Food Photography Made Easy — Simple Tricks and Pro Tips from The 4-Hour Chef

40 Comments


A great pic from Christopher Michel of Central Kitchen in San Francisco. The red box indicates how we cropped for pg. 15 of The 4-Hour Chef.

Christopher Michel has taken pictures from outer space.  OK, technically, it was aboard a U-2 “Dragon Lady” spy plane at the edge of space.  But still.

Best known as founder of Affinity Labs, Chris has one of the most unbelievable bios I’ve ever seen.  Between serving on the board of the U.S. Naval Institute and acting as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Harvard Business School, he’s managed to publish four fine art books full of his photographs.  He’s the one responsible for getting me interested in photography.  After taking my pic with his favorite M9 and Leica Noctilux (50mm, f/.95 lens), and after seeing me marvel at the quality, he insisted I get a proper camera to chronicle my adventures and misadventures.

But what camera to get?  And what about lenses and all the other accessories?  “50mm” meant nothing to me, nor did “f/.95.”  The jargon is enough to make your head spin.

Based on my scattered research, it seemed that I needed an expensive Frankenstein’s monster of high-grade gear.  Thankfully, before I could max out my AMEX, Chris suggested a smaller and less expensive combination: the Olympus PEN E-PL2 micro four thirds camera (body) and Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 Aspherical Pancake Lens.  It was this precise suggestion that took me from my long-standing “I should really get into photography” to actual shooting. 

The gear was no longer my bottleneck.


Chef Marco Canora serving up red snapper at the wonderful Hearth in NYC. We drank almost five bottles of wine that night.

And this combo!  It turned out perfect for close-up food photography, even in very low-light conditions.  It was simplicity itself to turn A below (iPhone) into B (exact same shot with Olympus/Lumix):

A – Parmesan and white chocolate macaron at Saison, complete with gold leaf. Taken with the iPhone.


B – Same shot… but much more beautiful. Taken with an Olympus PEN E-PL2 and Panasonic Lumix pancake lens.

Roughly 20% of the 1,000+ photos in The 4-Hour Chef were taken by me using the aforementioned gear. No Photoshop, no zoom, nothing fancy; just a nice lens and improved composition thanks to Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson, which is required reading.

That’s more than enough to get started and kick ass. The above is all I used for six months.

But there’s more fun to be had, naturally.  Let’s look at the iPhone and the big guns, each in turn, as you can blend the best of both worlds…

There’s An App For That

What if you don’t want to lug a “real” camera to every meal?  Np, as the youngsters say.  The pros get sick of feeling like pack mules, too.

The following iPhone recommendations are from Darya Pino, a Neuroscience PhD and well-known food blogger at SummerTomato, one of Time’s 50 Best Blogs of 2011.  Her posts feature photos taken with both professional gear (including full lighting set-up and tripod) and her iPhone.  Some of the latter are jaw-droppingly stunning, which was always puzzling, as I couldn’t replicate any of it.

No longer. When Darya leaves the backpack at home, here are the apps she uses to level the playing field:

Snapseed (iTunes link)

“This is, by far, my fave. It’s simple to use and all the functions work amazingly well. For quick editing, I use ‘tune image’ for the kind of adjustments you’d make in Photoshop: levels, brightness, contrast, saturation, white balance, tilt shift, etc.  I like to up the saturation a bit to brighten the greens, etc., especially in low light.  Tilt shift is similar to depth of field, making the focal point more focused and the rest blurrier.

This is the minimum I do for most photos I post online. If you need a little more functionality, Photogenie is also a great editor.”

Snapseed Only

 

Snapseed With Tilt Shift – Fish On Sticks

ProHDR (iTunes link)

“This is essential for taking the photos before you edit them.  It really helps for food photography.  The biggest issue with food is that it is wet.  Plus, it’s often served in low lighting.  In restaurants, this makes dishes look brown and disgusting, especially if you compound the problem with flash.

You won’t need it every time, but in weird lighting or situations where you want a lot of detail, it can’t be beat. It also has some basic editing capability, but I usually move to Snapseed instead. Camera+ also takes nice pics and has some interesting filters, but it has too many functions for my taste and feels heavy. Kevin [Kevin Rose, her fiancee and renowned tech influencer] likes it a lot, though.”

ProHDR Only

ProHDR + Snapseed: After ProHDR, Darya used Snapseed to up the “ambiance,” improve the white balance and saturation, straighten the image, add a tilt shift effect, and crop it slightly.

