Food Photography: A Natural Approach

I’ve already mentioned what a great summer I had. I’m not trying to rub it in or anything, but I think it may have been the best ever. One of the things that made it so incredible was a four-day food photography class I took at the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York. Although I got a lot of on-the-job-training in my last position (prior to going rogue, aka freelance) I hadn’t taken a photography class since high school. Needless to say, I was excited to get some professional instruction.

The class was called “Food Photography: A Natural Approach” and was taught by Susie Cushner. Susie is a seasoned food (and still life in general) photographer whose work has appeared in tons of publications and cookbooks (including Ana Sortun’s Spice, one of my favorites). As we quickly learned, she has an amazing eye not only for composition but also for light.

Our class was nice and small – just seven of us plus Susie and a wonderful TA, Viviana. We came from all different backgrounds: me (the food writer), two photography students (one from France and one from Switzerland), a professional magazine photographer from Argentina, a restaurateur, a Spanish teacher, and a finance guy. The three international students all came to New York for the summer just to take classes at ICP, which made me realize just how lucky I was to be there.

We spent the first day in the classroom talking, getting to know one another, and looking at/dissecting inspiring images of food photography (sites to check out are at the bottom of this post). The next two days were spent in a professional “chef’s kitchen and daylight studio” called the Shooting Kitchen with incredible food stylist Carrie Purcell. The final day took place on site at the Union Square Farmer’s Market (check out some of my favorite photos from that day here).

The Most Important Lesson
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the class. I knew from the title and description that we would be focusing on using natural light, but wasn’t totally clear on what that would entail. What I didn’t understand was that using natural light doesn’t just mean shooting by a window in the day time. It’s about using and harnessing that light, manipulating it with the use of some very simple props to make it bounce and shine and deflect the way you want.

The way I learned to take photographs before was to quickly and somewhat haphazardly set up the light (we used a Lowell Ego light, as I do now), set up the camera, put the food down and take photos at a bunch of different angles until something worked. Susie’s approach is a more measured one. The first step is to set your scene, then you make sure the lighting is correct – all before taking a single photo. Keep playing with the light – using black cards, white cards, or silks as needed – until it’s perfect. The glare is gone, the rim of the bowl is illuminated, the highlight on that tomato is just right. One way to do this is to set up the shot using a dummy empty plate or bowl then switch it out for the real dish when you’re ready.

Then you can look into the viewfinder, worry about aperture and whether that piece of basil is out of place. It’s a method based on nuance, on being able to recognize subtle differences in light and composition and little things that could improve the shot dramatically. (Take, for example, the series of photos above: the differences are subtle, but in each one we were working towards fixing the glare in the bowl.) It taught me that I need to be more mindful and more observant when taking photos. Of course, this is difficult when the photo also happens to be my dinner and I have a starving husband looking eagerly up at me…

I learned more than I can share in one post, and that was probably the most important. But here are some other great tips that Susie shared with us along the way:

Camera and Lenses
Susie, in case you were curious, uses a Canon EDS 5D (I have the comparatively dinky Nikon d3000). She says that a longer focal length is best for plated food and highly recommends a 100mm with a macro component (like this one). When I worked at a food magazine this is what we used and I can tell you it’s incredible. (sadly, I can’t justify a $600+ lens right now…) Susie also recommends having a 35-70mm zoom lens. “Everything matters. The lens you choose matters,” she explains. Sigh. I felt very deflated in the lens department (my classmates all had such nice, expensive equipment), but I make do with what I have. (A note on this topic: for the two days in the studio we worked in small groups and because my partners had nicer cameras and lenses a lot of our best shots ended up with them…so it goes.)

A great idea before investing in expensive photography equipment: Rent it! This never occurred to me, but it’s quite brilliant. This way you can test it out and make sure you like it. In Manhattan Susie recommends Foto Care, but I’m sure there are lots of places.

Know Your Camera
This may seem like a no-brainer, but know your camera! After taking this class I realized there is so much about my camera that I didn’t know. And my instruction manual was surprisingly little help. So I went out and bought a book called the Nikon D3000 Digital Field Guide (they make them for almost every brand and model of digital slr), which is my new bible. I suggest getting one for your camera!

