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How to Shoot Great Food Photos

Tercius Bufete

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If you're a food-lover like me, your Instagram feed is flooded with food photos and Thanksgiving is, well, the food photographer’s Super Bowl.

Who can resist taking a few snaps of the honey-glazed ham, bourbon pecan pie, bacon and leek stuffing, and, of course, the 20-pound roasted turkey? But all too often the pictures we post are less appetizing than a decade-old can of cranberry sauce. (Need proof? Just take a look at last year’s pics.)

But there are some simple ways to fix that, says Sharon Chen, a Texas-based food photographer and blogger. With some attention to detail and a few basic tricks, you can significantly improve your food photos, even the ones you shoot with your smartphone.

Chen agreed to share some photos and walk us through the techniques she used to make them sizzle. Give her tips a try and you'll soon have photos that are a true feast for the eyes.

Find the Best Light

With any photograph, light is the most important ingredient, Chen says. And natural light is usually preferable to the artificial kind.

If you're not inclined to carry your gourmet spread to the backyard, lay it out near a window. Of course, that's not always feasible, especially when you're dining in someone else's home or in a restaurant or bar. In that case, you may want to bring some light of your own. A flash isn't ideal unless you're willing to disturb your fellow diners.

Chen says food photographers often use portable lamps. She advises bringing a small, adjustable LED light. A model such as the Manfrotto Lumimuse 3 LED, $45, lets out a steady stream of light that can be increased little by little without causing a commotion. In a pinch, you can even use the flashlight function on your smartphone, Chen says, assuming you have a camera at hand to take the picture. Simply adjust the volume of light by shining it through your napkin.

Choose Your Angle

Chen tends to shoot her food photos from one of three viewpoints: overhead, straight-ahead, or at a 45-degree angle.

The overhead approach is great for conveying the variety and abundance of ingredients in a dish or the sweep of a holiday spread.

The straight-ahead shot comes in handy when you want to point out the height of a stack of pancakes or a Dagwood sandwich. It's also useful for showing off the grain in a slab of cheese.

The 45-degree angle allows you to draw on the strengths of both of those viewpoints. It's a clever way to show off the charred outside and tender middle of an expertly grilled steak.

From time to time, Chen says she's even been known to step on her chair in a restaurant to get the perfect angle. "It used to be weird," she says, "but these days everybody is a little more forgiving, because they know what you're up to."

Set the Stage

Once you've chosen the best angle, take some time to set the scene. With food photography, you want the background to be very simple, Chen says. So remove all unnecessary objects from the setting: napkins, salt shaker—anything that's likely to be a distraction.

At the same time, Chen likes to include props such as wooden spoons, flowers in vases, and bits of garnish. Nothing in the frame of her shot is there by accident.

Chen also recommends looking for ways to complement your food with color. A blue plate or tablecloth, for example, will make an orange dish such as pie or churros seem more appealing. And a dark, neutral background will make the star attraction pop.

You might even want to rotate your dishes, shifting less colorful fare such as beans, mashed potatoes, and plain white rice to the back of the frame.

And finally, wipe any stray crumbs, butter, or oil from the edge of the plates. You want all eyes on the main course.  

Pick the Right Settings

You can snap appealing food photos with your smartphone, but even the best smartphone cameras have limitations, especially in low light.

If you really want to dazzle your Instagram followers, it pays to use a conventional camera, one that lets you adjust parameters such as the aperture and ISO setting. (When you're shooting with your phone, try using an app such as Manual or Camera FV-5 Lite, which gives you added control over your photos.)

Chen usually shoots her food photos with a 12-year-old 6-megapixel Nikon D70 using a 50mm lens. For $600 or less, you can get a modern DSLR that comes recommended by Consumer Reports' testers, such as the Nikon D3300 or Canon EOS Rebel T5i. Both cameras perform well, even in the low-light conditions you might find in your favorite bistro.

Many mirrorless cameras and advanced point-and-shoot cameras, such as the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II, also offer great image quality along with manual controls. 

Which settings should you start with? Chen says she uses a wide aperture of f/3.5 for most of her images. This allows a good amount light to come into the camera and blurs the background, making the food take center stage. It's the same technique photographers often use for portraits.

Chen advises budding food photographers to use the lowest ISO possible, which usually results in a higher-quality image. Start with an ISO of 100 and adjust upward if needed.

Add Some Action

Adding subtle action to food photography makes it more interesting and dynamic. And yes, this means you have an excuse to play with your food.

Dripping sauces, melted cheese flowing off a spoon, and toppings being poured over ice cream can enhance your photography.

To freeze that kind of motion, Chen advises using a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second or faster. You also need to find a way to get the action you want while working your camera. She relies on a tripod.

"I adjust my camera settings first by taking a few nonaction shots," she says. "When everything looks good, I will do the action and press the shutter button at the same time." 

Another option—and the one I prefer—is to enlist a friend who's willing to supply the action. Let her dust the Dutch baby pancake with confectioners sugar or pour the olive oil while you snap the photo. After all, shooting food photos is usually a precursor to digging into a good dish—and the best meals are the one we share with others. (Camera tripods make terrible conversationalists.)

As a bonus, tag your photo assistant in your Instagram post and you're almost guaranteed a "like."



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