Just like an eager home cook peeking into a professional kitchen, a behind-the-scenes look at a professional photography studio is often enough inspiration for nascent food photographers to take their images to the next level. Whether you’re picking up a camera for the first time, or are looking to improve your skills, we hope these tips will get you snapping in no time. (Yes, smart-phone photographers, everything here applies to you, too!)
We’re starting with the basics, and will build future blog posts that are geared towards different concepts and skills. Please always ask if you have specific questions about how we shot a particular still image or video—we’ll happily share the details.
Here’s the scenario: You’re in the kitchen preparing a sumptuous meal, and you want to share it with the world (or your Instagram buddies, at least). The first rule is this: keep it simple. Before you even start cooking, remove clutter from the area and make sure everything is clean and orderly. Set up your tripod, and any tools you might need, within an arm’s reach. In a professional kitchen, this process is called mise en place; the same principle works for food photography.
Before we document anything at ChefSteps, we also discuss exactly what we want to shoot. Since prepared food changes rapidly, it’s best to think about these elements and stage your shooting area before you cook. When you’re all set up in advance, you can work fast to capture a frozen dessert at that perfect icy temperature, or show hot steam escaping off of warm rolls just out of the oven.
If you can get it, natural light will show off your food to its best advantage. We’re lucky to have huge windows lining our kitchen, so we can shoot almost everything using natural light—even on those famously dreary Seattle days. Lighting your food evenly is one of the easiest ways to create a delicious-looking photo, so a bright but cloudy day is actually the perfect time to shoot.
But still, too much or too little light can affect your outcome. If it’s too dark outside (at dawn or dusk, for example), we use artificial lights, or we move very close to the window to make use of whatever light we can. And while they’re great for sunbathing and barbecues, sunny summer days can create harsh shadows and overexposed highlights in photos. When it’s too bright, we’ll pull the shades to diffuse the light, or just move plated food further from the window. To get rid of heavy shadows cast from bright light, we’ll hold up a piece of poster board to reflect light onto the shadowy areas. This reflector can also be used on darker days, to reflect whatever light there is evenly onto the subject of the image.
COMPOSITION: SIMPLE IS BEST
Make the food the star of the show by keeping compositions clean and simple. We like a bright, minimalist look, so we use white or black plates set against clean backgrounds like butcher blocks. Personal styles vary, of course, but even if you’re after a more homey, rustic look, less is often more. Play with different surfaces around the house to see what works best for you.
If you’re shooting solo, we highly recommend using a tripod. That way, you can “style to the camera”—positioning your tripod first and then plating with a set angle in mind. With a hand-held camera, it’s more difficult to remember camera positioning as you adjust items in the shot. Working with a tripod will also reduce the blur that comes from accidentally moving the camera while shooting.
Another great item to invest in is a remote for your camera—you can capture sprinkling powdered sugar over the moist doughnut you just baked without having to lean over and snap the photo at the same time.
We hope these tips are helpful and inspiring enough to get you cooking and shooting. Let us know if you any specific questions—we’re always here to help.
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