photography technique

i’ve gotten several requests asking about the setup of my food photography. i haven’t really done much macro or food photography work so the kind of advice i can give is pretty limited, but i’ll see if i can break it down to some basics after the jump.

for those uninterested in technical photography stuffs, i’d suggest you just move on…

food photography is probably one of the most challenging types of photography i’ve encountered so far. the challenge with food photography is that the bulk of the work is done in trying to make the food look as appetizing as possible.

the problem is that food, when shot like any normal picture, just doesn’t look that good. there are many reasons for this, but mostly because food is generally a relatively small subject. as such, you have to really get in there to be able to accentuate all of the little details in the food.

i actually don’t have a very good setup to do macro or food photography work and you can spend thousands of dollars to get just the right setup. i personally don’t think that i will be doing a lot of this kind of work so i don’t plan to make the investment in lenses. but if you are so inclined, i hear that macro lenses are great for this use. in the canon line, i would probably buy the 100mm f/2.8 macro lens. it’s sufficiently long enough so that you are workably far away from your subject and it’s a 1:1 zoom macro lens. the minimum focus distance is something like 6″ so you get some nice zooming with this lens.

but hey, maybe you don’t want to spend $450 on a specialty lens…well, yeah, that’s me, too.

i do macro photography with two lenses: my canon 17-40mm f/4L and my tamrom 70-300mm f/4-5.6 lenses. i find that the tamron lens’ ridiculously long minimum focus distance of like 5 feet makes it really hard to use this as a macro lens. but when i do have the patience to tripod mount this setup, i can use it at 300mm and get some decent shots. but i would say that 97% of all of the macro work i’ve done so far has actually been shot with the lens that i use 98% of the time on my camera: the 17-40mm f/4L.

i love this lens. i can’t help it. now, if you are shooting film, i would not recommend this lens for macro work because i think that it probably is just too wide. but on my Canon 10D, it’s a fairly usable lens. i like it because you can get really close to the subject and it’s got a fairly wide aperature. i’ve also shot macro work with its more expensive and not-so-distant cousin, the canon 16-35mm f/2.8L. i enjoy using both lenses, though the 16-35 does give you a little bit more shallow depth of field, but it sometimes does become a challenge to take pictures with the aperture at 2.8.

ok, so anyway, that is my lens setup. the most important aspect of macro and food photography, i feel, is lighting. available light is probably the worst kind of light to use when shooting food. we think of appetizing food as looking really bright, vibrant, and shiny if applicable. if the food is wet, it should be really shiny to show off that it is really moist. if the food is really flavorful, it should be really rich in color.

usually when we see food, we smell the food and it is the olfactory cue that tells us that it is appetizing. when we take that element out of the picture, our visual senses only respond to intensity of color and light as being desirable. because of that lighting plays a big, big role in food photography.

a nice background is very important. i use a sheet of cloth i picked up at a fabric store for a few dollars a yard and i iron it before every shoot. every little wrinkle WILL show up and though it is a pain, it is well worth it.

to do a shoot, i can use up to four flashes. usually, when i shoot food photography, i use one or two flashes. most people (myself included) don’t like to work with flash because they feel that their pictures look overexposed. this is generally because direct flashes are used. using a flash that directly lights up a scene generally yields harsh shadows and overexposed color tones, so instead bounce flashing is used.

a bounce flash is when light that is emitted from the flash is sent to some object (a wall, umbrella, reflector, etc) and then the light bounces off that object and then falls onto your subject. the two flashes i generally use in my setup are the Canon 420EX and the Canon 550EX. i usually have the 550EX pointing directly up at the ceiling as a fill flash so it bounces off the ceiling and back on the subject. i also use the Canon ST-E2 transmitter so that i can place the flashes off camera…though this isn’t entirely necessary…it just makes it easier to shoot the pictures because i don’t have to readjust the flash head when i change perspectives on my subject.

the second light i use moves around a bit, but is mostly used to create a subtle shadow on my subject. for the most part, i think that i like to have just a little shadow coming towards the viewer so my flash is bounced off a wall away from me so that light comes back at me. i use an umbrella and light stand attached to my flash to have a bounce flash to create the shadow.

using one flash is a bit more of a challenge, but i do it from time to time as well. the problem with one flash is that the shadow created from it can be a little harsh. but if i do use a single flash, it is usually bounced at where the wall meets the ceiling.

and finally composition…food photography generally looks best when you zoom into the subject. the subject should fill most of the scene. pay attention to the details. crumbs will be picked up in these types of shots so you need to make sure that there aren’t any. the usual rules of composition still apply, though. i generally try to follow the rule of thirds, even with this kind of photography.

most people feel compelled to take a picture of the whole subject when they do food photography. this is not necessary and is usually counterproductive. instead, try to zoom in and get a part of the subject and then let it fill out the frame.

i think those are the general principles i emply whenever i do food photography.


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