Lens Hood
Use a lens hood! Otherwise the light gets spotty and milky by eliminating all the stray light from coming into the camera and flattening it out. (It should be noted that I lost mine and haven’t replaced it…Susie, I promise, I’ll get one…)

Tripod
This one is self-explanatory. And necessary. I know, they can be a pain in the butt. But they really make a difference in getting sharp photos. And they’re cheap! I got mine on Amazon for $16.49. For reals.

Silks and Cards
A photography silk can be put on the window to soften harsh light. Viviana told me that you can just purchase any light, gauzy, nylon fabric and it will have a similar effect. A black card (little more than a piece of black cardboard) takes away light to add contrast, depth of field, and shadows. If you are by a window and the light is too broad you can put a board to block some of the light or put a silk up to make a soft box. It’s all about shaping and eliminating light or kicking more light in. A white card of course helps bounce and reflect light.

Clamps
Super cheap and simple clamps (like this or this) make it easy to hold up all those cards. Susie also had an articulating arm that made it possible to hold the card at any angle, but for my purposes the clamps work fine. I got a box of five on eBay for about $5.

Focus and Angles
When shooting food not everything should be in focus. This highlights the texture and color of food and makes everything else background. The exception to this is overhead shots – then everything should be in focus. And when shooting straight down it’s really important to get the light right so the whole photo isn’t flat. Right now shooting overhead or from a 3/4 angle is most popular in food photography.

Composition
Composition and light are the base of any good photograph. When thinking about composition, you want to consider what story you want to tell. What’s too much? What’s too little? You are trying to evoke a narrative and entice the viewer’s sense of smell through their sense of sight. When you compose a photograph you want to bring together elements that complement each other. The beginner photographer is more reliant on what’s fed to them – you need to bring your voice into the image.

When you look into the frame look in all four corners and make sure it’s exactly how you want it to be. If not then stop and change it. Think about where you want the eye go.

Getting the Light Right
Approach a subject with a black card and a white card and just move them around. See how they change the light. See what you want to eliminate and highlight. Set up and play with the light before you even look through the camera. Observe how much impact light has. The more time you spend just observing the better you will get at noticing subtleties. A normal daylight exposure is something like f11 and a shutter speed of 1/13 with an ISO of 200.

Tricky Foods
Meat is tricky to photograph. If the light isn’t diffused and softened in the right way it can come out looking gross. Liquids are also hard to get right. Definitely use a long lens if possible when shooting beverages. And when shooting salad don’t dress it until you are sure you like the set-up because the salad will wilt quickly.

Styling
Good styling pulls the eye through the photo. Although most of us don’t have access to a talented food stylist at home, there are tricks that we can use. And lucky for us, right now the trend in food styling is looking for things that aren’t so perfect and making them perfect. People want that natural look. Of course, while spontaneity with food is very important, then you have to make sense of it.

Some food styling tools of the trade: glycerine (mixed with water to create believable dew drops), mini spray bottle (to freshen up produce and whatnot), and eye droppers. For our two days in the studio Carrie pulled out all kinds of fun props, serving vessels, and ingredients (like fun shapes of pasta, big grains of sugar, antique cheese grater, etc.) You can see some of the fun stuff we got to work with here:

Inspiring Food Photography & Styling
Con Poulos – He exclusively shoots food and once you know the name you’ll see it in all the food magazines. We discussed specific shots, one of oranges that have been arranged by a stylist in an artful way with a black, matt surface to accentuate the oranges and juice on the surface. Of course, he also works with the best of the best prop and food stylists.

Susie Theodorou – An expert food stylist who works often with Con Poulous. The slightly melted popsicle is one of her trademarks (before everyone was doing it). She plays off the unexpected and veers off the beaten path. She really looks at the elements and textures, and makes things that are off-balance seem balanced.

Sang An – Although not a dedicated food photographer, Sang An’s photographs offer plenty to learn from. He uses a very cool technique where he places the food on a piece of plexiglass, lights it from below, and photographs it from above (like this one). He also meticulously controls the light with cards.

