An Amateur’s Perspective on Food Photography – A New Series

by Jenn on January 8, 2011

in Gluten Free,Photography

_PAG1449strawberrysalad Bleu Cheese Stuffed Burgers

Welcome to a new series on Jenn Cuisine!  I know most of you are here for great gluten free food, which is definitely here to stay.  In fact, after 2010’s success posting completely gluten free recipes for the entire year, I’ve decided to make this site full of all gluten free deliciousness for 2011 too!  But I have also started to get questions regarding the photography on this site, and so decided to start a little photography series here on Jenn Cuisine.

As a gluten free blogger, I think it is especially important to show how appetizing gluten free food can look.  When cooking GF you not only are overcoming the hurdle of cooking without gluten, but also have to overcome the mental hurdle in many people’s minds that anything gluten free won’t taste as good, even though in several cases I feel that gluten free can taste better than the conventional methods (dark chocolate hazelnut brownies, anyone?).  However, one cannot give flavor directly to the reader on a blog.  One can only do so by the words with which one writes and the photos/videos one displays.

Over the almost three years that this little blog has been on the interwebs, I’ve been able to improve my photography significantly, and hoped that sharing some of the things I’ve learned along the way may be useful to others – to see photography from a complete amateur’s perspective, who started from knowing absolutely nothing: nothing about light, any settings outside of auto, or even styling (ok I still know nothing about styling really…).  I’m not claiming to be an expert, nor even really know what I am doing half the time.  I, am learning  – always :)

That being said, nearly everything I have learned about photography I have learned from:
A) reading my manual – good to know what all the buttons do!
B) fiddling around with settings – just playing to see what happens when I change things
C) online tutorials (I keep a collection of links so I can always refer back to them)
D) helpful kind people willing to critique my work and give me tips & suggestions
E) taking LOTS and LOTS of photos – it’s not too late to try a project 365, perhaps?
F) looking at beautiful photos of food.
G) looking at not beautiful photos of food.

As someone learning about food photography, I think all of these seven things are important.  However, a lot of people tend to overlook part F when they are first starting out.  I’m an avid reader of several people who publish food blogs with beautiful food.  I follow groups on flickr like Food stylism which is a gorgeous collection of photographs taken by many different people.  Every time I thumb through my favorite food/recipe magazines, I’m always looking at the pictures as well.

Being able to look at a photo and get something out of it that I can take away and apply to my own photos can be a bit tricky though.  I started just by asking myself, what makes this photo beautiful to me?  I try to imagine in my head how it looked on the table, where the photographer would have been standing to see the frame that got published on the page.  I think about what angle the photographer chose to take the picture, why each element in the frame is positioned where it is, and where the color is.  Are there shadows? How does their presence/absence help the photo?  These types of questions.  I don’t always have the answers, but just bringing to my mind the types of things I want to look for in a photo is often helpful – if for nothing else but to remind me of these things when I am trying to make my own pictures of food.

The counterpart to part F of course is G, being able to look at photos that need improvement, and understanding what improvements need to happen.  Just as it’s important to look at gorgeous photos for inspiration, it’s beneficial to be able to look at your own work with a critical eye as well.  If you can identify concrete changes that need to happen to better a certain photo, then you have just started to create for yourself a strategy plan for improvement.

For example, three years ago I was visiting my parents and cooked them a special dinner.  I thought this photo of pan-seared prosciutto wrapped scallops on pasta was totally awesome, and I boasted about it proudly to my friends (even if I was a bit more modest on the actual post, ha!):


While this dish was incredibly tasty, I think you can say that the photo is a bit of a train wreck.

Why? Well let’s just evaluate this photo quick.

The first thing I look at is the lighting.  I remember taking this, I can tell you there were fluorescent lights on over head in the central part of the kitchen, and incandescents on just above the stove.  It was also daylight out too – early afternoon I believe.  That’s a total of three different light sources, all of which combined together to create different colors on different parts of the photo – see how the left side of the plate is red? That’s from the stove light.  Those shadows are also being cast from the stove light.  The right side of the bowl is almost green/blue, partly from the flourescents and partly from the daylight coming in from the window behind/left of the bowl.  All those different colors of light mean that no matter how much I play in photoshop (and play I did to get this pic above), without some master artistic masking/painting skills, it’s going to be next to impossible to remove all those different hues.  Those direct lights also made a lot of glare spots on the prosciutto.  Last I checked, prosciutto shouldn’t be that shiny…

Speaking of lighting, how was the exposure?  To me it looks a bit dark.  The white plate is no where near white, and the shadows in the poorly chopped basil hide parts of the dish.  But I was in auto, on a point & shoot, and at that time had no idea I could actually have some control over such things (guess what, you do have control! even some control with a point & shoot!).

Now I look at the background, because here it’s kind of distracting. I think it’s pretty obvious to tell that the bowl is sitting on the counter, partly on a cutting board, and it’s next to the stove on the right.  That drop of sauce that fell on the counter in the bottom left as I was plating? ha – definitely not the most attractive thing to have in this photo.

How is the angle? I was almost directly overhead which makes the dish look a bit flat.  The way I have plated the dish doesn’t leave me with many options though.  Yeah the plating is atrocious.  The pasta is every which way with ends poking out in odd directions, the scallops look like they were just thrown on to the plate, and that basil too – wow.  This was before I knew the technique called a chiffonade, an elegant way to cut up basil that doesn’t bruise the leaves so much.

And the composition? The main focal point of this pic was supposed to be dead center (it’s actually a bit below).  To me, being so centered looks boring.  I might have done better to move the plate a little off to the side a bit, and keep things from being so symmetrical.  Symmetry can be pretty, but not in this case.

I’m sure you can find other things wrong with this old photo of prosciutto wrapped scallops & pasta.  I only pointed out some of the biggest flaws that stand out to me now.  If I had done this little self-ciritique then, I probably wouldn’t have felt as great about that pic.  But I would have known much sooner things that I needed to fix.  Such as to only use one kind of lighting, and to take the time to learn what types of customizations to shutter speed, aperture, and ISO I can do with my camera.  Or to have a background to a photo that doesn’t distract so much.

Figuring these things out helped me to take the photos at the top of this post a year and a half later in the same exact place on my parents’ countertop next to their stove – obviously these photos still both have issues with them, but you can’t argue that it’s not an improvement (in fact both the salad and the burgers got on the illustrious Foodgawker!) – I thought more about my background, used a more pleasing angle, and stuck with only one overhead lighting that was much easier to then correct for in photoshop.

My first tip of my amateur’s food photography series is to look at lots of photos – your own, photos of others, both beautiful and terrible.  Look at them with a critical eye, and try to figure why you feel a certain photo rocks or turns you off from it.  Look at the lighting, exposure, focus, how everything is arranged in the pic, choices of colors in the frame, the background, even how the food is plated.  It will help you a lot in figuring out what you need to do to improve your food photography!