Minimalist Photography – Food
This is a guest post by the Minimalist Cook’s in-house minimalist photography guru, food-tester, and husband, Steve Johnson. I asked him to write about photographing food for a general audience.–M.
Food photography presents an interesting challenge in so much as the image has to be not only good from a photographic point of view but, to succeed it must literally make the viewers mouth water. I find that a minimalist photography approach works best in most cases.
Food Photography; home made cinnamon buns on a sunny day
Anyone who has cooked a wonderful looking meal only to see it converted to an indistinct muddy mess or a harsh flat white disaster by the photographic process knows that there is a little more to the process than pointing the cellphone camera at the food and pressing the button.
This leads to the most important thing in photography bar nothing and that is light. If the light is good the most mundane subject will look good and if it is bad the most interesting subject will look average – it really is that simple.
Rule number one: do not let the flash built into your camera be the main source of illumination. The light is way too harsh. Most cameras however, have a setting where the flash is used to provide a little bit of light. This can be useful. The ideal here is to have a flash unit that is not attached to the camera, or if not, is attached to the camera’s hot shoe.
Now that we have that sorted out onto the more interesting stuff. Have you noticed that when you look at a mouth watering food shot it often has certain things in common with other mouth watering food shots? This is no accident and the photographers set things up to make these certain things happen.
Take a look at this picture:
Roast beef photographed in front of window
Several things are happening here:
Only part of the image is in sharp focus. This directs the viewers eye to the important part of the image, the food. For the technically inclined this narrow field of focus is achieved by using a larger aperture.
There is no clutter; again this focuses on the food. Composition is almost as important as light and over time becomes instinctive. Most of us process visual information in such a way that we don’t really notice clutter. We tend to focus on the main part of a view and little else registers. The camera on the other hand is dumb, it will happily record everything in it’s field of view without favor or discrimination.
The image is slightly over exposed. This gives a slightly whiter cleaner look than a normally exposed photo would. Just about all cameras can be set to do this. Again for the technically minded, about 2/3 of a stop should do it.
There is more than one light source and the light sources are balanced. Get this right alone and the image will not look like a snapshot. A backlight always works well with food photography, in this case it is provided by the window in the shot. A flash was also used, in this case attached to the camera and with a diffuser to soften the light. If you have a camera with a built in flash this is where you’d set it to fill flash. This setting gives a little light to illuminate the main subject. It doesn’t do any harm to put a little greaseproof paper or a piece of semi transparent plastic over the flash to soften the light. If a window is a light source then the sun cannot be shining directly in. Direct sunlight, like direct undiffused flash gives very hard shadows and nothing says snapshot faster than harsh shadows on a food shot.
A little experimentation can be fun:
Watermelon and running water
Creativity is every bit as important as knowing the technical stuff. Before setting up a photograph it is always worth thinking about exactly what it is you want to bring out in the subject. This applies to all subjects not just food. If this isn’t making much sense at the moment think about portraits. A good portrait photographer, like a good portrait painter, is always thinking in these terms. This is why the most revealing photographs are usually taken by a photographer who has gotten to know the subject.
Anyway, back to food. If someone asked for a image of watermelon cubes a good photographer should think about how to emphasize the ‘watermelonness’ of the subject. In my case the two things that came to mind were the vivid red color and cool refreshing water. With this in mind I deliberately set up a color free background so that the red was emphasized and got handy with a plastic squirty bottle. The melon cubes were set on a plastic decorators work table.
Of course the process does not end with pressing the shutter. Once the session is finished, or even during the session, the images are uploaded to a computer and edited. Usually the editing consists of little more than a bit of sharpening, a slight color correction or a minor crop. It is possible to use the computer for just these technical chores but, with a little imagination, the computer, can become a creative tool in it’s own right. In the above photograph I’ve made the background completely white and drastically altered the colors of the cherries. I’ve also done various things to really punch out the colors. Below is an image where this creative process is taken even further. this is very much a minimalist photography approach and it isn’t to everyone’s taste.
Tomato and red cherries
This image is different insomuch as a major part of the composition is the lip of the bowl. Sometimes rules are made to be broken.
If you’ve made it this far well done! Thanks for reading and I’ll try my best to answer any questions that appear in the comments section. I deliberately left out a lot of equipment details and technical stuff as this was meant to be an overview rather than an instruction manual but if anyone wants more information, again, just leave a comment.