Simple techniques for photographing food

You've seen all the yucky food photos you can stomach. If you want to immortalize your meal, do it right. Lauren Crabbe offers up some tips that are easy enough to try at home--or at the cafe.

Get in touch with your inner foodie

Whether it's amateur chefs or free-wheeling foodies, it seems that everyone these days is taking photos of their food and uploading them to Twitter—even before they’ve taken their first bite. While some of these photos can make you and everyone on your news feed’s mouth water, most seem to be poorly lit, unappetizing messes.

We take a look at what makes a good food photo and how you can take one with whatever camera you have on hand. A great food photographer makes the viewer want to reach into the magazine—or computer screen, or tablet—and take a bite of whatever the chef is making. For some, this means hours of prep, lighting, and styling, but for everyone else who just wants to show their friends what they managed to cook up in the office’s toaster oven, or ordered in their favorite cafe, a few simple changes to your photography technique are guaranteed to make your Twitter followers want whatever you're having.

[Lauren Crabbe is a San Francisco-based photojournalist.]

Use your camera settings to their best advantage

While the following instruction works for most situations, it's especially relevant to photographing food. Review your camera’s manual options and get comfortable with taking photos outside of Auto mode. First, turn off the flash. Second, practice manual focusing so that your cupcake is the center of attention. Third, master the manual exposure control.

If you are comfortable using your camera’s semi-automatic modes, aperture-priority is going to be your preferred option for food photography. Most cameras—DSLRs or point and shoots—have an automatic macro setting. This setting—usually indicated as a flower icon—is great for getting in close and capturing the details of a meal. Some lenses simply cannot focus on things when you are too close, so if you want that tight shot of your sashimi, you might have to step away from the table and zoom in. The photos above were taken in the automatic macro mode on a Nikon D90 with a 24mm lens. The main photo was taken with available light and the insert was taken with the same equipment and settings, but with the flash on.

Get the right app

If you are using your iPhone, find an app that will let you shoot and edit photos without applying a retro or lo-fi filter. Inventive's $2 Camera+, is a great app for food photography (and all photography, for that matter).

After you take the photo of your mom’s spaghetti, add the pre-set Food scene option—this will automatically warm up the colors in the photo and make them more appetizing. Another good effect to use in Camera+ is the Depth of Field option to blur out the distracting edges of your plate.

If you want a food-specific app, Vuzz's free Snapdish is a great option. It is a one-trick app, but it does its trick well, brightening up your food photo as “rare” for well-lit tables, “medium” for lower-light, or “well done” for dark restaurants. You can then upload the photo to Snapdish’s foodie map and send it straight to Facebook and Twitter. I took a photo of the same scene on my iPod Touch’s regular Camera app (left), on Camera+ with the food and depth-of-field filters on (middle), and with Snapdish’s “Rare” setting (right). The photos taken with the apps have more depth and the clean, warm colors are more appetizing.

Choose your lens

If you are using a DSLR or an interchangeable lens camera, there are a few things to consider. How much of your scene do you want to include? Do you want most of the scene to be in focus or do you want the food to be floating in a sea of blur?

A wide-angle lens will let you include more of the table, but also might add some unwanted distractions. A longer lens can be great to get a tight shot with a super shallow depth of field, but might not be the most practical thing for a restaurant quickie-pic. A macro lens will let you get in super close and capture the delicious details. There are also dozens of specialty lenses like tilt-shift and telephoto that can make your photos really stand out.

This photo was taken with a 60mm macro lens on a Nikon D50 with natural window light.

Develop the shot's style and perspective

If you’re at a restaurant, odds are good that the chef has spent years perfecting the exact presentation for diners to see before they take their first bite. If that's the case, honor their artistry by capturing the scene before you start eating. Decide on the best composition of the plate. If the layout is interesting, maybe go for an over-head shot, but if the food is stacked—like a sandwich—a side shot will better show off the meal. If you want to style the photos in a more tangible way, a fork playfully stabbing pasta is different than a half-eaten plate of ravioli—one encourages the viewer to dig in, while the other says, “I guess you can have this half.”

Professional food photographers enhance their shots with everything from Styrofoam to blowtorches. The goal of all the primping is purely aesthetic—a photographer will blanch asparagus before searing precise grill marks, instead of simply throwing it on the barbecue, in order to give it brighter colors. If you’re cooking specifically for a photo shoot, cook the veggies less, thoughtfully shape the mound of rice, and plate your food with the entire scene in mind. A glass of wine in the background and a few crumbs on the plate make the food more realistic—and appetizing.

Manipulate lighting for an appetizing shot

Illuminating food is different from lighting animate subjects. To start your food shoot, turn off your flash. Flash always flattens out the food, making it look boring and unappealing. Cell phone flashes in particular tend to be the worst offenders as they often cast an eerie glow around your food on top of the usual detail-ruining shine.

If you're in a café, turning off the flash might be where your lighting control ends, but if you are taking photos at home for a holiday meal or family celebration, take some quick steps to make a natural-looking, appealing shot. Start by using an available window to cast light on your food. Then, reflect that available light back onto the dish using mirrors or large pieces of white paper. This is going to cast a consistent color of light on your food while providing the dynamic shadows and lights that are desirable in food photography.

In this natural light setup, you can reflect diffused window light with make-up mirrors to light the Biscuit Bender’s tasty treat I used for this example.

A pinch of editing goes a long way

Professional food photographers use psychological cues to make the viewer hungry. These tricks start with modeling and lighting the food in an appetizing way and end up in editing software where the photographer brings out the true colors of the food and brightens up the scene. Even if you're not a pro, go ahead and try this at home.

Keep the whites clean and bright by using the manual editing tools. Auto-enhancements will try to darken your photo, so open up your photo in your editing software’s manual adjusting window. In iPhoto, use the Adjust button on the bottom of the editing window. From there, you can choose to manually over- or under-expose your photo or change the color temperature. The current trend in food photography is to over-expose the whites, making the food appear in a clean setting and to keep the colors tue-to-life.

After properly lighting and composing this shot, I brought it into iPhoto to brighten up the exposure. This photo shows the Adjust window in iPhoto.

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