ColorSplash (iTunes link)

“This is also worth purchasing, in my opinion. It only has one function, but it does it really well. Basically, it lets you turn a photo black and white, then selectively return the color to anywhere in the photo by rubbing your fingertip on it.  It creates an awesome effect when used well.”

ColorSplash, With Fruit

Instagram (iTunes link)

“I use Instagram as a social app, rather than for editing.  I use the above apps to shoot and edit, then I share the images via Instagram. One awesome thing about this app is that the web links (these appear when you Tweet your pic) take people to nice big, high-res pics that work for almost any blog.”

Photo from Instagram

The Pro’s

But what it you want to take it up a notch?  That’s when I pose questions to award-winning photographer Penny de los Santos, who’s shot for Saveur, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, and Time, among others.

Are there any real rules for shooting food?

People have all these rules about shooting food. Here are a few I’ve heard repeated by young photographers during workshops I’ve led:

• Avoid photographing food on purple surfaces or purple linens.
• When photographing spaghetti, tuck in all the ends of the noodles.
• Always use a tripod.

Throw those out the window. Whatever it is people say you shouldn’t do, ignore it. I shoot a ton without a tripod and I always laugh when people say it’s the most important thing.

The big secret is to buy the best ingredients you can. Go to the farmer’s market, not the grocery store, the morning of the shoot. Don’t buy one bunch of beets, buy 3 or 4. Buy the produce that looks the best. It’s not about how it tastes.

If you’re shooting meat or vegetables that have been cooked, it’s always nice to brush them up with a little bit of olive oil before you shoot it to make it come alive and give it some shine.

What are some of the biggest mistakes that novices make?

The first mistake a lot of amateurs make is they shoot with their camera’s built-in flash.

The second is they stay in one position, where the food lands right before they eat it. It’s important to look at food from every angle, not only adjusting your proximity to the plate, but also adjusting the food so that you see it the best.

The third is that most people shoot food way too close. They want to see the drips coming off the meat. Instead, pull back and give your subject some space.

Is there any equipment you can’t live without?  

You don’t need to have a deep camera bag. You can do it with just one lens.

Once you have an iPhone 4s or better, you can choose depending on your budget:

Bodies:

Canon G15 (about $500) or Lumix GF3 ($279). These are both great small cameras that shoot RAW, have HD video, and are excellent for food.

Canon 5D Mark III ($3500 body) or Canon 5D Mark II ($2500 body): Top of the line, professional-quality gear.  The latter is the former’s still-great predecessor.

Lenses:

I use Canon’s 24–105mm f/4L a lot (about $1,000)

Props:

Props are essential for bringing your photographs to life. Go to thrift stores and garage sales and find old vintage plates and weathered boards and start a prop closet. Collect forks and knives and bowls that have a lot of character, and then use those as a vessel for your food. If you can’t spend the time searching, Etsy.com and eBay are great for propping. If you have a budget and live in a big city, you can rent from prop houses. Or go check out a prop house to scout what they have, then set out to get your own.

If someone wants to teach themselves how to be a great food photographer, how do they start? 

It’s important to learn the basics of photography first.  Then, don’t miss opportunities to train your eye.  Look at the food magazines—I like Donna Hay and Saveur.  Study photographers, not just self-described “food photographers.”  I’ve been inspired by four masters in seeing, finding moments, and harnessing beautiful light: Sebastian Salgado, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn, and Martin Parr. The last two see the potential in food and have a strong voice about it.

Take a food photography workshop to understand what it means to shoot food and how to approach food. Then challenge yourself. Give yourself five recipes one day, make the dishes, and really think about how you’re going to photograph each one.

###

Everybody has to eat, so why not shoot what you’re eating?

Be playful.  Food photography isn’t just one glamour shot before your stuff your face.  Take a few shots before you eat, a few more once it’s half eaten, and capture the mess at the end with the wadded up napkin.  Perhaps that tells a better story?

And stories are what create better memories for you… and evoke stronger emotions from viewers.  Have fun with it.

###

Related food pics and coverage — The 4-Hour Chef launch dinner:
- The New York TimesFête Accompli | 4-Hour Feasting
- The Wall Street Journal’4-Hour’ Man Masters Food, The Good Life

Posted on: November 23, 2012.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

40 comments on “Food Photography Made Easy — Simple Tricks and Pro Tips from The 4-Hour Chef

  1. Wish I had the money for a Leica. Most of these “rules” you’ve been told are by people who sit around on Dpreview talking about diffraction and pixel-density rather than getting out there and actually shooting.

