“Pictures or it didn’t happen” has become the maxim of our time. Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of cooking. We’ve all experienced that twinge of pride when a culinary achievement is unlocked, and immortalising your achievement and sharing it with the world is an all too human response. Whether it’s online or in real life, who wouldn’t want to be friends with an ace in the kitchen? Taking it a step further, many passionate blogtrepreneurs have built entire careers with a smartphone and a stove.
If there’s one thing the world has learned from the blue-black dress fiasco, it’s the deceptiveness of colour balance. Tungsten light (i.e. indoor light bulbs) give most images a subtle orange/yellow hue, whereas natural daylight has an almost imperceptible blue undertone. The trick is to look at a white section in your frame (a plate, perhaps) and first ensure that this registers as true white. Generally speaking, daylight will give your food a more natural look – subtle indoor lighting can create a great ambience to the naked eye, but makes everything appear unnaturally warm and dark. I’m sure we’ve all been disappointed with the way a candlelit dinner translates on your phone. Daylight is usually far more intense than tungsten light (the sun vs. a lightbulb), and therefore makes it easier to get a proper exposure with all the necessary detail. So, if there’s still daylight around, you’re better off placing your subject matter near a window or a door or on a balcony to maximise the light.
At the same time, opt for softer, diffused light rather than the sun’s full glare. Food’s a bit like us in this regard: nobody likes smiling for the camera with the sun in their eyes. This is less of a concern at dinner time when the evening light is naturally soft. But during the day you definitely want to take your photos in the shade rather than in the sun. Placing your food beside a white wall will effectively add some fill light, ensuring even spread. Avoid high contrast if you can since some elements will get lost in the shadows or burned white in the highlights. Never use the built-in flash on your camera.
Most meat-based dishes tend to exist in the brown spectrum. Hardly an exciting option to work with, but with some consideration you can work around this unavoidable limitation. Your choice of background colour and garnishing will be crucial here. If you’re interested in food photography, consider investing in a range of different crockery. I’d recommend scouring flea markets for vintage pieces in unusual colours such as lemon, grey-blue, or dusty pink. The current mode du jour is for subdued pastels like these, but rotate your collection as trends change. It needn’t be an expensive hobby at all; you can pick up plates for a few bucks if you look in the right places. If colour speaks to your soul, you can have a lot of fun playing around with complementary tablecloths, placemats, cutlery handles and other table decorations. It’s worth refreshing your knowledge of the colour wheel to better inform your matching.
Garnishing is the other aspect of the colour palette you can control. Fresh green herbs are a safe bet – not only do they add some flair, but they also allude to freshness. A sprig of basil, for example, is a delightful counterpoint to an otherwise earthy Bolognese, while the combination of dill, green peas and bright yellow lemon wedges make an otherwise neutral fish fillet more eye-catching. Sides are your allies. A smattering of colorful, edible flowers, though typically not too tasty, is an even more expressive way to turn bland into exotic.
If not for your health or your ethical convictions, going vegetarian will certainly expand your colour palette and make for more exciting photography. A salad is an Instagram jackpot. Red cabbage, peppers, broccoli, lemongrass, beetroot, brinjal, salmon, mango, julienned carrots, figs, raspberries, apricots – these are the food photographer’s oil paints and brushstrokes. Toss them together like an edible Jackson Pollock painting.
BACKGROUND AND COMPOSITION
I’ve touched on tabletop elements like place mats and tablecloths, but a food shot needn’t be taken from your seat at the moment you’re about to tuck into it. Consider moving your plate to a background that works well with the colour and theme of your food. Wooden surfaces typically work well and impart a rustic feel to the scene. Black slate is very popular among food photographers at the moment, since in the right light the food really stands out against the grey-black background. The dark background also adds a slightly darker, more mysterious atmosphere to the scene, which can be quite evocative. Seeing as you only need to fill the edges of your frame, you could probably cheat it with just one large tile. Try visiting a big tile centre or hardware store and pick up a few samples for free. While you’re at it, experiment a range of earthy textures such as granite, marble, terracotta and different woods. Using backgrounds like these will almost certainly make your images seem more professional, and not impromptu snapshots from your dinner table.
Alternatively, you may want to give your Instagram followers something more consistent, in which case there’s nothing wrong with placing your dish in the same setting and environment every day, offering a real glimpse into your life and your home.
Most food photography tends to be focused on the meal at hand and eliminating all extraneous detail. However, incorporating some of the background environment can add sensory context to the image. Mountains and vineyards in the background for a country lunch puts the viewer in that lazy Sunday state of mind, and a glimpse of the sparkling Atlantic behind your panfried baby hake fillets on a bed of spring greens will only make them more alluring.
When deciding whether to shoot from the side or above (definitely the more popular choice in the Instagram era) consider the topography of your dish. If it’s flat on a plate you’re probably better off with a high angle, whereas if you’re shooting a piled up summer salad or a layered cake, a side angle might do your efforts more justice.
PERFECTION IS IMPERFECTION
The good news for amateurs is that perfection in food photography is highly overrated. Tactility is more highly valued, so don’t worry about a blob of pineapple atchar on the edge of the plate, or balsamic glaze drizzled outside the lines. Break the bread with your hands, and let the crumbs fall where they may. This is how we eat. Embrace the tactility and the experimentation of preparing and devouring food. If a viewer can glean a sense of the fun that went into making the food, chance are you’ll gain a new follower.
Oh, and finally – don’t forget to tag @wwtaste. We’d love to see what you do.