My Take on Food Styling and Photography

Syndicated

When I first picked up a DSLR camera and began photographing/blogging regularly, I never imagined I'd fall so head-over-heels in love with food photography and styling. Nor could I have predicted that less than 2 years later, I'd be getting such incredible support from my readers, and more recently, an increasing number of emails asking for photography advice. I have no idea if this comes across online, but I'm actually quite a shy person in real life. It's truly a testament to you all that I feel quite at ease writing this post today.

© 2011
An early photo after realizing the value of food/prop styling

Please understand that I don't claim to be an expert in any of this (photography, styling, processing, etc.). What I do possess is a body of information collected through passionate observation, experimentation, and experience that will hopefully make the brave new world of food photography a lot more fun and less scary to you than it might otherwise be... So what are we waiting for? Let's get started!

Early Photos Collage
Food Photography: At the Start

At this point you might be wondering why I chose to start a post about food photography with a collage of photos that are mediocre at best. The photos above are some of the first ones to have graced this blog. In fact the blurry shot of raspberry streusel bars at top left was the first food photo taken by yours truly to be posted here! The point of this collage is simply to emphasize that everyone starts photographing with no experience and little technical skill.

For me the importance of this is twofold. First, it makes the task of learning food photography or improving your photographs less daunting once you realize it's a skill to be mastered and honed through constant practice/study rather than some gift you have to be born with. Certainly some people are better at it like anything else. But to give an example, take a look at this early post by blogger/photographer/stylist Aran Goyoaga of Cannelle et Vanille. I bet her early photos are not so different from yours or mine. She had to learn the same basics as any other photographer in order to get where she is today.

Mango Crab Gazpacho!
Food Photography: 2 Years Later

Second, I think it's important to remember where we started off to maintain perspective on how we've grown. I've seen many bloggers complaining about how much they hate and hope to one day replace their early blog photos. If you're one of them, I hope you'll change your mind. There's no shame to showing the history of your development as a photographer, and at least for me, removing them would just feel like pretending to have been something I wasn't.

FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY

BASIC FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY EQUIPMENT

As I've mentioned before, I've used the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XS camera with the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II lens for the past 2 years and for the majority of the photos on this site. Both are on the lower end of the price range for dSLR equipment. To touch briefly on the Point and Shoot (P&S) versus dSLR issue, I do wholeheartedly agree with the common saying that "it's not the camera, it's the photographer." So no, not even dropping several grand for a professional camera will allow you to instantly take amazing photos. BUT dSLR cameras do generally produce photos with noticeably superior clarity and color. And most importantly, they put an incredible amount of control in your hands. Yes -- it's an investment -- but one that's been more than worth it in the amount of joy, creative expression, and blogging success it's provided me.

Though the Rebel XS has served me very well, I'd recommend starting with a slightly higher-end model (like an XT or XTi/Nikon equivalent or even better if you can afford it) if you expect to be serious about photography. Regardless of the camera, I guarantee the 50mm lens is the best bang for your buck (at around $100) and won't disappoint!

Set-up for Velvet Cupcakes Shot


My other indispensable equipment for shooting food include:

  • a very affordable tripod (key for getting clear shots even in low light and to free up my hands); do make sure to get a tripod that can withstand the weight of your camera and lens(es) -- higher quality cameras tend to be heavier and you don't want your new camera crashing to the ground!
  • any sheer white curtain, bedsheet, or parchment/vellum paper (to diffuse natural light)
  • cheap white/black foam boards in various sizes from any craft store (used as light reflectors/absorbers)
  • cheap clamps from any hardware store OR any heavy tall object (to hold or prop up your reflector boards);
  • 38-inch horizontal tripod arm extender (optional but very helpful to get overhead shots and squeeze into tight corners in my small apartment);
  • round 40-inch 5-in-1 flexible collapsible reflector (optional but useful for tight spaces and corners)

BASIC PHOTOGRAPHY LIGHTING AND SETUP

My main and usually sole source of light is natural light. I totally understand how limiting this is in terms of time, but natural light simply breathes life into photos in a way that's hard for artificial lights to provide (though a pretty good counter-argument has been made before). When I first started blogging, I was working a very busy job, but was still able to photograph with natural sunlight in the morning or on weekends. This is a personal preference and priority, but most of the blogs and tutorials I enjoy and linked below also use natural light in their photos. And since it is what I have experience with, this post will only discuss natural light food photography.

