The web is full of bad food photography tips. Most folks mean well, but don’t understand the science that underpins photography.
For the beginners who follow these tips, this uniformed advice stifles creativity and leads to a very formulaic way of shooting. Food photography isn’t about following a bunch of lighting recipes; it’s about seeing and hopefully making some beautiful photos.
If you want to create amazing food photography, make sure you ignore the following advice:
Only Use Natural Light
This is one of the food photography tips I see most often. Diffuse window light is beautiful, but very limiting. The people who give this advice should say this instead – “I don’t know anything about artificial lighting so I only use natural light.”
Just like every other food photographer, I started out by the window, but later moved onto hot lights and eventually strobes. If you look at the photos in any food magazine, they’re predominately shot with artificial light. The same goes for packaging and TV commercials.
Some types of food are so complex, you need precise control and window light doesn’t cut it. When I need beautiful window light, I fake it. The shot below was taken with a light panel and a strobe bounced off white foamcore.
If you’re just getting started, try bouncing a flash off a wall or make a cheap light panel out of some ripstop nylon. The results will look odd at first, but with a little practice, everything will come together.
Take a lot of shots
This advice is deceptive. Being creative and finding the right angle sounds good on paper, but editing a million photos is a drag. This gets old fast and turns a lot of people off on photography.
A better method is to pre-visualize like a painter, build the composition, and set the lighting. The last thing you do is take the shot.
This may sound strange in the inconsequential age of digital, but it leads to happier photoshoots and minimal post processing.
Use a Light Tent
If you want to sell stuff on ebay, this is the way to go. For food photography, these things stink. Photographic light tents were created to photograph mirrored objects like jewelry, not food. Most food has some type of texture so you typically need light scraping across the surface of it. Even if you push light through one side of the tent, the light bounces off the top and the texture is lost.
These tents are cool for certain creative effects like shooting an apple in a perfectly white environment, but it isn’t a one stop solution for food photography.
Don’t use hard light
Soft window lighting is the current style, but it’s just a style. Food has been traditionally shot with hard light and it will be again. Don’t kill your creativity and mistake a style for a rule.
Buy an Expensive Camera
The world of food photography gear is changing fast. Ten years ago, 4×5 view cameras were the standard. These were replaced by medium format digital backs and today, a lot of professionals are using full frame DSLRs.
Camera sensors have become so amazingly good at all levels, it isn’t necessary to waste tons of money on gear. The idiots in the photography forums will try to convince you otherwise, but you don’t need a super expensive camera.
If you don’t believe me, check out Terry Richardson. He doesn’t shoot food, but he’s one of the highest paid photographers in the world and shoots with a simple “point and shoot” camera. To top it off, he skips the expensive lighting gear and uses nothing but on-camera flash.
If you’re just getting started, any of the new compact mirrorless cameras are a great choice. These cameras have the same sensors as a DSLR, but ditch the antiquated mirror and prism system in favor of an electronic viewfinder.
My advice is to take the time to learn the science of photography and make the rules work for your own creative vision. Following a few tips may help, but ultimately, if you don’t understand light, you’ll never consistently make great photos.