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Delicious Food Photography Tips From The Pros!
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Jena Ardell is a retro photographer and freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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Delicious Food Photography Tips From The Pros!

Three professional food photographers spill their trade secrets and techniques

Food photography is a growing field. We spoke with Winnie Poon Ma, Lou Manna and Stephen Hamilton, three professional food photographers who shared some tricks on how they create mouth-watering images. Don't read this on an empty stomach!


Food photography Tips Photo by Winnie Poon Ma
Photo by Winnie Poon Ma.


You're exposed to food photography every time you browse supermarket shelves, read a menu or cookbook, drive past burger billboards, or eat boxed cereal. What you may not realize is that shot of enlarged-to-show-detail cereal flakes took hours to compose, and those flakes are "floating" on Elmer's glue instead of milk. Read on as photographer Lou Manna shares trade secrets; foodie photographer Winnie Poon Ma gets technical; and photographer Stephen Hamilton lends some advice to aspiring food photographers.

 

Winne Poon Ma


"I see food as crossing boundaries and cultures [and bringing] people together by educating them with food."

What attracted you to food photography?
Winnie Poon Ma: I remember a class project where we had to cook a family meal and we had to record it on film, and from there I was hooked. It was chicken parmigiana, if I recall. I started getting serious about shooting food about 13 years ago, shooting everything I cooked, ate, as well as all the food where I dined out at
. It was way before all these foodie blogs [emerged], but even the simplest of foods would intrigue me. There's something so beautiful about food that can change colors and textures from its raw state to cooked state. I see food as crossing boundaries and cultures [and bringing] people together by educating them with food.

Describe your typical client:
Ma: My typical client is usually someone who needs us to not only shoot the food but to also help them devise some great concepts for their project
. That may entail us having to shop for props as well as doing some set building. We not only just shoot food but we also assist in creative development. My clients range from small business owners to chain restaurants to food corporations who all require food photography for all aspects of their marketing.

What's in your camera bag?
Ma: A Canon EOS 7D, a Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens, a Canon 60mm Macro lens, a Canon 28-70mm f/2.8 L lens, Matthews Road Rags 18"x24", a scrim kit, mirrors, Canon 580EX II Speedlites, reflectors, Dynalite Strobes and a laptop for instant review of images and to work "live" with a stylist and client.


Food photography tips photo by Winnie Poon Ma
Photo by Winnie Poon Ma.



What technical areas of food photography require more attention than product photography?
Ma: Food is something that has a limited lifespan for the most part, so there needs to be a very sensitive approach as to how to prolong its lifespan under the camera while still retaining it's fresh, straight out of the kitchen look. Still life has its complexities but food has its challenges when taking into consideration the lighting, the temperature of the set, the resiliency of the dish and the time we have to complete each shot
. As far as how to shoot each dish, I firmly believe that they all involve analyzing which angle, depth of field and lighting would best suit the dish. For example, shooting a flat element would be completely different than shooting something that has vertical layers.


Do you ever use fake food and/or any tricks of the trade?
Ma: There's always a time when something calls for some trickery. In general though, I tend to stay away from too much of the fake stuff but employ some techniques that may help improve the shot.

There are times though when we have to super glue a lobster tail or do a minor operation to a steak but most of the time, what you see is real.

What we really are though are problem solvers and if the food doesn't look appetizing on camera, then we need to think of a way to polish it up whether it's by rebuilding the whole dish, suggesting other elements for the dish or tweaking things as needed to make things better. It's not always adding things to a shot that will make it look better but rather removing things can also help.


Food photography tips photo by Lou Manna
Photo by Lou Manna.


Lou Manna

 


"You have so many different surfaces and textures and shapes and colors. I use a lot of mirrors sometimes to reflect light into objects to create specular highlights—little points of light—which give more appetite appeal"



 

Food photographer Lou Manna uses a Canon 60D, a Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 macro lens and a telephoto lens. But according to Manna, camera gear is secondary: "It's more about the lighting than anything else."


How many hours does an average, in-studio shoot require?
Lou Manna: It varies. Just recently, I was just shooting for Madison Square Garden for their menu boards and we were able to shoot about five or six [setups] per day, which averaged about an hour or two per shot. It really depends on the complexity of the shot and how many elements are in the shot. Sometimes you might only get one shot done in a day if it's an ad or sometimes you can [complete] 20 shots in a day, if it's for something simple like web usage or editorial.


Do you have prop stylists working with you?
Manna: Depending on the shoot, a prop stylist would be hired to purchase props like plates and napkins for the shoot. There is always a food stylist [on set] who is a chef who is trained to make food look good in front of the camera. Depending on how many shots we do, the food stylist may have an assistant and I usually have an assistant helping me. So it's quite a team effort. Other times, it just may be me, the food stylist and the client.

