A couple of weeks ago I did a food photography and styling workshop which also included healthy cooking, as this is where it all starts for me. It was en essentially practical workshop in which I shared my work process and some tips and tricks and then the participants got to compose and shoot a food scene.

For all of you who would have loved to join the workshop, but couldn't, here is what the participants learned.

Inspiration can have many sources: an ingredient, a recipe, a color combination, etc., etc. The process of developing an idea and approaching a photo session is something that has changed tremendously from my start in food photography to where I am now. Before I used to cook something and then take the camera out once it was ready, moving things around a bit, trying to get a few pictures before the food got cold, trying to ignore the impatient looks from my family. Nowadays I create my photos in a very different manner. It's something that meant a huge improvement for my photos, so I recommend you

  • think about the emotion you want to transmit and the story you're going to tell
  • create a moodboard (you don't have to do this every time, except it's client work). It can be a simple pinterest board with images that inspire you for that specific shoot and the pictures don't have to be food pictures. There can be images that transmit a feeling you're after, or a combination of colors you'd like to use, an image that uses light in a special way and so on.
  • take your time. Just reheat the food when you're ready to eat it.
  • make a sketch of the different compositions (and/or angles) you plan to shoot. of course you're still free to experiment and to be spontaneous, but I find that it helps tremendously in the sessions, things just flow a lot easier and I make sure I don't forget something important.

Light is essential for any type of photography. In the workshop we saw a typical food photography setup and some of its variations. In food photography we most commonly have a single light source. Sidelight is what is used most as it gives dimension and volume to the food. Backlight is great for bringing out the glistening of a fresh chocolate glaze or the glare on a drink. We differentiate hard light (pronounced shadows that have clear borders) from soft or diffused light (results in soft shadows without a clear contour). Small light source result in hard light and big light sources make soft light. In food photography, hard light is trending, but soft light is still the standard.

To soften our light, you can use a diffuser (either from one of these very practical reflector and diffuser sets or you can just use a white sheet or white baking paper and pin it onto your window. The diffuser goes between the light source and your subject. On the other side of your food, you might place a white cardboard to bounce back some light onto your scene and thus further soften your shadows.

It's important to take into account the inverse square law of light which simply puts that the potency of light decreases very quickly with distance from your light source (at 1 unit of distance you'll have half the light and at 2 units of distance only 1/4). So get your food close to your light source.

I encourage you to experiment with this! Take the same picture with and without a diffuser, with and without a reflector on the other side, closer and farther away from your light source and have a close look at how these manipulations affect the photo.

Especially for dark and moody photos, you might also block out pat of the light and use a black cardboard to absorb light instead of bouncing it back and thus create deeper shadows.

I've already mentioned mood, but without going into the details. Mood is what we feel and experience when looking at a photograph. In the workshop we defined the 4 moods in food photography:

  • “Bright & Airy” - images with a lot of light, mostly soft light and a predominance of bright colors (especially of the backdrop). These pictures give an uplifting, clean and happy feeling.
  • “Bright & Moody” - bright tones, a lot of light, but more melancholic, often due to more pronounced shadows and less saturated colors.
  • “Dark & Moody” - dark and melancholy. There is less light, the backdrops are dark and shadows are strong. There might be a strong contrast between illuminated and dark areas (chiaroscuro). Sometimes there is a fusion of the shadow part of a food object with the background.
  • “Dark & Bold” - Impactful images in which dark backdrops are used to create a pop-out effect of the (often very colorful) food that is placed on top and which is well illuminated. Shadows are less important.

In the workshop, we went over the most important angles for food photography and how the best angle is often determined by what we are shooting.

The frontal angle is best for high objects like a layer cake or a stack of pancakes.

A 10-25º angle is similar to the frontal angle, but gives a little more insight into the volume and onto the top of the food.

The 45º angle is very typical as it simulates the view of somebody sitting at a table.

A 90º angle works well for flat foods like pizza and other food that looks best from the top.

When composing an image it is important to know from which angle you'll shoot. If we shoot straight on for example, the smaller objects should be in the front. Nevertheless, it's a good exercise to try different angles with the camera in hand once you composed your scene, to find the hero angle (aka the one that best shows off your food).

