Props and Backdrops
The key to many successful photos is props! I think that it is safe to say that this rule can be applied to almost all genres of photography. Props can make or break your photo. Choosing the right props helps tell your story and makes your subject more interesting. Slowly stock up on props for staging your food. Simple white plates and bowls (varying in sizes), cutting boards, tiles, cups, burlap, cutlery... the list could go on. Keep your props simple. They should complement your food but not be overpowering. You want the props to enhance the subject, not become the subject.
You’ll need a variety of backdrops so all of your pictures don’t look the same. You don’t have to spend money on props or backdrops. Start by browsing around your house to see what you can use. A wooden table, a cutting board, a white sheet, table cloth, crinkled up paper grocery bag, a granite counter top, napkins, a mirror... you get the idea.
You can slowly build up your collection. There’s no need to spend a fortune! Once you get bored with using everything you found laying around your house, start picking things up here and there. Check out some local second hand shops and yard sales to find props and backdrops that fit your budget.
Adding texture to your food photography enhances the photograph. Textures add an interesting element to the overall feel of the photo, while giving you a prop that complements the subject. Get creative with your textures: napkins, table cloths, herbs, spices, crinkled backdrop, burlap, even crumbs.
Adding props like napkins or a burlap background is a way to add texture. But another way is to use ingredients that go with the dish. Think beyond herbs and spices. Yes, they are an excellent way to add texture but try something different. Fresh grated cheese for an Italian dish, crumbled cheese on top of salad, pomegranate seeds, chocolate curls, coffee beans, berries… get creative!
Setup and Staging
I don’t necessarily have a “go-to” setup. Every subject is different and needs to be treated with a fresh and unique approach. Think about how you want to light your subject. Window lighting vs. flash. Dark shadows vs. light and airy. Simple and clean vs. props and added texture.
Get all of your staging and lighting figured out before you start taking pictures of your food, especially if you will be photographing foods that should be cold. Cold foods will begin to melt very quickly and will start to look pretty unappetizing. There are many food photography hacks that include things like using shaving cream instead of whip cream, hot gluing your food together or even using paint to make your food look perfect. All of my techniques are natural and edible. Nothing against those useful hacks that many professional food stylists use, but, let’s face it, the best part about food photography is eating or drinking it afterwards! That is why it is important to have all of your lighting, props, and background set up as much as possible to have everything ready to go. For the above ice cream picture, we wanted a little bit of the ice cream melting down the cone. With that in mind, it gave us some time to work with but not much before it became too messy. On the other hand, the burger picture below, I spent about an hour staging the food and easily another hour shooting.
Not all food looks appealing. Staging the food and adding the right props can make or break your photo. Sometimes a boring dish just needs a dollop of this or sprinkle of that to enhance the subject and draw the viewer’s interest.
Use a matte spray on cutlery to reduce the glare.
Spray food or drinks with corn syrup mixed with water for fake condensation that wont drip.
An old and beat up cookie sheet can make the perfect backdrop (like in the photo below). It adds texture and creates a nice grungy feel to your image.
Use solid colored foam boards for backdrops. Not only are they cheap but they can make a perfect, seamless backdrop.
Sometimes just a sprinkle of water or olive oil on your food will keep things look moist instead of dried out.
A circular polarizer filter can be a lifesaver. It can help you control or even eliminate reflections.
Find a good window in your house that gets bright sunlight. Set up your food right in front of that window. You can use a reflector or white foam board to reflect the light into the dark shadow areas of the subject. Maybe you are taking your pictures at night or it is dark and rainy outside. If that is the case, you can put your camera on a tripod and shoot with slow shutter speed.
Off Camera Flash
I’m a huge fan of using off camera flash to light my food photography. It gives me full control of the light and I don’t have to worry about what time of day or night I’m going to shoot. I use the YN-560 speedlights and modifiers (octabox and stripbox). If you have a flash but no modifier, you can clamp up a sheet or tissue paper and have the flash behind it to diffuse your light, which will help avoid harsh highlights and shadows.
Position your flash so it is off to the side or above, not straight on where the camera will be. Start with one flash at a time. Once you get your main flash how you want it, then you can add a reflector or fill light to fill in the shadows. Once you get the hang of your lighting, try experimenting with something different. Not all food photography has to be light and airy. Play around with shadows and try something dark and contrasty. Be creative and have fun.
Once you nail your lighting and camera settings, don’t get stuck with the same settings for your entire shoot. Switch things up. Shooting wide open (i.e. f/1.8) to have a small area in focus and blurred background will give you an entirely different look than using a narrow aperture (i.e. f/8, f/16) which will make the entire scene in focus. Experiment with different angles. Even if you find one angle you love, try others for a different perspective. A close up macro will give you an entirely different look than including the entire scene with a 50mm lens.
Get creative with your composition. For example, I love this macaroon picture because of the contrasting colors and the use of negative space.
Watch and Learn
Study every image you see. Notice the camera angles in movies and pay attention to magazine advertisements. You can learn a lot from those drool-worthy recipes on Pinterest too. Find and follow your favorite food photographers on social media. One my fellow writers on Photographers' Co-Op, Lee Shelly, has stunning food photography you can check out here. Wherever you draw your inspiration from, examine the images and ask yourself what lighting setup was used, if the background complements the image, if the props complement the subject and if the composition makes or breaks the photograph. When it comes to reading light in still-life photography, such as food, pay attention to the shadows. Reading the shadows will tell the story of the lights. Think of ways you could make the image better. Then make it your own and go shoot!
Not all of your food photography will be successful. Sometimes it will be a complete flop. I know I've had many flops! Ask yourself what you would do differently. Learn and grow from your experiences and just keep shooting.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erika Sneeringer is a litigation paralegal and hobbyist photographer living in Baltimore, Maryland USA. Outside of photography, her favorite activities are hiking and exploring the outdoors with her family. You can view Erika’s portfolio here or follow her on Instagram at esneer1.