Visuals: Food Photography Trends: Beyond Pretty



Anita Chu

Stephanie Shih

Stephanie: There's an explosion of food photography styles in the blogosphere. We want to break down the styles and talk about the stories we can tell. There are three parts to the session: history of trends with a break down current styles; a case study; how to create different styles.

Anita: We want you to understand why a style works the way it does.

Anita: Brief History of Food Photography: A lot of food photography started in the 1940s and 50s. Most of the photos were for advertisements. Most everything was shot in the studio with artificial setups because of the technology at the time. 1960s get more elaborate with the set ups and show tableaus of food. Food is styled to look neat and perfect. The photo sells and ideal lifestyle.

Stephanie: Color printing was expensive at this time, so it was easier to show everything on one page

Anita: In the 1970s and 80s there's a rise of food magazines. Food photography at this time gives the sensation of abundance and security. People are starting to tell a story and try to make people happy. In the 1990s Donna Hay popularized a simple approachable method to food with natural light, elective focus on one dish with close ups. Photographers are celebrating the deliciousness and lusciousness of food. In the 2000s there's a rise of digital photography and blogs. Amateurs everywhere have access to internet. Affordable digital cameras are available. A new group of people, consumers and bloggers, start putting photos on the internet. A lot of new interesting styles such as the step by step photos emerge. The vintage DIY style was popularized on the blogs first. There's a shift of influences, bloggers are becoming the tastemakers instead of following professional media. Today: There's even more social media and photography is evolving to match this media. People are more interested in putting up instant photos instead of blog posts. Photos are not quite as perfect, there are more lifestyle elements. The idea is more about capturing the moment.

Stephanie: These ideas show in magazines as well.

Anita: The influence is coming from the blogosphere and not the other way around.

Anita: Choosing photography styles: We're going to look in depth at some of the styles and answer what is the story the photographer trying to tell? What emotion do you want the viewer to feel? What elements can help you create the feel you're looking for?

Stephanie: Trends and Styles: Product photography: A good amount of media is about product photography. Glossy images with white studio lights. Product photography doesn't pop up on blogs quite as much but influences some of the other styles. Journalistic/straight forward: A very simple style, but it provides context. As bloggers we show that the food is cookable.

Anita: It is clean and minimalist and meant to show the process. There's not a lot of extra props, the focus is on what you need to make the dish.

Anita: Bold/Clean: Very food focus, very straight forward. Close up often cropped. Most visceral and in the person's face. This style makes the viewer to want to eat the food. This style is characterized by bold colors. There are no distracting plates or props. Dishes are striking and can stand on their own. The focus is on color and composition. Bright/Propped: It's a really happy style, characterized by beautiful natural diffused lighting. The arrangement and styling is very delicate. The food and images are very pretty and idealic. I feel like it's an idealic world when I look at this. The images create feelings of happiness. There is a serene peaceful feeling.

Stephanie: As apposed to the bold and clean style, the bright and propped style often has both background and foreground images.

Anita: Lifestyle-inspired: This style is closely tied to the rise of social media. The point is that the food is part of the shot but not the soul subject. The photos create a whole mood or story where the food is one of the characters. It is an effective style because it's most people's natural impulse is to create a narrative about what they're seeing. You're encouraging the viewer to create a story. This make it a more engaging story.

Stephanie: This style is characterized by large apertures.

Anita: Chiaroscuro: Sometimes called dark photography. Chiaroscuro is an Italian word meaning light dark, used in the art world to describe a style with a strong contrast between light and dark. It's not just putting a light object on a dark background. It's about where the light is falling to illustrate the subject. Many paintings use this technique as well. This style forces a focus on the subject and invites the viewer to study it intensely. Some of the photos look almost like a painting. The light and shadow emphasize the curvature of the fruit. You want to step back and contemplate the photo instead of jumping in and eating it.

Stephanie: This style is about controlling the light.

Anita: Shadows are not bad, when used effectively they can create a striking image.

Anita: The styles are all related. There are distinct characteristics but you can bring in elements from each style.

