Food Photography TipsOctober 10, 2009
What I'm Learning about Food Blog PhotographyLet me just start by saying that I am by no means an expert on food photography. One of the reasons I started this blog was that, asides from being a decent cook, I felt I was a pretty decent photographer as well. I was quickly humbled as food photography is a whole different game. This is a brief chronicle of what I've experienced.
If you are looking to keep driving traffic to your blog, great food photography is a great way to bring people in. One great picture that either goes viral or gets picked up by a curated site will cause serious traffic spikes. Now keeping them engaged and coming back is a different story. Content is still king.
Elements of a Great Photograph
So what makes a great photograph that captures the whole recipe and describes it in a glance? I think there are two aspects. One is, naturally, technical. It's in focus, it's well lit, the colors are properly reproduced and it's composed in an appealing way. The other is purely emotional. This is the hook. The photograph should make the reader feel like they want to sit down and eat right now. It should also convey a story about the ingredients, how it was prepared or how it will be served. Make the reader feel as if its theirs and they will want to read the recipe.
Keep in mind, it's not about the camera. You do not need an expensive fancy pants camera to take a great photograph. When people say "That's a great shot, you must have a great camera", I think it's a bit insulting. If someone cooks you a great dinner, would you say "Wow, that was tremendous, you must have a really awesome stove"?
Mistakes I've Made (some of the many)
- Applying Instagram tactics to DSLR photography. While a smartphone food photo can get scores of likes on Instagram, it won't cut it if you are looking to be published on the "foodporn" sites. You need to rethink how you compose and shoot the picture/
- Taking pictures in the kitchen. Do you serve food in the kitchen? When a viewer sees your photograph they are instantly assessing whether or not they find the dish appealing and want to eat it. If it looks like it's still on your counter top with a coffeemaker in the background, it'll be really hard to frame it up as something to eat. My first pictures were all in the kitchen. I thought they were great. They weren't.
- Delaying dinner to take pictures. Your significant other, roommate, companion, etc. may be fully supportive of your blog, but they are not on board with cold food. Don't hold up the meal just to take a picture. Keep some leftovers and shoot it later. Plus, unless you serve your meals at 9am by a bay window, the lighting is probably lousy when you're dishing up anyway.
- Rushing the shot. It's not easy to compose a great shot, it's also not easy to go back and do it again after you ate everything. Take lots of pictures. From every angle. Close and Far. Then rearrange and do it again. I take anywhere from 30 to 100 pictures each time and whittle it down to 3 or 4 that I really like to publish. Usually it's one of the last ones I took.
What You Can Do Now
- Learn From Others and Practice. Learn from studying a diverse audience. Don't focus on just one or two food sites, as their editors are biased towards certain styles. Some like overexposed backgrounds. Others like stacks of cookies. Then practice by taking a lot of pictures. Hundreds. Thousands. It's no different than shooting a lot of layups.
- Lighting Lighting Lighting. It's no different than location in Real Estate. It's the one thing you can't ever change. You have to have great light when you shoot the photo. And the pop-up flash doesn't count. In fact, don't use it. Ever. Learn to harness natural light coming in your windows, especially that late morning late that grazes over the top of your dish.
- Master Depth of Field. You know how a great photograph has a blurry background and only the main subject is in focus? That's bokeh. This is where you need a camera that gives you full control of your aperture. Unfortunately, most point-and-shoot cameras (iPhone included) have fixed apertures that maximize focus throughout the entire frame. If you have a DSLR and shoot primarily in the Automatic setting, here's a great place to start exploring more.
- Master the Landscape. Blurred out photos aren't the only ones that win. If you're telling a story of all of the ingredients or taking an overhead view of a set table, you will want a crisp picture throughout the frame.
- Think Square. If you're going to submit to the curated sites (TasteSpotting, Foodgawker, etc.) then you'll need to crop your pictures to a 1:1 aspect ratio before submitting. It's helpful here to shoot in vertically to constrain yourself appropriately. Take a few horizontal ones as well to use in hero images and in your posts.
- Get Over Rejection, Focus on Better Content. Foodgawker can drive a ton of traffic. It can also drive you nuts figuring out how to get a picture in. They'll tell you it's "underexposed", that it has "harsh lighting" or just "composition". Don't fret about it. It's not a big deal. While it's cool to get your photo picked up, this shouldn't be your top priority. Keep learning, keep improving and you'll crack the code. Get back to focusing on writing great content.
- Shoot RAW and Post-Process. You don't need the pricey Adobe Photoshop CS6 to post-process photos. In fact, CS6 is overkill for basic touch-ups. You can use Adobe Lightroom or the Open Source GIMP. Why? Boost sharpness. Fix the white balance. Improve exposure. Add contrast. The more pictures you take, and the more you learn about post-processing, the more you'll realize how powerful it is.