Food Photography at its Finest Part 1: Culinary Still Life

The rise in popularity of social media has dramatically changed the ways in which people share personal information. Whether it’s your thoughts and opinions, or a picture of what you had for dinner, the press of a button is all it takes for everyone in your social network to be notified. The latest trend in image sharing is called “Foodtography” , and millions of people are taking part in it. There are a number of blogs and websites entirely devoted to sharing pictures of the food on your plate (and in your take-out container).

A recent study conducted by the interactive marketing agency 360i, sought to break down this phenomenon into tangible statistics. Included among their many interesting conclusions, were the factors that motivate people to photograph and share images of food. The results are as follows:

Food Diary 25%: No special occasion, what I ate today

Documenting Self-Creation 22%: showing off a finished product, or the process of creation

Special Occasion 16%: special day or documentation of an event

Food Art 12%: focus of the photo is artistic

Friend/ Family Moment 10%: focus on people and social relationships

Food/ restaurant view 8%: commentary or critique on a food type, brand or restaurant

Tutorial/ recipe 4%: photo or series of photos showing steps in a process

Extreme food 3%: unusual, unconventional creations [1]

[1] http://blog.360i.com/pov/consumer-insights-food

Since microstock falls under a crowdsourcing business model, it stands to reason that this trend in food photography is also prevalent in the submissions we receive at Crestock. So, if you are a food enthusiast and you intend to submit your images to an agency for commercial licensing, there are some methods you can employ to help maximize your results.

Use the right equipment – Camera phones have come a long way, but their files generally don’t hold up to the technical requirements of a stock photo agency. When in doubt, bring along your DSLR and shoot RAW for the best possible file quality. Window light and reflectors can be your best friends in documentary situations, such as weddings, restaurants, or dinner parties.

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tripod reflector photographer

© Bakelyt, GekaSkr, robtek

The trending of food photography across social media shows an obvious global interest in food as subject matter, but the execution of these photos is not always a reflection of what is appropriate for commercial applications.

As illustrated in the images below, messy can be good….. but that doesn’t mean the  images haven’t been carefully styled. 

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sauce pomegranate fruits

© StephanieFrey, Karcich, looby

When artfully done, those drips, crumbs, and weathered cutting boards can make an image conceptually appealing. But there is a big difference between a sloppy grab shot and an image that has been carefully styled to make your mouth water while evoking a casual sense of nostalgia and hominess. 

herbs cookies scissors

© keko64, mediamixphoto, jlvimageworks

Trend Alert! Rustic food styling may look random at a glance, but in reality it’s all about design and composition right down to the last peppercorn or cookie crumb. This style of food photography is currently among the most popular in the pages of food and drink magazines and cookbooks.

Food styling is a specialty unto itself, and many food photographers hire someone who specializes in this area to do their food and prop styling. Food photography is one of the most difficult specialties out there for a number of reasons. Among them, are the fleeting moments that food will actually look fresh, or remain hot and steamy, stay frozen, or begin to melt. If you are not in the position to hire a professional stylist, there are many trade secrets that can help you make your culinary still life last a little longer as you work towards that perfect shot.

Some photographers are purists and will only shoot real food in real time. For everyone else, here are some tricks and tips to help widen your window of opportunity with your food props…..just remember that many of these tricks will render the food inedible:

  1. Glycerin – can be painted on meat to make it looked glazed, or mixed 50/50 with water and spritzed on produce to create perfect water droplets. It will not evaporate, so it gives you more time to complete your shot.
  2. Motor oil – More photogenic than syrup on your pancakes.
  3. Car wax – Use this to polish your glass or beer bottles, then spray them with water. The wax will repel the water and replicate the look of an ice cold drink fresh out of the cooler.
  4. Tweezers – Nothing is random in professional food photography. Tweezers can be used to position pasta noodles, garnishes, or to rearrange the ingredients in a stir fry or salad without toppling the structure.
  5. Crème brulée torch – Oftentimes the meat depicted in photographs isn’t actually cooked to an edible level. Instead, it is seared and then browned on the outside with a small blowtorch. Grill marks are deliberately (and individually) branded into the meat with a metal skewer that has been heated by a torch.
  6. Cotton balls – A cotton ball soaked in water can be heated in a microwave and placed behind a dish to create instant steam. Make sure to use backlighting or you may not see it in the final image. Steam can also be enhanced in post-production for a more dramatic effect.
  7. Toothpicks – These are useful when building food displays. Think of them as little support beams that can be placed strategically to hold together sandwiches, burgers or any other food item that might fall over without a little help.
  8. A tripod – Many food photographers swear by natural light for best results. Since your subject matter is static, you can use a tripod and longer exposures to take advantage of available light. If you are adding a human element, it can be an interesting effect to have the food in focus while creating movement with a model.

Remember to beware of logos and trademarks. In the case of cans or bottles, remove labels whenever possible or turn the objects so they are not visible. Avoid branded packaging. Even something as small as a wine bottle cork can be embossed with a logo.

Alternatively, if you have the resources, create some label and package designs of your own to add realism to products in your photos.

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stirfry apple burger

© klenova

Watch for Part 2 of our series on Food Photography where we’ll cover tips on shooting liquid, glass, and pours, as well as popular themes and concepts featuring food in the starring role.

Allison Hobbs

Allison Hobbs has over 12 years of experience in the stock photography business as both an Editor and Art Director. She has considerable experience producing, casting, styling and art directing large budget stock shoots locally and abroad. Allison also has a Bachelor of Applied Arts degree in still photography from Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto (1998) and is a talented photographer. She contributes to several microstock agencies in her spare time – so she understands a photographer’s perspective very well.

7 Comments on “Food Photography at its Finest Part 1: Culinary Still Life”

  1. losangelas says:

    Thanks so much for this post! I love taking photos of food, and although I don’t think I instantly gonna drain my car from it’s oil, thanks for all the useful tips and tricks!

  2. Lyn says:

    Yummy! Lovely photos too! Ideal for picture menu or kitchen decor.

  3. GabrielRyan says:

    Thanks for sharing this useful information! Hope that you will continue with the kind of stuff you are doing .

  4. Qaiser Mahmood says:

    Very usefull tips about photography and yummy food pics 🙂 to showcase these photos someone needs a website here are some good examples http://www.templatesrule.com/20-remarkable-photography-templates/ some of these are really nice

  5. […] Part 1 of our series on “Foodtography”, we explored the world of food styling and its essential role in determining the overall caliber of […]

  6. […] month we talk to Natalia Klenova, aka Klenova, of Belgium. Her work, which was recently featured in the Hobbs Report, centres around stylized still-life images, rustic food photography, pretty spa vignettes and […]