Menus, magazines, recipes book and food websites are packed with delicious-looking images of food. But food is not an easy subject to shoot. Many times, high-end food shoots require many specialized professionals like food stylists and chefs who prepare the food especially to be photographed.
You'll be pleased to know that it is possible to produce high quality food shots on your own. In this tutorial, we'll go through shooting a basic food, cereal.
To begin, we'll get all the objects prepped. I poured the cereal into the bowl, and I cleaned the bowl to remove any water spots, dust and finger prints. For the rest of the shoot, I did my best not to touch the bowl anywhere but in the back.
I didn't fill the bowl entirely. I sifted through the remaining cereal in the box and found only complete, whole cereal pieces to place on the top. This particular cereal has oats on the flakes, so I made sure these were visible.
Preparing the Props
For the shot, I wanted a spoonful of cereal hovering above the bowl. So I carefully filled the spoon as well. I used small pieces in the bottom of the spoon to fill it up and stabilize everything.
I then used complete flakes on the top, and added a slice of banana to finish the whole thing off. Notice that I have added any milk yet. We'll get to that later..
Keep the little details in mind when preparing your props. I used the banana as a spoon rest because once the spoon is loaded it can't really sit on its own.
Whenever liquids are going to be used in an image, the smallest amount possible should be used. When shooting meats and vegetables, the food is usually completely dried. Water droplets can be recreated using a spray bottle.
In our case, throughout the course of the shoot the cereal would go from floating on top of the milk to sinking. Even if you waited until the last minute, the cereal would shift and float as soon as you poured the milk in.
We're avoiding the milk altogether by over-filling the bowl, so you wouldn't see the milk anyway. For spoon, I have a jar of milk that I'll be dunking the spoon in before the final shot.
Lighting and Background
A general rule for food photography is that the main light usually needs to behind the subject. For this shoot, I'm taking this principle to the extreme. I'll be using two lights.
The first is a flash in a softbox. This light will also act as my background. Because my softbox is small, it needs to be pretty close to the bowl of cereal. If you have access to a bigger softbox, moving it further away can reduce flare. You can see the light setup with the softbox below.
Shooting Into The Light
Getting your exposure right when shooting directly into a light can be tricky. First, you want to set your flash on a low power. Use a low ISO setting as well. Finalize your adjustments with your f/stop setting.
If you see texture or a vignetting effect in your softbox, your aperture is too small. If you see a lot of flare, then you're over-exposed and your aperture is too wide. Chances are you won't get it perfectly. But the closer you get, the less work you'll have to do in Photoshop.
The image below shows what this lighting should look like.
Adding the Second Light
Once I had the strong backlight in place, I felt the image needed a soft broad fill light. I still wanted the light to come slightly from behind, so I placed a second flash behind the first.
The softbox actually blocks any light coming directly from the flash from hitting the cereal. Instead the light from this flash bounces off of the ceiling and provides the general fill light I was looking for.
I adjusted the power of this light in order to dial in the exposure. The next image show the position of the second flash.
This light created what I was looking for, but in the image below (which is unedited and straight out of the camera) you can see that there's a lack of contrast and saturation.
It's always easier to add contrast than take it away, so when you're shooting it's better to have a little less contrast than too much. Saturation can also be added in post.
Also note that there is still some flare that I'll have to deal with, but it much less noticeable once this second light had been added.
Adding the Spoon and Bananas
Now it's time for the last minute addition of the banana. It's best to cut fruits and vegetables as late as possible since exposure to the air can discolour them. I also needed to check the light of the spoon. So it was time for a dry run.
I loaded up my spoon, made sure my focus was good and (using live view) positioned the spoon in the correct spot. Due to the position of the lights, the spoon is lit very well. It looks shiny and has both highlights and shadows on it emphasizing the line.
The position of the lights behind the spoon and the main light source coming from directly above create this effect.
Bringing in the Milk
To get the final image, I dunked the spoon in the milk gently from the bottom. I just wanted to get a touch of milk in the spoon. Using live view, I positioned the spoon in the frame where I thought it needed to be and tipped the spoon slightly forward.
I didn't want to stream milk about of it because it would look like I was dumping the milk. I just wanted a couple drops to fall off as if I was lifted the spoon of the cereal. It took several tries to capture the drops falling just a few inches.
I had one hand on the spoon and the other on my shutter button. The pre-prepped stable spoon arrangement and a little patience was all it took. The image below is straight out of the camera with no editing.
The post-production work for this image will be pretty straight forward. I wanted to accomplish three main things.
First, I need to increase the contrast and saturation I mentioned earlier, and while doing that I wanted to make sure the background was solid white and make some other adjustments to the tone.
Second, I cropped in on the image because I typically shoot pretty loose, and that will require me to move the position of the spoon. Lastly, I want to show you a technique for sharpening an image that I've found to be quite good.
First, I increased the contrast and slightly adjusted the exposure. I used Levels in Photoshop to do this. I darkened the shadows by moving the shadow pointer the right. There is a number below it that corresponds to its position, mine ended up being “29."
Next, I brightened the highlights by moving the highlights pointer to the left a good deal. The number was 222. This helps guarantee a white background.
Next, I moved the midtones pointer to 1.07 to adjust the general exposure of the image. The image below shows what these adjustments did.
Next, I adjusted the saturation in two ways. So I opened the Hue/Saturation adjustment box. You'll notice that parts of the spoon and the milk have a blue or cyan cast to them.
I clicked the “Master" drop-down menu at the top of the box and selected Cyan. I then moved the Saturation pointer all the way to the left, pulling out all of that color.
In order to make sure there isn't anything in the image that needs cyan in it, you can always drag the slider all the way to the right which will make the cyan portions of the image very visible.
For the next step, I clicked “OK" and then re-opened the box (this makes the steps separate in your history). I then increased the Master Saturation to +5 and then selected Yellow from the drop down and moved it to +10. This makes the flakes - and more specifically the bananas - pop a little more. See the results in the following image:
Crop and Move
I typically shoot pretty loose. If I noticed myself coming up short in the resolution department because of my cropping, I'd be more careful, but so far I've been fine. I also knew ahead of time that I'd be able to move the spoon around in post-production, so I wasn't too concerned with its position.
Because the background is a true, solid white after the Level adjustment, I simply selected the spoon with the lasso tool and moved it to the left. I then cropped the image, making sure the far right edge of the handle wasn't left hanging there.
Often when I shoot macro images, I feel they need a bit of sharpening. The new “Smart Sharpen" filter is really nice, but I still find an old stand-by even better in some cases.
First, convert your image to Lab Color, which is under Image > Mode. Then select the Lightness channel, then click Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask. Then set your amount to around 70%, your radius to 4, and your threshold to 3.
If this isn't enough, increase the amount first, then possibly the radius. After you're done, convert the image back to RGB.
Check out the final result below. I hope the advice in this tutorial will help your food photography. Just remember that liquids are usually not your friend, make sure your key light is behind your subject, and pay close attention to details!
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