Food can be a funny thing with things that look, taste, and smell delicious in real life not appearing quite so flavoursome in photographs. Making food look attractive in a photo is a skill, but to make it look downright seductive is another one altogether. Different rules apply for making food look sexy, rather than fresh – bright lighting becomes mood lighting and clean backdrops become dark backdrops and tactile textures.
Below are a few tips for making your produce look provocative, whether you’re shooting your breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Make your images soft and seductive by using a narrow depth of field. Using a prime lens with a wide aperture (a low f value) will produce a narrow depth of field that will draw viewers into the image. Prime lenses with a narrow focal length will help your images to look more intimate than wider angles, and create a softer background without the sharp details created with a macro lens. A fast prime lens will also be helpful in low lighting conditions so that the bits that are in focus are nice and sharp.
Of course, a fast telephoto lens can be helpful too – for zooming in on food while cooking, so you don’t have to get too close to foods that may be spitting burning fat. Safety should come first when photographing food that is in the process of being cooked (especially if you’re the one cooking it) so keep an eye on what’s cooking to avoid any kitchen catastrophes.
If you’re using a telephoto lens using a focal length above 50mm works well for creating images with the softer background.
Mood lighting is essential for this type of food photography. We’re not necessarily talking about throwing something red over a lampshade but getting the lighting just right so that the focus is on the food. Set up a spotlight on the food, and set the food against a dark background for sumptuous shots – think luxury food adverts. You’ll only need one light to create a soft lighting effect. This is true for food photography in general but in this case, we want the background to be the dark so it’s worth drawing the curtains, finding a darker space to work in, or waiting until the sun goes down.
Experiment with bouncing a spotlight off walls and ceilings to create a bright but diffuse glow, and watch out for creating strong highlights on shiny toppings. If you prefer lighter images think about shooting in the natural early morning light.
A lot of the final effect will depend on how you set the scene, this means light and clean surfaces are out and dark backgrounds and interesting textures are in. Materials like black foam core, or a metre or two of black fabric which can be bought cheaply off eBay, make ideal dark backgrounds which look great when out of focus (and can be cleaned and reused).
The way you prepare your food is important as well, add oozy toppings for effect on things like burgers or get artistic with your drizzling on desserts. If you don’t have a dark background to hand you can create X-rated food pics just by getting creative with your cooking and creating unlikely, and often disgusting, mountains of food. Burgers, in particular, are perfect for adding extra toppings to and piling excessively high.
Set the subject as far away as possible from the background, and get in close with the camera, to produce a background that’s nicely out of focus. The lower the aperture, the closer the lens is to the subject, and the further away the background is, the greater the blurring effect.
Certain foods lend themselves to provocative food photography while others don’t. Think sugary and greasy rather healthy and nutritious. If it sizzles in a pan it will probably sizzle on camera and anything made of chocolate, or which has a sweet filling, is usually a safe bet. For tips on photographing chocolate alone check out this guide to chocolate photography.
For meat, classic subjects include burgers and hot dogs, which can be added to with other meaty and greasy extras, such as bacon, fried onions, and relish. For sweets pick anything that has a gooey top or centre, so that things are dripping off and oozing out. Pies, donuts, and eclairs are all great options.
For the sweet stuff try topping the subject with something like honey, syrup or ice cream to make the shots more interesting. Ice cream is especially good if it starts melting.
After you’ve captured your shots process them in Lightroom or Photoshop to make your subjects as tempting as possible. Emphasise dark areas by darkening the shadows and blacks, and enhance pictures that haven’t been taken against a dark background by adding a bit of post-crop vignetting in Lightroom. It’s easy to get carried away with the vignetting but it works well with this kind of photography. Vignetting can be found at the bottom of the Effects panel in Lightroom or in the custom tab of the lens correction window in Photoshop. For more information on this technique read Bill’s guide on using vignetting to improve your photos.
The A La Carta presets from Sleeklens can also be used to enhance your images with many options which can be used to stylise and show off your food’s best side. Check out the pancakes below which use the Tarte Tarte preset.
Get creative next time you’re cooking to make your food pics more provocative. But be careful and make sure you don’t get carried away while snapping and burn your food – as this won’t make for good photos and it’s hard to be creative when your smoke alarm is going off!