Bringing Food into Focus

Get to know your camera.
You don’t need a fancy camera to take good food photographs. Quality shots can be achieved with a smartphone or point-and-shoot camera. If you have invested in a top-notch camera, be sure you study the manual or take a class. You may be tempted to stay in “auto” mode and let the camera do the thinking for you, but real creativity comes when you know which adjustments can create the look you want.

Learn the lexicon.
Quality photos are largely dependent on light exposure. The three elements of the “exposure triangle” are aperture, shutter speed and ISO, and changing one will impact the other two. Aperture is the size of the opening on the lens (measured in f-stops), which determines the amount of light that enters your camera. Shutter speed is the amount of time the shutter is open and ISO is the measure of a camera’s sensitivity to light.

Respect the light.
Instead of relying on your camera’s built-in flash (which creates harsh highlights and shadows), sometimes the best shot uses natural light. (So you may need to move next to a window to set up your shot.) Once you get more practice, you can experiment with reflector boards to control the light. A tripod can be helpful in low-light situations, allowing for slower shutter speeds and sharper photos.

Don’t over-prop.
Heavy propping is out of style, so don’t overload your shot with too many items that compete with the food. Avoid busy patterns on plates (white dishes work well) and watch out for distracting backgrounds. Another way you can diffuse the background is by adjusting the “depth of field,” or the amount of your shot that’s in focus. A shallow depth of field (achieved with a larger aperture or smaller f-stop number) means part of the image will be sharp and crisp, while the rest will be blurry.

Get up close.
Get intimate with your food! A tight shot is a great way to draw attention to certain ingredients, and its emphasis on texture can help amp up the appetite appeal. Just be sure you don’t zoom in too much or crop so tightly that it’s hard to tell what the item actually is. Having part of the plate in view will provide context, so your audience knows what they’re seeing.

Vary your angles.
Shoot from different perspectives to add variety to your photos. Avoid unnatural angles that make it look like your plate is sliding off the table. One increasingly popular style is to shoot straight down (you may need a step stool to get up high, or you can set up your shot on the floor). For this, try a smaller aperture (bigger f-stop) to have all of your composition in focus. This overhead style works well with salads, pizzas and ingredient shots — or when you want to capture a full table setting.

Stack it up.
Give some height to your image when you’re shooting on the horizon or at plate level. Try stacking sandwiches, pancakes, waffles, cookies, brownies and doughnuts. Instead of salads lying flat on the plate, layer your caprese salads, put fresh vegetables in a cup to provide height to a crudité platter, or stack beets or other vegetable slices.

Avoid the center.
Instead of smack dab in the middle of the frame, move the focal point of your food off-center a bit — an artistic concept known as the “rule of thirds.” Think of your shot divided up in thirds, like drawing a tic-tac-toe board over your picture. Having the central part of the food inside one-third of the photo or near one of the intersecting points will give your picture more impact.

Make it real.
Your finished dish doesn’t need to be neat and tidy. It’s become popular to have food photos appear like someone just took a bite — with crumbs on the table, a piece missing, ingredients oozing or a spoon dripping. Try movement in your shot by pouring, shaking or actually digging in with a fork. It all adds to the deliciousness of the image.

Embrace the process.
Some of the most mouthwatering food photos are shot during preparation, so don’t always wait for the finished dish. Capturing the cooking process — from raw ingredients to cooking techniques — instead of an overly composed final product is a big trend in food photography.

Set a mood.
One of the hottest trends is dark food photography, or what’s referred to as chiaroscuro (an Italian art term used to describe a clear contrast between dark and light). This moodier style of photography has a still-life painting quality with dramatic shadows. While it’s a more advanced technique, chiaroscuro can be an effective way to tell a story with your image. 

Janet Helm, MS, RD