The simplest of things have a beauty that we often fail to recognize. We have heard: beautiful things come in small packages. Yet we fail to see that even an alien genre like food photography takes into account small beautiful things; minute details make a huge difference. Food photography, just like any other art form, gravitates mostly towards macro, and focuses on tiny details. If you don’t have beautiful things-that somehow communicates and resonates- in front of you to shoot it’s likely that you won’t be able to make beautiful pictures. Tiny details that evoke emotions, color, and certainly a sense of temptation, are an integral part of photographing food. When photographing it’s vital that you have a clear conscience; You should also be able to appreciate beauty, or perhaps the abstract in the art.
Photographing Food : Taking Vs the Making
Over the years, and after reading thousands of articles and watching numerous youtube videos, I somehow seem to have developed an understanding of photography. And these days I am particularly interested in the anatomy that constitutes a beautiful photograph. I recall a renowned photographer saying: “The only thing that differentiates a photographer from an artist is that an artist starts off with a blank canvas and places the elements he wants while the photographer starts with a canvas full and eliminates the elements he does not want”. To me, this makes a lot of sense for I have long neglected the beauty and power of simplicity. Hence, I have taken some time to simplify the photographing process. Stop taking snapshots and get more involved in making a photograph. Cooking beautiful looking food is one thing whereas making a beautiful food photograph is a whole different ball game. Wanna know how?
The importance of light
Light plays a crucial role in photography. In fact, this is the only thing you will have to master in order to become a good photographer: be its mere presence or the absence of it. Where do you want the light in the picture and how do you make sure it gives more emphasis to the story you are trying to tell? Make sure your picture is evenly lit. Avoid blown highlights. As far as food is concerned, it always looks good in natural light. Find a north-facing window where the light is consistent almost throughout the day. A cloudy day when shooting outdoor is good since it gives diffused light and to achieve the same diffused light indoors you can simply place a white sheet in front of the window to diffuse the window light.
Tell your story
I have seen a lot of photographers putting their hands on the frame. An important question to ask: Is this important? Is the hand a part of the story? When you place hands in your picture make sure it is part of the story. Yet don’t forget: the hands are not what you want the viewer to focus on; the viewer has to be able to relate to the whole experience. The process is more important than the final product (the food) on your plate.
When you give it a cinematic thought the whole process becomes important: push and pull, moving in, pulling away, giving context, and certainly showing beauty. Try and romanticize the whole experience; it is a part of you, your culture. Not only must the food look good and appealing, but you must also be able to communicate with the viewer on how enjoyable it might be. The whole process before the food arrives in your plate is of utmost importance.
The food Pathos
Food is largely emotional. If you tap on the right notes, strike the right chord, everybody can feel the pathos. There is something about how the food moves, the way: a drip or a drop, a smoke plume; it is visceral and therefore must give a three dimensional feel. Your pictures needs to tap into that very feel, and it has to be real; as if one could reach for the food through the screen. You must put the subject in the middle of the frame and try and give it a symmetrical balance. Well, everybody sort of does that, but what most of us miss out is the feeling.
There has to be a narrative in the sequence of pictures: when you feel it, when you see it; and you must be able to predict what is going to happen next. The viewer is kind of building that narrative in his mind.. The sizzle, the smoke, the things that make food real, makes you hungry, makes you crave for food: these are the very things you will have to tap into, focus on, emphasize. An ice cream that is not dripping doesn’t work. It’s only when you see the drip, you are transported to that place, overcome by that comfortable feeling; that emotion that makes you want to lick the ice cream. A distinct three-dimensional feel is what you ought to seek.
It resonates; it obliges viewers to think, to feel. While photographing food the moving aspect is important: it’s not flat, it’s not static, its dynamic. A shot of a cup of coffee is too flat but the shot of the milk spreading while you pour is dynamic. By simply looking keenly for that extra component, that extra ingredient you have transformed a two dimensional picture into a three dimensional one. And this is what making a photograph truly means!
Light and Color
Keep your canvas small. You set doesn’t have to be big. The setup doesn’t have to be a Godzilla scale venture. A simple 2 by 3 will do the trick provided you create a perfect lighting. Show some love for the camera. The best camera in the world is the one that you have. See where the light is coming from, and try to find how it is reflecting off of your food. Playing light off of food is what food photography eventually is about.
Work the photograph: move, sit, and stand. The shimmer from a honey, the light falling in an onion skin: whatever it is that you are trying to capture, find angles where light reflects. Move your camera, move your light source. Curate what you put there out in the social media. If your picture does not WOW you, it is clear that it won’t WOW your viewers either. Photographing is all about your personal touch. Develop your own style , do not imitate.Bright colors, popping contrast. Be consistent and let your photographs reflect your unique selling point. Once you have achieved this, people will rely on you and look forward to your photographs.
Understand your niche
It’s vital that you not only know your story, but also understand your audience properly. Food styling is essential to food photography. You will have to work with someone who is good at the craft: a chef, a food enthusiast, or simply someone who’s a keen observer. As a photographer you have an innate expectation of what the photographs should look like, and if they don’t come close they won’t reflect that emotion. The graphic nature of food: shape and color, and using these things to create just that, might be outside of the idea of delicious but artistic. Overhead graphic look; if you can’t make it pretty make it interesting
That tiny little detail in the spoon, a lot of fabrics for different background, a set of differently textured wood maybe: start collecting these, and try adding it to the frame to give it a professional feel. Be it a fantastic background texture or a simple and nice looking fabric, look for elements you can use in your photography in day to day life and start collecting them. Also, try presenting your food in different ways. There is no rule which says the plating has to be conventional. Try alternatives to plating, or probably add some everyday items like papers or jars that you use in your day to day life. Above all, an understanding of color palette is very important. Research on color palates or download some easily available PDF’s so you can plan early on while shooting specific food on which props goes well with the food.
ENJOY WHAT YOU DO
Food must make you hungry, or trigger some memories; overall, it should make you happy. I am a believer in the 10,000 hours rule. To excel in anything you should put considerable amount of input into it. Get out of your room; don’t hesitate to carry your camera, shoot and shoot, and shoot persistently. The more you read about photography, the more you look at photographs, the more you take pictures, and the more you analyze your own pictures, the better photographer you become. Persistence is akin to success. You will have to absolutely love and be passionate about what you do. That’s the only way you can do it best.