Amateur’s Food Photography VIII: Exploring New Directions

by Jenn on April 28, 2011

in Photography

Buttered Asparagus w/ Parmesan

Rather than being instructional today, I wanted to share with you a part of my journey, and an incredible experience that I had over Easter break in Italy learning all about food photography and lighting in a lesson from Dario Milano of Food Pixels!

I’ve really tried my best to keep this series as non-technical as possible.  Because I truly believe a good photographer can read a situation and make the best of their equipment available to create a pretty photo – after all have you looked at Penny de Los Santos‘ awesome iphone photography? That’s with an iphone, not even a dedicated camera! Really, photos can be made from anything.

Unfortunately, it’s with this philosophy that I have wrongly justified my lack of equipment, lack of props, and lack of ways to manipulate light – it’s so inspiring to think and see that even with my meager equipment and setup, I too have the ability to make food look yummy in a picture.  And then this is validated even more when I can get a photo up on Tastespotting or Foodgawker that didn’t even involve any styling or thought – I just spooned some salad onto a plate, put it on another plate, put that on a chair and snapped 5 frames.  “Oh, I must be getting really good at this!” I say to myself.  And for me, that’s the first clue that I’m doing something very wrong.

I’m normally really hard on myself and I constantly critique my own work, which I think is really important if I am going to learn how to push myself to progress and improve.  Take any photo of mine and I will tell you at least ten things that I should have done differently or don’t like about it.  So when I start getting complacent, I know something is up.  I try to catch myself and search for how this stagnancy in my progress appeared, and most invariably it’s because I’ve reached a limitation that leaves me at a loss as for how to go about finding a solution.  And in this case, my limitations are multifold – I’ve always known my biggest weaknesses are composition and lighting (ha those are pretty big things, eh?), and so I went back through my latest posts to see where I’ve fallen flat.

I tried to think of what my “photographic style” is at the moment – and the best description I could come up with  looking at my latest photos was “in your face” – and that’s not a phrase that describes a style nor anything I’d really ever want to be associated with food – but those words describe my shortcomings exactly.  My photos are close. Very close. Why? Because I don’t set a scene, I completely fill the frame with the food in hopes that no one will be distracted by my lack of settings and props.  As a result my photos don’t tell a story.  They just say, “I ate this and I thought it was yummy” – and while looking “yummy” is always a goal of mine, I don’t want that to be the end-all be-all to my photography.  Food has so much emotive power, as we all know.  I want to be able to use that emotive power to convey a message – a feeling – something more than simply “yummy”.

Looking at my own images, flat was definitely the key word here – while I know shadows are great, my limited natural lighting and even more limited ways to manipulate it have left my photos falling flat.  I haven’t been able to tame the shadows enough to make them soft without blowing out the bright spots – as a result I had my table pressed up right next to my totally diffused window,  my white foam board pressed up right next to my food, et voilà: goodbye shadows, goodbye dimension, hello flat and boring:

mushroom risotto with chevre stuffed zucchini blossoms White bean and tuna pesto salad

See how the fork barely casts a shadow at all?  Not to mention that while I love IKEA’s affordability, IKEA forks and furniture don’t always make for very interesting accompaniments to photos.  But when I took it I was happy with it.  As for the bean salad on the right, it’s boring – the light is shining onto the front of the food with hardly any dimension behind it, there’s no styling, and those white plates are not helping the food “pop” at all.  And the color of the wooden chair doesn’t do anything for the photo either.  But I took my five frames and was done with it, content.  I had grown complacent with my inadequate modifications, because I didn’t know what I needed to be doing to fix the situation.  I just chocked it up to “beyond my control, stupid sun and clouds outside hate me”, and moved on.

But such things are never truly beyond one’s control.

So last weekend, on my trip to Torino, Italy, I went for a photography lesson under the instruction of Dario Milano of Food Pixels to thrust myself into the world of supplemental lighting and props – and what an enlightening and eye opening experience it was!  I had long admired Dario’s work – his food photography blog and the goldmine of advice therein have been so instrumental in my own growth so far, I really could think of no one else I’d rather learn about lighting from.

