How to Take the Best Photos of Your Meals
Not only a "reluctant" gourmet, I've been a "reluctant" food photographer but that's going to change over the next few months. Why? Because I'm now friends with professional photographer Tim Turner who has forgotten more about shooting food images than I'll ever know. Tim has been taking food photos professionally for over 30 years and has photographed dozens of cookbooks for some of your favorite chefs.
I met Tim last year when we were both visiting our daughters at parent's weekend at their college. Our daughters were friends and arranged for us all to go out to dinner to meet each other. I knew Tim was a very successful food photographer but didn't want to bother him with a bunch of questions about his profession.
This years parent's weekend was different. We spent a lot more time getting to know each other and when I told him I wanted to learn how to take better photos of what I was cooking, he was happy to answer my questions and was incredibly generous with ideas, techniques and encouragement.
Keeping It Simple
What I most appreciate about Tim's approach to food photography is how simple he makes it. He could have overwhelmed me right from the start with technical information about F-stops, shutter speeds, ISO's and all the other important photography jargon that I'm sure we will sometime talk about, but he started by asking me what type of light I'm using and where it is in relationship to what I'm photographing.
I told him I sometimes use natural light when the weather outside is cooperating but most often use the dining room overhead light or when motivated, my softbox lighting kit that I purchased online for less than $75. And when I do use the professional quality light, it's usually placed behind me on the left or right.
Most Important Tip So Far
Tim explained it didn't matter if I used natural light outside or coming into the house through a window. He suggested if I like using natural light, go out and buy a small cart on wheels, the kind you can find at stores like Ikea or The Container Store. This way you can set up your table top props and move them all together depending on where the light is coming into the house. Makes sense to me.
I don't think he would consider the overhead dining room light but he seemed to suggest a standard light fixture would be fine if placed in the right position and absolutely appreciated I had use of a softbox light and a piece of foam core board you can pick up at any office supply store. I'll have to ask him about different bulbs available for photography and which ones he recommends most.
The first tip he offered was to think of my setup like a clock with the camera sitting at 6 o'clock and the food on the table directly in front of the camera. Next, place the light source at either 10 o'clock or 2 o'clock rather than where I usually had it coming from behind me.
The piece of white foam core is placed on the opposite side of the source light at either 5 or 7 o'clock. It is used to reflect light from the source to "fill in" the front of the plate and food. It's easy to move around to get just the right amount of fill.
See the Difference
As you can see from the photos of my test salad photos below, keeping the source light at the same height and approximate distance from the plate of salad, there is quite a difference in results when the light is behind you at 5 o'clock and when it's at 2 o'clock.
Tim explained having the light behind you will make your food look "flat" whereas having the light coming from behind the food will give it some "pop" by giving it more depth. The photo of the shrimp risotto above was shot with the source light at 2 o'clock.
Both photos below are shot with the camera the same distance from the salads, 35 mm and there were no Photoshop filters or adjustments made. I'm hoping to learn more about "fixing" up my photos using those tools in the future.
Please don't pay attention to the props, background, camera height or focus but look at the lighting for differences and which one appeals to you. We will look at all these other facets of photographing food in the future but for now, I think this one tip will help anyone take better food shots.
Source Light Behind the Camera at 5 o'clock. Light is Flat
Source Light Behind the Salad at 2 o'clock. Makes the Food Pop.
My Homework Assignment
For homework, Tim suggested I try comparing photos by moving the light higher than the table and then even with the table. Then to move the light closer to the table and further back and see what different results I get.
I'll tell you what I discovered and then what Tim had to say about my experiences.
Hope you enjoy these posts and invite you to tell your friends if they are interested in learning more about food photography.
Thank You for the shout out. Way to much about me but I understand the need. Now everyone knows me. Hello! About Gary- He didn't forget a thing I told him, even whilst sipping a beverage and cooking burgers on a cheap grill. My advice is he will be a great conduit of info for everyone interested.
I would suggest doing a storyboard, or a series of photographs of a dish like a salad with a few tomatoes, croutons and cucumber slices. Start with the light at 7 o'clock and move it around the clock till 5 o'clock. String all the photos in a row and it will give a very easy to follow map of the light. You can do a second pass with the light higher and a third pass around the clock with the light at a low angle, about table height, and see the real differences.
I am very glad to be a part of the LESS Reluctant Gourmet Photo Studio.
G. Stephen Jones
What More Homework? Just kidding. What a great exercise for all of us who want to improve our photo skills to try at home. Thank you Tim for working to help me learn more about food photography so I can share it with my readers. I'm hoping we can all learn a lot while having fun at the same time.