It's often said that the best photographs evoke emotion. If this is the case, what could possibly make me more emotional than an image of a pizza that's been lovingly handcrafted to mouthwatering perfection? Unfortunately, I found out the answer to this question first hand when I was hired by a local pizzeria. To my heartbreak, I was getting paid to photograph it, not to eat it.
Pizza is not an easy thing to shoot. Search Flickr for "pizza" and the results are less than appealing. Other than the typical problems associated with food photography, introduce some greasy melted cheese and you'll really have to know your stuff to make a good image.
To begin, I'll break down the gear I used on this shoot, and some simple alternatives that could be used to replace any of these items. Most of the tips here can be applied to shooting other foods as well.
Camera and Lens
Any recent digital body will do, but I prefer a full frame sensor over crop for the reduced depth of field and, of course, higher resolution.
For the lens, a longer focal length will work best, anywhere between 85mm and 135mm. Just think about what lens you'd use for a portrait. It's not very flattering to shoot a person with a super wide-angle lens, neither is it flattering for food. A relatively natural perspective is best, since people aren't generally looking at their food through a funhouse mirror.
I personally chose to make use of my faithful 5d MkII and the renowned 85mm f/1.2.
Another fundamental aspect of controlling your photography, second only to basic camera skills, is proper lighting. It can be the key difference between a bad photo and a fantastic one. Additionally, proper lighting can reduce your need for post-production by a huge margin.
Just like a beautiful person, a beautiful meal can be spoiled and ruined by using the wrong light.
There are many aspects to take into consideration when you're planning your lighting. In this case, the most important factor would be to reduce highlight specularity on the pizza, a commonly greasy food. Since we know that the softness of light is mainly controlled by the apparent size of the light source, the closer we can get it to the subject, the better.
With these ideas in mind, I decided to use an octobox and a fill card to light this scene.
Additionally, I chose to light the subject mostly from the side in order to further cut down on highlights. With a smaller light modifier this might actually cause more contrast, but due to the massive apparent size of the Octobox, it wraps around the scene nicely. There's also a small fill card to the right of the subject, ensuring even coverage of light.
For a fill card, any sort of white surface will do. A common cheap alternative to a fold-out reflector is white posterboard or foamcore, easily available at your local hardware stores.
My Setup and Workflow
Pre-visualization and Camera Setting Priorities
The first thing you need to do, before you even pick up your camera, is to pre-visualize the scene and identify any necessary camera settings. For example, do you want a shallow or deep depth of field? The casual photographer might not think there's much of a difference between aperture settings, but comparing a photograph shot at f/2.8 to f/22 is like day and night. A shallow depth of field can draw focus to particular areas of the photo and the out of focus areas offer a unique and dreamy aesthetic.
The second thing to do when you're shooting in any situation is to take a meter reading of the ambient light to get a general idea of what you have to work with. In some cases, you might want to cut out the ambient completely. In this situation, I was able to work with it rather than against it.
If used properly, the ambient light can be a free source of light to add some simple fill. Particularly in this scenario, since I was positioned close to a bank of large windows and light coloured walls, there was plenty of useable light cascading into my shooting area.
The next step is to properly position your key light and begin to blend the two light sources together.
In this particular situation, the ambient wasn't too overpowering. I was able to blend it in quite easily, using the ambient for a little bit of fill. I had no plans to make this a film noir pizza shoot.
After you've found a ballpark exposure, it's best to experiment with the angle that the light is coming from. Oftentimes, you'll find that trial and error trumps assumptions about lighting, especially when you're new to it.
Very slight differences in light position can make a huge difference in the look of the image, so it's best to try many different setups before deciding that you're happy. Additionally, the more time you spend lighting and experimenting, the faster you'll be able to pre-visualize your photos and identify how to reproduce different effects.
Due to the care taken in lighting, there's really not a whole lot to be done here. In the following final image, I've done nothing but crop, sharpen, and do a tiny bit of dodging and burning using a curves layer mask technique.
This dodge/burn method is quite simple. All you have to do is make two curves layers, one for dodging (brightening) and one for burning (darkening). Here's what my layers tab looks like at this point.
And these are either my masks, or an abstract artist's interpretation of a pizza. Take your pick.
As you can see, you don't have to be too precise with your masking to get the desired effect
Before Post Production
After Post Production
Hopefully through this tutorial, you've learned how to do some basic lighting for food photography, and make some delicious looking pizza photographs. Food is definitely a great subject to practice your lighting and post-processing on. Best of all, you can eat it afterwards!
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