Food, glorious food photography

“Food, glorious food! Don’t care what it looks like. Burned! Underdone! Crude! Don’t care what the cook’s like. Just thinking of growing fat, our senses go reeling – one moment of knowing that full-up feeling!”

Oliver Twist and the rest of the orphans under the care of Mr Bumble may not have given two figs about the appearance of food, what with surviving on nothing but gruel for years on end, but as any gastronomic blogger will know, looks really are everything some of the time and a terrible photo of a three-course meal can make the difference between an appetising blog post and one that repeats on you a few hours later.

One person who knows the importance of stellar photographs when writing about food is Amy Davies, food and craft blogger and news reporter for Future Publishing’s photography portfolio. She’s been kind enough to share a couple of her own pearls of wisdom for taking happy snaps of food so that your posts look as good as your cooking undoubtedly tastes. Cameras at the ready, let’s get set and go!

A Q&A with Amy Davies (the rabbit on the left)

What settings on your camera should you use to get the best photos?

“A lot of people assume you need a fancy camera to get good food photos, when in reality while that is of course a help, you can still get good shots with a simple point and shoot, so long as you pay attention to some key settings.

If you have a macro mode it’s a good idea to employ that as you will be able to get finer detail. Another REALLY IMPORTANT setting that should be looked at is white balance. So often I see a picture that has been ruined by looking orange or blue….

If you can, set your camera to the appropriate lighting you’re using, so if it’s daylight (the best kind) set it to daylight. However, if you need to shoot in the dark under artificial light, set your white balance to Tungsten as this should help to counteract any dodgy colour tinges.

If you have any kind of editing software on your computer, you can also remove colour tinges – it’s really simple to do in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. GIMP is a good (and free!) image editing programme that can help with this as well.

You should avoid flash at all costs as this tends to make food look greasy. If you have an external flash, you can use this by bouncing the light off a ceiling or wall, rather than directly on the food.

It’s very fashionable at the moment to have a limited depth of field in a photo, i.e. have a small amount in focus and the rest blurred out. You achieve this by setting a wide aperture, which you may not be able to do on a compact. However, if you do have a DSLR or high-end compact, look for wide apertures of f/2.0 or f/1.4. I used an f/1.4 lens for a lot of my photographs, or an f/2.8 macro lens.”

So you prefer natural light for photos?

“YES! I can’t emphasise enough how important natural light is for food photography. When I used to regularly blog about food, I made sure I made things in the daytime for this entire reason.

If you can, shoot near a window to get the best light. A good tip is to put a large sheet of tracing paper against the window to diffuse the light to make it softer and less harsh on your food – this is important if the light is streaming directly in, which can make for harsh shadows.”

What about angles?

“For food, there are a couple of angles that work really well and others that look just plain odd. You should avoid shooting it from the angle that you would look at it from a seated position at the table – that is rarely flattering. If you have made an impressive cake or something like that, a shot from directly above – and I mean square on, not at a slight angle, can look stunning.

Otherwise, the most commonly used angle is from the same height as the food itself – so straight on. You can use a tripod to get the positioning right. However, other angles can work well depending on the subject matter, it’s really a question of playing around and experimenting.”

How do you arrange the composition of your subject when taking snaps?

“The rule of thirds is also a good one to follow, that basically splits a scene up into thirds, both vertically and horizontally. Try to place points of interest on the area of the scene where the thirds meet.

Another good tip is to have something in the foreground, like a cupcake, with more in the background. This way you can focus on the front ones and throw the others out of focus for the most attractive photos.

It will be harder to do this on a point-and-shoot, but not impossible. A way to do this is to half-press the shutter with whatever you want to focus on in the middle of the scene (compacts tend to have the AF point in the middle of the camera) and then refocus the scene with cupcake onto a third, then fully press the shutter.

Oh and it’s also a good idea to make sure that the food is the only thing you’re focusing on in a shot. You don’t want to have some distractions cluttering up the background, like your messy flat or something. I like to make a little studio in a corner of the room – really not as glamorous or difficult as it sounds. It’s basically a backdrop stuck to the wall with an ironing board in front of it on which the food stands.

You can also create what is known as an infinity curve, which helps get rid of distracting creases and lines. Basically you stick the background to a wall, then let the bottom of it (it needs to be fairly long) fall onto a surface such as a table. This should create a curve of pattern.”

How do you get the best shots of food that isn’t cupcake-pretty?

“Make sure you only choose the best specimens for your photos and try to arrange your food in an aesthetically pleasing way. The rule of odds is a good one to follow – one, three or five cupcakes will look better than two or four.

If you have a macro lens or macro setting, you could focus on one particularly visually appealing area of your food to make a food portrait. It can be difficult though and I think props will play a huge part in something like a shepherd’s pie. You could also try to set the scene a bit more, to make the image a bit more visually appealing. A cupcake kind of speaks for itself and doesn’t need anything else fussy going on, but if you have an attractive kitchen or dining room then you could put a shepherd’s pie in situ to create a narrative.”

How do you go about selecting your props?

“It’s probably mostly down to personal style and taste, but that said some props work better than others. You can’t really go wrong with a basic white plate if you’re just getting started – maybe get both a round one and a square one which you can use for different foods.

I like to pick up bits and bobs in charity and cheap shops, and local markets. There are some great bargains out there and the good thing is you usually don’t need a complete set of six plates for instance, so it’s often cheaper. Another good place to hunt for bargains is eBay. I also have a huge collection of art papers which I use as backgrounds. I usually get these from local art shops or Paperchase. It’s worth looking in the Paperchase sale for bargains, sometimes you can get papers for 50p.”

What about special tricks of the trade?

“It used to be that people would rely on all kinds of disgusting tricks, but it seems there’s less of that that goes on at the moment. When I say disgusting, I mean things like putting oil on a chicken to make it look cooked, or using mashed potato as ice cream.

One tip for fruit is to smear it with apricot jam which will give it a nice sheen, but it’s pretty impossible to make some foods look more appetising, so don’t get hung up too much on it is what I would say.”

Let’s have three top tips for budding food bloggers.

“Natural light is very important… so always try to take photos near a window, or maybe outside if you have a garden!

Look out for cheap and cheerful props that will make your photos look great. Backgrounds such as material or papers are also a great way to spruce up boring backgrounds.

Use macro mode for the best detail – if you can, buy a macro lens for best effect.”

All photos copyright Amy Davies. Check out more of her work here.

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