Taking delicious food photography is fairly easy if you set time aside and follow these three steps. Start with some simple dishes and work your way to the more complex. Promote them on social media, your website, or directly on your menu.
Use a single light source
Using a single light source will help you control where the highlights and shadows fall. Natural light from a window is best. You want to avoid direct sunlight, as that will cast very hard shadows and blow out the highlight areas or, what is referred to in the industry, hot spots. An overcast day provides optimum light, as it is filtered by the clouds. So don’t be afraid of shooting when the sun is hidden.
Place your surface within a couple of feet of the light source. Start putting your props (plate, napkin, etc.) onto the surface to begin to create the composition of your shot. This is your “set.” Do not put any food on the plate yet. You are going to make sure you have everything the way you intend before adding the food. There are two reasons for this: first, you do not want the food to look spoiled, wilted or dried out. Second, you will not be able to see how the light is being affected.
Use a 20″ x 30″ foam core fill card to bounce light into the shadow areas.
Use a Fill Card
Though you are using a single light source, you will want to fill in the shadows. The best way to accomplish this is not with another light but with a fill card to “bounce” light from your single light source onto your subject matter. This will provide an overall balance. Your fill card should be about the length of your surface. Start with featuring one dish at a time before tackling a buffet. A good size fill card to begin with should measure 20” x 30.” The best material is foam core. It is lightweight and can be purchased at a local craft or stationery store (Staples or Office Depot).
Depending upon the time of day and the angle of the light coming in from the window, you may need to adjust the angle of your fill card from (for example) 90 degrees to 45 degrees. Put something heavy enough to lean the fill card against so it remains in place. You may need a second pair of hands to hold the card a bit higher or at a precarious angle, while you shoot the photo.
Start with stand-ins before switching out with your “hero” dish.
Use a Stand-In, Not the "Hero"
Be sure you have two matching plates or at least two of similar color. You will be putting your “stand-in” food on one plate to set your lighting. Put a sampling of the various types of food that will be on the plate so you will be able to adjust accordingly. (For example, cauliflower is a very light color compared to kale, which is very dark.) Have an idea of just how much food will be on the plate. Too little can make your portions look small for the price, too much can make it unappealing. That is why a stand-in is a good idea.
Once you have everything in place: distance from the light source, fill card angle and height, and how close up or far away you want to be from your subject, go ahead and prepare your hero plate. Do not prepare your hero plate on the set. Don’t be afraid to rearrange the food once you bring it back to the set. Any sauces or garnish should be added on the set seconds before you take your final shot so they will look fresh. Focus directly on the subject for crisp images. Take a few versions so you can choose the best. Try rotating the plate in case it offers a better perspective. And voila!
Stand-in without a fill card.
Final hero shot.