As a photography student I was encouraged, and in many cases assigned, to many different types of photography. We were given individual assignments on portraits, still life, products, journalism, industrial, architecture, etc. As I progressed through school, individual assignments gave way to elective courses specific to certain types of photography. Of course learning the technical and aesthetic challenges associated with different types of photography is important to any well rounded education, but more important was the ability to learn about yourself and what types of work you are best suited to. It was during these years that I discovered I really enjoy the slow, methodical processes of studio work and as a natural extension of that I gravitated towards food photography.
We eat with all of our senses. Obviously there’s flavor, but there’s also mouth feel, aromas, sights and even sounds associated with some foods. When creating a food photograph, we’re limited to just visual stimulation. And even more restrictive than that, we’re limited to two dimensional visuals. As a result of being limited, we must milk that 2d visual stimulation for all it’s worth. I think of food photography as more of a photo illustration than an objective representation of reality. Food stylists are an important part of this illusion. There are also certain legal and ethical factors to consider when deciding how far to take that illusion. But straight ahead, photography skills and knowledge are still the backbone of a strong food photo.
A food photo is still a photo, and all of the basic rules that apply to photography apply here. A photo is only successful if it engages the viewer and a bad composition is one sure way to turn off most viewers. As visually astute types, we can usually look at an image and realize that it’s composition is less than perfect, and very often we’re able to look past that. But most of the people in the world don’t see things the way we do, they see something wrong and that’s that. The exception to the composition rule – advertising work. Below are two examples of the same photo for a restaurant client of mine. First, my shot. It’s the one I composed and the one I like and the one I would put in my book. Second, the one I delivered. It’s wide and a closed composition. It’s straight and boring, but it’s versatile. If the art director wants to crop it the way I did, they have that option, but if they need a strong vertical, or a shot with more air around it so they can lay type in, they’ve got that option. If I just deliver my tightly shot version, they’re stuck with what I shoot. Yes I’m giving up a lot of creative freedom here and allowing others to make final decisions on how the photo will look, but this is commerce, not art.
Food images, to me at least, are all about texture. The texture of the meat, the texture of that french fry all scream to me. Texture is created by focused, directional lighting, usually from the side or behind. I usually light a scene with multiple grid spots and snoots from various angles to accentuate the texture in desired areas. I personally tend to shun soft light for food photography. It flattens out that texture that I love so much. I’ll usually use a softbox over head, or maybe bounce a head off the ceiling to provide a fill, but that soft fill is usually very low in power. I also use a lot of silver and gold reflector cards to bounce light back into the scene. Exception to the lighting rule – food items with no texture. Some food just doesn’t have any texture (roasted chicken) but it does have shape and color. If you don’t have texture, use shape. Shape is best achieved using, my favorite, soft light. A softbox to one side of a dish with a fill card on the other will usually give a nice definition of shape.
One look at my portfolio tells a viewer I like selective focus. I always have. It was really in for a while, then it was out, now it’s back in, I expect it will be out very soon. I don’t always employ selective focus techniques but often I will at least try it on a shot. Sometimes it just pulls everything together. Selective focus is often a by product of one of my composition tricks. Get as close as you possibly dare, shoot, then get a little closer. My thinking is that you don’t know you’ve gone far enough until you’ve gone too far. When you get close you tend to lose depth of field and selective focus occurs. Of course modern focus blending techniques have helped alleviate this but aesthetically I like the affect. Exception to the focus rule – commercial work (again.) When shooting for commercial clients I’ll often give them a version that’s sharp front to back and allow them to photoshop in selective focus if desired. Again the idea being that images like this are very often used for a variety of purposes and versatility is key.
Food photography is a very technical and methodical subset of photography. It’s not a shoot from the hip, quick moving discipline. It’s more of the sit down, think it through, spend a few hours lighting and testing and then, almost anti-climatically, shoot. We’re all made different, and if this isn’t your thing that doesn’t make you less of a photographer, the key is to recognize your strengths and talents and use those to your advantage.