Using color theory helps in creating impactful images. We can use

  • Complementary colors (opposed in the colorwheel, combinations like red-green, orange-blue and yellow-violet)
  • Analogous colors (next to each other on the colorwheel, like yellow-green or orange-red-violet)
  • Monochromatic (different hues of one and the same color)

Some takeaways about props from the workshop were:

  • Props are really important in food photography as we're creating a scene from 0.
  • Handmade ceramics are expensive, but their unique look can take the image up a notch. Slowly building a collection, especially with multi-purpose pieces in neutral colors (so that it won't look like you're always using the same thing!) is a good idea.
  • Look for neutral colors (whites, beige, grey) with a matte finish.
  • Look out for smaller pieces. This is one of the mistakes I was making in the beginning. A huge fork can acquire too much weight in a scene and you'll want your plates to look full without a huge amount of food on them. You'll also want to be able to fit several plates into your frame.
  • They have to fit with our story. don't just add beautiful pieces, make sure they add value to the scene without being overpowering. Sometimes less is more.

Composition is the skeleton of your image. If you use compositional rules well, they won't be noticed, but will create impacting images. Some of the compositional techniques we saw and put to use in the workshop are:

  • Lines and shapes: good images use lines and shapes in an interesting way. Lines serve to guide the viewer through the image. Horizontal lines suggest stability, vertical lines suggest strength. Lines can be in the food itself or in the props. They can be positive or negative (if you look at the images from the workshop, one group styled a focaccia which was sliced into irregular shapes, the lines between slices forming an appealing pattern). La repetición de formas da cohesión a una imagen.

Practical advice: cutlery should always point at one of the edges.

  • Rule of 2/3. Consists in dividing the image in 9 equal parts and placing the important elements at the intersections. It's visually pleasing and creates dynamic tension (as opposed to placing your main subject in the middle).
  • Layers. Creating layers is a very useful technique to make flat or otherwise boring food more interesting. Layers provide depth and dimension. They can be created using props (think stacking smaller plates on larger plates, a napkin, or some baking paper) or with the food (place some strawberries and dusted sugar on top of a brownie, top a soup with kale, lentils and toasted seeds, etc.). At the workshop one group decorated a cake with fruit jam and red fruits and also placed a napkin below.
  • Rule of odds. Odd numbers are more interesting. This rule favours the number 3 which often creates the geometric figure of a triangle. With 3 elements, there is a center on which the viewer's gaze can rest. With four elements there is no center and we can be confused as to were to direct our gaze. From 5 elements on our brain tends to group them into "many".
  • Negative space. I use this technique often in my images. It's about leaving a part of your image free, something that draws the attention towards the main elements. It also provides a sensation of calm.
  • Be messy. Cooking is never a clean process. To make your images more natural, to tell a story and give a feeling of immediacy, leave a few crumbs at the side of your muffin, dust a little flour around your dough, sprinkle a few seeds around your bowl and a few drops of chocolate next to your freshly glazed bundtcake. Be aware though of keeping it simple, it shouldn't guide the attention away from the food.

To get an idea about which images attract you, create a pinterest board with images that inspire you. Now take some time to look at these images. What’s the general impression? Is there a common element (are they all rather dark and moody for example)? Now look at the images one by one. What kind of feeling do they transmit? How is the light created (from which direction does it come, how are the shadows)? Which props are being used? Which kind of composition? Colors? At what angle was it taken? Train yourself to look for these things.

The most important factor in finding your style though is experience. Create, shoot and analyze. Again and again. Until you start noticing a type of images that look characteristic to you. Another clue is the feeling you have when shooting. Is there a certain type of session in which you completely loose track of time and pretty much everything around you? Finally I want you to know that a personal style doesn’t have to be static, it can evolve and change with time.

Images can gain a lot through editing. I think that editing is a big part of the “wow-factor” of an image. It’s also an important part of having a personal and cohesive style. I’ll leave you with a link to a video in which I show you how I edit an image from start to finish (without keeping any secrets!).

Did you find this post interesting? If you’d like to receive more food photography tips and tricks, as well as info about my workshops, sign up for my newsletter and get a guide on how to start shooting in manual mode or on how to use flash in food photography and make it look like natural light.

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