It is a great pleasure to be back on this blog for the entire month of November with 4 new articles on culinary photography. So to start off our month together, I thought it would be a good idea to provide you with an article about those “first steps” by listing 10 errors to avoid and which people make very often when they are starting out taking photos of those savory and scrumptious dishes. Some of these tips will certainly appear obvious to you, but I see these errors made so often that I just can’t help but mention them here.
1- Taking pictures in the evening using light from a lamp.
You know that light is one of our raw materials, and it can completely make or break the visual appeal of a photograph. An error I run into very often as I browse the Internet, and one I have committed myself, is to take a nighttime photograph with the lights on in the room to illuminate the dish I want to capture. No matter how you look at it, your photo will be a disappointment, and here is why: yellowish colors, pronounced shadows, no texture…there you have it. Avoid this error at all costs.
For the same reasons, you’ll want to avoid using flash photography. There’s nothing like a flash to flatten out an image and give it a “spotlight” effect.
The best approach is to take photos in broad daylight in a well-lit room featuring natural lighting. If you’re not sure about the right placement in your home, move around with the dish you want to photograph and watch how light interacts with your subject. Also avoid direct sunlight, which can also ruin the effect because the rays are too powerful and way too warm. I’ll enter into more detail on this topic in a future article.
Above, you can see the same dish photographed at different times. On the left, it’s the evening. I turned the lights on in my kitchen. So you can see how the atmosphere is somewhat yellowed, and the scene is dim, with pronounced shadows. On the right, the photo was taken earlier in the light of day. Which of the two photos whets your appetite more effectively?
2- Not taking your time.
Hurriedly taking the photograph because your spouse or children are waiting to eat or because you’re hungry won’t help you get the perfect shot. You’ll botch the arrangement and the framing of the shot. Take your time! Take the photograph well before the meal is supposed to start, mid-morning or right in the middle of the afternoon, if the light is right. Then you’ll be able to concentrate and creativity will come more easily. Culinary photography should be considered a specialty activity, just like landscape or portrait photography, or any other sub-field of photography you might generally enjoy.
3- Using great depth of field.
We tend to want to close the diaphragm in order to take a really clean picture. But you don’t have to put your whole dish within the clear point of focus. Let your viewer use some imagination and guess what those elements appearing out of focus might be while contemplating the elements of your photo that are in sharp focus.
Personally, I use a short depth of field, with apertures ranging from f/1.6 to f/2.8 (my preferred apertures are f/1.8 and f/2.5) for a certain softness and dreamy quality or magic to my images. You don’t have to go to the extremes I go to. Try a medium depth of field: from f/3.5 to f/5.2. Beyond that, if all of the elements in your scene are in focus, the viewer’s gaze will flutter around and ignore the main subject of the picture, which is the dish you’ve assembled.
Try a number of different apertures and see which ones you like. Don’t forget that the focus of the image will also depend on how far you are from the dish. With the same aperture, you’ll find that the closer you get, the more out of focus the background elements in the shot will appear.
On this picture, I chose specifically to photograph my dish straight on, adding a lot of elements in the background. To the left, the photo was taken in f/2.5. The pastilla’s garnish is very sharp but the rest of the elements in the scene are plunged into the blurry background. The viewer is first drawn by the clear part of the photo and then dwells for a moment on the part that is out of focus. Nevertheless, you can perceive the pie dish, the rag, the onions, etc.
On the second image, I increased the depth of field by choosing an f/8 aperture. Even though the elements are not yet completely in sharp focus, they are much more recognizable. The viewer’s gaze flutters all over the scene, and it comes finally to rest on the main subject of the photo.
4- Not touching up your photos.
Touching up, also called “post-processing” is something photographers have a hard time getting into the habit of doing. Nevertheless, this is an indispensable step if you want perfection and to truly bring out the beauty of your photographs. Even with the best cameras, raw photos always seem a little washed out, less crisp, with duller contrast, and that’s to be expected. But don’t think you have to be a computer ace to effectively retouch your photos. Add a little contrast, even out the balance of colors or add a bit of sharpness, you can do all of that with the help of a few clicks. I’ll come back to this topic in more detail in a later article.
To the left, here is an untouched photo of a piece of pie. This is how the photo came right out of my camera. There isn’t enough light (the white base comes out gray), the colors are kind of blue, and the shadows are a little too heavy. Then, here’s the same photo after retouching. I added some light and contrast, and I corrected the balance of whites and colors, and I also softened the shadows. Then, I removed the little black spot on the pie. Now this photo is much warmer and appetizing.
5- Taking pictures with a telephone / a low-end APN.
Often, it is said that it’s not the camera that makes a photo great, it’s the photographer. I’m not completely in agreement with this idea. When you love photography, you have to love the quality of the image achieved. Of course, I’m not saying that you absolutely have to buy a high-end camera. However, you shouldn’t just stick with a mobile phone camera or a low-end compact. The results you get won’t rise to your expectations and hopes, and you’ll feel frustrated.
Choose a camera that isn’t completely automatic. You’ll need to be able to choose the aperture, and that will let you get some really beautiful indistinct background effects. This is in fact a point that comes up often in the questions I get asked: how do you manage to get the blurry effect in the background? Reflex cameras are the best choice for that.
I think that in culinary photography more than in any other area of photography people expect to see high-quality pictures. Don’t forget the seductive power of visual appeal in creating the palate’s desire.
So, use your telephone to make phone calls. 😉
6- Not paying particular attention to the presentation of the recipe.
