Editor’s Note: This food photography how-to from professional photographer Joanie Simon is part of a monthly series on Digital Photo where top pros from Nikon USA’s Ambassadors program share their simple tips, tricks, and advice on how to be a better photographer.
#1 Use Light for the Textures
While we all love directional lighting, food photography requires you to take advantage of side lighting and backlighting subjects to extract maximum texture. Unlike beauty lighting where we try to minimize details, with food photography we want to maximize details. For example, when you have a crusty loaf of sourdough bread that you’ve just sliced into, position the subject relative to the light so that it rakes across the surface of the subject to really show off the texture and allows the shadow to get trapped in all the nooks and crannies.
Personally, I love working with artificial lighting. My go-to is strobes, primarily because I am shooting 10-12-hour days and we want something that will last all day. We have a wide variety of modifiers, depending on what scene we’re trying to make. I love a 4×4 scrim with half-stop diffusion because it gives me a look comparable to window light. From a food photography perspective, and in terms of trends, natural light has reigned supreme for many years. Natural light is beautiful but also unpredictable and so, much of my time working with modifiers in my lighting is working with something that looks very natural because I need a controlled environment for a professional application. I try to find the balance between something that has that little bit of extra contrast and punch in the shadows but still maintains a certain amount of softness to really flatter the subject.
#2 Select the Right Surface
When planning a shot, whether it’s something on the fly when I’m shooting at home or capturing something for a cookbook, there’s a lot of thought and intentionality when picking a surface and accessories for the subject to help show it off. As a great example, I was just shooting photos of apple pie bars. For this subject, it was important to think about the colors in the shot – there were a lot of browns and a caramel sauce. To really pop and show up in our image, we selected a white parchment paper because parchment tells the story of cooking and baking at home, but it’s white, so it contrasted nicely with the dark colors of our apple pie bars. A bonus tip when using parchment paper is to crumple the paper rather than lay it down flat to give some texture and visual interest to the scene.
#3 Consider the Aperture When Working Small
One thing that may be a challenge for portrait, landscape and generalist photographers who are switching to food photography, is that everything is so small and we’re shooting so physically close to the subject. If you’re not used to doing that, you have to re-orient yourself and adjust, especially in terms of your aperture. Therefore, you need to realize that f/2.8 feels quite different with landscape verse food photography, because the depth will be so narrow. Pay attention to your aperture because the depth of shooting too close to the subject can make you lose a lot of the subject and its textures.
#4 Get a Prime Lens or Macro to Capture the Details
When talking to professional food photographers, many of them will answer that their favorite lenses are primes and longer macro lenses, such as a Nikkor Z MC 105mm f/2.8 S lens. Food photographers love that longer focal length to really compress the background of the scene, which helps pull the subject forward and make it the hero of the image. Food is so small in comparison to other photographic subjects, and there is so much in the details that you don’t want to lose. By working with those longer focal lengths and looking through the viewfinder, suddenly you discover certain details that you would have missed on a cursory glance. These details are the magic that make the scene.
#5 Spice It up with Props
The props in a scene are equally important as the backgrounds. From plates, bowls, and spoons to cutting boards, my shelves are filled from wall to wall. I go crazy on Etsy getting various things to create an interesting scene. This is especially important for an image that we are trying to be very intentional with, that has a purpose, such as going in a cookbook or magazine. Something that I do before every photoshoot, before we even get the food on set, is test out props and lighting.
Food has a life on set, and it changes. You set it up, and then you only have a certain amount of time before the microgreens start to wilt, the cheese starts to congeal, or the ice cream starts to melt. One of the first things people say when they find out that I’m a food photographer is, “Oh! So, you’re like spraying things all over your food and spraying motor oil on pancakes!” I let them know that while there is a certain part of the industry that does that, that’s not the norm anymore. The technology and high resolution that we have in our cameras today can make it obvious when something is fake. We really strive to work with all real food and work hard to minimize waste so that we can eat the food when the shoot is done.
#6 Look for Color You Can Taste
In consideration of food photography, color plays a significant role. You really don’t do a lot of black-and-white food photography because food is so visceral – we want the cherries to be red and lettuce to be green. It’s important to really make sure from a lighting, capture and editing perspective that the colors are coming through true, so when a viewer looks at that image, they can taste the strawberries and fresh sweet corn because they know from a color perspective that it is ripe and fresh. When you’re going grocery shopping, you’re also thinking what colors you can add to the scene to when selecting the items and what kind of unique colors can be added to make the scene a little more unpredictable. When it comes to photography, at a certain point you’re going to want to step out of your boundaries and make it a little more unexpected and surprising. Sometimes it comes down to the ingredients that you’re selecting, but certainly whatever color those would be, really trying to stay true to them, or just a little bit better.
About Joanie Simon
Joanie Simon is a commercial and editorial food photographer as well as the creator of the popular educational platform The Bite Shot, which is a fun, vibrant, global community of photographers who love food, techniques, and applications of food photography for stills and video. Catch her on her latest educational channel, the Artificial Academy, which teaches the fundamentals of lighting for fantastic food images. She is also the author of Picture Perfect Food: Master the Art of food photography and has photographed multiple major cookbooks. Find her on YouTube and Instagram at The Bite Shot.