Amateur’s Food Photography XI – Building an image

by Jenn on July 10, 2011

in Photography

Gluten Free Spaghetti

Over the past month or so I’ve learned an important lesson that I want to share with you all, which is about experimenting and building an image. The photo above started out very differently, and I’m not sure I would have arrived to an image that I was happy with if I wasn’t willing to experiment.

If you aren’t satisfied with how something looks, you don’t have to settle for it.  One of the beauties of food/still-life photography is that you have control over everything – it’s also what makes it so challenging.  Take a look at your image, see what you are dissatisfied with, and then let yourself change things around, rearrange and try again. This of course may require making the dish a couple of times and you may need to set aside actual dedicated time for the photo (not just a quick snap before eating dinner).  I like my images best when I try a shot a couple of times and take time in between to really look at a frame and see what I like/don’t like about it (something I had been doing before, but was particularly emphasized to me while watching Penny de Los Santos conduct her shoots during her free Creative Live seminar a couple months ago).  I think it’s especially useful if you are not sure of exactly how to execute the shot you want (as someone learning photography, this is usually my situation).  Remembering to step back, assess my image, and alter the elements in the frame has been immensely valuable for me to get closer to “the photo I want to create”.

Let’s start with this bowl of spaghetti – this was a dish I was photographing for one of Dario‘s recent photography challenges (which if you want to improve your photography, I highly suggest participating in – lots of varying themes and great chances for feedback), and my first try looked something like this a few minutes before digging in to enjoy this yummy bowl that would be my dinner:

Gluten free Spaghetti

I really didn’t like this result at all.  I felt I had to get way too close to the pasta in order to show it off against the rather boring background, and the tomatoes even blurred and in the background still stole the show. (and we’ll ignore the part about me being out of focus for now, ha).

I had gone for a brighter pic with our white walls as the background and a pale blue tablecloth (and by tablecloth, I mean 2m cut long sheets of fabric from my favorite fabric store that I just put over my IKEA dining table), doing my best to effectively style prepared gluten free pasta.  There was bacon, tomatoes, olive oil, parmesan and basil mixed in.  The window light came from the left, a white foam board on the right, I chose a side angle and got my shots.  But when I looked at them later that night, I realized I was way too close to my subject for this to be attractive, and the props just felt weird, almost as if they were floating against the white background.  I didn’t feel like this pic was setting a scene very well, so the next day decided to give a 2nd try.

I used a different tablecloth – I felt this was starting to look a little more rustic:


But I wanted to give the table a little more sense of place – while the tablecloth choice I think helped set the mood, I thought a darker background would give a little more rustic flair – so I propped up the aged dark green shutter door I had just purchased at a local brocante at the end of the table and felt that now I was getting towards a setting –


Funny how just one little background change can alter the entire effect of an image, eh? Already, just by switching the tablecloth and placing that shutter behind the table, I have a completely different photo from the bright blue one I started with.  And while these tomatoes are gorgeous, I felt that they had the potential to overpower the fairly neutral colored spaghetti – so I tried a few different light modifications to see what the effect would be, using my 5 in 1 large (42″) reflector kit:

Effects of Light Modifications

See how the different light modifications affect the light on the tomatoes? If I wanted tomatoes to be the star of the shot, I might choose to brighten up their shadows a bit.  However, I wanted these tomatoes in the background as mere props to help set a scene, like I started with the brighter bluer pic.  So I chose to have their shadows enhanced and moved them to the back hoping they would not stand out so much and just blend in to the scene.

I set up my frame with nearly everything but the spaghetti (which I hadn’t even begun to cook yet):

The cheese grater in the back in order to be able to make out the shape of the wine bottle against the dark background, parmesan now also propped on the cutting board, and an empty plate and fork to play around with how the dish might actually look in the photo.

Then came the spaghetti – I wasn’t feeling the red plate after all (not sure why, because now looking at it I think it might have worked better, oh well) and went for this really cheap plastic brown flowery plate instead – I think because I felt the red one was standing out too much? Not sure.