My window is fairly tall (almost 5 feet) and almost twice as wide. Since the window faces West, I find that my best hours for photography are between noon and 4:30 pm. My lighting setup usually involves styling my tabletop within 1-2 feet of the window (you can use any strong but diffused light source available to you). I usually prefer to soften the lighting to avoid harsh highlights or shadows, so I've taped large pieces of white parchment paper over my entire window to act as a diffuser. You can also use a sheer white curtain, bedsheet, or vellum paper.

That Bloody Rat Got My Cupcake!
Black paper held to the left to subtract light for more dramatic mood

I use white foam boards in a variety of sizes and a large round expandable reflector (see equipment list above) to bounce more light into areas of the photo where I want it (it's amazing how much of a difference these can make!). The expandable reflector has a silver side and a gold side to give a cooler or warmer tone to the resulting photo. To create a cheaper version of the silver reflector, you could simply wrap one side of a board in aluminum foil as a makeshift reflector. Likewise, I have black boards to subtract light and deepen shadows when that effect is desired (my friend Vera has a great post with photos on this technnique). To use either reflector, I start by positioning it about perpendicular to the table. Then, I may angle the reflector(s) down toward the food or up above the food and move the reflector(s) closer to the food or further away from it, taking photos of each and comparing results until I'm satisfied with the photo.

BASIC EXPOSURE AND CAMERA SETTINGS

To reach your photography potential and get the most out of your dSLR camera, you will need a basic understanding of exposure. Since there are already quite a few excellent posts on this from bloggers that are professional food photographers, I will only do a quick overview of this topic and direct you to their sites for more in-depth lessons with demonstrative photos =).

As illustrated in the diagram below, 4 main factors contribute to exposure (or the the amount of light that passes into your camera and onto the sensor): the amount of light in the scene and camera shutter speed, aperture, and ISO (light sensitivity). To keep this post from becoming a novel, this will be a very general overview with the emphasis being on the effects of each setting rather than the mechanics behind it (which I honestly don't completely understand anyway =p).

Exposure Triangle

Shutter speed is probably the easiest to understand. It is the setting determining how long the camera shutter remains open to let light in and is measured in fractions of a second. Thus it makes sense that the faster the shutter speed, (such as 1/500) the darker the photo will be (assuming other settings aren't changed), and the slower the shutter speed (such as 1/4), the brighter the photo will be. Shutter speed is also important for capturing motion; a slow shutter speed will capture any movement (intentional or not) as blurring, while a fast shutter speed will "freeze" a moment of that motion clearly.

Aperture reflects the size of the lens opening that lets light into the camera while the shutter is open. Aperture size is expressed in “f-stop” numbers like "f/2.8." The smaller the f-stop, the larger or wider the aperture is. The larger the aperture/lens opening is (such as f/2.8), the greater the amount of light let in and the brighter the photo will be (assuming other settings don't change). The smaller the aperture/lens opening is (such as f/16), the lesser the amount of light let in. The aperture also determines the “depth of field” (DoF).This is the part of a photograph from front to back that is in sharp focus. A very small aperture will keep everything in the frame from near to far in focus (deep DoF). But a large aperture opening (but smaller f-stop!) will keep a small section of the photo in focus (shallow DoF). Large apertures produce photos with the blurry backgrounds that are so popular in food photography.

Oreo Cookies
Moderately large aperture (f/4) to blur the trees outside the window

Finally, ISO is the camera's sensitivity to light. the higher the ISO is (such as 1600) the brighter the photo will be, the lower the ISO is (such as 100) the darker the photo will be (assuming other settings don't change). Increasing the ISO can be very useful for taking photos in low-light settings, but a high ISO also produces photos with more noise (dust-like specks/graininess). Thus, once you know how high your camera can go before the noise becomes visible, you should keep your ISO below that number (unless you are seeking the grainy look for artistic effect).

 
If the technical terms are still confusing you, here is a metaphor that helped my friend understand exposure more easily. Imagine yourself in a room with no light except from a single window which has shutters. The total amount of light that reaches your eyes is like the exposure. The shutterspeed is like the amount of time the window shutter is opened to let light in. Aperture is like the size of the window. Low ISO is like you are wearing sunglasses (your eyes are then less sensitive to the light) and high ISO is like your eyes are uncovered.
 
