October 2015 Issue
Food Photography Mastery
By Tony Santo, PhD, RDN, LD
Vol. 17 No, 10 P. 46
Forget the expensive digital cameras. Dietitians can take awesome food photos for their blogs, websites, and books with a smartphone.
Making food look colorful, interesting, and appetizing in photos is important to dietitians who promote recipes on blogs and websites, and in books and teaching materials. They need great food photos to draw clients and readers in and help them visualize ingredients, portion sizes, and the finished dish.
To obtain great photos, RDs can hire professional photographers, but they can charge thousands of dollars for their services. RDs can also pay for stock images of individual foods such as nuts and grapes on the Internet or take the photos themselves. However, contrary to what many believe, dietitians can take professional, high-quality food photos without spending tons of money on camera equipment or photographers. They can simply use their smartphones.
Think about a photograph you saw recently that captured your attention. More than likely you weren't thinking about the camera or equipment that was used to take the image. You were overcome with the emotion evoked from appreciating the photo. The reason? A great photo stirs up feelings despite the camera used. Today, most of the latest smartphones can capture high-resolution images for use on the Internet and in print. For example, Apple has been advertising high-resolution images with its iPhone 6 on city billboards, demonstrating that impeccable image quality is achievable with a smartphone. So the type of camera doesn't matter. What's most important are lighting and composition. These are what a photographer uses to mesmerize and pull people in to a photograph. Without these elements, even a professional $50,000 medium-format digital camera will take poor images. The best camera to use is the one you already own. This article will discuss the most important elements of great food photos: the setup, composition, and lighting.
Since the food is the star of the show, the image should accentuate its color and detailed textures to capture attention. First, decide what aspect of the food to focus on and make that the main feature of the image. For example, highlight the texture of a crumb topping on a muffin, the crust of seared salmon, the juice of nectarines on top of crepes, or the bright green pesto on top of a steak. You can even capture the perceived warmth of a vegetable chili recipe. These various aspects of food appeal to one's sensory neurons even while looking at static 2-D images.
Another factor to consider is the backdrop, which affects the mood of the image. A cutting board, rustic table, or a colored tablecloth can be used in this respect. It all depends on how you want to present your food item. If you want to convey a sense of warmth, you'd include warm hues of red, orange, or yellow in the scene as opposed to brighter or cooler colors, such as blue, green, and violet in the background. An example of a warm image would be a loaf of bread on a dark wood cutting board, or a golden, roasted turkey on an off-white platter set on a red tablecloth. It's important to note that using lighter colored objects or food items in the image will make nearby colors appear lighter, while darker colored objects or food items will make colors appear darker.
These are the essential principles behind the opposing extremes in image tonality and what professional photographers call a high-key scene vs a low-key scene. In a high-key scene, a large portion of the image is bright, whereas a low-key scene contains darker areas that make colors appear warmer and richer. For example, an up-close shot of sliced kiwi fruit on a white background will give the image the appearance of being succulent and refreshing while showing a more light-hearted mood. Conversely, that same kiwi shot with a black background will appear much warmer, and convey a more serious mood.
One of the most critical factors in an outstanding photograph is composition. What you include within the borders of your frame and how the objects are positioned in relation to one another affects whether or not your image will grab the viewer's attention. The following guidelines will help you achieve better composition to improve your photography.
1. Up close. We normally don't view food up close with the naked eye. So if you move in close to the food so that the camera focuses on details you'd otherwise overlook, you'll likely get a more interesting shot.
2. Straight on. We usually view food from a 45-degree angle if we're seated at a table and looking at a plate. For a more compelling image, bring your camera down to table level and shoot the food straight on.
3. High up. Position your smartphone high above the plate of food as you look down and take the photograph. Taking photos from a bird's-eye view creates visual interest.
Positioning Food Items
Of course, before taking the shot, consider where to place the food within the borders of the frame. A common guideline used to achieve good composition in paintings and photographs is the rule of thirds. For example, for an image that has a ratio of 4 X 6 in, draw two vertical and two horizontal lines that separate the image into thirds. There will be three columns with three rows of equally spaced boxes (nine total). These lines automatically appear on some smartphones when the camera app is open. The goal is to place the main focus of the image on the lines or at one of the four points created by the intersecting lines to create a visually appealing balance within the borders of the image. So if someone took a picture of a blueberry, according to this rule, the blueberry would be placed along one of the lines or at one of the four points to give the photograph visual appeal.
Another way to capture a visually interesting photo is to use what photographers call leading lines. That is, using existing lines in the food or subliminal lines created by how food and other items are placed relative to one another to attract viewers to the central image—the food. For example, silverware can be placed near the corner of the frame at an angle to the food, which points to where the viewer's eye will go.
The S-curve is a path that guides viewers' eyes to where you want to focus attention. The S-curve doesn't need to be a continuous line but can be a connect-the-dot concept. Moreover, a complete S-curve isn't necessarily needed to create visual interest. For example, when photographing a cheese wedge, homemade bread, and a glass of red wine from a bird's eye view, the bread is the main focus. To ensure this, place the bread in the bottom left hand side of the frame, on the intersecting point of the rule of thirds. Then, place the cheese wedge on the outermost vertical line, below the upper right hand corner intersecting point. Finally, place the glass of wine on the opposite outermost vertical line, just to the right of the upper left hand corner intersecting point but on the top line. This creates a partial S-curve that gently walks the viewer through the image.
