Food is one of my favorite subjects to photograph. Not only is it an enjoyable challenge, but I usually get to eat it after I’m finished!
I’ve done a fair bit of food photography, and refined my system down to a few basic elements that work well for me. Here’s how I do it.
My favorite lighting setup for food is a super-soft, high backlight. This is what it looks like. A single strobe, shooting through a small umbrella, and then softened further by the diffusion panel from a 6-in-1 reflector kit.
Depending on how dark the food is, and what kind of surface it’s on, you may want to use a small reflector (a piece of white foamcore, or even a menu, works well) to bounce light back towards the shadow side that’s facing you. Here’s a simple diagram to illustrate the setup.
With food, you can shoot higher or lower, and wider or tighter, but you usually want a fairly shallow depth of field, with the focus set on the edge of the food that is closest to you. My lens of choice for this is the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8. That particular lens is almost as sharp as a prime, and since I usually shoot food between 50mm – 70mm and at f/2.8, I use every bit of that glass.
Here’s a BTS photo taken by the client at this shoot. As you can see, I am very close to the food, and crouching down to get low enough to see some background behind the food. Even though the background is just a blur, including it gives a sense of depth and place to the shot. Just looking at food on a plate is okay, but seeing that it’s in a nice place adds another dimension to the image.
When light reflects off a shiny surface (like moist food), it sometimes creates shiny, white “specular” highlights. Depending on your client’s preference, this may be a good thing or a bad thing. Here are two shots of the same food, one with specular highlights on the surface of the fish, and one without. To get more highlights, shoot with the lamp directly in front of you. The light will bounce off the food and directly at the lens. To get fewer highlights, shift the light (or the food) to the side slightly. This time, the light won’t bounce directly into the lens, and the highlights won’t be as large.
I hope these tips help you take some great photos of food. Happy Holidays!