So by adjusting the 3 settings above, you can get the amount of brightness you want in your photo. But as you might have realized, since all 3 factors contribute to the total exposure, there are multiple combinations of settings that give you the same desired amount of overall brightness. So you might be wondering how you decide which combination to use. Well...this is where the unique effects of each setting come in, and you get to exercise some artistic control!
 
For example, if you were taking a photo of an orange still on the tree and wanted only the orange in focus with the branches and leaves blurry, you would use a large aperture such as f/2.8 to achieve that effect (a shallow depth-of-field). However, since a larger aperture lets more light into the camera, you'll need to increase the shutter speed or decrease the ISO to maintain a good exposure. On the other hand, if you want to capture, say, some wine being poured into a glass, you would use a fast shutter speed such as 1/800. But since this decreases the amount of time light has to enter the camera, you'll need to increase the ISO or aperture to increase the light let in and maintain a good exposure.
 
Unless you want a purposefully grainy photo, ISO doesn't really offer creative options like shutter speed and aperture do. It is, however, useful for taking photos in low-light settings. With the help of higher ISO (light sensitivity), slow shutter speed, and large aperture settings, I've been able to extend some food photography shoots to as late as 6:30 in the evening still only using natural light! But to get clear images without blurring at low shutter speeds, a tripod is absolutely critical.

Bruleed Oatmeal Breakfast!
Taken around 6 pm with tripod @ f/2.5, ISO 400, 1/125

I know all this can be a lot to take in if you're just getting into photography and trying to learn everything on your own. That's why I'd recommend you start shooting in Aperture Priority mode if you're just starting out. With this setting, you simply increase the aperture (smaller f-stop number!) to have a small area in focus and the rest blurry. Or decrease the aperture (largerf-stop number) to have more of the photo be in focus. The camera will adjust the shutter speed and ISO on it's own to what it calculates as "correct" exposure. If you want things a little brighter or darker than that, there's usually an "exposure compensation" button (circled in red below) to nudge the overall exposure up or down.
Canon Camera Back
Exposure Compensation Button (circled in red) and Exposure Compensation Setting Display (outlined in red rectangle) on a Canon dSLR

Once you're comfortable shooting in Aperture Priority mode, I strongly encourage you to switch to manual mode. It's really not very different, and you'll love having complete creative control so much that you'll wonder how you ever lived without it! The main change from Aperture Priority to manual is that you now control the shutter speed.
 
For your first time exploring manual mode, you may want to set a moderate ISO of 200 and shutter speed of 1/125. Next choose an aperture setting depending on what depth-of-field you'd like your photo to have. Then look in the viewfinder and with the camera focused on your subject, push down partially on the capture button. This should cause the vertical bar of the viewfinder exposure meter (outlined in red below) to move left or right, indicating under or over-exposure.
 
Exposure meter viewfinder
Exposure Meter in Camera's Viewfinder (outlined in red rectangle) via Digital Photography School
 
Using the basic concepts of exposure I explained above, you should now be able to adjust the 3 settings until the exposure meter shows "correct" exposure (when the vertical bar is centered like in the photo above). For example, if the vertical bar is closer to the right at 1, the meter is indicating underexposure and you know that not enough light is entering the camera. And vice versa if the vertical bar is more to the left at -1.

***To correct for underexposed settings:
-increase ISO;
-decrease shutter speed; OR
-increase aperture (decrease f-stop number)

***To correct for overexposed settings:
-decrease ISO;
-increase shutter speed; OR
-decrease aperture (increase f-stop number)
 
Of course the point of shooting in manual is not to simply find the nearest "proper" exposure and stay put! Once you have these basics down pat, you'll be able to play with the settings any way you want and be able to find your way to your desired exposure. So that's shooting in manual mode -- not so scary, right? As this process becomes second nature to you with practice, you'll notice you often don't agree with the camera's definition of a "correct" exposure. And really, you don't have to! After realizing I preferred my photos "overexposed" by +1, that's now the level I aim for. Guidelines are merely there to help us find our way. Once you know the rules, you can have a blast bending them =D.

