Have you ever seen those Coca-Cola billboard advertisements, where the icy cold can or bottle is literally dripping with condensation that makes you think, ‘Oh, I could just go one of those right now.’ Well, that’s just the sort of response that one would expect to get when viewing food photography.
When you are looking for a recipe book, chances are you are looking for the one that includes the simplest recipes, but it’s very likely that the book with the better-presented photographs is the one that you’ll purchase.
I did a similar thing when I was looking for recipes devoted to chicken, but I ended up buying a book that was obviously far beyond my culinary capabilities - but I liked the pictures.
These are the things you have to accomplish with food photography because it’s what sells, not only the recipes but more importantly, the book itself.
Food, in a way, should be photographed and treated much the same as 'Still Life' shots, but unlike the vase of daisies or a bowl of red peppers, it has to be able to leap out of the picture at you and on to your table. So it has to have a great deal of impact. And what is the best way of achieving impact? Getting the right light and as naturally applied as possible to provide the best in whatever colours you will have in your dish.
If you have never attempted this type of photography before, I suggest you get in some practice on the bowl of red peppers first. For at least you can spend more time fiddling and adjusting with that than you can a bowl of steaming hot soup ready for the table. Then, when you have the set-up and lighting right for the peppers, and your confidence is brimming, only then can you start on the hot fresh stuff. Because if it is going from the stove top to the table, you will want to get the job done in less than a minute or so. Otherwise, you’ll have the family banging on the table shouting, “WHERE”S MY DINNER, WHERE”S MY DINNER?”
You don’t really need to have a full-on lighting studio for this task, but you will need to set up an area near a window, preferably close by, in your kitchen that allows for lots of good natural light to enter the room. You will also, however, need a camera that is able to be operated at least semi-manually. There are some great point and shoot digitals on the market these days that have this option, so get to know your camera well and if you can, use it in 'Aperture Priority' mode.
So we are looking for, mid-range apertures, enough to blur the background, but show off as much of what we are photographing as possible. If you do not have a camera that you can manually operate, you may get by as long as you can switch to 'Portrait' or 'Close-up' mode.
But do not intend to use on-camera flash in this situation, unless you absolutely have to. If you have an external flash attachment, you can use it to bounce light off the ceiling or a nearby whitish wall, to supplement the natural light from the window.
Or instead, make up a reflector from a piece of white card, enough to reflect and bounce light back into the shaded side of the subject. So that the light is evenly distributed. The direction and quality of which may change, depending on the season and time of day.
You will also need a tripod and I would go as far as to say a remote shutter release, but it is not essential. All these things at least allow you to have your gear all, ready and set up whilst you fiddle about getting your subject right.
The correct attitude for your camera on a single plate setting should be just above the level of the food so that you get a good view of the front, side and top of your subject. Try to get as much clarity and sharpness on the main viewing part of the subject with the background almost completely out of focus. This puts all the emphasis on the food itself. Choose an interesting looking plate or platter, but not too interesting that it detracts away from your main point of interest. Try also a couple of props, such as a whitish or plain tablecloth, fork, wine glass or table napkin, which should also be visible, but just out of focus. A look at some recipe books will show how the professionals set up their food shots.
Try to get a balance of the contents of the plate so that the chicken legs you are photographing are prominent in view and not totally covered in dark gravy or the like. Or do away with the big spoonful of red/orange honeyed carrots at this stage, because their bright colour will surely act as a distraction to draw the viewer’s eye away from the chicken legs. But as a means of drawing the viewer’s attention to where you want it, you could use a drizzle of gravy across the plate and over a lesser part of the chicken. The glistening gravy will also act as a guiding line. Then you can add a couple of other items to the plate of lesser significance. And to add to the authenticity, it looks better if the contents of the plate are still steaming.
I am sure, in due course, you will look at many various food photography tutorials, but I hope this one helps in providing you with a good start.
See also 'Still Life Photography'