Raymond Hom – A young, up-and-coming food and still life photographer, Raymond Hom is known for his falling apart, natural, “deconstructed look.” Using composition and light he tells a story with his photographs. They have an almost effortless look that looks like he just happened upon the scene.

Others we looked at: Martyn Thompson, Jason Varney, Jonny Valiant, Pictures and Pancakes.

What are the most important food photography lessons you have learned? What equipment could you not live without? What lighting techniques do you most often use? Any good tips, classes, or other info? I’d love to hear from you!


63 Comments

  1. What a plethora of fabulous information. I need to read and reread this. I’m totally with you about having a hungry family tapping their toes while I try to get a few great shots…and now that’s my excuse for my amateur photography. But I have a goal to get better, so thanks for sharing what you learned at your workshop~

    • I am so glad it is helpful! It’s definitely a different story for bloggers than it is for professional photographers (who, in addition to having commercial equipment and food and prop stylists also aren’t trying to then eat the food) but there’s still plenty to learn from them.

  2. This was a very helpful post. I live in Florida so natural light is plentiful. I try to use the light at dusk or diffused lighting. I do not have a lot of technical expertise so I really focus on keeping it simple.

    This post was great. I read a lot of helpful hints. Thank you for sharing this with your readers.

    Velva

    • Yes the light in Florida is just great. I think keeping it simple is best. And that’s really what I learned in this class – although professional photographers have a lot of fancy equipment at their disposal we can recreate a similar effect with some cardboard and fabric!

  3. What a great write up of this class. So informative, thanks so much for taking the time to post this.

  4. This is a very informative post and I enjoyed reading it. You are lucky to be taking such a wonderful class. I am sure your tips here will help, especially with the pesky glare issue. Great post.

    • I really was lucky to take the class (it was actually an incredibly generous and thoughtful birthday present from my parents). I’m so glad the post is informative. I had never even given much thought to the glare on the plate and it’s amazing how a little piece of cardboard can help fix that!

  5. Great post! Thanks for sharing all those photography tips, I’m always looking to improve my photos.

    • Thanks! It’s my pleasure. I’m always looking to improve as well so I’m glad these tips were useful to someone other than me!

  6. I am a total amateur with pictures! I’m quite good with landscape and portrait, but food photography is another story! I’d love to take a photography class (in Italy we don’t take one in high school :S)!
    So I bought some books about photography in general and food photography and I’m going to read them, hoping to learn something from them.
    The most important food photography lesson I’ve learned is about Tripod: I have to use it, even if it’s a pain in the ass, indeed 😉 (and I’ve learned it from my father, who is a good photographer)… so this is the equipment I couldn’t live without. I also learned that bright light is very important for a good picture.
    Sorry, I don’t have any tips for you… you’re way ahead than me 😉

    • Amateur or not you take gorgeous food photos! I’m sure there are tons of photography classes by you, it really was fun! And I don’t think all high schools in the US offer photography but I went to a special school for the arts 😉 And that was back before digital when it was all in a darkroom! And I totally agree about the tripod.

  7. What an amazing post. I really need to find more photography/food styling classes near me, but posts like these sure do help!

    • Thank you Jessica! I’m really so glad I took this class – I always talk myself out of things like this, saying I can’t justify the expense, or I don’t have time, or whatever, but it was so worth it. And just fun! But even without a class your photos are beautiful! Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  8. Yesss, I have been waiting for this post! Such an awesome experience you got to have and the tips are amazing. Thanks for sharing them. Totally bookmarking this page to reference.

  9. Loved the post Katherine. It was very informative indeed.

  10. What an amazing post Katherine! I loved it and I am sure I will be reading again and again! It is that helpful! Ahhhh there’s so much to learn about photography! The class you attended sounds fantastic!

    • Thanks so much Manu! The class really was great. I know, there is so much to learn about photography! Luckily it’s pretty fun (although sometimes overwhelming).