Stephanie: We wanted to do a case study to see how using one subject we can use other elements to tell different stories. WE photographed one cake 8 different ways.

Anita: Each shot of the same subject conveys something different. What do you think when you look at the different photos?

Photo #1. Cake against plain white background. Thoughts from Audience and Panel: product shot, bold and clean, strong lighting, cut open, slice waiting for you to take, you know what's inside it, no surprise, we know what the layers are, good for cookbook where you want someone to see how a layer cake is assembled.

Photo #2. Someone frosting a cake. Thoughts from Audience and Panel: process, journalistic, I think of making cake with my kids, a little messy, not perfect, looks approachable, you think "I could make this cake," I think it's part of a recipe book. Shows the steps to making a cake. The wedding band helps me identify to a wife or mom making a cake for someone else. Creating more stories because there's more context than the first shot.

Photo #3. Bright and propped. Thoughts from Audience and Panel: can see soft light coming from behind. Focus more on the raspberries. Not about making the cake. It's appealing and idealic. The cake isn't as imposing. The cake is part of the shot and creates part of the feel of the shot.

Photo #4. Blowing out candles on a birthday cake: Thoughts from Audience and Panel: the person humanizes the shot, it's a birthday cake, not just any ol' cake. There's a human element so people connect to it. Makes the cake look a lot smaller than some of the other pictures. It looks more approachable and human size.

Anita: Wedding band story. My husband wondered why I wore the wedding band because he thinks a cute girl with a wedding band is less appealing.

Photo #5. Cake on a stand: Thoughts from Audience and Panel: part is bright and on the left there's shadows. The shadows make a cool scene. Shadows help illustrate the texture of the cake. It looks more real, not like a perfect studio shot, gives a different feel, like someone made it, not just a manufactured product in a catalog. Looks formal, less props. Elegant white background makes it more formal. bold and clean.

Stephanie: This is more of a New York photography with darker shadows with bright whites. The next photos is more of an LA style of photography bold colors and everyday styling.

Photo #6. Cake on a purple table top. Thoughts from Audience and Panel: I like seeing a different angle.

Question: Does making small cakes make them easier to photograph?

Stephanie: Sometimes smaller cakes are difficult to get close to. I like to make regular sized food.

Anita: I love making small food. It depends on your style. I tend to shoot more bight and propped, so it's easier to use smaller foods. If I'm focusing just on the food it's easier to use full sized food. It's a question of how you want to frame the shot.

Stephanie: I used a smaller cake for these shots because I had to make four of them and didn't want a lot of leftovers.

Photo #7. Thoughts from Audience and Panel: chiaroscuro, it makes me think of late night snacking, it makes me think of a rainy afternoon because of the tea. It's pretty bold. Creates a strong mood, it's dim and shadowy. feels intimate, like a date night or a romantic moment. Looks like a still life painting. The shadows in the dark shot are compelling and moody.

Stephanie: This set up creates a mystery and needs a narrative.

Photo #8. Cake on a stand with candles. Thoughts from Audience and Panel: more contrast, more highlights. It's more adult. Like a museum piece, to be admired and not necessarily cut into. The draped fabric tells me it's intended to be art, more deliberate. Can see shadows in the drapery.

Stephanie: There are two stub styles within chiarasco. One with more contrast and one with less contrast.

Question: Are there feminine and masculine styles of photography?

Stephanie: There are associations we all make with gender. Even subconsciously. We tend to associate bold and clean with male and floral with female.

Anita: I think there is. Its dangerous to generalize, but we think about how the audience might react. A lot of people might think a bright airy style is more feminine. My husband likes the darker and more bold dramatic photos as apposed to a more delicate statement. There may be different moods or audiences you're trying to market to.

Question: Many of us use sights such as FoodGawker and Tastespotting to drive traffic to our blogs and they are extremely picky about submissions. Is the chiarasco style catching on with them?

Stephanie: Those sites tend to like high contrast photos. That's how they generate traffic. People look at the ones that jump out immediately. But do you want them to dictate your style?

