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Vivid Flavor: How to Capture Beautiful Food Photos

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Photo by Flash Parker 

Nikon photographer Flash Parker shares tips for how to improve your food images, from preferred lenses and lighting to fresh styling approaches.

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There’s nothing like travel to bring out your inner photographer. And while famous landmarks may come to mind first as subjects, a well-rounded portfolio of a trip should get at the experiences—the moments and details that make a place come to life.

Food has always struck me as a big part of getting to know a destination, and in 2010, I drafted a travel checklist that I’ve used to remind myself of the variety of images I want to capture when on the road (such as the back alley scene and the local specialty). It helps get my creative juices flowing.

I’ve shot everything from cookbooks to carnival fare, collecting tips and tricks along the way. Here are five to get you going.

1. Find the Right Light
Good light can make or break your image. Place your dish near a window and take advantage of diffuse, natural light. Food often looks best when lit from behind or from the side, with soft shadows directed toward your viewers eye. Direct sunlight, on-camera flash and overhead lights can make food look unappealing. Using a Nikon Speedlight with a softbox or umbrella puts great light at your fingertips, but using a Speedlight isn’t always practical when on location taking photographs of food—the flash can be distracting to other diners.

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Tip: Carry a sheet of 8.5 x 11 white card stock, and use it to “bounce” light back at your dishes. This will help soften shadows and make your food seem more vibrant. If you need more light, consider widening your aperture and bumping up your ISO – Nikon DSLRs, like the new D7500, are great at minimizing noise at high ISOs.

2. Keep It Simple

Keep your food scenes uncluttered; let the food do the talking. You don’t need a bunch of distracting silverware, glasses, or ingredients on the table. Unless you’re embarking upon a career as a still life artist, you can go without the cornucopia, pumpkin, or jug of milk. When you can, use small plates, bowls and cups; food that fills a plate looks more appealing, and becomes easier to balance from an aesthetic perspective.

Tip: Try using a prime lens such as the AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G when shooting food. The focal length is flexible enough to let you get in close, and will help to minimize distractions. Careful not to get so close that your audience can’t tell what the food is.

3. Include a Human Element
A human element – a hand beneath a plate, lifting a lid, or sprinkling salt – can add life to your images. Subtle touches, like the sleeve of a chef’s jacket, a hand on a spoon, or a knife slicing through a piece of bread, can elevate a static image to something that feels lively. And don’t forget to work on your portrait skills in the kitchen: chefs and bakers make for excellent subjects in their working environments.

I honed my food photography skills by visiting markets all over the world. Food markets provide a relaxed environment to shoot not only food, but the people in the kitchen. Fish markets in Seattle; spice souks in Dubai; butcher shops in Myanmar—no matter where you travel, you’ll find a market offering opportunities to shoot local foods and customs.

Tip: A baker with flour on her hands is interesting; a baker with grime beneath her fingernails is unappealing. Make sure your human element washes their hands before you shoot.

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4. Add Destination Distinction
The location of your shoot is often as interesting as the food you’re shooting, and with a little effort you can nod to the destination without distracting from the food itself. Try using a slow shutter speed on a DSLR like Nikon’s new D7500 to blur motion as a server walks by your table (1/25 of a second should do it). Shutter priority works great for this technique as it allows you to concentrate on the speed you want to blur the subject with and lets the camera do all of the other calculations for you. Get in close to your food with a wide-angle lens such as the AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.8G ED to capture details of a vivid background. There are many ways you can subtly call out the destination you’re visiting.

Tip: Shoot during lunchtime or the early afternoon when you’re working indoors—indirect light coming through windows will be diffuse and easy to control. Shooting during the evening is extremely difficult, if you have to rely only on a restaurant’s artificial light - this light is often too low, of a temperature that renders food unappealing in images, or too harsh.

Use a shallow depth of field (a small f/-number, like f/1.4, f/2.8) to focus in on your food subject, and render your background soft and dreamy. This softness is what you’ll hear referred to as “bokeh” by photographers.

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5. View Food as a Sum of Its Parts
Some food just doesn’t photograph well. Soups and stews; enchiladas and burritos; drinks and cocktails; these are some of the dishes photographs struggle to capture creatively. It can help to break the dish down into its component parts, and shooting the ingredients on their own, or next to the complete dish. Try stacking, pouring, piling, or even breaking things apart to create visually interesting depth.

The AF-S DX Micro-NIKKOR 85mm f/3.5G ED VR lens will allow you to get incredibly close to your subject, focus on those component parts, and create striking, unusual images from vantages you rarely see. If you prefer a shorter focal length, the AF-S DX Micro-NIKKOR 40mm f/2.8G lens is an outstanding option.

Tip: Can’t think of a way to photograph a food or ingredient that seems flat or difficult to approach? Consider breaking it into pieces (cookies, oranges); making a stack with plenty of depth (pancakes); or creating a pile (herbs, salt, coffee beans).

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