Dario introduced me to the whole concept of incorporating supplemental lighting (specifically flash) into a food photo shoot.  Normally most everything I’ve read online about food photography has made a very good effort to drill into my head “natural light is good, flash is bad”.  And if all you have is the flash that came built in to your camera, that’s probably true.  I mean we’ve all see on-board flash travesties like this (a clear “gem” from my own collection, not even two and a half years ago):


But it doesn’t mean ALL flash is bad.  Just that crappy flash you can’t really control that only faces front on your camera.  There’s a whole world of photography/lighting that doesn’t have to involve the pop up flash on your camera, and external flashes are a relatively inexpensive and accessible way to start out.  There are flashes where you can control light output, angle them in different directions, even move them around and bounce them or reflect them or shine them in certain ways to bring specific qualities of light to your image.

In fact supplemental lighting can be really really beneficial to a shoot.  Let’s face it – there are just some times when I don’t want to be at the sun’s mercy for the quality of light coming through the window.  And a flash can be placed anywhere in a room to position it however you want, it doesn’t have to be stuck on the camera.  I wanted to learn how to use flash because I wanted to better understand how to manipulate and control light to suit my needs.  I didn’t want to be constantly pressed up to the window trying to get whatever dim light was passing through, or figuring out how to deal with bright streaks where direct light passing between two buildings managed to sneak its way in right at the moment my food was ready to shoot.  I wanted options other than praying for pretty light, and I needed some guidance as to how to take this new big step because I’d never done anything like this before, ever.  So I chose to spend an afternoon of my Easter vacation embracing my “geeky” side and learning about (new-to-me) tools that I could use to better my photography and create those images that I’ve always envisioned in my head but never figured out how to actually execute :)

Getting to spend the afternoon learning form Dario was really awesome.  I’m still trying to find a way to process all of the information we covered in those four short hours.  I learned about how balancing flash intensity with exposure can create different effects, and how natural and flash light can be mixed together along with smart use of reflectors or diffusers to balance light in ways that create a pleasing look.  I learned to be cognizant of reflections and make sure to look for mistakes like double shadows.  That some foods are more reflective than others and maybe need different lighting treatment.  That what works for asparagus may or may not work for shiny tomatoes and vice versa.  And that the size and distance of a light source have the most effect on the light’s quality when it hits the subject – a single flash can be made to be as soft as a cloudy day, or as hard as direct sunlight depending on how you manipulate things to focus or feather the light that shines out – it all depends on your treatment of the light.

And I also learned a lot about props and backgrounds – they can be just as important as (or sometimes even more so than) the food.  They set the scene and the tone, and the right placement/composition can completely transform a photo and make it shine.  If you’re going for a vintage rustic look, those brand new shiny plates might not be ideal.  One has to think about the props and how they influence the scene, and how their aesthetics play with the food as well.  I know from now on I’m going to be much more active about building up my prop collection (which probably also means being much more active about building up my communication skills en français) so that I am not forced to choose between this boring white plate and that boring white plate, and so my props can have a little more sense of purpose in my photos.

Aren’t his props just awesome??


I even got to play with a few of Dario’s amazing props during the lesson, where we photographed the asparagus above – he has so many gorgeous plates and trays and cups, and I just loved those salt and pepper shakers that we used…

And as for that asparagus above? It was delicious – so simply prepared – just boiled with some (ok a lot of) browned butter on top and parmesan.  This was actually photographed with only natural light (and a lot of Dario’s help)- because sometimes a simple setup is all that’s needed.

I can’t help but give a big shout-out and thanks so much to Dario for being so helpful and informative, and for really opening my eyes to a lot of possibilities and inspiration!

Now, how do I move forward after such an amazing lesson and experience?  I have to make myself a setup, invest in a little gear, and go hunting for more pieces to use for photos – maybe give myself a “food photography arts & crafts day” where I make myself some good surfaces to use for backgrounds, and practice practice practice, and experiment, and practice and then experiment some more – I have a feeling figuring out how to use supplemental lighting will also do wonders for my ability to interpret and react to already available lighting as well.  Oh – and I also must bake my husband a gluten free coconut pie (or two) to thank him for being so willing to have us spend an entire afternoon of our Easter vacation learning about photography – my husband rocks so much that he “gets” me and what makes me happy :)

So my advice this week is to not be afraid of exploring new directions and techniques, and don’t be afraid of seeking help – each new skill acquired can open up a myriad of new photographic possibilities.

What new directions have you been taking your food photography lately? Any new techniques you are exploring?

Missed the earlier posts and want to catch up on the rest of this series?
1 – Look at photos with a critical eye
2 – Food photography is about celebrating light
3 – Take your time and find your “zen place”
4 – Angles of Light
5 – Pay Attention to Props
6 – The Histogram
7 – It’s Not the Camera, It’s the Lighting