    The only reason you’d need a tripod is if you planned on shooting in really low light but those “0.95″f lenses bring in so much light it doesn’t matter.

    My advice to add to your wicked post Tim, is that users should grab a rebel maybe ($500-900) with a 50mm 1.8mm lens. It’s perfect for food, let’s in a lot of light, and does that real nice out-of-focus (bokeh) look for $100.

    PS, about 100 pages into 4-Hour Chef and it’s amazing so far!

    Like

    • Just to add on to this and to add an even cheaper option. We use a point and shoot. A slightly fancy point and shoot but a point and shoot. It has a special food photography mode that we only discovered after having used the camera every day for 6 months. After we discovered that and spent some time experimenting our photos got vastly better.

      Even if you have cheaper gear take the time to really get to know it and to practice. You can get pretty great results without super expensive gear if you really know how how to use it and if you spend some time trying different things.

      Like

    • That makes sense. Simply showing up is very often the secret. Sure the technical HW matters but common—Leica? You’ve got some stuff to learn before you purchase Leica. And finally, get advice on photography from real photographers – professionals.

      Like

  2. Tim.. in the NYT article you said:

    “Instead of a soft landing mat, the tool that I’m using to accelerate my progress with surfing is Skype video. A lot of the learning and teaching recommendations are still stuck a few hundred years in the past.”

    Strange you say that – when you’re teaching us everything in a 1000 year old teaching method – books!

    (And just btw I’ve bought all your books and followed the 1st one quite a bit. So I love your teachings. This is just about the teaching “method” – not the material itself – which is A grade)

    It’s 10x harder to learn cooking from a written text than watching it on video. Ideally the 4 hour chef should have been a video course delievered over hulu or something.

    I watched the 4 hour life show you did recently and I learned and retained a 100 times more than reading your book. It was fun too!

    You’ve already got the crediblity that one gets from published books. Why still clinge to the same old same old?

    Isn’t it high time that you switch to video for teaching/sharing?

    Thanks for your insights.

    Like

    • Dear Tim

      Love the post especially all the iphone app recommendations. I would have to agree with @Shariq above: I am quite a visual learner and have a hard time if I can’t “see” it. The old adage I learned in all my training: “See one, do one, teach one.” Love to see more video.

      I am a bit behind on all the blog reading and the story of why the 4HC has been banned in the major chains. Hope to catch up on this soon.

      Like

      • I agree. I tried the French omelet like 3 times and failed miserably. I then watched a video on how to make a French omelet on YouTube, and it made much more sense!

        Like

  3. Tim, personally i’m tired of everyone taking and posting pictures of everything under the sun.
    4 hour chef book question- Stopped in my local non chain bookstore today to look for your new book but they blamed you for them not having it. I know you said that the big chains are boycotting it, but is there a reason that smaller stores would have trouble carrying it? Are there two sides to this story?
    Thanks for all your info and I will be ordering the book.

    Like

  4. I am surprised you haven’t mentioned the sony Rx100 as of the suggested cameras. It’s a beat of a camera and for the size and quality can by some people be put into a class of a mini SLR.

    Like

  5. Anyone who tries to photograph food in a restaurant with a dSLR probably doesn’t realise how ridiculous it looks.

    I sometimes take photos of food, but it is quite embarrassing seeing people lug out whopping black bricks to take a photo of some sushi. The micro 4/3 cameras are much more subtle for this as suggested.

    The EPL2 suggested by Tim is a bit dated now though, the newer EPL5 has a much better sensor. They are 98% as good as dSLRs these days anyway, food photography is not their down side that’s for sure.

    Like

  6. I’m stoked to find the editing apps for iPhone. I’ve never looked, but always wanted more editing features when posting photos online directly from the phone.

    Great article.

    Like

  7. Excellent advice. Best thing I learned in food photography workshop was to change ISO to 1600 for low light photography, it has been a revelation. Have recently got iphone4s so will investigate those apps. Thanks.

    Like

  8. Tim – awesome work with your newest book!

    Just a soundtrack suggestion for “mise en place” : Radiohead – “Everything in its right place”. Perfect calm atmosphere of things in order, yet conveys the anxiety of getting started!

