The other week I was asked to speak on a panel discussing food photography and its rise in popularity and use as a marketing tool on social media. It got me to thinking that it’s about time I shared with all of you how I shoot my photos for DFK and how I shoot my work in general. I have no doubt that many (if not most) of you out there that also like to shoot what you eat have far superior equipment and vastly more knowledge on the subject. Still, it’s always fun and occasionally useful to see how other artisans attack the same problem: showcasing the food we make and eat in a beautiful way.
The photo above was shot at 42mm; f/5; ISO 200 using a bare speedlight to create the hard contrast. The featured image for this week’s post was shot at 40mm; f/5.6; ISO 200 with a diffused speedlight directly behind the subject at eye level.
Camera gear heads may be surprised and possibly disappointed to learn that my equipment is painfully rudimentary and entry level. For any of you out there who are looking to getting into shooting some stuff, food or otherwise, and want solid, cheap, entry level options: today is your lucky day. I’ve purchased nearly everything from a store called B&H Photo Video that has a huge selection of everything photography and video and a great online store. No, they didn’t pay me anything to say that, but if you want to give ‘em a shout and tell them they should, I won’t stop you.
Yongnuo YN 560 III Speedlight
Yongnuo YN560-TX LCD Flash Trigger Remote Controller
Westcott Optical White Satin Diffusion Umbrella (43”)
LumoPro LP633 Compact Umbrella Swivel with Variable Cold Shoe
LumoPro LP605 7 Foot Compact Light Stand
Yongnuo RF-603NII-N3 Wireless Flash Trigger Kit
EBLÂ® 8 Pack High Capacity 2800mAh AA Ni-MH Rechargeable Batteries, 1500 Cycle
EBLÂ® 808 8 Bay/Slot AA AAA Ni-MH Ni-Cd Quick Charger Smart Battery Charger
Transcend Information USB 3.0 Card Reader (TS-RDF5K)
Sunpak 8001UT Tripod
my photo resources
Ok. We have all of our stuff, now time to shoot. This post is not intended to be a tutorial on the basics of taking a photograph, but I do want to share some of the stuff that helped me learn how. I found some great resources on the subject thanks to the Food & Beverage director of my hotel, Anthony Zamora, who is a legitimate photographer. Of all the sites and books he threw my way, the two I felt were the most useful was a website called The Strobist and a book called Light Science & Magic. The website has a great step by step tutorial on the basics of using a speedlight (or strobe light) and even has suggested projects to complete with each lesson. Light Science & Magic is a serious book. It may be dense in content for some, but I found it really helpful in understanding how to manipulate light and reflection in composing my photos, which is really all that photography is.
how I take my photos
Just about every photo I take uses a speedlight (diffused with my umbrella) and a bounce card. A bounce card is what it sounds like, a reflective surface that bounces light from your main source – the speedlight – onto your subject. You can buy a million variations of bounce cards, but I have always simply used white foam core. It’s cheap, durable and easy to cut to the size you need. Most often I use two pieces of foam core taped together along one edge so they can open and close like a book.
I try and shoot every method photo the same way for the sake of continuity. I have my umbrella positioned behind the subject to the right at about a 40 degree angle (and relatively close to the subject), and my bounce card set up along the left side of the subject. Although I’ll change the F stop and power on my flash, I always use a shutter speed of 160, which is synced to the speed of the flash itself. For most method shots I shoot at f/9 – f/11.
For the more artistic shots (also known as hero shots) I use a variety of F stops, light angles, camera angles, etc. to get what I’m looking for. Some photos basically take themselves; I set up my lights, shoot a few pics and everything is perfect just as is. Most photos, though, require a lot of trial and error in finding the perfect balance of variables. I probably shoot an average of 15-20 photos to get one good one.
Whether it’s a hero shot or a simple step by step photo, I always shoot my photos with the light source coming from behind or to the side of the subject, never from the front (meaning the same direction as your camera). A light source behind the subject creates contrast and depth and highlights the texture of the object. Light from the front flattens the subject (which makes it good lighting for a portrait, but not for food).
I process my photos using Adobe Bridge and Photoshop. Yes, I’m aware that just about the entire photo world uses Lightroom or some similar variant. I’ve tried it and don’t like it, and have used the Bridge/Photoshop combo from way back in my days of graphic design, so it works for me. In Bridge I’ll sort the winners and losers, then change the metadata and names for everything to stay nice and organized.
In Photoshop I’ll crop the images, adjust the clarity and contrast levels and then resize them to a web-friendly .dpi. Occasionally I’ll use the spot heal tool to mask out little specks of dust or flour that were on the lens and showed up in the photo or were on the table and take away from the focus of the image. Beyond that, I don’t manipulate the image.
food photography and social media
The whole idea of this post was born from a discussion on food photography in social media, so I thought I’d end with some of my thoughts on the topic. I say “some” because it’s a damn big topic, and I could write an entire post just on this alone.
Let me start by prefacing a few things. My points of view come from the perspective of the artisan creating the food being photographed, and not the photographer making art using someone’s food, which is a big difference. I also don’t make a living off of my social media accounts or the content I share on them (I do use it to build my brand, but I’m not being paid to produce content), so my perspective is almost one of using social media as a luxury.
With that in mind, as a chef I feel that the exponential rise of food being shared on social media has been an overall positive thing for the individual chef, but less so for the industry as a whole (though only time will tell).
For chefs these days, social media is an almost unimaginably large outlet to showcase and advertise your work. In an era where branding yourself is becoming ever more important, having an outlet like, say, instagram, to connect at a moment’s notice with thousands or even millions of people is priceless. Equally so, social media has become an endless and instantaneous source of creative inspiration.
On the other side of the coin, I see two troubling trends. The first is that having access to so many talented chef’s work can become a creative crutch rather than a source of inspiration. It’s amazing how often I see one great idea immediately copied without further innovation ad nauseum until the next trendy image hits the waves. For some chefs, having access to so many images of high quality work means they simply have to pick one and copy it rather than develop a new idea themselves. An artisan industry of copycats is not a good thing.
The second negative trend I see is what gives me the greatest sense of reservation. As a designer of anything, the law of the universe is “form follows function.” To me this isn’t the type of rule meant to be broken, it’s a foundation of all creation. The most beautiful sports car in the world is an utter failure if its engine doesn’t perform well, because above all else a car is meant to be driven.
What has begun to happen with the product being showcased on social media is that function has started to follow form. Cakes are designed and decorated to look beautiful on film instead of being enjoyable to eat. All of those amazingly shiny glazed cakes that fill your feed? Chances are the glaze itself doesn’t taste all that great because of the enormous amount of sugar and stabilizer needed to create the gloss effect. And who can say whether the chef has any skill in building the components within? Too few bother to showcase that facet of the product. Again, this is me the artisan talking, more concerned with how the cake is composed, how it would eat, how easy it would be for a customer to cut it, than with how many likes the photo gets because it has a gaudy chocolate flower bouquet on it. One could argue that the “function” of these images are to be attractive to people viewing them, but it’s that very argument that I believe could hurt our industry in the long run.
All of this being said, I love being able to showcase my work on social media. I love connecting with people all over the world through shared interests, and I love seeing what all of my colleagues are doing, which inspires me to push my own creations. My hope is that the positive trends that social media affords us outweigh any negativity and we all become better bakers because of it.
So there you have it. A little look at how I bring you one of the most important pieces of devil’s food kitchen. I hope you enjoyed this little look behind the curtain and get out there to shoot more of your own creations!
Cheers – Chef Scott