One of the greatest joys of travel is eating the local food. From the fresh produce of New Zealand, the creamy milk of Hokkaido, Japan, complex tasting local food of Hue, Vietnam, to juicy beef burgers in New York, food completes the experience of a country.
The tips here are from my experiences as a travel photographer with nothing more than a smartphone because the locals are friendlier when shooting with a mobile device. Of course, a mirrorless camera with macro lenses will do the trick too.
Using natural light and top down approach. IMAGE: Wilson Wong
When there’s no natural light, artificial light is used to simulate window light. IMAGE: Wilson Wong
Let There Be Light
In most settings, there will be sources of light you can use. The most abundant one is sunlight. In cafes, there will be windows seat and if you are in Paris, take a table by the sidewalk.
It will be trickier when you are in the markets such as Dong Ba market, next to the Phuong River in Hue, Vietnam. Some stalls are in the darkest corner of the market, and the fluorescent lamps are insufficient for photos and even have green cast that makes the food less colourful.
While it is easy to allow the camera to use its built-in flash, the result of such shots is less than ideal, so an off-camera light source, such as an LED video light panel, helps illuminate the food.
There are times when you want to light up the shadows and you can have a LED panel do that. IMAGE: Wilson Wong
Choosing the Right Colour Settings
One of the most important aspects of photography, especially food photography, is colour. The Chinese saying that great food comprises colour, fragrance and taste. Colour is the priority because that is the first thing a diner sees.
Despite colour being so important, I would suggest using the ‘natural’ settings on your camera for the shoot. Pictures that are too saturated may look too artificial.
The big advantage of using the sunlight is the ability to bring out details and colours more accurately. IMAGE: Wilson Wong
To be sure, save your photos in RAW file formats such as RW2(Panasonic), CR2 (Canon), NEF (Nikon) and DNG (Leica). Android Phones and iPhones can save images in RAW, too, using HEIC or HEIF files, available on the settings page. Such files will help correct colours in post-editing while maintaining image quality.
Framing Makes Perfect
The convenience of having wide, UltraWide and zoom cameras in one device makes it easy to compose your shots for maximum effect. For food, I would go close, bringing out details of the ingredients in the bowls or plates. This will require the camera to zoom into the food.
Plate shots are also great for showcasing the restaurants’ plating skills but be careful of the busy background. Either use a fast lens with f1.8 maximum aperture or switch on the Aperture or Portrait mode to add bokeh or blur behind the subject.
Another way is to do a flat lay, which is to shoot from the top of the table. This is useful when you have a lot of food on the table.
A typical food shoot starts off from a 45 degree angle downwards. IMAGE: Wilson Wong
Sometimes going close gives the viewer a better idea what ingredients are used in the dish such as the fish roe here. IMAGE: Wilson Wong
Shooting from the top gives another perspective and details such as the glass that is holding the King Bean and Lemongrass broth. IMAGE: Wilson Wong
For most food, we started off from 45 degrees angle, but there will be times I will shoot from the side, such as drinks and burgers. I will also shoot against the light, so the background is overexposed and helps to bring the food into focus.
There is also the question about putting in utensils and raw food ingredients. If it is a studio shoot, it is entirely acceptable, but keep the table around the food clean and simple for a bit of authenticity.
Shooting food is just the start. Join us for the next instalment on some simple post-editing tips to enhance your food shots on the phone or the computer.