Tips for Better Food Photography

How To Photograph Food – Preparation

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.

Read on for some basic tips on planning, equipment, and technique.

PRE-SHOOT PLANNING

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.

BASIC LIGHTING

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.

EXTRA EQUIPMENT

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.

How to Photograph Food – Lighting

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.

Join our community for empowering recipes and techniques, access to our lively forum, and lots more behind-the-scenes stuff. 

Start Out the New Year With a Sharp Knife!

Grant-Crilly-How-to-Sharpen-a-Knife-ChefSteps

We’re not kidding about a sharp knife. If Grant Crilly can do this in mid-air, imagine what you’ll be able to do on your cutting board with a properly sharpened knife.

If you have a knife block full of dull blades or a drawer of random knives that aren’t quite right, make 2013 the year that you learn the fine art of knife sharpening. Keep your favorite knives sharp and functional and eliminate the clunky ones that aren’t comfortable or efficient to use. Your prep work will be easier and more pleasant.

Do You Need an Expensive Knife?

In the spirit of full disclosure, there are some amazing knives in the ChefSteps team’s collection — real jaw droppers of phenomenal beauty and craftsmanship. But when they are dull, they will be outperformed by a well sharpened, less expensive knife every time.

So why not save some money, buy a cheap knife and keep it sharp? To prove the point, we purchased an inexpensive used knife and then sharpened it. We were surprised at just how well it performed against some of our most expensive knives—at least until it lost its edge.

Why You Need a Sharp Knife

Sharp knives cut with less brute force than dull knives, causing less damage to the food. On delicate ingredients, like herbs, a dull knife will crush more of the cells surrounding the cut, which ultimately accelerates wilting and discoloration. A dull knife will slow you down. A sharp knife is safer and more predictable and will make working through your prep list easier and more pleasant. Regular sharpening will end up saving you money in the long run and wear and tear on your knives. Watch as Grant makes a case for buying your own sharpening tools.

How to Sharpen Your Knives

Although a reputable knife store will offer a sharpening service, we prefer to sharpen our own knives. It’s not that difficult and doesn’t take much time, once you learn how to do it correctly. We’ve put together step-by-step video demonstrations by Grant Crilly to show you how to get a great result.

Continue on to ChefSteps for more detailed info on sharpening, waterstones, honing and other great food prep tips and while you’re at it, jump on to our forum and join in.

ChefSteps is Chris Young, Grant Crilly and Ryan Matthew Smith.
Sign up for our free online sous vide cooking course.

 

 

How to Make Perfect French Press Coffee

At our Town Hall Seattle lecture, we went through the steps on how to make the perfect cup of French press coffee at home. For those of you who couldn’t attend or for those of you who were there, but want to go over the steps again, here they are:

1. Use coarse, freshly ground coffee. We are enjoying Herkimer coffee at the moment.

2. Measure your ingredients. I like 70 g of coffee to 1000 g of water. Most French press pots don’t hold quite this much, for example, I can usually only get 700 g of water in mine, so I’ll use 49 g of coffee to 700 g of water.

3. Add the coffee to your French press pot, pour over just boiled water—if you want to get really nerdy, you can obsess about the temperature of the water. Make sure you saturate all of the grounds evenly.

4. Give the coffee a stir and then wait for 4 minutes.

5. The secret step—that I learned from Tim Wendelboe — is to skim the raft of finer floating grounds off the top before plunging the press after 4 minutes of steeping time.

6. Enjoy within 15 minutes. Nothing is worse, in my opinion, than stale coffee.

Note: If your coffee is a bit sour, you will want to grind it finer and if it’s a bit bitter you want to grind it more coarsely. Keep the steeping time and the brewing ratio constant.

ChefSteps is Chris Young, Grant Crilly and Ryan Matthew Smith.
Sign up for our free online sous vide cooking class and our forum.

What Did We Do with the Pig? | Sous Vide Pork Cheek with Celery Root and Pickled Apples

Sooie, Sooie, Sous Vide!

Back at the beginning of October, we asked all of you to weigh in on our “So We Have This Pig… Poll.” Votes were tallied and pork belly had a slight edge over pork jowls, but since we already have a pork belly recipe on our site, we opted to offer a Sous Vide Pork Cheek with Celery Root and Pickled Apples recipe for your enjoyment.

We’re eager to find out what you think of this dish and your experience while preparing it, so please sign up on our forum page to ask questions or offer feedback on the recipe and other culinary concerns.

Thank you,
Chris, Grant, Ryan and the rest of the ChefSteps team