Thursday, 31 January 2008

Some tips for food photography

Pork and prawn wontonsIMG_4724.JPG

I started taking pictures of my food as I got into making bento and sharing them with the community at Bento Lunches. As my interest grew in food-related matters, I found myself taking pictures of my own cooking to document the process, presentation, end-product, food that I come across elsewhere, markets that I go to and so on, and sharing them with friends online. I have always liked photography, capturing light, colours, snippets of emotions onto print, and enjoy thinking about composition, colours, framing, lighting when I look at photographs or various objects in real life. I have never taken a photography course but I had some art training which help me appreciate what makes a good picture.

Cooking is more fun when I take a picture (or more!). It challenges me to present the dish better and we enjoy eating it more. There are many blogs that I enjoy reading not so much for the recipes but because I simply love the food photography. That was mainly how I learned, by watching others.

Lemon cream pie 6Silken tofu with shitake mushrooms and spring onion topping

A few people have asked me about food photography. I am certainly no expert and am still learning everyday. But I have found myself giving similar answers often enough to think that it might be useful to just write a coherent entry about it.

I use a normal point-and-shoot digital camera, a Canon PowerShot A75 that has served me well for years. So, no, you don't have to own a complicated digital SLR to take good photographs. Just following some simple principles will make a real difference to your food pictures. Having said that, a digital SLR with the right lenses and usage does give that WOW impact and bring your photographs up to another level. I am currently saving up for one. In the meantime, I make do with my point-and-shot. (March 2008: I finally bought an entry-level DSLR Canon EOS 400D/Digital Rebel XTi. The lenses I use are Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 and more recently Canon EF 50 mm f/1.8 II.)

Here are some points to bear in mind when taking food pictures:

1. Presentation

While I like looking at gorgeously styled and presented food, I don't have the time to do up an extra setting with special lighting and props just for the sake of taking great food pictures. While I love the photos at Rasa Malaysia and My Cooking Hut, I usually take photos right after dishing and and right before we start our meal. I can't be making the husband wait an extra 10-15 minutes to have dinner! But it helps to use a nice dinner service and give some thought to food presentation. I don't go for the look of having one spoon of mashed potatoes, one asparagus and two cherry tomatoes on my dinner plate, however pretty it looks as a picture (and smaller, neater, portions do look better on a plate). It's got to be something that I could serve and eat as it is. Arrange your food, think about having a variety of colours on the plate (which is good nutritionally anyway) and it will make a difference. The good thing about bento is that the presentation is part of its ethic so it's not something that I have to think about as an additional concern.

2. Natural lighting

The key to great food photography is natural lighting. Find a spot in your kitchen nor other parts of the house that has plenty of natural light coming through. The colours and contrast look more vibrant and realistic under natural light than any other forms lighting (which could look too 'hard' or artificial). I do this more with my bento pictures when I take them in the morning after packing. Other food pictures tend to be taken during dinner time, during which I have to rely on indoor lighting, but there is still a solution.

3. Set White Balance (WB)

Setting the White Balance on your digital camera makes a world of difference to the colour temperatures of your photos and avoid that orange or blueish tinge that does not represent the actual colours of your objects. You can set the WB from the camera menu. There are various options that look like this (you will have most of these settings on your camera):


AUTO (also called AWB) mode works OK with flash or under bright conditions. Usually the images will still be fairly blue in shade and pleasantly warm indoors at night. But if your photos do not end up with the right colours, it's time to experiment with other settings below.

Daylight (symbol of a sun): I tend to use this for outdoor shots (e.g. meals in he garden) in bright sunlight.

Cloudy (symbol of a cloud): This is a little warmer than the daylight setting and I tend to use this when taking photos indoors with natural light coming through.

Tungsten (symbol of a light bulb also called "indoor"): Best for indoors at night. Most houses and apartments in North America and Europe are equipped with tungsten (yellowish) lighting and this setting compensates by bringing out the blue tones.

Flourescent (symbol of a light tube): Also good for indoors at night, if you have flourescent lighting. This setting compensates by toning down the blue and bringing out the yellows.

Flash (symbol of a lighting bolt): Almost identical to cloudy but sometimes redder depending on the camera. Experiment and see whether this suits your needs better.

Shade (symbol of a house casting a shadow): Very orange. This is good for shooting in shade which makes things very blue.

You can find out more about WB from this webpage

4. Never use flash

I never use flash on my food photos. Unless you have metered or diffused flash on your camera, using flash on your digital camera will invariably make your pictures look washed out and over exposed. Even if you process the image later on your computer, the colours will suffer. Natural lighting is best of course but if you are indoors after dark, take photos in an appropriately lit spot with suffucient lighting not to require flash. A desk lamp also works. Remember to set the white balance on your camera (e.g. to Tungsten or Flourescent). If the lighting levels are low, you will need a very steady hand in order not to get blurry pictures (as the camera takes pictures on longer exposure when there is less light). You can use a tripod or prop your camera or arm against something stable.

