Glorious Food Photography

Text & Pics by:

Mark Floro

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Photo 1

Shooting food for a living can be really challenging and rewarding…or a total nightmare. In my food photography workshop at PCCI, I tell students the three golden rules of food photography:
1. Hire a professional food stylist,
2. Hire a professional food stylist, and, most important,
3. Hire a professional food stylist.

It doesn’t matter if you are a wizard of lighting or a guru of Photoshop. If the food arrangement does not look perfect or have that tulo laway appetite appeal when the shutter is pressed, no amount of light magic or digital editing will save the shot. Trust me.

Here are some of the major advantages of hiring a professional food stylist (PFS):
• interprets client’s/agency’s requirements and needs
• solves client’s problems concerning ingredients, materials, and other items
• scouts for difficult, hard-to find props or ingredients
• produces “magic tricks and techniques” to enhance the appetite appeal of the product

Let me put it this way: do you want to do the cooking (let alone do you know how to cook)? Do you know where to scout for impossible-to-find ingredients or out-of-season food items? Do you know the techniques for creating brown, golden chicken, for making mouth- watering dinuguan, or for preventing ice cream from melting under the lights? The job of the PFS is to create magic. Our job as photographers is to capture it! Get my point? Hire one!!!

So let’s say the client has the budget for you and a PFS. What’s the next important ingredient? Proper lighting. Without light, you have no image. Without proper lighting, the mouth watering masterpiece created by your PFS will look like mud: details are lost, textures can’t be seen, colors look weird, the appetite appeal just won’t be there.

Basically, there are two kinds of lighting: soft/diffused or hard/harsh. Knowing how to use and where to place them are the secrets of great lighting. And the one place your light must never be is on your camera. Never, never, never use your built-in or shoe-mounted camera flash to light food shots. I guarantee you that your food shots will always look “yucky” and flat. You can, though, use it as a fill light. I will explain this more shortly. (Just take my class at PCCI and you will be amazed how “simple” it is. Wink, wink.)

The first four food shots (Photos 1–4) were lighted somewhat similarly. I diffused my strobe lights by using a scrim made of white acrylic sheet, the same material used as fluorescent light diffusers. I rarely use a soft box. I find the soft box light too soft and, at times, not as contrasty as I want.

With my white acrylic scrim though, I can control the direction, contrast, and quality of light better. I work with one main diffused light. Then I add aluminum reflectors or “kicker” lights to fill in the shadows. Don’t go overboard by adding hundreds of lights. Your food needs gentle shadows and subtle highlights. Texture and color will spring out of your food shots if you properly balance the shadows and highlights.

Photo 1
Photo 2
Photo 2Photo 3
Photo 3
Photo 4

Illustration 1 demonstrates the basic lighting of the four shots: one main diffused light located at the top left side around 10 o’clock and a fill diffused light located at the lower right side of the product. The lighting ratios? Believe it or not, I don’t know. I just use my eye to judge the relationship of the highlights and the shadows. My rule concerning this relationship is this: it’s correct as long as the highlights are not burnt and there is detail in the shadows.
I force my students to move their lights, camera, and even the food. Don’t stick to one camera angle, one lighting technique (unless it is your style which your clients love you for!), one focal length, etc. I don’t teach them ratio formulas; I want them to discover and explore the differences themselves. I try to train them to “develop their eye” to understand good lighting.
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Tips For Point and Shooters

Beginners or owners of point-and-shoot cameras who have no studio lights, believe it or not, can also come up with outstanding food shots. You can create “reasonably tasty” shots of your Mom’s juicy homemade kaldereta, your ate’s first attempt at cookies, or your pasta masterpiece. However, you must have the following at least to have a fighting chance to produce such shots:
• A large window which is not color tinted. This will be your main light.
• A good, heavy, sturdy tripod. (A good test: if you don’t think that the tripod can support your weight, don’t buy it. Well, at least that’s my requirement.)
• Lots of books, phone books, canned goods in case you can’t afford a tripod.
• Aluminum foil attached to illustration boards. They will act as your fill lights. Sizes can vary from ×5 in. to 11×1 in., maybe even larger. Mirrors will also work.
• “Blue Tack”. This has been my true and reliable companion since I started shooting. It is a reusable adhesive clay that does not leave gunk behind when removed. This is not the kneaded-eraser kind. If you don’t have a tripod, you can clay your point and shoot camera to anything sturdy for support. You can get this item from National Bookstore. Buy plenty. I used to buy the entire stock of National Bookstore whenever it was available.
Photo 5