WHITE BALANCE AND RAW FILE FORMAT
 
When we look around us, whether it's in natural or artificial lighting, sunny or cloudy weather, colors remain fairly consistent because our brain adjusts so that we see them that way. Cameras do not do this, so we as photographers need to take steps to make sure there are no weird color casts in our photos. Most cameras have an automatic setting that will attempt to guess the correct colors, but I prefer not to take any chances. In order to correct a color cast (such as a bluish tint from light on a cloudy day), there needs to be something that is true white or gray/silver in the photo as a standard to compare other colors against. There is often already some fabric, plate, or silverware that can serve this purpose. But in the case that there isn't, I like to take a photo of a piece of white paper in the same lighting and scene that my "real" food photos are taken in. Many image processing programs then let you set the correct white balance by clicking on a neutral part of your photo (such as the white paper). You obviously don't want a piece of paper in your final photo, so these programs allow you to "copy“ the corrected color settings over to your other photos.

To get the best results from post-processing, including fixing the white balance, I highly recommend shooting in RAW format. It's an uncompressed format that's similar to a film negative in that it needs to be processed to be viewed normally. RAW files are larger than JPEG and require more storage space, but that is because they capture more data that allows for extensive correction of the exposure, contrast, color, and other aspects of photos in processing with minimal loss of image quality. This makes it especially ideal for photos taken in low or colorcast light settings that may need more post-processing. Only specific programs can edit RAW files, but most dSLR cameras come with one.

PHOTO PROCESSING
 
Although I try to create the best photos I can in-camera, I simply don't have a professional studio/equipment and there are always beneficial tweaks to be made in post-processing of RAW and JPEG formats. I usually tweak color balance, contrast, and brightness using the Canon RAW image editor that came with my camera. Then, I convert the RAW file to a large JPEG (2000 pixels wide) and further fine-tune the same settings as well as adjust others such as sharpness, saturation, levels, and curves in Adobe Photoshop. There are many programs available for photo editing to suit a range of budgets and personal styles. You may want to ask around and download some trials before settling on one that's best for you.
 
It's also difficult to share post-processing steps in detail since it can differ so much between photos, depending on the look/feel I'm trying to achieve. There are 2 methods that I use fairly often in Photoshop that I will share today. First is my favorite way to sharpen images: (1) duplicate the original image in a new layer on top and rename the new layer to "Sharp", (2) with this new layer selected, click on Filter/Other/High Pass. Set the radius between 1.5 and 2.5 depending on the photo size and click OK, (3) change the "Sharp" layer's blending mode to "soft light" and its opacity to between 20 and 30%. Second is a simple technique I use to add depth and "pop" to my photos: (1) duplicate the original image in a new layer above it and rename the new layer to "Deepen", (2) change the "Deepen" layer's blending mode to "soft light" and the opacity to between 5 and 15%. You can adjust this opacity based on your preference.
 
Oh and one more thing: there ain't no shame in rockin' the stamper! Seriously, I use mine for small touch-ups all the time. That stubborn wrinkle in the linen? Gone! A wayward crumb in an awkward place? BAM. I'm a student in a cramped apartment, not a professional photographer. I wield my stamper with head held high, and so should you!
 
 
 
 
FOOD/PROP STYLING
 
If you couldn't tell already from my posts, I loves me some food props! Put me in an antique store and I'm giddier than a kid in a candy shop. It pleases me that prop (and food) stylists are finally starting to get the recognition they deserve. When I started photographing food, I read so much about light, light, and more light! True, photography is at its essence about capturing and manipulating light, but it's nice when the light has lovely textures and objects to play with, too, no? For me, great food photos are ones that tell a story with a time and a place...and props play no small part in setting them there.

ACQUIRING PROPS

West Elm
Organic-Shaped Dinnerware from West Elm

Disclaimer...hunting for props can be fun yet frustrating, quickly become addictive, and consume lots of money and space =p. But if you dare proceed, I do have some recommendations for you. As professional food prop stylist Robin Zachary wrote in her recent guest post, "Keep [props] tasteful and simple. Remember the food is the star!" I completely agree with this philosophy and recommend starting with affordable ceramic dining/serveware in white or other soft solid colors that won't outshine the food. Ikea, World Market, Bed Bath & Beyond, Crate & Barrel, and Red Vanilla are great places to look. If you're willing to make an investment, the more "organic" style of ceramics is beautiful albeit pricey. Mud Australia sets the bar, but other shops like Gleena and West Elmhave excellent offerings as well.
 