This is part of the play of culinary photography: carefully presenting the dish. Imagine if you were at a restaurant. Do you think you would like it if somebody brought you a plate of pasta casually tossed onto the plate and served with some splotches of sauce everywhere? A careful presentation will be much more appetizing: pasta served neatly, a few sprinkles of herbs on top, a spotless plate, meticulously placed ingredients, etc… In your photos, you should do the same and present your dish with the utmost attention to detail. Turn serving dishes on their sides, cut a slice of cake to show what it’s like inside, add some herbs, sea salt, powdered sugar, some sliced fruit, etc. Wipe any spots off the glasses, plates, and cutlery. Add sauce to make your dish both gourmet and glowing. In short: pay attention to each detail.
Here are some styling examples, both above and below. On the left, I wanted to showcase an omelet. This isn’t an easy subject for a photograph. I chose to photograph it rolled up. Then I put in a little arugula and dropped some ravioli onto the omelet. They add a little greenery, a note of color and a hint to the recipe. Then I also cut the omelet and placed the spoon next to it to give the scene a little bit of life.
To the right, a double chocolate brownie with berries. It was baked in a cake mold, and it was more scrumptious looking cut into individual bite-sized squares. For decorative effect, I chose some currant clusters, both to recall flavor and for the effect of color.
To the left, a dish of gnocchis with sage, lemon and parmesan. I chose to present them in a small container rather than a plate, where they would feel all alone and flat. Smaller containers give a very seductive tea party kind of vibe to the photograph.
On the right, a banana bread with kiwi. You might want to slice cake to show the inside.
7- Being happy with where you are.
You know the feeling: you take some pictures and you’re super happy with what you’ve done. It happens to me too. Somehow though, I don’t like the photos as much as I liked them a year ago. That’s to be expected. My way of working has progressed. I have gained experience. My tastes have changed, and I have improved on my techniques. I know that the style I have now is going to change again.
So I advise you never to rest on your laurels or stay where you are. Push yourself and question your assumptions if you want to move forward and progress. Don’t be afraid to criticize yourself and find out what you can improve. It’s not easy, and it’s a process that will take time. Do what I do: go back to photos you took before. Look for what you like, what you stopped doing, and what you don’t like anymore. Make a note of these things for when you next go out to take pictures. For example, I realized that for a while, I had stopped taking pictures with back-lighting. I have started to use it again, and I just can’t give it up now.
8- Using too much color.
A blue dish, green napkin, purple backdrop, all to take a picture of ratatouille, and now you’ve got way too many colors in the same scene. There’s no happy equilibrium here, so the dish itself gets lost. Choose a harmonious composition of colors by using tones and bringing in some touches of color here and there. Use a color wheel like the one below to help you. It will show which colors contrast when placed together (opposite colors, like blue and orange) and which are harmonious (neighboring colors, like red and purple).
Color intensity is also important. The more vibrant the color, the more it will draw attention to itself.
To avoid a lapse in taste, stay moderate in your choice of colors and just choose one or two.
And then after the photo has been taken and you think a color is too bright, you can wash it out in post-processing.
Color wheel you can use to match colors. Don’t feel as though you have to follow it to the letter.
Here are two ways to bring color to your scene. On the left, I used pomegranate seeds to provide color for my scene. Blue complements red very well, so I used a napkin in this color and put it under the shot glasses. The base as well as the background I placed my platter on are neutral. However, I put in another hint of color by setting out a vertical blue backdrop. With further attention to color coordination, I placed a towel the same color as the pomegranate.
To the right, I started from the red color of the tomato. To highlight it, I used a neutral gray background with a towel and gratin dish in the same color. I added my note of color by putting the tomato in a small bowl with red motifs.
9- Putting small dishes on big plates
Be careful when you choose which dish you’ll use to showcase your culinary creation. Plates may be the most obvious choice, but not always the wisest.
Large plates often look empty, and strange proportions between the food item and the surface of the plate won’t necessarily be appealing. Try dessert plates or soup plates. They are better suited to culinary photography because they give the impression that the plate is nice and full.
You might try bowls, individual casseroles, glasses, etc.
As for roasts and gratin dishes, where a single dish makes up the whole meal, you might want to frame the shot in such a way that you only see part of the dish.
With pasta dishes, I almost never use large plates. I like the natural frame composed by use of a bowl or soup plate.
I prefer to use dinner plates as service plates, as you can see to the left with the asparagus, or with the dish and sauce in the picture on the right. The quantity in these plates is much too big for a single person to eat.
10- Not paying enough attention to the background
When you are framing your dish, make sure you don’t include your sofa, TV, or computer in the background. The only thing that matters is what serves as a base for the dish you want to photograph. Your home environment should not be part of the image.
There are exceptions, however. If you have a beautiful living room where nothing is off-topic, you could include some of the interior in your picture, like a corner of the table, a glimpse of the floor, or a chair in the frame of the shot. You’ll achieve warm photos that will make the viewer want to have a seat at the table.
If something behind the scene is distracting, you can set up a vertical background. This is something I do often to be able to extend the frame without having to get my whole kitchen into the shot.
When I want to get a head-on shot of my dish, as in the photo on the left, I place a medium vertical board in the background so I have a unified field behind. If I didn’t have the board, you would see my coffee pot sitting on the shelf. Otherwise, I would position myself in front of the base so you would only get within the frame the elements of the scene I want and not my window or stove.
So now you know the 10 major errors you don’t want to commit in your culinary photography. I’ll see you again very soon with an article on macrophotography, once again in the kitchen!
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 edited by Pearson.