Tuesday 12 August 2014

Food Photography Lesson - How to improve your food photography

I'm well aware that the photographs I take for this blog aren't great - some are better than others, but that is often more luck than judgment. I've taken a few photography classes before, including portrait photography, so understand a reasonable amount about depth of field, aperture etc. My main problem when I am taking photographs of food is lack of time, and lack of light. I often cook or bake in the evening, when it is dark outside so I only have the lights on the ceiling to illuminate my dish and that just isn't enough (and you often get a lot of shadow). I am always in a hurry as well - I can take my time photographing cake, but when I've made hot food, that we want to eat, there isn't time to faff around trying different angles or rearranging the food. I do my best to make it look nice, but sometimes - despite using a good quality digital SLR - the photos I take amount to little more than a snapshot.
The Guardian newspaper recently ran a masterclass which featured an hour of one of their food journalists talking about writing and an hour of one of their photographers talking about styling and photographing food. It was really useful and I've written a summary here.
The session didn't involve actually using a camera though, and very little practical advice in terms of setting and lighting so I wanted to do a more in-depth course if I could. I had been looking online for a while but there don't seem to be many photography courses that specialise in food. So I was really pleased when my boyfriend found one and booked me onto it for a birthday present!
The Photoion Photography School (so called because it is run by a man named Ion) runs a vast range of courses from night photography, portraits, fashion, studio lighting, photoshop etc, as well as food photography. It's an all day course, from 10.30 to 4pm, near Waterloo station. The course is limited to five people so you get a lot of one-on-one contact, but you can also share ideas among the group.

The morning involved listening to Ion talk and answer our questions, which was very useful and informative and also quite entertaining. I wasn't at all bothered that we didn't even get out our cameras before lunch, as there was so much to take in, and we needed to know the theory before putting it into practice.

After a short break for lunch we spent the afternoon session photographing food. My only disappointment of the day was that for obvious reasons we weren't photographing hot food; I'm sure it's easier to take a photo of a few carefully positioned raw vegetables or cookies than it is to make a cooked dinner look appealing, so I would have liked to know more about that. Even so, the same principles can be applied.

We used an amazing array of equipment - most of it was not really that expensive, for instance a soft box to diffuse the light is about £40, and other things were homemade or very cheap - Ion had a clamp holding a couple of mirrors he'd taken from cheap makeup compacts, and also told us that the piece of card that comes in a packet of smoked salmon - silver on one side and gold on the other- makes a great reflector!

First we photographed a rustic loaf of bread, some tomatoes, olives, garlic and green chilli on a chopping board, experimenting with different settings and lighting. Here you can see some of the set-up.

In this picture, there is additional light from small mirrors directed at the tomatoes to make them look particularly shiny.

 This one is looking directly down on the food

 We then had some fun arranging vegetables on a plate to ressemble a face; the background is a cheap tea towel which I think works really well here.

 Next we tried another rustic collection, on the same tea towel; we matched the colours and textures of the foods and also included a wooden spoon in this shot. The small cookies in the top right again have extra light directed onto them by mirrors.

I asked Ion how to photograph something on a black background and I'm really glad I did, as this was the result: 

In this case it's probably about the camera settings as much as the lighting. I just hope I can remember how to do it again!

This photograph has the same black background but it looks grey due to the lighting. It took a few attempts to get the light right both from above and from the side of the fruit to avoid too many shadows.

 Here's another picture of the set-up for our final shoot,. of a Danish pastry and some strawberries on a chopping board.

We used a gold reflector to give the pastry a warm glow.

I'm not going to share too many tips with you - you'll have to book the course if you want to find out more. But some key ideas I took away were:
  • Natural light is not necessarily better than artificial light, as you can't control it - what you really want is to replicate natural light, but be able to control it.
  • Always diffuse your source of light, eg with a softbox or tracing paper 
  • A photo isn't finished until you make any final adjustments in Photoshop 
  • Zooming in with a longer lens is better for food photography than getting in close with a smaller lens - this really surprised me, but the results speak for themselves.
  • Think about background - food often looks best on wood, and you can buy pieces of vinyl that have a wood effect (much easier to roll up and put in your bag)
  • White plates are actually the worst thing to photograph food on, even though dishes look great when served that way. Use coloured plates instead.
I really enjoyed the class and learnt a lot; I highly recommend the Photoion Photography School!


  1. So interesting C. It's amazing how much light plays such a huge part in a good photo. I'm looking forward to some beautiful photography from you now. Xx

    1. Thanks - though I have a bit of a blogging backlog at the moment so the next few things I post were taken before the class! And since I'm in the middle of moving house and temporarily living with the inlaws all my stuff is in storage which makes setting up nice shots a bit harder as well!

  2. Thanks for sharing your tips from the course, photography is the one aspect of my blog that I really want to try and improve. I only have a fairly basic camera at the moment so there's a limit to what I can do but I do have plans to upgrade soon. Pic Monkey helps correct a lot of the flaws in my photos :)

  3. IT sounds like a great course - something I need to go on!

  4. Fascinating tips. Sounds like a a really helpful session. One I would also love..... I really need to get my head around better photos too, but trying to find the extra time to set it all up in a busy day is tricky. Thanks for sharing


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