Anyways, spaghetti, it turns out, is a real challenge to style effectively, especially sticky gooey gluten free spaghetti.  After draining it and shaking it in the colander well I added in a little olive oil to help it keep from sticking together so much. Then I took a forkfull and twirled together a few strands, which I set aside – that would become the top of the pile. For the main pile, I just grabbed the pasta with my hands until I had enough together sorta going the same way, and then used a fork to twirl it around and used my hands to shape & tuck in flyaways that looked out of place. Then took a spatula to carefully place on top the smaller twirled one from earlier, and had my plate of spaghetti – as my reflector was already in use blocking light on the tomatoes, my husband held up a silver serving tray to bounce light on the shadowed side of the pasta:


My goal was to have the pasta stand out from the rather busy scene – so blocking light where unwanted highlights might form, and adding light by reflecting on to what I wanted to shine, I did my best to make the spaghetti the “star” of the dish.  Happy with my lighting, I added my garnish – unfortunately I didn’t have any extra tomatoes after the night’s dinner before, so didn’t get to garnish with them this time so only used bacon, basil, a little more olive oil and parm slices.  Then I fixed my ever changing auto-white balance, changed my angle and played with the positioning of my fork a little bit, and had my final image.

Gluten Free Spaghetti

Are those tomatoes still competing with the pasta? Yeah I think they are.  But I really loved their shape and character and what they lended to the setting.  I wish I had more so I could have added them to the dish as well in the final shot.

Is this shot perfect? Heck no. But by trying a few times, trying a couple different ideas, playing with my lighting to see what I liked best along the way, and building my photo gradually  – stopping to think about the effect of each decision in my photograph – I was able to create an image that I was generally pleased with – a lot more pleased than my previous photos at least.  Sometimes, all it takes is devoting some time and thought and experimentation.  This is definitely how I am going to be approaching my photos from now on, as I think this will really help me improve – not just improve my styling and photography, but also hopefully my ability to visualize and execute a concept.  Maybe as I get better I will be able to make these decisions without having to physically enact them so much, but as an amateur looking to improve, this seems to be a good strategy :)

No matter where you are in your technical abilities with photography, I think this strategy can be useful.  You just have to be willing to have some dedication and patience, and keep on practicing :)

How do you approach a shot?  I’m curious to hear about your experiences!

Missed the earlier posts and want to catch up on the rest of the series?
1 – Look at photos with a critical eye (and making fun of one of my early ones!)
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
8 – Exploring New Directions
10 – Plate to Page Workshop Summary

Also an interesting read is Neel’s 31 Days of Food Photography Tips going on right now on Learn Food Photography – go check it out :)


Kulsum at JourneyKitchen July 10, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Well see this is what I need to work on. Patience. Patience. I just get too irritated after a while and get away from the subject. Though lately I’m giving things a second try. And it surely helps! You are amazing Jenn. That first picture verses the final one – is wow! Thanks for sharing this.

Jenn July 10, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Ha, it definitely is one of the hardest aspects for me! I can totally identify with that frustration when things don’t work out the way you imagined… patience is definitely a learned attribute for me..

Ken⏐hungry rabbit July 10, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Great job on a photography presentation. It’s clear, precise and most helpful with the issues we all have. Your patience and passion in photography are inspiring.

Jenn July 10, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Thanks Ken!

Carolyn July 10, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Beautiful photo! Thanks for sharing your process.

Jenn July 10, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Thank you!

Lynn July 10, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Great post. I think it highlights the amount of thought, and patience that goes into a good picture. I’ll check out Dario’s site as well, thanks!

Jenn July 10, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Thanks so much!

Rosa July 10, 2011 at 4:45 pm

Gorgeous clicks! I love your compostions. That wooden board is a great prop.



Jenn July 10, 2011 at 9:48 pm

Thanks Rosa!

Barbara | Creative Culinary July 10, 2011 at 4:58 pm

I love reading your process and am almost embarrassed about mine. I’m just not at that place of putting this much thought into all of the details; that’s just the honest truth. I’m lucky if I get the food out there; grab a couple of things to maybe include in the photo and shoot. And then there is a lot of finger crossing and prayers. OK…I might be a bit too hard on myself…but I do love your careful and fastidious details for every shot.

