How a Professional Photographer Looks at a Food Photo
I'm working on my food photography skills with the help of professional food photographer Tim Turner. In my first post, Food Photography Made Easy, we looked at light placement and how it can completely change the feel of the photograph. In other words, how to make a plate full of food pop.
Before going further in our lessons, Tim sent me the photograph above from one of his previous shoots. He explained how this is the kind of lighting he would like me to achieve over time and wanted to know what I saw in it, including:
- The height of the light relative to the food.
- The point on the clock of the light? (click here for more on this)
- was it close or far away?
- Did he use any fill cards, and if so, where?
My Response To This Photo
Here’s what I like about this photo. You have the cutting board slightly tilted left with the steak and knife slightly tilted right so they balance perfectly.
The grill marks on the steak line up with the two pieces that are cut from the steak.
The wood handle of the knife blends in with the cutting board but is still distinctive enough to stand out.
The grilled onions are light in color in accordance with the light source, almost as if they are the light source.
With their seeds intact, the tomatoes give the photo just a splash of color. The herbs (is that parsley?) fill in the top right corner, add subtle color but run with the grains of the cutting board.
And I haven’t even talked about the subject - the NY Strip Steak!
So tell me. Did you plan all those details before shooting the photo, or did you make the adjustments while shooting?
I guess what I’m asking is, What is going through your HEAD while setting up the shot?
Tim's Response To Me
Terrific analysis - you are on the road to a brand new you!
The only slight miss is that the steak slices don't line up with the grill marks, but they are in "harmony" with the grill marks.
The grill marks are planned EXACTLY in advance. I put two wooden skewers into the steak at that angle to the steak so no one screws up the lines. Then, when you put the correct side of the steak down, you match the skewers to the grill grates.
I only shoot the FIRST side of the cooked steak even though they get the exact same number of minutes on the grill.
I buy the meat knowing what side I am going to cook. So I buy the 2nd, 3rd steak, and maybe the 4th steak from a short loin to get this steak.
I don't want any other steak from a strip short loin. Too early in the loin, and the steak could be a better shape. By the 4th and 5th steak, it looks like a quasi Rib Eye steak.
Yes, it is that precise with meat for me. I know every steak cut by its place/position in the primal piece and the specifics to go with the cut. I am considered a meat specialist, maybe in my mind, but it shows when I shoot meat.
Back to the Photo
Everything you mention about the shot is by the idea of layering.
Two boards, slightly different in color, the knife handle is subtle and ordinary [cheap riveted handle}, and the thyme in the corner is for a spot of color that is fresh and appetizing.
The tomatoes are perfect, but the arrangement is spontaneous and layered with the onions.
The shot is well thought out, but for me, not so much thinking it will work as knowing what will work easily by practice. The unusual choice in the shot is the board of a different color and hue, more grey. That was the one experiment here.
It would be a little more regular with a brown board as the bottom board.
Two things to consider. The steak is essentially "plated " on this board, but that doesn't diminish its appetite appeal from your discussion of it. The other is Design Theory-the number of objects and the directions they point.
The more subtle reason it works is that the shot has five elements: steak, knife, tomatoes, onions and the herb.
Odd numbers work better in design.
Even deeper on that idea is - one knife, three tomatoes, five onion slices, five steak slices, and one herb bunch. The boards don't register as anything but one color when you look at it. That is why there is no napkin in the shot; it would have disrupted the formula of 5 and would be too much color.
As to the question of the light
This goes back to the STORY. I am trying to tell a story, and the light is integral. So the story is in this realm.
The grilled steak is my assignment. I give it a point of view. So modern and approachable to today's consumer, and it's easy to make this dish.
The road map is right there. You can taste Saturday late afternoon. There is nothing fussy about the photo, nor is there anything in the photo that leans gender specific.
Slightly masculine, yes, but only slightly. A bigger steakhouse handle knife would move it that way.
The steak is absolutely perfectly cooked and not too rare. Redder meat appeals to a more male crowd.
The tomatoes and herbs speak to a light touch. The shot is friendly, engaging, and easy to absorb quickly.
The call to action is the cut, soft, draping meat. The slice that breaks up the knife is the central focus.
And lastly, the steak is covered with salt and red peppercorns, not black pepper. Subtle but all a cohesive story.
I really do tell myself a story about how I approach the art of shooting food. The time of day is evident; the relaxed food plating means the moment is comfortable.
It sounds a bit BS and corny, but it is genuinely how I work. There is a subtle story to pretty much everything I shoot.
I think my head is going to explode!
Tim's Reply to Me
It’s just making you aware of the depth that goes into our level of work. If you were taking a writing class for fiction or a painting class, part of it is technique, and part of it is learning the process.
These are all those things to consider, and to you, they are overwhelming. But, to me, they are just things I do as I create.
First and foremost, don’t let them get in your way but consider them as small steps.
Look at the steak when you buy it and imagine what it will look like cooked. Shoot it raw and then compare it cooked. See what changed. See if you were close to your assumptions.
This is how you learn. Be loose and spontaneous as you work. Mistakes are great. Mistakes lead to better pastures.
My Final Takeaway From Tim's Remarks
Wow! There is a lot more going on here than I imagined. Go back and reread what Tim says about "the story." I realize this when I take a food photo. I hope it just looks good. I'm not thinking of any story to tell, which is why he is a professional, and I'm a home cook who wants to take better photos.
But there is a lot to learn from his comments. The idea of layering odd numbers looks better than even numbers, colors, texture, time of day, and audience.
Yes, Tim is shooting this for a client and has time to work out all these ideas before taking it. Most of us try to get a good shot before the kids scream, "LET'S EAT."
With practice and Tim's help, I'll start noticing some of these particulars and applying them to my own food photography.
Keep taking those food photos, and let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.