  11. What a great class to be a part of! And those websites are absolutely phenomenal =)

  12. I’m so jealous! Not just because of the class, but also because of the camera. I have this tiny instant thing that has very few capabilities. I make do because like you, I have a very hungry family waiting for me to finish taking a couple of pictures so they can eat, but…..

    I won a copy of From Plate to Pixel in a giveaway and it’s helped me a lot as far as what I can squeeze out of my camera and how to style food. I have a long way to go, but I’m getting closer.

    I loved seeing that set of pictures with the differences in lighting; removing the glass and that glare, getting the glare off the bowl, etc. It was fascinating.

    • Wow, I’m so impressed with the photos you take with a point and shoot! I think if you have a good eye, yummy looking food, and good light you really can do a lot with minimal stuff. Plate to Pixel is great! I still haven’t finished reading through, but every time I pick it up I learn something new. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  13. aaaaand that’s why most of my photos suck (yes, all of the reasons). I don’t have the patience or the equipment. Just a point-and-shoot, a light tent and some lights from Home Depot.

    Well, I just do this for fun anyway. As I joke about FoodGawker: not everything can be an overexposed cupcake!

    but seriously, that must have been a truly amazing course. I wish I had the time and resources to do the same.

    • Oh Dan, don’t be so hard on yourself! Your photos don’t suck and I’m so impressed with the home set-up you’ve created. Very cool. Oh man, those overexposed cupcakes – sometimes the photos they pick are blindingly bright! It was a great course and I am so grateful I had the opportunity to do it.

  14. First this is awesome post, and second what an extraordinary experience to have such a summer and opportunity..Photos look fantastic, and your tips too!
    I do probably 98% of my photos with natural light so that is my #1 source of lightning, but light soft box comes handy from time to time.

    • Thanks Sandra! That’s great that you get to use natural light most of the time. Your photos are great so you must be doing something right! 😀

  15. Thank you for taking time to write about your experience! This is so timely as I just started my blog 2 months ago. With limited tools from a snap camera, your tips will help lots!
    Right now am just using morning light or before sunset (softer light) beside the sliding door, with the help of the white cardboard to reflect light. setting up & shooting mostly take longer than my cooking!

    • It’s my pleasure – I’m so glad it is helpful! Sounds like you have a great set-up. Using morning and dusk light is a great idea, definitely a softer, prettier light! I know what you mean about the set-up time! It does get quicker as you get the hang of things but I still find that sometimes I just can’t get a good shot or I get in a funk. Welcome to the wonderful world of food blogging and thanks for stopping by! Off to check out your blog 🙂

  16. Hi Katherine – awesome post. I plan to start using some of these tips right away. What I wouldn’t give to go to a class like that! You are so fortunate!
    LL

  17. The post is quite inightful and I read each word you have written very carefully. Really thanks for such an amazing post. I need to get those boards now. right now, like you said. I take a number of photographs in a hurry and then sort out the best one. I am never satisfied with the lighting and your post is a great help to me. Thanks for mentioning the focal length and aperture for normal daylight!

    • I’m so glad this post has been so helpful! Again for the boards no need to spend a lot of money, just get some black and white pieces of cardboard! Thanks so much for stopping by 🙂

  18. All of this highlights for me that I really need to take a photography class. I manage to get some pretty good photos because I have great lighting in my house, but I really don’t know what I am doing! And I certainly don’t know my camera very well…I inherited it from my brother. And as you say, the manual is not very helpful!

    • Go for it! Honestly, even if it’s not a food photography class I think it’s great to take any kind since they all go over using your camera, aperture, light, composition, etc – all things that can be applied to food! Isn’t it frustrating how little the manual says?! Anyway, it should all be fun 🙂

  19. Katherine, I was waiting for this post ever since you said you would take a photography class (lol!). Thank you so much for creating this post for all of us and sharing your knowledge of what you learned. I know it’s not easy to write up everything and you did a awesome job. Where to start. Like Giulia, I learned to use a tripod for sure. I have the fake light set for winter time (my house is pretty dark in winter and I have no window in kitchen!), but since spring I have been using just natural light in living room with my fake table. I definitely need to read manuals at least once as I have never touched it yet. I always have trouble with composition and it seems like repetitive with the similar style. Also don’t know what kind of prop is useable – they say anything but that make me confused even more. I’m still playing with lens and angle of shot. I think it’s going to be a long journey for me to achieve what I want…. but looks like everyone is on the same boat. Thank you again for this post (and sorry for long comment).