Use objects such as a dish, cutting board, or placemat to create an interesting frame for the food. Think of this as analogous to using matting within a picture frame. The edge of your image is the frame but by placing the food item on a spacious plate, for example, a soft transition from the frame to the center of attention (the food item) is created. This makes for a more professional and pleasing presentation.
One of the most extraordinary skills of Renaissance painters was their understanding of lighting to create mood and visual interest—and they did it all with a paintbrush. In photography, simple manipulation of natural light can be used to achieve the effects painters create. Expensive studio strobe lights aren't needed to control lighting in an image; all that is necessary is a window. Ideally, a north-facing window is best because the light coming through it will be soft, creating depth in the photo. Direct sunlight spoils an image because it creates high contrast—a separation between the light and dark areas in a photo that can result in lost detail in the lightest and darkest areas of the image. Professional photographers spend hundreds of dollars on devices called "soft boxes" that are placed around their studio lighting to create this type of soft light. Obviously, with natural light, an RD is limited to shooting during daylight hours, which isn't necessary with studio equipment. If a window that has direct sunlight is one's only light source, that photographer can soften the light with a white bed sheet or sheer curtain. The idea is to soften the light to avoid the high contrast that our eyes can compensate for but our cameras cannot.
Where should the window light be in relation to the food item? This depends on the desired outcome. Let's take a look at three scenarios:
1. Side lighting (lighting position to the side of the subject): To highlight texture and form in food, place the food and camera so that the light comes from the left or right side, parallel to the window. For example, to illustrate the texture of rice, side lighting will create shadows opposite the light source to create this effect.
2. Back lighting (lighting position from behind the subject): To get that washed-out, low-contrast look in the background, place the food in front of the light source and point the camera in the direction of the light. It's important to ensure that the window or light beam isn't included in the frame of the image. (See the section below to learn how to lighten the dark areas in the foreground using this lighting technique.) For example, if a photographer is arranging a breakfast meal scene and wants a bowl of oatmeal to be the focus, that photographer also wants other items to be visible in the background without leading the viewer away from the main subject.
3. Front lighting (lighting position from in front of subject): Usually, food isn't shot with lighting going in the same direction as the camera is pointed, but this may be an option. In this scenario, the light source and the camera are pointed in the same direction—toward the food. Since the light source comes from behind the camera, make sure neither the shooter nor the camera casts shadows into the scene.
Often, when using light to achieve a certain effect there will be darker areas in the photograph that may need to be brightened with fill light to increase impact. To accomplish this, bounce soft light off of white foam core or white poster board into the dark areas of the image to highlight greater detail. It's important to note that the use of colored foam core or poster board will dictate the color cast, or the overall lighting in an image, reflected on to the food and other objects in the image. To create bolder light or increase contrast in the scene, use mirrors to bounce light where desired.
The Food Shot
One thing to remember when photographing food is that images must be razor sharp, so don't hold the smartphone in your hand. Handholding the smartphone will often produce blurry images due to camera shake. Instead, support the smartphone with a picture frame holder, an easel, or a tripod. After the scene has been prepared, the perfect angle found, and the lighting arranged, it's time to take the photo. Remember that where you place your finger on the touchscreen determines where the camera will focus and where the camera light meter will focus to achieve the correct exposure.
Sometimes the color cast isn't quite right. Have you ever taken a photo under tungsten lighting (a typical household light bulb) and the photograph looked yellow or orange? That's because light has a color temperature that's reflected in an image. You can manipulate what's known as white balance to achieve the correct color cast in a photo. If your smartphone has a built-in white balance feature, it typically will have settings for daylight, cloudy, shade, tungsten lighting, fluorescent lighting, and flash, which go from warmer to cooler tones, respectively. Take photos using each of these settings to determine which one achieves the desired result.
If your smartphone doesn't have white balance settings, use one of the following techniques:
• Download a free app such as White Balancer on your smartphone to correct the white balance in seconds.
• Adjust the white balance with an inexpensive, official 18% gray card, which can be purchased on the Internet from B&H Photo or Adorama. Take a picture of the gray card in your scene and use photo editing software to correct the white balance with the click of a mouse.
• Use a color checker chart to manipulate the white balance in your image. Simply take the picture of the color chart in the scene and, by using photo editing software such as Photoshop or Lightroom, change the white balance of your scene. Open up the image in Camera Raw (it doesn't matter if your image is a .JPG file), select the White Balance tool (shortcut key = I) and mouse click anywhere on the square adjacent to the white square; it will be slightly grayer (18% gray to be exact) and this will color correct the image instantly.
Time to Have Fun
Once you've mastered these easy-to-learn techniques, taking food photos with today's technologically advanced smartphones can produce high-quality, professional looking images that dietitians can proudly post on their blogs and websites, and include in books and other printed materials. The images will rival those produced by expensive cameras without the need for additional fancy equipment. So get started; set up and compose your scene, arrange for the perfect lighting, place your smartphone on a steady surface, and shoot.
— Tony Santo, PhD, RDN, LD, is a freelance writer and owner and operator of Tony Santo Photography, LLC, in Las Vegas. He's a former professor and program director of a nationally recognized exercise science program in North Carolina. He teaches sports nutrition part-time at the University of Western States, and anatomy and physiology at Nevada State College. View his photography at www.tonysantophotography.com.