Iris July 10, 2011 at 6:42 pm

Barbara, I think your shots on your site are so beautiful! You are definitely too hard on yourself!

Barbara | Creative Culinary July 10, 2011 at 9:06 pm

Iris, you are too sweet. You must have gotten my ‘please say something nice’ check in the mail? :)

Jenn July 10, 2011 at 9:48 pm

LOL! Iris is totally right, you are def. too hard on yourself :)

Simone July 10, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Great post Jenn and very helpful too..! I struggle with styling (as is no secret I guess) and this is rather helpful for me too. Especially when it comes to spaghetti it can get really tricky on how to position the pasta. I haven’t yet managed such a perfect little pile as you have!

Jenn July 10, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Thanks Simone! Oh my I had so many many issues with that spaghetti, maybe it is easier with regular gluten filled wheat based pasta? I’m not sure… I know I’m not going to be styling spaghetti again for awhile ha.

Móna Wise July 10, 2011 at 5:49 pm

I love how dedicated you are Jenn. I also love the tablecloth and the tomatoes.
But with all this work, I have to ask, if the pasta tasted good?
Keep blogging – you really are a brilliant teacher!

Jenn July 10, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Thanks Móna! And yes, the pasta came out really well (actually I didn’t eat the pasta I photographed on the 2nd day, I’m not sure how much I trust eating off of those plates since I did buy them at the market and they were amongst lots of really really old stuff…maybe after I’ve washed them a good 10 times I’ll feel better about actually eating off of them. The secret to the dish’s flavor was once the bacon was fried, draining off the grease, deglazing the pan in a little white wine and letting the cooked bacon soak up the white wine goodness :)

Britt July 10, 2011 at 7:45 pm

I approach things in a similar way, trying many different things until something clicks and then often even pushing past that to the point where I think it’s no longer working. Sometimes what I loved during the shoot doesn’t work for me later and the more “transitional” photos wind up doing it for me–sometimes, of course, it’s closer to what I expected. This is why I think this it’s so important to play and try different, uncomfortable things. It helps you to find what works, see in a new way, and gives you options later. Thanks for sharing your process with us! Your skills are really developing and it’s obvious in your photos. Great stuff! :)

Jenn July 10, 2011 at 9:55 pm

Thanks Britt! Yes sometimes I push too far too – this was not the last photo in my set of frames either, but my later photos were styling issues (wrestling with that gooey gluten free pasta!) more than lighting or compositional ones…

Kim July 10, 2011 at 8:45 pm


Your photos are absolutely gorgeous! You are so talented.


Jenn July 10, 2011 at 9:55 pm

Thanks Kim!

Anamika July 10, 2011 at 10:08 pm

Ever since I saw this image, I loved it and now I know the toil behind it!! But then the result is worth all the efforts. I too need to slow down a bit, don’t know why this hurry to press the shutter button (and then pray to be lucky!!)…Thanks for sharing. Do you shoot teethered? SInce I always feel that the pics look fine on camera but when I transfer to comp, it’s a diff story alltogether, and by then the hero has been eaten :)

Jenn July 10, 2011 at 10:10 pm

Thanks! Sometimes I shoot tethered, sometimes I don’t. This shot was not tethered, just set up on the tripod…if I’m having trouble with getting the right focus, I will definitely go ahead and hook up the laptop though..

Melissa@EyesBigger July 10, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Great post Jenn. Interestingly enough, I prefer the image you rejected! I find my eye is more drawn to the spaghetti in that one. Just goes to show that everyone sees things differently. They’re both beautiful images though!

Jenn July 11, 2011 at 8:05 am

Ha interesting!

Hallie @ Daily Bites July 10, 2011 at 11:55 pm

First off, those are the coolest looking tomatoes! I love your scene development and how you go the extra mile to really create a good setting for the food. Too often I just do the “quick snap before dinner” approach to shooting, and the results show it! When I have the time, I would love to work more on the story-telling side of food photography. You’re a great inspiration to explore this sooner than later. :)

Jenn July 11, 2011 at 8:06 am

Thanks Hallie – they are coeur de beouf tomatoes, and one of my favorites here :)

Ricki July 11, 2011 at 2:10 am

Looks pretty perfect to me! I fear I will never be able to get even this far, as I don’t have the patience or the time required–I usually have all of 1.5 minutes to take my shots. And one thing is certain–my hubby is never going to agree to hold up a reflector for me! (I’d say hang on to that guy). 😀 Your final result is stunning, as always!

