Photography is pretty simple stuff. You just react to what you see, and take many, many pictures.
Truth be told, I love photography for many reasons, one being the sense of peace that comes with observing the world around me. Photography forces a photographer to be centered. To photograph means slowing down and being present to the moment, open to the flow of time, unhurried. Photography appeals to me as well because of the pattern recognition it requires, an offshoot of the quilter in me. I used to make quilts, yes. And I started doing that because I couldn’t afford the beautiful quilts I saw around here when I was in graduate school. So I taught myself.
Same thing with photography, essentially. Anyway, a few years ago, I needed illustrations for my mushroom book and, like many food writers, I surmised that my publisher provided a terrifying and tiny illustrations budget. So I decided that I had to include some of my own photos in the book. And I did. And I learned a lot, I repeat a lot, about what makes photography tick. There’s something exhilarating about understanding the basics about photography, beyond the camera phone, the point-and-shoot, and other modern versions of the Brownie Instamatic camera.*
Since then, I have spent a great deal of time with my camera (a Nikon D7100), photography books, classes at the local nationally well-recognized university, and Photoshop, trying to master a few rudimentary tricks to enhance what I think my eyes see when I am on the other side of the camera. Trial and error, mostly error! Just as Erwitt says!
Food photography, unless the object is to chronicle the entire making of a recipe or dish, essentially means fashioning a scene that resembles a still life, an art form perfected by numerous painters throughout the centuries. Many of the rules of composition, lighting, and color still pertain to food illustrations today. Just conjure up Pieter Claesz, Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Pieter Aertsen, Salvador Dalí, and Antonio López García for inspiration.
With the development of technology and software, the sky’s the limit for creativity in food photography, and many publications such as Gather and Graze push against the accepted canon for food photography, a process which occurs all the time. A quick glance at old issues of Gourmet magazine or vintage recipe cards tells the story; most of the food in those photographs is highly unappetizing looking to us today. Styles change in food photography, as well as in fashion. No idea where this will all go. Right now, the style in food photography seems to be portraying tables after a meal, rustic food on dark wooden boards, food seen from on high/overhead, and raw bloody meat and entrails.
So much food out there, so many ingredients available, with countless permutations possible.
*First of all, you need to know that I have absolutely no art background. I am not a professional photographer, and never expect to be. My intent here is to be helpful, not negatively critical. Some photographers are creating gorgeous work via programs like Instagram, etc., yes, and this I applaud. But I will say it straight out here: many photographs of food out there on the Internet are fine and dandy for a personal blog. However, photography sufficient for a personal blog is not always fine for a professional publication; most are really quite unappetizing to look at, sorry to say. After an e-mail conversation with a bunch of fellow food writers, all of whom write for a national online foodie magazine, I was left with the feeling that many writers and bloggers went away from that conversation self-satisfied, believing that using free editing software (similar to Instagram, etc.) and even the camera phone were perfectly fine as long as the photos were a certain size (1 MB). Yes, perhaps for some forms of Web publishing that’s true. And it’s also true that you do not need a hefty dSLR to take adequate photographs. But it helps. You must understand that even though a little camera can take photos as large as 16MB, the editing potential of these .jpegs is greatly reduced. For example, the RAW files from my camera measure around 68.7MB, over four times as large as the output of a small point-and-shoot. Or more. Even if you don’t intend to publish your photos anywhere other than on a blog or whatever, you are starting with a poorer supply of visual material. As for lenses, it is true that food photographers don’t always need a telephoto/zoom lenses, as one opinionated respondent mentioned in that conversation the other day. “You zoom with your feet,” one of the tired platitudes known to most people. A prime lens (50mm, etc.) works fairly well in food photography, but not always. Even a real pro like Lou Manna uses a zoom lens to give his photos a different perspective and viewing angle (p. 164, Digital Food Photography). Trying to get a good rendition of a scene at a farmer’s market is another example where a zoom comes in handy, because you can dial down to 18mm and include more of the action than with a prime lens like a 50mm and you can forget it with an 85mm lens unless you want to walk half a block away! Most dSLRs come with a “kit” lens, usually one that ranges from 18mm-140mm these days, a good walking-around lens except that f-stop tends to be more suited for daylight photography. One more thing, and I’ll jump off the soapbox: Using a flash while photographing food just plain ruins everything. On-camera flashes tend to flatten the image. The solution? Rig up a light and maybe a reflector – a piece of white poster board works well – and bounce the light back at the object being photographed. Use natural light wherever possible; at least that message came through in that discussion.
References for Food Photography:
Armendariz, Matt. Food Photography for Bloggers: Focus on Fundamentals (Focal Press, 2013)
Campbell, Teri. Food Photography & Lighting: A Commercial Photographer’s Guide to Creating Irresistible Images (New Riders, 2012)
Dujardin, Hélène. Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling (Wiley, 2011)
Manna, Lou. Digital Food Photography (Thomson, 2005)
Young, Nicole S. Food Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots (Peachpit Press, 2012)
© 2015 C. Bertelsen