Marta Tumblers
Marta Tumblers from Crate & Barrel

Nice glasses are yet another great basic to have for personal use and photography. Crate & Barrel and World Market offer stylish and affordable barware. I also like to explore thrift and antique shopsfor unique glasses. You rarely need a set of anything for food props, so feel free to pick up pretty, one-of-a-kind items for dirt cheap at these places. You'll never know when that item may add just the right touch of "special" to a photo.
 
Vintage Silver Set
Vintage Silver from Etsy
 

Silverware is, like all props, a matter of personal taste. Modern pieces that are tasteful can certainly work well in food shots, but I prefer the duller surface and patina of vintage silverware. Their advantage is two-fold because they (1) add a sense of history and continuity to the scene (as if someone has used the spoon or fork for many years and will continue to do so) and (2) have worn surfaces that won't reveal your tripod, reflector, or even your face in their reflective surfaces! I favor antique malls, thrift stores, Etsy, and Ebay for reasonably priced silverware. Don't be afraid to ask the sellers, especially on Etsy, to lower shipping costs or even the sale price by a few dollars. Sometimes they'll agree just to clear out old inventory.
 
Pottery Barn Napkins
 

Hem-stitched Napkins from Pottery Barn
Pottery Barn Napkins
Hem-stitched Napkins from Pottery Barn

Like utensils, napkins and kitchen towels are important to add a touch of realism to food photos, as if someone is about to dig right in. I've had difficulty finding good napkins locally, but Amazon and other online retailers provide some options. It also seems to be common practice to use napkin-sized fabric pieces to achieve a similar effect. Solids or delicate patterns are usually best to avoid overpowering the food. It's not easy to find kitchen towels without patterns or logos these days, but Ikea and Etsy and good places to look. Pottery Barn sells linens with beautiful hemstitchingbut at a higher cost.
 
Butter Paneer Curry Pizza
Butter Paneer Curry Pizza on Vintage Chair

Last but definitely not least, are background surfaces. Although they may not be the hero, you'd be surprised at how much a beautifully textured background can set a food photo apart. These surfaces run the gamut from table linens to vintage wood, zinc sheeting to weathered fencing, and from denim fabric to slate slabs. Since large stone and metal surfaces are rarely available to us food photography hobbyists, I'm going to focus on the more obtainable surfaces here:
  • Vintage wood tables: the real deal is pretty expensive, but one day I hope to afford it; meanwhile I've been eyeing this DIY tutorial for faking the farmhouse table look.
  • Weathered wood boards: if you have access to a farm or barn, those are your best bets for scoring naturally weathered boards; or you may want to try this DIY tutorial for painted boards.
  • Linen, denim, burlap, etc.: local fabric stores are best so you can examine the color and weave before purchasing; but if none are available, online stores like Fashion Fabrics Club stock a large variety and have frequent sales; get at least 1 1/2 yards of any fabric you want to use as a background
  • Step outside "the box": there are many other potential backgrounds out there just waiting to be uncovered...you just have to get a lil creative; for example Helene of Tartelette has used vintage ceiling tiles very effectively in food shots. I also read of a stylist who picked up a broken table from the street, sawed its legs off, and got a gorgeous wood backdrop for free. Two examples of my own use of unconventional backgrounds are shown in photos above and below. One was a vintage wood chair and the other was the back of a small, dingy roasting pan.
For more information about the basics of food prop styling, please refer to the recent guest post by on this blog by professional prop stylist and art director, Robin Zarchary of Prop Closet. Another great resource is this guest post by professional food prop stylist Paula Walters on Gourmande in the Kitchen.

Messy Bite
Browned Butter Pizzookies on Back of Old Roasting Pan

PRE-SHOOT PLANNING
 
Yes, I plan ahead for my food shoots (when I can make the time). This may sound excessive to some, but it's incredibly helpful to making the food preparation, styling, and photography process flow together smoothly. Plus the sooner I can get photos I'm happy with, the sooner I can eat ^_^. Believe it or not, I have no visual imagination (I can't picture things in my mind). Which is why I find it very useful to sketch out my styling ideas ahead of time (see example below). Sometimes the idea for a set-up just grabs me right away, but more often I like to think about the food I'll be making. Does it have an obvious history, a story? What emotions might it evoke in someone eating it? What mood do I want this dish/photo to convey? Is it associated with a particular time/season? How is this food commonly presented? And that's just a sampling of the questions you could consider.
 