Jenn July 11, 2011 at 8:07 am

Thanks Ricki! Ha then you need to prop up your reflectors or become best friends with your camera’s self timer feature….I agree my husband is pretty awesome though :)

Margaret Massey July 11, 2011 at 2:42 am

Great food and great photos. I think the white plate was too white with the rest being darkened. Maybe look for light colors, a green would have worked here. Artists have the same problems with their paints.

Jenn July 11, 2011 at 8:08 am

hmm maybe, thanks.

Lyn @LovelyPantry July 11, 2011 at 5:45 am

I’m learning a lot about staging/styling and bringing character to the photograph. Its not as simple as it looks! Lots of effort and time goes into getting a photograph that you may or may not be satisfied with in the end. But I do love and appreciate the process that goes into it. Your photos are awesome! Thank you for this post and sharing your process. P.S. – My husband holds the reflector for me too. Sometimes my 3 year old son holds it for me if Daddy is not available 😀

Jenn July 11, 2011 at 8:08 am

aww that’s cute that your son will! thanks for the lovely compliments :)

Radhika July 11, 2011 at 6:46 am

Very well explained. Over time, I have come to realize that it is better to not have rigid expectations on how the photo should turn out. Willing to experiment and build the shot a step at a time exactly like you have elaborated definitely brings out better ‘hero’ shots. Time and patience together is the price though.

Loved your spaghetti shot and it turned out with a well deserved win on Dario’s spaghetti contest.

Jenn July 11, 2011 at 8:14 am

Thanks Radhika! Oh I didn’t win the contest – did you see the awesomeness that Richard did? He photographed spaghetti in a way that it looked like it was totally mid-boiling inside the pot, was an incredible concept.

Sneh | Cook Republic July 11, 2011 at 8:28 am

This is beautiful Jenn! Great insight :-)

Jenn July 11, 2011 at 9:07 pm


Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite July 11, 2011 at 8:45 am

I am so far away from this thought process it’s embarrassing. Very helpful for us to see your process though.

Jenn July 11, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Aww I’m sure you’ll get there Mardi! I promise I’m not doing any magic tricks…

Astrid July 11, 2011 at 11:55 am

haha and you say you have no patience?
I wish I had half the patience you needed for this shots… but I see wht you are trying to say. It really makes a difference! :)

Jenn July 11, 2011 at 9:14 pm

Ha thanks Astrid! I’m really trying to channel my patience lol.

InTolerantChef July 11, 2011 at 2:22 pm

It sounds like a lot of work, but obviously it was worth it- the picture is beautiful, and I love the idea of telling a whole story with the background objects too. I think I’ll hire someone to help me style my photos for the cookbook I’m working on! Are you available??!!!

Jenn July 11, 2011 at 9:58 pm

ha! thanks for the really sweet compliment, you totally just made my day :)

Jodi July 11, 2011 at 9:04 pm

This is a WONDERFUL post Jenn! My toddler being my most frequent subject, I forget to take the time when I’m doing still life and macro work to really slow down and get it right. Thanks for the tips, the reminder, and showing your progression from your first image to your final image. A very inspiring post indeed!

Jenn July 11, 2011 at 9:26 pm

Thanks so much Jodi!

Mairi @ Toast July 11, 2011 at 10:08 pm

Another great post, these are just so useful & easy to undestand without getting all technical! And I love those tomatoes too :) I also want to start taking more time with each shot…and really want to work in other objects, like the tomatoes, or the parmesan rather than just a plate of food. And also just gettng more & more familiar with my camera on manual but then I love my iphone too! Keep these fantastic post coming!

