I used to think food photography was little more than a mildly annoying habit, reserved for camera-happy teenagers on giggly brunch dates. That was until I discovered an array of talented food photographers who introduced me to the aesthetic of various fruit forms, of creamy Poulet Vallee d’Auge, and beautifully crafted spring salads.
Food photography can be a captivating form of storytelling. The dishes you cook daily reflect—not only your cultural background—but also more subjective details about your livelihood and day-to-day life.
Taking a photo that accurately depicts your culinary voice and lifestyle can mean little more then careful forethought and attention to detail—no ramblings on camera nomenclature and technical jargon needed. Here are 5 basic steps to help you style a meaningful photo.
Before you proceed with any styling, determine what tone you wish to convey. Every photo should target an emotion—yes, even food photos. Your snapshot of blueberry muffins needn't make you cry, but it should evoke a particular mood, whether it be whimsical, dark, loud, quiet, lighthearted or contemplative.
The same dishes—as shown above—can evoke contrasting emotions depending on the lighting and background color. There are several factors that may influence the mood of your photo, ask yourself the following:
Is it a breakfast or a dinner dish?
Is the dish normally consumed indoors or outdoors?
During what season is the dish normally served?
For the purposes of this tutorial, we will proceed with the light mood on the left.
Every masterpiece begins with a strong canvas. Use fabrics or any kind of table surface to create a compelling backdrop for your photo. For the purposes of our light theme, it's best to stick with relatively neutral shades to bring out the colors in the dish. Possible backdrops may include white painted wood, ivory tiles, or light stone. For this tutorial, I chose a white linen dishtowel as our background texture.
Once you have selected your backdrop, place it on a sturdy surface next to a window. Natural light brings out the best color and texture in food. Refrain from turning on any interior lights while shooting as it may pollute the shot and offset the white balance, resulting in a “yellowy” photo.
Your subject is the focal dish or theme. In our sample photo above, the subject is a piping hot cup of morning coffee.
Be conscientious about dishware and/or garnish to dress your subject. The dishware should generally stand in contrast to the food itself, if not at least be distinguishable from the food itself. For our sample photo, I have chosen a light-colored coffee cup to dramatize the silky blackness of the dark roast coffee.
Now, for the fun part. To come up with a captivating image, you must contextualize your subject by adding relevant items to the scene and throwing it into a lived-in environment.
In our sample photo, my wish is to portray a slow Sunday morning tabletop. To convey this, I will add a novel, a French press, some homemade tarts, and a heaping bowl of granola. In this particular setup, the coffee will signify a series of leisurely sips taken by a pajama-clad adult in a sun-filled dining room.
But what if the coffee is paired with an antique pipe and a newspaper? An ashtray with Lucky Strike cigarettes? A pile of papers and manila folders? These would all change the visual narrative, giving the coffee an entirely new context. Choose these extra props carefully to tell your story accurately and effectively.
Photo editing software can be useful in fine-tuning the selected mood. Decided on a cheery mood? Boost the saturation to give your dishes a pop of color. Went with a dark mood? Increase the contrast and darken the blacks – maybe even throw in a subtle vignette.
For our light mood, I have increased the exposure and placed a light fade to give the scene a washed-out look. Don’t get too caught up with semantics if you aren’t familiar with camera technology. Instead, concentrate on achieving the mood by adjusting the tint, saturation, and exposure of your image. It’s your story – have fun with it.