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!
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…)
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!