by Jenn Oliver of Jenn Cuisine
My passion for food photography started when I began blogging, which I did to chronicle my journey of learning how to cook, and more importantly, learning how to cook gluten free for my husband. He used to eat the same thing day in and day out, because he knew those foods were safe and had no clue how to cook or create anything else on his own. He hated it. I became convinced that there had to be a way to allow him to enjoy food and enjoy eating again. There were many many failed experiments and precious wasted dollars from our meager graduate student incomes as I tried to come up with substitutions to replace his long lost favorite dishes, as we had not discovered the wonderful plethora of gluten free cookbooks and food blogs that exist today. But when a success did happen, I had to record it by blogging about what I had made – it served as a way to remember how I made a dish. My blog started becoming a journal of my culinary efforts – what worked, what didn’t, and tips/techniques I needed to remember for next time, all of which of course were better served with photos.
But blogging is not just a personal endeavor – it is a shared one, and I soon came to find out there was a large supportive gluten free community with the same goals – finding great flavorful food that was able to be enjoyed by those who could not have gluten. And in that sharing I not only made new friends and exchanged ideas, but I started to realize the importance of the quality of my photos, particularly when I wanted to share my excitement and triumph of a new GF dish I had made with others.
As much as those who cannot eat gluten can know how great gluten free food can taste – that many meals we’ve always loved are naturally gluten free, or that being able to use alternative grains/flours in baked goods can bring a freedom of new and sometimes even better flavors than their conventional counterparts, there is still a bit of convincing to be done when presenting a new GF dish to the world. There are enough cardboard tasting packaged GF foods out there and failed recipes that many are a bit skeptical as to the taste level of a gluten free food. Through blogging and sharing, I have found that we need to overcome this negative perception and show the world that gluten free does not have to mean taste free. Photography is a great way to do this.
When I take a photo of a dish, my goal is to bring the viewer to the table in their minds, so they can mentally reach out and taste the full flavor of the food I’m displaying. I think with gluten free foods this is even more important, because of that mental barrier that many often put up. But gluten free food canbe flavorful. It canbe nutritious. And it canbe every bit as good as (if not better than) revered traditional favorites. And through a mouthwatering photo, we canhelp convey this to the world. And as a food blogger, I feel it is just as much my responsibility to show the food as it is to write about it. The fact of the matter is, people eat with their eyes first – so by enticing the viewer in with an image of how delicious the food is, we can then help them envision the dish being made and enjoyed in their own kitchens.
Today I am sharing with you five simple food photography tips I have learned along my photographic journey that anyone can take advantage of whether you have a DSLR or a point & shoot camera. Most cameras can take a perfectly decent photo. However, you are likely to get better results if your camera has a manual function that lets you adjust your settings on your own, rather than having the camera “guess” what is appropriate (several point & shoot cameras should have this ability). For example, here’s an image I took of a pork roast – while there are certainly some differences between the images, one can’t argue that the point & shoot does a pretty decent job. So please, don’t stress about the camera you do or don’t have. If you have a little patience and time to practice, you can create visually appetizing images, I promise!
Five simple food photography tips
1. Make sure the image is in focus. In low lighting, such as taking an image at home at night, the camera will sometimes require very long shutter speeds – so long that one cannot hold the camera still enough with their hands and the result is a very shaky image. In these cases, I use a tripod. That way I know the camera will stay put even if I have to take a very long exposure. In lieu of a tripod, anything that stabilizes the camera will help – even a stack of cookbooks! It’s ok to get creative J Also, sometimes one gets so close to the food that the camera can’t find anything to focus on – lenses only have an ability to focus at certain distances – so if you are trying to get a shot right up in the food and it’s not working out, you may want to consider backing up a bit until the camera can lock focus.
2. Look for indirect lighting– bright sunlight (or direct bright lighting from household lights) is often not flattering for a food photo – which of these looks more appealing?
Sometimes a shade or a curtain does the trick to tone down that bright sunlight, or even taping tissue paper to the windows. Else, I look for a place where I’m not getting dark shadows or terrible shiny reflections.
3. Turn off your pop-up flash. When a camera detects that there isn’t much light in a room, particularly on point & shoot cameras, the flash will activate, giving washed out unappetizing photos like this atrocious risotto shot:
I have yet to come across a food photo where the pop-up flash improved the image. Pop-up flash takes away all the shadows and thus all the depth of the image, creating something flat and blah. It makes one part too bright, exacerbates bad reflections, and then falls off quickly to make the rest of the image too dark. It’s just better to keep it off.
4. Take a step back. While we all like to get up close and personal with our food, (and sometimes it’s warranted) but other times it may be beneficial to back up a bit. You want to make sure the food is the hero of the image, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to see every minute grain of rice. See how much better this risotto looks than the image above? It’s still a close shot of the dish, but backing up a bit gives the food a little more context and is a bit more appetizing.
5. Use the white balance setting. If you ever take images that end up with a ghastly yellow or blue cast on them, it’s likely you need to adjust your white balance. This can be done on the camera itself (with settings like sun, clouds, indoors, flash, etc.) and auto doesn’t always get it correct. However, if you find you’ve taken a photo with a warm or cool hue, it is pretty straightforward to adjust in an editing program. And sometimes, of course, it is up to artistic interpretation – for example here is a cool and a warm version of the same set up – they each give a very different feel:
What I’ve given are just some simple guidelines, not meant to be constricting, just helpful. But most of all, it is important to play. To experiment and try new things, see what works, and what doesn’t. Sometimes right before serving dinner to a hungry household is not the best time to do photography – I like to set aside an afternoon or morning on a weekend to photograph a few dishes, when I can take my time with my camera and think about what type of image I want to create. Photography is a wonderful tool for showing the beauty and bounty of gluten free foods and can not only entice a reader to try a recipe, but also change one’s entire impression of what it means to live a gluten free life.