Photographing Food

I decided to take a three-day weekend to do a food test shoot to go through some lighting ideas and test out a few different lenses. The first thing to do was figure out a menu of what I wanted to photograph. As much as I’d like to say I chose the menu items based on what would photograph well, the decision was mostly made by my stomach, or more accurately, my taste buds. There was definitely more seafood on the menu than anything else.

After the menu was set, it was time to think about styling and set decoration. A couple of trips to Sur la Table and World Market and a couple hundred bucks later I had the dishes and accessories I needed. I also went to Home Depot to have a 2 x 10 cut into four two-and-a-half-foot pieces. I stained one side and painted the other side white. This would provide two addition surfaces to shoot on. I didn’t want all the shots to look like I had done them at once, so the variety of dishes and settings was important.

I went shopping for dishes and props to dress up the tables for the photos.

The next step just before shooting was grocery shopping. I waited until Friday to shop because it is important to have the ingredients as fresh as possible. I did some Asian-inspired dishes so I headed to Koreatown Galleria to the big grocery store there. I ended up going to a few other places like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods before I was done, another couple hundred bucks lighter. Honestly, I went overboard with the “authentic” ingredients but, unlike many commercial food shoots, all the food I shot was edible and I was sure-as-hell going to eat it.

The whole idea of the food shoot started with an aged picnic table in my backyard so I definitely wanted to shoot something on the table in natural light. I had originally envisioned doing most of the shoot out back in natural light but I only had a two-hour of window of good light per day. So weather and timing made me decide to do most of it indoors with a strobe. I may experiment someday as to whether you can tell the difference in the final photo with the same set-up but I would challenge anyone to tell which ones I shot in natural light and which ones were with a strobe.

Setting up on a table in the living room with lots of light bouncing around.

Lighting food requires a different technique than anything else I’ve photographed. There is a photographer who has made a name shooting famous chefs (so jealous) and she sometimes shoots food. I don’t really like her foot photos because she lights them the same way she lights the portraits, which means a mostly frontal key light. I also did this when I first shot food for my magazine. After doing some research, I found out that food is best when the key light is behind or to the side and then bounced into the front and sides. Viva la différence.

I had a large softbox (or the sun) facing the camera, angled down. Then I had a 4x6 scrim in front of the softbox to further defuse the light. I used white foam core with a fold on either side to bounce light back into the food. Most of the time I was shooting through a narrow strip between the two bounces angled in. Sometimes I would position the light to the side and then bounce light to the back and front.

I had rented a Zeiss 85mm for my Canon, mostly because I have been thinking about buying one and wanted to live with the manual focus for a shoot. While it is a great portrait lens, I found it less that ideal for food, mostly because the minimum focus distance is around 3 feet. That’s not close enough.

I have a 105mm macro lens, which is great for this type of photography, but my go to for this shoot was a Canon 135mm f/2L lens. It was the perfect focal length as far as the distance I wanted to be and the depth-of-field I wanted. It is also a very sharp lens (Canon’s primes are about average while their zooms are slightly below average). I may do a test of the Zeiss 100mm macro, my Sigma EX 105mm macro and the Canon 135mm. Look for a post about that coming soon.

Not only does this look good, it tasted really good (thanks for helping, Tyla).

I like to cook and I like to make pictures so all in all it was a lot of fun. As I said before, I ate what I shot so I was eating pretty well for a couple of weeks of delightful leftovers. The next time I do this, I will definitely enlist the help of a food stylist. Yup, that’s a career. I think I did ok, but it would be nice to concentrate on the image and let a professional make the food look it’s best.

Speaking of concentrating on the image, one major mistake I made was not shooting tethered. I’m not sure why I didn’t except I was too lazy to bring the computer over. Stupid. I didn’t even load the images on to the computer until everything was shot. What was I thinking there? Photographing food is all about the smallest details. Details too small to effectively see on the back of the camera. As soon as I saw some of the pictures on the computer screen I saw things I should have changed. Even things like moving a slice of green onion over to a spot that looked conspicuously bare would make a difference in the final image. No way I will shoot food again and not tether.

What was intended to be a three-day shoot turned into 5-days. I even had a friend over one day to prepare three of the dishes I shot. All told, this project was almost two weeks of work between planning, shopping, prepping and shooting. The price tag was in the $400 range. There are some photos that didn’t work out as well as I had hoped and there are others that worked out just like I envisioned.

I also did a time lapse behind-the-scenes video of one of the segments with a bonus at the end of me stuffing my face with a rather large plate of food.

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