Question: How long will it take readers to catch onto the chiarasco style?

Stephanie: As you mix it in, people are becoming more accepting. Lifestyle bloggers are catching on because it uses shadows. It doesn't have the immediate appeal that something that is white and bright obviously does.

Anita: We hope our presentation shows that food photography is evolving. There are different style that are coming out. Some styles are dominant, but are not the only option. You can experiment by using little tweaks and find something that you like. Not everyone has to shoot a certain way, we can use elements that speak to us.

Response to masculine v. feminine discussion: There are more female bloggers than male bloggers. One male blogger is David Lebovitz. He uses style photography I don't see here. It's raw, such as photos from the market.

Anita: We can't put every food blogger into a unique slot of there style. We're picking out some of the more common ones. There are also some more raw styles, especially with Instagram and the use of filters.

Comment: Trends are circular. The chiarasco style might seem new now, but Martha used black in the background back in the 80s. And in response to the feminine and masculine styles of photography -- food stylists are mostly female and that influences the style of the photo.

Stephanie: Now I want to show you how I got these shots.

Photo #1. Exposing the white. I used art paper for background and foreground. There's bright light coming in from the side. The light is not diffused. It's a northern facing window so the light is not direct, but through a bare window. I would have used a light box if i had one at the time. You can also cheat by using photoshop to crop out grey and replace it with white.

Photo #2. Straightforward. There's a window to the right and a white foam board on the left to bounce the light back on the chocolate. I'm standing on a 3 foot ladder.

Photo #3. I'm shooting into the window. There's back light past the cake. There's a white foam board to the left and gauze on the window to diffuse the light.

Photo #4. The model is sitting in front of a white background, which is a painted board. Light is coming in from an angle through a window. The window is covered with a screen to diffuse the light. There is a white foam board on the opposite side of the window.

Question: How long did set up take?

Stephanie: This one was really fast. I placed the boards and made sure the light was right.

Anita: She does plan out the shot. There's two ways. Make a dish and look at the situation as is, or think about what you want to create.

Question: What are you using to diffuse the light?

Stephanie: The thinnest and largest fabric from the fabric store that is within my budget. About $30 for 6 feet.

Comment: I use a bleached white bed sheet.

Anita: I've used parchment paper.

Stephanie: I have two fabrics I use, one is thicker, one is thinner.

Comment: Shower curtains work too.

Comment about Photo #2: How do you shoot hands when you're alone? How do you control the tripod?

Stephanie: Use a tripod and use the timer with a few successive shots.

Stephanie: Photo #5. Light is coming in from a window with no bounce because I wanted the shadow.

Photo #6. Not diffused with a bounce.

Photo #7. Shot in the garage with a really controlled light source. Either a small window wrapped or a closed the garage door with a slight opening. Make sure to light specific areas. Everything else fades into the background. It depends on what your camera can handle for ISO. I used 320-400 ISO with a longer exposure. I held the camera, but would recommend a tripod. The aperture was around 4 or 5.

Anita: You might need to experiment depending on your camera.

Question: If someone were to get a starter camera what would be a good type?

Stephanie: An entry level DSLR.

Anita: Nikon 3200, there's a new Canon Rebel. If you know the type of shot you want and can't get it with your point and shoot, then it's time to make the jump to a DSLR.

Question: Do you shoot manual?

Stephanie: Yes.

Question: If you live in a city like Seattle that doesn't have nice light all the time, what can you do?

Stephanie: You can use bounces. Make use of the shadows. A speed light would help. Something that's off camera, never use the on camera flash.

Comment: Eco lights help. They give a nice natural light.

Stephanie: Carpenter lights from the hardware store with natural light are helpful.

Stephanie: Photo #8. The cake is on a table next to a window with a bounce because it was a darker day.

Anita: Foam board is great to play with the light to get different shadows and highlights and it's cheap.

Stephanie: Black foam board is great too for taking away some of the shadows.

Question: How do you change set ups if there's people? General tips for shooting with people?

Stephanie: Think about what kind of motion people can add to the shot.


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