Photographing food

By Geoff Harris

Food for the eyes

Ever fancied food photography but not sure where to start?

Put off by the thought of having to master complicated lighting or work with temperamental chefs in a stressful environment?

Relax – food photography is about much more than close-ups of posh pasta or the kind of photography you find in recipe books.

Food photography is probably more popular than it’s ever been, thanks in part to the rise of smartphones and Instagram.

Who hasn’t been tempted to take a photo of a plate of delicious grub at a restaurant and then rather smugly upload it to Insta?

For more considered food photography, though, it’s best to think about the range of different approaches you can try.

A good place to look is the current shortlist for the prestigious Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year contest, the winner of which will be announced on the competition’s YouTube channel on April 26th.

Read on to see how a variety of approaches can be successfully applied to food photography – why not enter the competition yourself the next time around?

Food as travel/documentary photography

In recent years, the Food Photographer of the Year contest has been won by a series of images from overseas that place food very much within a cultural context. This currently shortlisted image by Ly Hoang Long is a good example.

The impact comes from the interaction between the boy’s luminous eyes and the photographer, and the boy’s hand, perfectly poised over a bowl of noodles.

The angle is great too – so next time you find yourself shooting food-related subjects in a more exotic location, consider what you can do to make your shot different and eye-catching.

ly hoang long

Food as a graphic element

A very different approach is shown here – an apple in itself is not normally a particularly interesting subject, but it takes on a whole new creative life when placed on this ladder against a wall.

The composition is simple, but beautifully lit and executed – the ladder has a rustic charm too, and everything has been arranged to generate very pleasing shadows.

Attractive natural light was used, and a fast shutter speed of 1/1000 sec kept everything beautifully sharp. Why not try a similar graphic approach with your food images?

//pic bob Norris

Style close-ups with care

While close-ups of food can feel a bit conventional in such a creatively diverse competition, such images continue to be in demand from food magazines, websites and blogs – a restaurant might commission you to take some, too.

You generally need to make sure that the food looks delicious though, and any human subject looks fresh and clean too (including their hands!).

In a darker kitchen you might also need to use a continuous LED light or on/off camera flash to get enough illumination on the food, so practice at home.

Don’t crop in too tight, either – this image works as there is a sense of a wider context, and the reflected spoon is a really nice finishing touch. Don’t forget all elements of the composition.

Picture: Annette Sandner

Get in close

As we saw with the apple image, you certainly don’t need to shoot gourmet food in a restaurant to win food photography plaudits.

This wonderful close-up of green tomatoes is a great example – the sinuous shape of the stems and the rich colours make for a winning image. So don’t always assume that food needs to be cooked!

A macro lens is strongly recommended for this kind of image, or at least a prime (fixed length) or zoom lens with a wide maximum aperture so you can blur out the background easily.

Picture: Ruth De Decker

Food as art

How would you photograph a pizza? Most of us would obsess about how well styled and lit it was, sitting there on a rustic-looking table near a glass of wine.

Far fewer would think about draping one over a tree, in a wonderfully witty homage to surrealist art. This image reveals more and more as you look at it, including the attractive shape of what we assume are pizza delivery boxes.

Pardon the pun, but this kind of creative ‘thinking outside the box’ will really grab the attention of judges in food competitions, as it’s so radically different.

Or, try using the shapes of food to echo a graphically striking masterpiece by Mondrian, Kandinsky or cubist painters.

Picture: Nathan Myhrvold

Puns and humour

We also love this visual pun by Steve Varman, but it deserves to generate a lot more than a passing chuckle. The items are beautifully selected and presented, the background sympathetic and non-distracting while also interesting, and the colours superbly edited.

We suspect some off-camera lighting was used here, too, which often works well with static food subjects.

So yes, think about humorous approaches to food photography, but make sure the image is well executed too – the gag will only go so far.

Picture: Steve Varman

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Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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