    • Nami, it’s my pleasure! Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. I know what you mean about composition – I often feel like I always take the same photo!! But it’s hard without an arsenal of fun plates and props on hand. I’m the same also with props – I can’t seem to style them right so they don’t look silly in the photo. In either case you take stunning photos so you are definitely doing something right! It’s a journey for all of us, I think we’re definitely all in the same boat! 😀

  20. Thanks for the write up! I should have you write my bio! I just saw your link on my analytics page. Honestly the people I work with are very talented and deserve just as much credit as I do. Figuring out what to shoot is half the battle!

    • Ray, it is my pleasure! Your work is absolutely phenomenal and very inspiring to budding food photographers and professionals alike. And seriously if you need an updated bio just let me know! 😉 Thanks so much for stopping by.

  21. I am just reiterating what everyone said already: Thanks for the detailed post. It appears that many of us are in the same boat. How many lenses you need?, how many accessories, props?, but mostly patience. When I decided to do some food blogging, I knew I need a good camera, but I did not realize how many lenses you need and how expensive they are; so I am still struggling with certain photos. For instance, the macro lens does not have depth and my other lens (50mm f/18)) suffers the same problem. So, actually I still need a zoom lens and one that has a good depth (one can get bankrupt before being able to create a perfect photograph of a chocolate cake). Can you translate: ….”longer focal length?”
    I think most of us are not familiar with 80% of what our camera can do, because the manufacturers are pretty bad with respect to providing a useful manual
    I am going to stop now, before I take up all your space. Thanks again for the info.
    Katherine, could you send me info about the cost to my e-mail?

    • It’s so easy to get caught up in the photography equipment, and for some people it’s worth it. Others take great photos with very minimal set-up so I really think it’s up to each individual person. Most of the additional accessories I learned about cost next to nothing, namely white and black boards and clips to hold them. Longer focal length is like a 100mm lens (shorter would be 35mm for example). Honestly I use the lens that came with my camera about 85% of the time and use my 50mm lens (which was around $100) the rest of the time. The lens of my dreams right now is an 85mm macro, but that runs at least $500 and I just can’t justify it. Anyway I think you take gorgeous photos so whatever you are doing keep on doing it!

  22. Great post Katherine!!! Like everyone above, I really appreciate all the info here, plus all the links to the inspirational food stylists and photographers you mentioned. I looked up the class you took and see there’s another in January. Maybe I should get my butt to NYC for those days and take it, too…it really looks like it was worthwhile…

    • Thank you Winnie!! I think Susie teaches the class twice a year, in the summer and winter, and if you can take it I highly recommend it! I can’t imagine a more fun way to spend my time and it was also eye-opening. I hope you do!

  23. One question…I see above that you mentioned the “lens of your dreams” is an 85 mm macro. Why that one instead of the 100mm macro? Just wondering because a macro is on my wishlist too but I am not sure which one would be best…

    • Great question, Winnie! I was going to address this in the post but then it got too long… basically my camera, the Nikon d3000 is a funny little guy. It’s one of the “intro” models or something like that (read: less expensive) and the autofocus doesn’t sync with all lenses, even Nikon lenses. Also, there’s something to do with the camera (maybe a crop sensor) that makes lenses appear even longer, so a 100 or 105mm would be too close up for my camera and I would have to move to the other side of the room to get a good shot. I’ve read that for my model an 85mm macro is perfect and they make one that syncs with the autofocus. I think for most dslr cameras a 100 or 105mm is a great choice. So, long story short, it really depends on your camera. I googled things like “nikon d3000 best macro lens” and whatnot and found tons of helpful sources.