Sketches for Pomegranate Jelly Cheese Danish Photos
 
 
As I said earlier, the most powerful photos to my mind have a story. I mean this in a way that is not so much about a plot as it is about evoking a time, place, or even just a feeling. I prefer to decide on the message I'm trying to convey earlier in the preparation process rather than later. Once that's known, it can become the common string that ties everything else together, from the color scheme to the lighting or props. And don't feel like you have to stick with what's typical. Experimentation is the fuel to my passion for photography and one of my favorite exercises is to shine a different light on a familiar food.
 
In addition to furthering the creative process, I find that sketching for a shoot is a great way to get materials organized so that I'm not still digging for a napkin or that perfect spoon when the food is ready to go. Once I'm happy with my styling, I make a list of all the props as well as ingredients I'll need on hand for that dish. It's with me on my grocery trip and later when I lay out the props where they'll be easily accessible during the shoot.

THE SHOOT
 
I'm gonna let you in on a little secret...I'm clumsy as all get-out and I still hold my breath a lot of the time when I'm styling food. No joke...my boyfriend P could tell ya allll about it. But the takeaway here is: if I can do it, so can you. My typical strategy has 3 parts. Part A: set up the props and adjust camera settings beforehand so you are ready to shoot when the food is done. Part B: slow and steady (and detailed) wins the race. Unless your food is time-sensitive (e.g., anything frozen or a souffle), handle with care and take your time making your food look its best down to the little details. Remember, it's always easier to add more of something than to remove excess. Part C: don't be afraid to play favorites or to fake it! For instance, if you didn't get the hang of piping frosting on cupcakes until the last 3 of the dozen, don't be afraid to photograph only the pretty ones. Or place them in the forefront and use shallow depth-of-field to do a Moneton their plainer sisters. I think readers understand that you're trying to show the best possible presentation of the recipe.
 
Oops
Photographic Evidence of My Clumsiness 8)

Other assorted styling tips I've picked up here and there:
  • Buy a spray bottle, fill it with water, and use it to refresh raw fruits or veggies that start to dry up
  • Rub or soak sliced apples and pears in lemon juice to slow browning
  • Smaller portions of food photograph better than bigger portions, and they look bigger in photos than they do in real life
  • To make pretty swirls of spaghetti, lift a section with tongs or clean fingers above the serving plate. Lower the pasta until only the tip is touching the plate, then continue lowering the pasta slowly as you rotate the plate with your other hand. This should cause the pasta to rest in a coil. Repeat with the remaining pasta
  • Butter the top of your muffin pan when baking cupcakes to prevent the tops from spreading outward
  • To make firm, pipeable cream cheese frosting for cupcakes, use my recipe/method using soft butter and cold cream cheese
  • Milk actually photographs to be more yellow than people expect. If this bugs you, you can use heavy cream (which is whiter) instead for pictures or use a layer mask to adjust the color in post-processing
  • Flat foods like waffles can tend to look, well, flat in photos. An easy and food-safe styling solution that I use is to tear an extra waffle into smaller pieces to prop up the waffles in the photo to give them more dimension (see waffle photo below)
  • If you want to be in your own photo (see pretzel photo below), you just need to use a tripod and set your camera to timed capture.
  • Always keep Q-tips on hand for delicate clean-ups
Composition Example 1
Spinach Feta Stuffed Pretzels and Spaghetti with Tomato Vodka Sauce

COMPOSITION
 
You've probably heard the saying that practice makes perfect, and indeed it's important to our growth as photographers to shoot often. At the same time, I'm quite convinced that the best thing to ever happen to my photography was the 3-4 months when I was so busy working that I couldn't photograph (or do much of anything else either, for that matter). During those months I'd often browse food blogs during my breaks at the office and started seriously analyzing the photos that drew me in the most. It was only then that I became present to the power of styling and composition in food photography and began to apply it to my own work.
 
My talented friend, Sylvie, of Gourmande in the Kitchen has actually just published a wonderful post summarizing the principles used to organize the visual elements of lines, shapes, colors, and textures in a photograph that tend to result in a successful composition. The principles discussed are balance, movement, pattern, and proportion; and it's really a must-read for any budding food photographer. The formal terms are new to be, but reading this article was like having the very patterns I'd observed privately put to paper. Though I lack formal training in these principles, I will briefly discuss my personal understanding of and experience with them below.
 
