The Dish on Food Photography

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[Note from Laura]: Jim was our fabulous wedding photographer and I’m blown away by the creativity and beauty of not only our wedding photos, but his outside work as well. I thought there was no one better to give a few tips on how to shoot the perfect food photo, no matter if you’re a budding photography pro or a lowly smartphone shooter like me. Perfect timing for the holidays when delicious dishes of all shapes and sizes help set the tone of celebrations with our families and friends. Enjoy!

Hi, my name is Jim Coarse  and I have a photography equipment problem. On my way out the door for a shoot, I’m constantly checking my cases, checking memory cards, and checking the batteries. And after everything is packed up in the car and I’m five miles down the road, I start going over the itemized list again with the feeling that I’m forgetting something. No matter what I’m shooting, it always seems that I bring way more equipment than I actually need. Honestly, photography doesn’t have to be that complicated.

When Laura asked me to write this guest post, I knew I had an upcoming shoot that would work perfectly for LSquared. My business partner and I run a full-time photography business called Moonloop Photography and we are often contacted by publications to do all sorts of different shoots. Photographing food and restaurants is certainly one of my favorite requests.

Photographing food is all about getting the right details with the surrounding atmosphere. Often times, photographers will zoom straight-in so incredibly tight that you lose a sense of what is actually being photographed. I will spare you the college level photo classes and give you some quick insight on something photographers call the “hero” angle. Now, before you Google this term and get lost reading articles galore, think of it this way—Either you have a flat dish, a vertical dish, or a combination of both. Keep it simple. When you’re looking at a hamburger, it’s layered vertically. If you were to photograph it from above, you wouldn’t see anything, but the bun! When you’re looking at a steak, it lays long and flat. If you were to photograph it from the side, you’d see a very thin strip and have no idea what the depth is. To keep it simple, use the hero angle, which is: 

Our assignment on this shoot was a little different. In fact, there is quite a combination of both angles. We were not only asked to photograph the food, but also a bottle and glass of wine to be paired with each dish.

I’ve been on a prime lens kick lately. All of the photographs taken for this article are taken on a Nikon D810 at 36 megapixels with either a Sigma 50mm ART lens or a Sigma 85mm ART lens. Since color is so important, it’s best to remember that not all light produces the same color temperature. Have you ever photographed inside and found your images to be a bit orange? And the windows to the outside tend to produce a blue shade of light? All of these new fancy LED and fluorescent bulbs also produce another temperature of their own. For this, we compensate by using our flash system. I used a two flash setup for this shoot— one with an umbrella to help soften and diffuse the flash, which gave us an even light. Meanwhile, the second light had a grid that helped direct very concentrated light onto glass. It helped give the glass a nice “pop.” In some cases, I rotated the flash up towards the ceiling with the hope that it would bounce light down onto my subject.

Depth of field is also key. Even though both lenses I used had an aperture of f1.4 (which can create a super shallow depth of field), I wanted to be sure everything on the plate was in focus and even partially displayed the glass and bottle. My setup angle for the shot added items in the background at several different depths. Their bokeh (or out-of-focus presence) got deeper and deeper with distance from the camera. For this, I actually photographed at f2.8 to give a little more focus area to get the bottle label.

I love the color of the table and room used for this shoot.  Although the shot below wasn’t one of those selected for the article, it’s still my favorite.  The first image on the left is how the raw photograph came out of the camera. It appears to be slightly darker and the color a little flatter. I wanted to be certain not to over-expose any parts of the shot. If over-exposed, that detail will never come back. With proper adjustment to the image (center), the exposure, color, and lens detail are corrected. The third image is the final image with my perfectionist touch and removes the napkin and some of the reflections.

Now, did I lose some of you with the photography jargon above? Don’t own a SLR, light equipment, and/or just love using your iPhone? No problem. Since I’m a photo nut, I shoot a lot with my phone too. Here are some smartphone tips:

  • Stick with the hero rule as explained above and make sure you are perpendicular to your subject.  
  • Always watch for color irregularities—these are often caused by the mixture of too many different types of light. Just because you think your kitchen is dark does not mean you need to turn on every single light and open the window shades. Pick one type of light and stick to it—all natural, all LED light, or all incandescent light.  
  • Watch for the surrounding area of the photo. For those of us who are addicted to Instagram, it’s all about those corners and nothing messes up a great photo like something unexpected in the background.
  • Try something new. I use apps like Google Snapseed (free), Enlight (pay) and recently read about an app called “Patch” that you can use to paint depth of field. I tried Patch and it was “eh.” For a long time, I was a very fond user of Hipstamatic and found the Loftus pack extremely beautiful for fun food photos. David Lotfus is one of the top food photographers in the world and the pack was designed to emulate what he does.

Feel free to drop by either of our websites (moonloopphoto.com or moonloopweddings.com) to check out our work. And, if you want to see more of  my “fun” work, stop by my Instagram account. I’m also happy to answer any questions you may have in the comments section below. Just remember, it’s all about having fun!

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