Which do you find is more flattering for food photography: flash or natural lighting?

Manna: I prefer to use flash so I can shoot even when it's dark or rainy or cloudy. I find that by using flash, I get really beautiful colors. I can use the flash and make it look like daylight by angling the light [a certain way] or putting warming gels on the light. Also, with flash, I can use the camera handheld and shoot different angles pretty quickly as opposed to using a tripod.


Food photography tips photo by Lou Manna
Photo by Lou Manna.


Do you ever use fake food?
Manna: For the most part, we do shoot real food. But if we're shooting cereal and the subject is the cereal, we'll use Elmer's glue for the milk so the cereal won't get soggy. Sometimes we'll use fake ice cream—not if we’re shooting an ad for ice cream—but if there is ice cream in the background. [Fake ice cream is] vegetable shortening, corn syrup, powdered sugar and food coloring thickened with Crisco or flour. Sometimes we'll use fake ice cubes in a glass since they look much more beautiful [than real ice cubes]. Grill marks on burgers are created with hot metal skewers or an electric charcoal starter. Those are a couple of the tricks but, for the most part, we always stay with real food and light the food with a stand-in subject because the lighting in food photography is very complex.

What makes the lighting so complex?
Manna: You have so many different surfaces and textures and shapes and colors. I use a lot of mirrors sometimes to reflect light into objects to create specular highlights—little points of light—which give more appetite appeal.
The use of direct flash is definitely a no-no because it flattens the objects, and that’s true in any photography although, sometimes with people it’s ok to use direct flash, y’know, in a party or something like that. With food—when you want to create some dimension—you typically want light coming from the side or behind and you want to fill it in with reflectors or mirrors to create highlights.

Do you do a lot of post editing work?
Manna: I like to get my color balance perfect and my exposure perfect [during the shoot], since I’m from the old school in film days when you didn’t really have Photoshop. So, therefore there isn’t much to do on the computer [after the shoot]. The only problem might some dust on the plate or a crack in a roll or some imperfection the client doesn’t want, so it’s pretty simple post-production.


Food photography tips photo by Stephen Hamilton
Photo by Stephen Hamilton.


Stephen Hamilton

 


"I love shooting food that comes directly from nature such as a malformed tomato, interesting shaped mushrooms and root vegetables, or a whole fish."

Food Photographer Stephen Hamilton uses Hasselblad camera bodies and lenses, and Imacon digital backs to capture his food photography shots.


In your opinion, what is the most 'attractive' food to shoot?
Stephen Hamilton: I love shooting food that comes directly from nature such as a malformed tomato, interesting shaped mushrooms and root vegetables, or a whole fish.


How do you achieve such natural-looking studio lighting?
Hamilton: In regards to lighting, I rely on Mother Nature with the help of a strobe. I keep it simple, with a single light source and a skim or two to bring out detail. A few years ago, I went on an extended photography trip to Tuscany and used nothing but natural light. When I came back home, I decided that I wanted to incorporate more natural light in my images. Since my studio at the time had very few windows, I built a new studio next door with wrap-around windows and lots of natural light at my disposal.


Do you ever use fake food and/or any tricks of the trade?
Hamilton: One of the biggest misconceptions regarding my food photography is that the food is fake. I'm known for creating images based on real life moments and for close-up taste appeal. I believe you can't do either one successfully using fake food. I frequently discuss that subject on my Who's Hungry?™ blog, where I share what goes on behind the scenes at my studio.


Please finish this sentence: “The biggest mistake beginners make is…”
Hamilton: …not assisting with enough photographers. I advise young photographers starting out to work for multiple photographers and take the best parts of what you learn from each one and apply it to your own business. The other mistake I see is beginners have a tendency to overcomplicate their shots. My advice is to keep it simple.


Food photography tips photo by Stephen Hamilton
Photo by Stephen Hamilton.


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More about: Stephen Hamilton
If you watch Top Chef, chances are you've seen A LOT of this Chicago-based photographer's work. Hamilton is a well-published, award-winning commercial food and beverage photographer known for his "real life" approach of lighting and capturing food. To learn more about food photography and explore behind the scenes, visit his blog or website.


More about: Lou Manna
In addition to being an award-winning food photographer whose photos have appeared in over 40 cookbooks, Manna is also an author, public speaker and educator on the topic of food photography. You can learn more about the industry in his book, "Digital Food Photography", or on his blog or website.


More About: Winnie Poon Ma
This artsy Los Angeles-based food photographer specializes in on-location food photography, lifestyle and still life photography. Ma recently shot images for a cookbook titled "Sweet Book of Candy Making", to be published in October 2012. You can learn more about Ma and her work by visiting her website and blog.

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