Photo 5

• Lens cleaning tissue. You will use this to soften your built-in flash.
Okay, now that you have the above, use the following camera settings:
• ISO 100. If you don’t have enough light spilling through your window, increase your ISO.
• Daylight or Sunlight White Balance. Auto White Balance is OK.
• Sports scene setting. (My point-and-shoot camera has “Cuisine!”) This setting will
maximize the camera’s shutter speed which will hopefully minimize camera shake. If you are going to shoot really close, use the “Close Up” setting.
• Turn off your built-in camera flash!
• Use the self timer, 2 or 10 seconds or whatever is available. A cable release will do just fine.
Ready? Let’s shoot!
Cook/prepare something simple. Don’t worry too much about the props, napkins, glassware, etc. Let’s concentrate first on developing your “Eye.” The more often you shoot, the easier it will seem to be later.
Turn off all the lights inside your shooting room. The fluorescent or incandescent lights will throw weird colors on your food.
Place your plate on a small table next to your window (Photo 6). The distance from the window? That’s up to you. When you move the plate away from or toward the window, what happens to the shadows? (Answer: closer to the window, the shadows are shorter; farther from the window, the shadows are longer. If you got this right, you have a good eye.)
Photo 6
Photo 6

Once you establish the distance you want, move around the plate. This will dictate where the main light (window) will come from in relation to your camera. Also, check the view from a higher and a lower angle. (This will eventually be your camera angle.) Then attach your camera to your tripod at the spot and height you like.
If you don’t have a tripod, this is where the Blue Tack comes in. Clay your camera to anything heavy and sturdy. Make sure the clay does not obstruct the lens or any sensor. My favorite camera support: canned pineapple (Photo 7). It comes in different sizes and is heavy (Photo 8). Phone books or thick hard-bound books can be pressed into service to give you extra elevation.
Photo 7
Photo 7
Photo 8
Photo 8

Focus and shoot. Don’t be too critical at this time. View your shots on a computer. Not bad, huh? If you like the shadows, don’t do anything more. If you feel that the shadows are too dark, use your aluminum reflectors. Take various shots with the reflectors in different positions and angles. View the shots. What do you see?

By the way, if your shots don’t look sharp, it could mean any of a few things:
If you really want to discover/explore more neat stuff, move your camera all around the plate. Also, turn the plate itself around. You will discover that at certain angles, the food looks great. Certain highlights will capture more of the food’s appetite appeal.
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Once you have the “perfect” shot of your food layout, turn on your camera’s flash. Shoot and then compare with the other images. Yucky, correct? Now you now know why I said never, never, never use it. However, you can use it as a fill light. Cover your flash with lens cleaning tissue, one layer at a time. Keep adding one layer of tissue until the output is weak enough for your taste. I once had a student whose flash was so strong it needed five layers of lens tissue to soften.

Photos 9a, 10a, and 11a were shots taken using the window light. Unretouched! Photos 9b, 10b, and 11b were taken using the camera’s built in flash. Notice the difference?
Christmas is just around the corner. You can practice your new skills on your mom’s or wife’s awesome Christmas food spread. The dishes will be so lovingly prepared they will look like they were done by a PFS! So don’t miss this opportunity. Most likely, the food will be prepared and ready by nighttime. No sunlight will be coming through your window “main light.” You’ll need new settings:
• Auto. Study the lights of your shooting area (i.e. dining room). If there is a mixture of incandescent and fluorescent lights, figure out which one you prefer to work with. Switch off the other one.
• Choose ISO 200 or higher. • As always, turn off your camera’s built in flash • Put your camera on a tripod so you can move around
faster and more efficiently. (Remember, your guests, friends and relatives will be hungry!)

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Photo 9a

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Photo 10a

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Photo 11a
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Photo 9b

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Photo 10b

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Photo 11b

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