By Troy Giesegh, Senior Art Director
December 03, 2013
Photography directed by Stephan & Brady for use in the online publication Grate. Pair. Share.
Art directing a food photo shoot is all about balance. You need to find a way to be absurdly diligent about the details while also keeping an unwavering eye on the big picture.
As with any project, shooting food starts with establishing the right context. How will the photo be used? Will there be any copy involved? What’s the story you’re trying to tell? What mood should the food’s presentation portray?
And that’s just to whet your appetite. (If you will?)
Here are just a handful of considerations unique to food photography to keep in mind when directing a food photo shoot.
Know your food’s limitations
Every food has its own photo-friendly shelf life. Outside of that precious window, things begin to droop, melt, sweat, and look generally unappetizing. Lettuce wilts, soups pucker, cookies moisten, and cheese looks oily.
And if it looks unappetizing on the plate, it’s going to look unappetizing on the camera.
When planning a food photo shoot, your first responsibility is to familiarize yourself with your subject’s shelf life and strategize ways to get the most out of that time. Can you turn down the temperature in the studio? Do you have backups available if the first subject flops?
Food must look practical
If a cake is cut into, the knife next to it should have cake residue on it. Crumbly foods should be allowed to produce crumbs (within reasonable limits, of course).
Serving objects should be appropriate for the food being served. For example, appetizers look warm and inviting on wooden serving dishes, but wood is rarely used with entrées in the real world. Standard glass or porcelain serving dishes are generally more appropriate for entrées.
Food must look real (but not necessarily BE real)
Sure, we’d all love our food to look naturally photo-ready. And many times, it does. But when you’re asking a food to look photo-ready for, say, an 8-hour shoot, sometimes you need to bring in reinforcements.
Here are a couple of the food enhancement tools I use:
- Toothpicks for added support
- Handheld heat guns (for removing paint) to melt cheese in certain places
- Steamers, hovered over food to make it look hot
- Geling agents to solidify soups and keep chunks on the top
Notice the hint of steaminess over the grill in this shot:
Lighting is king
As with most photography, natural lighting is best for food. Cloudy days are particularly coveted for glare-free shooting.
Other simple tricks I use include:
- Mirrors, to give a spotlight feel
- Whiteboards, to attract light
Protect your vision
As an art director, part of my job is to wrangle together different ideas and viewpoints and merge them into one big, cohesive vision. It’s also my job to protect that vision when lesser ideas or distracting tangents threaten to take over.
Don’t get so focused on individual elements of a shot that you lose sight of the big picture.
Half-eaten food must not look literally half-eaten
This is a case where real-er isn’t necessarily better.
A cupcake with a bite out of it looks realistic and shows off the center of the cupcake, but a real, actual bite just reminds people of saliva.
In this shot, we used a scalloped cookie cutter to create a clean, saliva-free bite:
Don’t overcomplicate photos
Subtle additions to a photo can be extremely effective, if done tastefully. But they can also be distracting if you get too carried away with them.
For example, personally, I’m not a sprig guy. If there isn’t a sprig of something in the recipe, you won’t see any peeking out of my serving dishes.
My rule of thumb is: don’t add something just to add it. Make sure there’s rationale behind it and that it benefits the bigger idea. If it’s a tangent to the main focus or pulls the eyes away from the main food, remove it.
Getting good food photography is a lot of playing. What would the cake look like with a slice taken out of it? What if the focal point was off-center?
Even if you execute your initial set-up perfectly, it doesn’t hurt to tweak a few elements and try another round of shots. You might just stumble upon brilliance.
In this shot, we played around with this cheese wedge and different amounts of oozing fruit juice to find the ideal look:
We thought the first shot looked nice, until we saw the added complexity of the second shot. (The third went a bit too far.)
Just make sure you get enough shots with the current look before you try something new, since you can rarely go backwards!
Don’t get too tied to a specific look
Sometimes we get it into our heads that a certain element of the scene is “set” and everything else has to change around that.
Getting too attached to an original idea can blind you to potentially better future ideas. Just because you like a certain angle/presentation doesn’t mean that others might not be better. (This is where the play element comes in.)
Including ingredients in your shots—either ingredients used to make the food or ingredients the food is commonly paired with—gives your food deeper context, and helps illustrate its complexity and versatility. It’s also a stimulating background concept that can help you tell the story of the food.
In this photo, we’re hinting to the viewer that this cheese will be used in recipes involving honey and berries.
Make sure food is the focus
Your goal is to guide your viewer’s eyes to the right spot immediately. To make sure this happens, background elements must always modify the main food, never detracting from it.
Avoid busy backgrounds of any kind. Floral napkins, for example, are disastrous for even the most eye-catching foods. Neutral colors and natural elements are usually best.
Use background elements to portray mood
Your background isn’t just there to break up white space and tell the story of the food. It also needs to help describe the scene by setting a mood.
In this shot, we established a light-hearted, summery mood with a picnic table and a glass of beer.
We included the bottle cap to further play up the casual mood of outdoor eating.
For a winter shot, we might use darker tones in the set and include a candle in the background for added coziness.
Shoot from above for a modern look
I love overhead shots for many purposes, but especially for large ingredient spreads like this one:
(The empty space at the top is reserved for copy.)
Overhead shots are very interesting and current, and give photos more of a graphic feel. They also give you more space to work with and save you from preparing an elaborate background, further ensuring that the emphasis stays on the food.
Food is patience
When all’s said and done, you’re at your food’s mercy for a good shot. Sometimes, you have to just be patient and let food be food.
For example, when we photographed this cake, we had a hard time deciding how much fruit juice we wanted to let seep through.
We kept taking shots while waiting for the seeping to happen, and our final product ended up being a composite of three shots, each with different levels of juice seepage. (Less on top, more on bottom, a little in the middle.)
Putting it all together
If you take only one idea away from this article, it should be that simpler is better.
You can (and should) be creative and playful with your sets, experimenting with different elements, angles, and ideas to tell a story with your food, but be careful not to lose sight of the fact that your primary food is the star. And it’s your job to make sure it stays in the spotlight.
What tricks have you used to achieve great food photography?