      • Your camera has a crop factor of 1.5. So your 18 – 55mm kit lens is actually like a 28ish – 85ish lens on a full frame camera. You can use non-AFS lens on your Nikon d3000 – you just have to manual focus. Which for micro, you’re going to end up doing anyway (trust me on this). The 85mm Nikon lens would be about 130mm on a full frame camera. Tamaron has a 90mm micro out there that I’ve heard good things about, but have never used, FYI.

        • Yes, this is exactly the case! Thank you, you explained it much better than I did 🙂 I currently use my 50mm lens for food photography often, which translates to an 85mm or so. I do manually focus, which I have had to readjust to. It got much better when I got my eye prescription bumped up! It is a great little lens and not expensive (about $100) but no macro. I’ve been rethinking what lens I want and I’m thinking a 60mm macro might be more appropriate, but I haven’t looked into it.

  24. Really good post. I used to be the sort who’d finish the dish then start to think about the photography; and sometimes I still do that. But I’m trying to plan/stage more now, and I’m getting better pictures.

    Re equipment, I think what you have is fine. Really the only difference between your Nikon D3000 (an excellent camera) and the Canon EDS 5D is under certain circumstances the Canon can produce less depth-of-field (less in the sense that more is out of focus). Yes, the Canon has *more* pixels than the Nikon – but unless you’re blowing photos up to poster size, you’ll *never* notice the difference. (Full disclosure: I shoot with a Nikon D40, which has only 6MP – more than enough for what I do.) I might be tempted by a full-frame camera because the viewfinder is bigger & brighter, but I don’t need more pixels and if I want reduced depth-of-field I shoot with a 35mm or 50mm f/1.8 lens (neither one of these is that expensive). But then I’m not a fan of the current trend to overuse selective focus, and have only a bit of a photograph in focus.

    I actually think better lights are more important than a better camera (or a more expensive lens). Photography is all about light, and unless and until you can control that, your photography is going to suffer. Good suggestion re the Lowell Ego lights. I haven’t used those (recently I opted to buy studio flash instead), but I’ve heard great things about them, and they’re relatively inexpensive.

    Anyway, enjoyed reading about your photo course. Food photography is tough! Much more difficult to learn than I would have thought, but it’s tons of fun. Thanks for a great post.

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful responses!! I completely agree with you about lighting. I really enjoy the Lowell Ego light and for now it suits my purposes. Studio flash is another great option. You take great photos, so whatever you do is clearly working! 🙂 Food photography is indeed tough, but I agree, tons of fun.

  25. Thank you so much for posting this! I was just looking through your photos & drooling. Drop me a line if you hear about any good food photography classes in San Francisco, will you? All the best!

    • You are so welcome Lauren! I’m glad it’s been helpful. I will definitely let you know if I hear of any classes in San Francisco!

  26. Katherine!
    This is inspiring. Thank you so much for posting such great information on food photography/ equipment, I’m just starting out on my photo journey. Don’t have a DSLR, but my Sony DSC-H2 takes great photos and I have yet to do more food. 🙂 I want to experiment with fim (Canon AE-1, but trying to just play around and have fun). Again, thanks for an awesome post!

    • Tina I am so happy that you found this helpful! Playing around and having fun is definitely the best way to learn so keep at it 😀

  27. What great photography. I have a pretty decent amount of daylight in my studio, I will definately put some of this into action. Could not find better tips anywhere else.

  28. Christian

    Thank you Katherine for a very good article! I’m currently working on a cookbook, so I try to absorb all the information I can regarding food photography. This was a very well written and concise article which really summed up all the essentials of food photography. Can I ask you how much you paid for the course?

    • Thanks Christian! I think it was about $550 plus materials and fees, which isn’t cheap, but it was a packed few days. Plus I got a $100 coupon code through the website – sometimes they have them during holiday times.

  29. Really thorough and excellent write up. I need to find a similar course in London. Am on the search for the perfect macro lense so was forwarded to your site. Will definitely revisit and read through again. Cheers Torie

  30. Looking for a photographer on a shoe string start up budget – any recommendations? Pls let us know. Thanks

  31. Thanks so much for posting, this is by far the most helpful, concise post I have read about food photography yet!

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