Composition Example 5
Sliced Orange and Blanched and Peeled Peaches

Balance

This is one of the most important principles, in my opinion, and strongly affects how we respond to viewing an image. I am not a fan of tilted food shots and I think it is precisely because any chance of balance is thrown out the window. But that's not to say that every piece of the scene must be perfectly level. Tilting some elements (such as cutting boards or cutlery) can be a great way to add tension, movement, and interest to your composition as long as they are well-distributed. As Sylvie notes in her post, balance doesn't have to symmetrical. For example, in my photo of waffles below, the waffles and blueberries on the left are balanced by the silverware and beaker on the right despite their asymmetrical placement. Moreover, balance involves not only distinct objects but also colors, textures, and light.In the photo of strawberry cupcakes below, the greens and yellows of the trees outside help to balance the red of the strawberries. In the shot of lemon polenta cranberry cookies (also below), the dark shadows from the wood board complement to the bright highlights on the cookies above it.
 
Composition Example 2
Strawberry N' Cream Cupcakes and Chocolate Nutella Alfajores

Movement

Movement can be quite literal, such as the slicing of an onion or pouring of syrup, or it may refer to the placement of focal points within the image. The second is probably my favorite out of these principles because it was the personal revelation that changed my entire outlook on food photography. One day while perusing a food magazine, I suddenly realized that my eyes were moving between interesting parts of the photograph in a zigzag pattern down the page! This is the explanation you've probably been waiting for as to why some of these photos have odd lines going across them -- I simply highlighted some potential paths your eyes might take as they move across my photos. Of course each person will view the photos slightly differently due to individual preferences, but positioning interesting elements in a way that guides the viewer's eyes through your photo will make anyone's experience more enjoyable and exciting.

Composition Example 3
Cinnamon Teff Waffles with Blueberry Compote and Lemon Polenta Cranberry Cookies

Pattern

Adding repetition of shapes, colors, etc. creates a structure and continuity in a photo that is pleasant to viewers' eyes. I think that's probably why so many food photos feature multiples of foods rather than one alone. The photos of cookies and waffles (above) and macarons (below) are obvious examples of this. More subtle uses of pattern, which were more intuitive than intentional on my part, can be found in the strawberry and s'mores cupcake photos. In the first photo (above), you may notice that the shape of the bowl with whipped cream somewhat resembles that of the cupcake. In the second photo (below), a stripe-like pattern can be found in the toasted frosting, ridges of the cupcake liner, veins of the leaves, and placement of the branches.
 
Composition Example 4
S'mores Cupcakes and Snickers Macarons

Scale and Proportion
 
Scale refers to the size of objects within the whole photo, while proportion refers to the size of objects in the photo compared to each other. Both are important to the viewer's perception of the object and must be kept in mind. A common mistake of scale is to take a very close-up image of the food in which the food alone takes up most or all of the frame. This is not a view of food that appears natural to our eyes and can sometimes cause the food to become so distorted that it's hard to identify. In this situation, the food photo may perplex more than tempt. The relative size of objects in your photo to each other is also important to a successful composition. For example, I specifically chose my smallest wood board for the photo of lemon polenta cranberry cookies (above) so that the cookies wouldn't look tiny compared to the board. Similarly I used a 5-inch candle stand to hold the Snickers macarons (above) since they would have looked quite ridiculous on my 12-inch cake stand. I was also careful to set the milk bottles and bowl in that photo far in the background so they wouldn't overwhelm the macarons with their size.
 
RECOMMENDED READING
 
I know this was a bear of a post, so if you've made it here to the end, I thank and salute you! The purpose of this is to share my experience with anyone who might use it to nourish their own passion for food photography or styling. But since I have so much left to learn myself, I happily point you toward some great sources of tutorials, tips, and inspiring photography. Please feel free to email me if you have further questions, and I'll do my best to help =D.

TIPS AND TUTORIALS
 
All Photography Posts on White on Rice Couple (Especially the Principles of Photography Series)
Wrightfood's Photography Post (Lots of detail and photos)
Édes és Keserű's Photography Tips (Including set-up shots)
Bonbini's Basic Food Photography Tips (Including rule of thirds)

INSPIRATION (just a few out of many)

 
 

-Xiaolu at 6 Bittersweets blog

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