    Like

  9. Using off camera lighting and light modifiers will bring your photos to the next level.

    It’s the biggest thing that seperates pros from beginners. It’ll completely change the way you look at cameras.

    Someone who spend 70:30 on lighting to gear will come out with much, much nicer photos than vice versa.

    Like

  10. Great article!

    I would highly recommend the Sony rx100. Smallest 1 inch sensor compact that takes kick ass photos with nice bokeh and clarity.

    Like

  11. Hey Tim,

    I just received the 4-Hour Chef and just by paging through it, I´m really loving it. I´m quite good at understanding English, but I just wanna know if you are also planning a German version?

    Best regards,
    Tobias

    Like

  12. Tim – Great advice on photography. I agree that Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson is required reading. Really simple to understand the basic concepts and apply them to taking great pictures.

    I’m digging the new book. My wife isn’t a fan of yours but I think she might be after I showed her what I was going to cook from the book.

    Like

  13. Hey Tim -
    Thanks for a great article – I think this may just inspire me to take up photography (though I’m more interested in travel and architecture than food).

    I wanted to suggest that you update the link to the book Understanding Exposure. When you click on it and get to Amazon, it says there is a newer version. Of course I ordered the newer version hoping you’ll still get credit for it, but thought I should send you a note.

    Tracy

    Like

  14. Another protip: you can buy awesome film cameras for pennies on the dollar. Japanese rangefinders generally run less than $200, Leicas can be had for less than the cost of a decent modern lens. Film is it’s own beast, but it’s another option if you want to get quality with little start up cost.

    There’s also a metric ton of how-to photography blogs out there. Learning the mechanics, off-camera lighting, etc. is so much easier than it ever was.

    Like

  15. Hello Mr. Tim….I am an indian and i weigh an enormous 120 kgs. i was a very active person but after my first delivery and some emotional setbacks i weigh this much at 30 yrs of age.
    I have some questions for you,regarding slow carb diet. incorporating it in indian lifestyle is a bit difficult and all the frozen foods are also not available here to make my life easy….also i am an eggetarian and i am not really able to understand how to put all the ingredints of slow carb in my diet. i am not sure about PAGG And also the cold method on losing fat. i mean if i sit for half hour in chilling cold i will catch throat infection or fever…. please help me fight this battle of fat loss….looking forward to hearing from you

    Like

  16. Thanks so much for the iPhone app suggestions. I’ve been taking photos of food with my iPhone 4 ever since I got it 6 months ago. The pictures look decent but I am ready to take it to the next level! For just sharing food porn on the internet and needing only the smaller photos, I think the iPhone is great.

    But for blowing them up, a camera is definitely a necessity! I’ll definitely be going this route in early 2013 :)

    Now I need to dive into The 4-Hour Chef on my kindle :)

    Like

  17. Great post Tim.

    If I could add one thing to this it would be light.

    A lot of photographers obsess over light, but all you ever need is a window.

    - Some of the best light comes right before sunset, the golden hour.
    - Use white poster board to bounce the sunlight.
    - Use light angles, if your camera is point at 6 o’clock, try the light source at 10 o’clock and use a white poster board to fill your subject.

    I’m no pro photographer, I just love photos.

    Like

  18. Just made the North African Eggs…. Wow- Delicious! Paired them with a green tea and it made it even better!

    ONE tip: 2-4 eggs is not enough to serve 2-4 people. I used three extra large eggs and got enough to fit on the size of my palm. I’d say 4 eggs for ONE serving. (2 whole eggs, 2 yolks)

    Thanks again, 4HC= art

    Like

  19. One more easy food tip: If you’re at home put your food near a window. The diffused light through the window will make your picture much better.

    Like

  20. Photography is an expansive art form that includes more than just portraiture, landscape or glamor photography. Both professional and amateur photographers may favor specific types of photography over others. While a professional photographer may work in photojournalism, an amateur may be particularly interested in macro-photography.

    Like

  21. Been looking into different food photography techniques and this is an interesting list of tips. I’m finding that it is more important to understand what makes for a great photograph than to use the most expensive equipment. Thanks for this post.

    Like

  22. Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude! Thanks, However I am going through troubles with your RSS. I don’t know the reason why I cannot join it. Is there anybody getting similar RSS issues? Anyone that knows the answer will you kindly respond? Thanks!!

    Like