
On the other hand, it can give you very soft results too. In this case, you can place photography light reflectors across from your light source so you can unblock the shadows. If you don’t have a reflector, take a large sheet of aluminum foil. That will work just as well.
Photo on the left: Iso 200 – 1/160s – f/2.8
Photo on the right: Iso 200 – 1/8s – f/4.5
On the left is a picture of a cabbage. I put it up against a dark background, near a window. I took a picture of part of the cabbage from above. With slight under-exposure and post-processing retouches, I was able to put my vegetable into chiaroscuro to underline the texture of the leaves.
To the right, a romanesco broccoli, recognizable because of its peculiar shape. The light placed to the left immediately puts its pyramid-shaped florets into relief. I used a low angle shot for this photo, meaning I put myself slightly below my subject in order to show off its characteristics.
Now, you’ll have to make a choice: how do you place the light and at what distance? Sometimes you’ll need to make a compromise between:
- you photographic intention: meaning what do you want your photo to achieve (soft effect, high contrast, brightness…),
- and the light that best highlights your subject.
And to best achieve the goal you set for yourself, don’t forget to retouch your photos. Darken or soften your shadows, add luminosity, accentuate relief, intensify a color, change the balance of contrasting tones… Make sure you don’t forget that part or your photo will seem bland.
Of course, don’t stop with a single shot! Try different things out and you may be surprised by the results. You can change not just the orientation of the light in relation to the subject, but you can also move yourself: one step to the left, a little above, a bit more to the right…
What do you want to photograph?
You’re cooking when suddenly you stop because you just had an idea. Something caught your attention. You stop everything and you get out your camera! That’s often how I find a subject: just by chance. I might simply notice a reflection or a detail that will catch my attention. The idea might come to me out of nowhere.
That’s what I love about photography. It teaches us to be a bit more attentive to the details about the things around us, to more readily recognize the photographic potential of a subject. Macrophotography also lets you see small things more clearly, to show you what you can’t always see with the naked eye.
There are lots of subjects in the kitchen that are perfect for this exercise. Here are some examples to inspire you.
Texture can often lend a more abstract quality to your photos. Here you can showcase the product’s surface: course, fluffy, wet, glowing…
But photographing a texture is also photographing the color. If color doesn’t add anything to the photo, try to put your image into black and white to strengthen lines, curves, and graphic quality.
Photo on the left: Iso 200 – 1/125s – f/2.8
Photo on the right: Iso 400 – 1/60s – f/4.5
On the left, I photographed a marshmallow paste I was making. I liked its “chewy” texture. I used a spatula to give some relief to the shape. The raw photo seemed to me to be kind of bland, and the light beige color of the paste didn’t seem to do justice to the substance. Black and white seemed to be the right solution to underline the tracks created by the spatula thanks to the play of shadows and light.
To the right, the photo shows honey covering the insides of a glass. The difficulty was obtaining the reflections of light despite the opacity of the glass, so you can discover the texture of the honey.
Iso 200 – 1/60s – f/2.8
Here you see the same cabbage as above, but now it’s photographed differently. I moved in close to the leaf, and the back-lighting shows off its veins. Here you can really admire the bumps and hollows of the leaf.
With macrophotography you can reveal the beauty of an item of food by showing it off in all its detail. A fish may not seem like the most appetizing thing to photograph, but you would be surprised by the elegance of its fins or the “rainbow” shimmer of the fish’s scales.
The beans inside a vanilla pod, the flaky layers of a croissant, or the seeds in a slice of kiwi fruit…the possibilities are endless. Take a look in your kitchen, go to the fridge, you’ll see all the details that are waiting to be revealed in your next photos!
Photo on the left: Iso 400 – 1/160s – f/3.2
Photo on the right: Iso 400 – 1/160s – f/4
I was taking a picture of a sea bream and I noticed its caudal fin and dorsal fin. So then I changed lenses so I could show how delicate one is (on the left) and how transparent the other one is (on the right).
Iso 200 – 1/50s – f/2.8
I was making chocolates colored with gold powder and then I saw this gold spot on the corner. So I chose a wide aperture so I could sharpen my focus only on this detail.
Photo on the left: Iso 400 – 1/80s – f/2.8
Photo on the right: Iso 200 – 1/60s – f/3.2
On the left, my subject was a vanilla pod. First, I had the window behind me, making sure that my body didn’t cast a shadow on the pod and that the light would make the beans shine. What the photo shows is really just like culinary caviar.
On the right, I photographed some bulk coffee. I wanted to highlight its bumpiness by using back-lighting and by creating a somber scene.
Maybe the subjects I like best, because of all the possibilities they offer, are drops of caramel, or syrup, or fizzy water, and water in solid form as ice cubes is good too!
Liquids are marvelous at catching light and it’s easy to make them dazzle. They are a great way to get started.
Be careful with the background and with the surface you’ll be photographing on. The colors surrounding your subject could interfere with the image or on the contrary they might add to its magic.
Photo on the left: Iso 400 – 1/80s – f/4
Photo on the right: Iso 200 – 1/60s – f/4.5
On the left, there’s a picture of a drop of strawberry syrup. I took several shots, changing my position, to achieve completely different effects. In the end, this is the photo that I kept. This simple drop of syrup here is transformed into a shimmery pearl, like some kind of precious stone.
On the right, I placed a glass of fizzy water on a table. I wanted to photograph the tiny bubbles of air trapped inside when I noticed the reflection on the table. I finally decided to back up so I could integrate all of the different elements and the viewer could really understand the picture.
Iso 400 – 1/200s – f/2.8
For an easy start using macrophotography, take a bottle of water that is almost empty, with droplets on the inside of the bottle. Move in close, look at all the nooks and crannies of the bottle and start taking some shots. You’re taking your first steps in the wonderful work of macro. That’s what I’m doing here.
Iso 400 – 1/100s – f/2.8
I’ll close this article with a second photo of water drops on a water bottle. I added my ring extension to the macro lens to be able to capture the tiny bubbles on the bottle. The effect it produces gives the impression that it’s a photo of the Milky Way with its billions of stars.
So now you have all the keys to start macrophotography right in your own kitchen. Have fun!
I’ll devote the next article to post-processing of culinary photographic images.
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.
Autodidact and passionate about her interests, she decided to quit her job as a web developer to devote herself exclusively to her blog. In September, 2011, she became an entrepreneur, offering her services as a creator, photographer, and culinary writer.
She is also the author of a book on culinary photography published by Pearson.