5. Use Macro Mode

When taking food pictures, switch to Macro mode. This is crucial for point-and-shoot cameras, as DSLR cameras have other options for setting aperture and focus. Automatic mode will result in blurry and unfocused pictures when you get closer to your objects and food photography invariably requires you to get close to the food. Macro mode is indicated by a flower icon on your camera and you can find it either on a button or in the camera menu.


6. Post Processing

Almost all photos will look better with some post processing, even if you have set the correct WB. I usually adjust the Brightness & Contrast (or Gamma) and sometimes the Colours. You can see the difference in the Before and After pictures below. I took this picture with Tungsten setting but the original was still too yellow. The colours are more realistic after post processing.

Salmon pie 1Salmon pie 2

My favourite software is Photoshop (I use Photoshop Elements 4.0 for Mac) but there are other simpler and freeware/shareware available. For PC: check out Irfanview and GIMP. For Mac: Seashore, GIMP (requires X11). There are also applications that come installed in Macs such as iPhoto and even Preview will do basic editing.

7. Background

I try to have a neutral background so that the eye is drawn to the food and not by a busy background. You can also use simple props like a napkin, placemat, cutlery, wine glass etc. to complement the food.

8. Take plenty of shots

Take lots of pictures and then cull ruthlessly. I usually take at least 8 and sometimes up to 20 for each picture that I post eventually. Experiment with different angles, arrangement and see which ones appeal or turn out the best during post processing. If my hands were not quite steady or if the food was hot and steaming, I don't get stuck with a couple of blurry shots since I have many to choose from.

9. Get closer to your food

Frame your picture such that the food or dish fills up most of the space. Sometimes you might want to have the object occupy a smaller portion of the frame for a particular effect, but generally speaking a close-up shot that is tightly framed is more attractive than one which includes too many background details that detracts from the food itself. Since you are going to get that close to your food, remember to use the Macro mode!

10. Experiment and find your favourite style

Browse through cook books, food magazines, food blogs, and food-related websites. Identify your favorite style and experiment with it. Do you like pictures that are taken at interesting angles? Or very clear and focused shots from the top-down? Do you like seeing various props with the food or a more minimalist look? Do you want your object to be square in the middle of the picture or off-centre? I personally like to take my food pictures at very low angles, just a little above the height of the food. It makes the food appear much closer to the viewer and brings out lovely details.


Happy cook said...

Thankyou for all the tips you gave for taking pic.

Jules said...

These are great tips. Thank you for sharing.

Nora B. said...

I still have a lot to learn about food photography. Thanks for all the tips. And have a wonderful trip back to Singapore for CNY. I am still trying to work off my post-Singapore makan bulge ;-)

Kevin said...

Great tips!

Nilmandra said...

Thanks for the comments. Hope you find some of the points useful.

Nora B: I have every intention of stuffing myself in Singapore ;)

Nina's Kitchen (Nina Timm) said...

You are so right,a blog with no pictures or pictures of a poor quality certainly does not get my attention as much as those with good photo's. I am also a learner and lighting is my biggest problem.I use a Nikon D70.

Nina's Kitchen (Nina Timm) said...

By the way, your pictures are beautiful.

Heather said...

Every girl's crazy 'bout a sharp-dressed blog.

Also, TAG you're it.

Nilmandra said...

Thanks, nina. I love looking at good photos and figuring out what is it I like about it and whether I could do something similar.

Heather: Thanks for the tag! But I've just done a very similar one recently, and I'm going away tomorrow so I'm sorry it has to die on this end. Don't send me bad voodoolily vibes!

Greg said...

Terrific suggestions! Thanks so much!!!

mycookinghut said...

A very useful piece of information indeed. Thank you for mentioning me on your blog!

bunbun said...

I just found your blog! Thank you for the great tips. I love taking photos of my food and find it inspiring, but I need to get better!
I love your photos! Your bento rocks!

Nilmandra said...

Thanks, Greg and bunbun.

My Cooking Hut: Your photos are gorgeous, I'm happy to share them with my readers :)

commoi said...

I can't remember if I say anything on the LJ thread already, but...

1. Natural lighting/daylight really makes a difference. I cannot agree with you more.

2. Taking a LOT of photos of the same thing is very important. I mean, how else would you expect models and celebrities to look good consistently in magazine spreads? LOL.

Great post!

Nilmandra said...

Commoi: Not to mention the airbrushing ;)

Antonia said...

Excellent post - lots of great tips, which I must apply. Thank you. And really think the time has come to invest in Photoshop...

Post a Comment