Jenn July 11, 2011 at 10:30 pm

Aww thanks Mari! I actually think a lot of photography has little to do with the technical aspects…

kankana July 12, 2011 at 12:03 am

I try this at times .. different angle .. lots of angle .. changing back ground etc .. but most of the time I loose patient :( I really need that .. i wish someday I can click better pictures.

kankana July 12, 2011 at 12:04 am

I meant patience .. god that was such a silly spelling error!!! So embarrassing 😀

Jenn July 13, 2011 at 12:05 am

Ha it happens, it’s ok! :)

Maggie July 12, 2011 at 2:29 am

Oh Jenn! Gorgeous shot, as always. I loved reading your process. Thank you for sharing. One day I will have this much time to set up a photo. Did I miss which lighting you used (silver reflector?) Honestly, with two monkeys running around I am lucky to even get a shot! I’ll keep you in the back of my mind when I’m running to get a shot of my latest dish :)

Jenn July 13, 2011 at 12:06 am

Thanks Maggie! I used a black reflector – it looks a little brighter than the example pics cause I upped my exposure a bit by the end…

athena July 12, 2011 at 6:49 am

Hi Jenn, I found your blog a few weeks ago and you’re now on my Google Reader. Thanks for the excellent, informative posts, beautiful photography, and links to other sites — so very helpful for someone beginning in food photography. Oh, I must say, I’m jealous of where you live :)

Really enjoyed reading your thought process on how you constructed this shot; I never would have thought to use a black “reflector” to subtract light when doing food shots — I have to apply that sometime. Also, I love the aged green door — great choice. The pasta dish looks amazing!

Jenn July 13, 2011 at 12:07 am

Oh thanks so much!! Yeah I’ve recently discovered the black “reflector” and am trying to understand better when to use it myself…

Amanda @ Easy Peasy Organic July 13, 2011 at 11:52 pm

Great advice! Love the black reflector … never considered one :)

And those tomatoes are A – MAY – ZING. Absolutely special.

Thanks for these posts x

Jenn July 14, 2011 at 12:40 am

Thanks!! Yeah the black reflector is pretty new for me too, but I love the options it gives…

Barbara July 20, 2011 at 1:08 am

Thank you for sharing your process with us. I think that your efforts really show in how fabulous your work is.

Jenn July 22, 2011 at 7:24 pm

Thanks :)

Jeanne @ CookSister! July 22, 2011 at 2:18 pm

You are an inspiration – and I love that you are willing to share your journey with us. I suffer from the syndrome you mentioned at the first pic – I cook dinner, I plate food, shoot it as fast as possible as husband is already whining, and then I eat. I never spend enough time building a shot – I absolutely love how you worked on keeping the (divine!) tomatoes in the shot while not letting them overpower and aI am STUNNED that this is a plastic plate!! Need to know the name of the supplier!! (and I need a tripod to be able to build shots like you do…!)

Jenn July 22, 2011 at 7:25 pm

Thanks Jeanne – I found the plate at a flea market, and there’s nothing on the back so sorry I can’t help… I tested one through the dishwasher too and seems to work fine which makes me very happy :)

Karen July 22, 2011 at 2:40 pm

thank you for this article, you’ve given me such inspiration to improve my food photos!

Jenn July 22, 2011 at 7:26 pm

Thanks, I’m glad it helps!

Brooke September 1, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Congratulations on your place in the DMBLGiT contest this month! When I saw I was up against you, I was so pleased!

Chef Mel Yisrael July 29, 2012 at 7:22 pm

Thank U,
So much for this informative Blog! This info that u have passed on is exactly what I needed as I dwell deeper into food photography for my own food creations.

In time I will be creating my own website for my Personal Chef business and I will need photos to accompany the website and hiring an professional photographer is just a bit too expensive for my pockets right now. But until I am able to get to that point I have to turn to my own creative abilities. And your info has helped me in so many ways.

I am still a beginner at photography on a amateur/professional sense and the ideas that I have in my mind I believe I can bring forth with persistence and patience.

Thank u
Chef Yisrael

tankermone August 7, 2012 at 7:19 pm

A very interesting, and visually tempting, article on food and the photo! Thanks, I enjoyed it!

chaitanya January 5, 2013 at 7:59 pm

Hi jenn .I am a fresher .Recently i started food photography and i am very much thankful to you for your postings. It is very helpful to me. Thank you once again.

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