The most important factor for making your food photography beautiful is light, and I write about that all the time. The second most important thing you can posses is space and it’s something most people overlook. Trying to bring a food shoot together on the top of a chopping board gives you a very limited realm of creativity. The bigger the shoot space the better your photography will progress, and the wider your creative range can extend.
I see so much great photography on my Instagram feed that I sometimes wonder why anyone hires me to shoot their stuff. Professional and fun-loving photographers alike, there’s a tonne of luscious images out there. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s easy, but in reality it demands genuine effort.
Look closely at most of those Instagram feeds and you’ll also notice that many feeds are trapped inside a creative style, with very tight composition or a binary range of camera angles. Even talented photographers hit a limit when shooting a confined shoot zone.
This isn’t about how big your studio space is either, it’s about how big is your imagination.
The basic starting point for most food shots is a shoot board, such as a piece of plywood painted paint or a favourite kitchen bench that delivers on texture and light. When learning to shoot food the most common hurdle people hit is working with a shoot board that is too small. Some are barely bigger than a bread box, and that lack of scale flows all the way through their creative process.
Small boards lead to tight close ups instead of encompassing scenes, so as you learn to shoot you are rewarded only for digging in close to the subject. It alters your learning curve. It even impacts your choice of lens. A common scenario is a partial frame DSLR (small sensor) with a 50mm lens, which is equivalent to 80mm on a full frame, works nicely in the context of very tight framing. So people buy the 50mm lens and find themselves a little typecast in their photography, unable to step back far enough and shoot a wider scene when available.
( If you want to read more about why a 50mm or 35mm lens is better for your particular camera, please have a look at my article on “The One Essential Food Shot”... photographyfortravellers.com/article.php?story=1184 )
Small scale shoot boards lead to tight shots, which leads to your photos looking like everybody elses photos. I like a few tight images as part of a set, and occasionally in my Instagram feed, but I don’t want everything to look that way. The key to stepping out of the norm is to work with bigger scenes. It gives you more creative options, it opens the door to styling that is unique and it never precludes you from stepping in and grabbing some tight shots as well.
You can do more with a bigger board.
For me the issue of scale is central to my philosophy of teaching photography. After a decade of running workshops and tours I have learned the value of changing your frame of mind to change your creative photography. For most people looking for a new learning curve the first hinderance is the idea of “inclusion versus exclusion”. Bear with me on this, it’s worth hanging in for a few more paragraphs!
When first learning the art of photography most of us are pushed up the telephoto end of the scale by camera manufacturers. They worked out a long time ago that adding cheap telephoto lenses to a camera can help sell them to punters. Bigger is better. The market is skewed towards lenses beyond 50mm, and amateurs are drawn into this world of possibilities with a heavy emphasis on long lenses instead of wide.
The consequence of this focus on the telephoto is that we learn to shoot tight. Our compositions are simplified, they are elemental and they “exclude” information from every shot. I watch people using a 100mm lens for portrait work, and they literally compose to exclude other objects from the shot. All that is left is a head shot, maybe a hint of a shoulder. I don’t call that a portrait, I call it a mug shot.
My philosophy is to directly and intentionally work towards the opposite. Food or friends, doesn’t matter, I seek to “include” more information instead of less. With a 50mm lens, instead of 100mm, I shoot my portraits looking to drag in a sense of where they are. The street, the room, the mountains, the bushland, the ice cream stall. Anything that informs us about the person is good. I don’t exclude, I include.
Food is the same. Where is the dish located, in a cafe or a restaurant or a kitchen? Ambience is so helpful for context. Who is holding the dish, is someone about to attack it with a fork, is there a table full of wine glasses or is this an intimate dinner for two? Including more information to compliment the dish adds story to the shot, and adds options to your composition.
There is nothing wrong with a tight frame of the dish itself, that’s great for lots of things. Just not everything. Having mastered that “One Essential Food Shot” you’ll want to move forward and look at how to widen your creativity. That begins with a wider shoot board, or an entire dining table. A bigger scale of scene offers a bigger creative potential.
My final thought comes back to a couple of loaves of bread. My day today began with a knock on the door and a pair of single origin sourdough loaves magically appearing for breakfast. To say thanks to Brasserie Bread Melbourne for their little treat we grabbed a few quick shots of the loaves for Instagram. A 50mm lens on a 5DmkIII is all that was needed, stopped out to f/2 with natural light coming through the windows.
It was heavy and dark outside today, typical autumn weather in Melbourne when you have to wait until lunchtime before the low cloud burns off. And the rest of the apartment is a construction zone with all my possessions stacked in a pile while I wait for a “long term solution” to my storage needs :) I have one tiny corner of the apartment that is tidy and clean, and it’s bigger than a bread box. The chopping board was hard to omit for a shot of bread loaves, an essential prop but not big enough on its own, so we used the table itself as the shoot scene and let the windows come into the composition too. Bigger scale gave us better options.
We spent ten minutes taking shots, after which the bread was toast.
To be fair, the loaves were actually very pretty in their own right, the texture of the sourdough and the grains giving the camera something to work with. But some pretty light and a little generosity of scale took them from a lovely subject to a beautiful photo set. For us it was a satisfying start to the day, having a dozen or so pictures on the laptop to play with and some yummy bread to smear with butter and jam.