Here at The Jobs Menu we seem to spend a lot of time looking at amazing photographs of food. There are loads of food photography tips out there – so we thought we’d try a few of them out and stage a photo-shoot in the office. We hoped that if any of the techniques passed the test, they could help you in showing off your own creations. Here are the food photography tips we used and the surprisingly impressive results of our two experiments.
The Challenge: In the name of experimentation, we selected some well-known, but less visually appealing, fast-food items to try and made them look…well more edible. For this we selected the mass produced burger and a humble pork pie.
Food Photography Tips: Experiment No 1: The Microwave Ready-Meal Burger
1) Ignoring the instructions, we didn’t bother microwaving the burger, it wouldn’t add any colour and the bun would just loose it’s bounce. A good solution would be to fry or grill it, but we only gave ourselves 20 minutes and we’re lazy. Plus we don’t have a frying pan in the office. Or a grill.
Instead, we covered it in BBQ sauce to improve the colour and make it shiny. It still looked too processed and tidy so we rummaged through the kitchen and found some instant coffee granules to add a charred texture. Yummm. (At this point it did start to look rather good!)
2)We also went a bit far and smothered BBQ sauce all over the top of the bun, because it was ‘too white’. It sort of worked but it now had bit of a sticky appearance, oh well. Although by this time we’d had to wash our hands three times to avoid getting the camera covered in a coffee enhanced marinade.
3) Arranging the dish, we focused on the angle being photographed. The fillings were all shoved to the very front whilst the back was prodded with cocktail sticks to keep the lid in place. The whole thing was then hosed down with spray oil, which simultaneously looked ‘fresh’ on the salad and juicy on the burger and cheese.
We didn’t leave the ketchup positioning to chance, it was fired strategically into crevices around the exterior. We won’t pretend this was our first attempt, a lot of mopping was to be had, but generally we were looking for the sauce to keep its rounded shape without flattening or smearing. Beginners food photography tip – have plenty of kitchen roll to hand for mopping up spills and splashes.
Front / Back
4) Although you would normally see the dish from above, the human eye has a preference for seeing food dishes at an unusual angle. This stimulates an illusion of ‘special’ whilst showcasing all the best bits of the item you are photographing – play around with angles to see what works best for your chosen subject matter.
An important photography tip is to consider what’s in the background. So we ditched the lunch plates lurching in the kitchen and positioned everything on a nice solid chopping board, with patterned napkins craftily posing as a fancy tablecloth.
5) The macro setting is by far the best way of picking up the barely existent unique textures of the even this mass produced burger. We banged out more shots than a tequila bar to make sure that at least one one was in focus, and did a lot of leaning on stuff to keep the camera deadly still until the shutter clicked closed. It turned out that the photographs needed to be taken from quite far away on the DSLR camera so the picture was destined for some brutal cropping (which isn’t a problem on the higher quality photos – lots of pixels to play with).
6) Considering we didn’t have a lighting budget, we did everything we could to minimise our potential illumination issues; midday was chosen as the ideal time to shoot, right by a wall of windows. But it’s still England, in November – so our photo thumbnails were consistent rows of greyish boxes. Luckily, there’d be one or two squares where there sun had peeked out for a moment which made the world of difference. Photographers aren’t kidding when they say getting the right picture is a waiting game. One of our top photography tips is to pick a sunny day, put a table outside and take as many photographs as you can before the clouds roll in.
You might wonder why all this trouble when most cameras have a flash? Unless have professional light diffusers, you will find harsh shadows and an overexposed look reminiscent of a fast food counter on a night out (see below).
Most people can crop and brighten without Photoshop, and maybe enhance/balance the colours on some platforms. These are the main goals, so don’t worry if you don’t want to pay for the fancier software. As we have Photoshop, we thought we’d go a bit further. Here are the editing stages we took
1) Crop – Close enough to see all the detail, and eliminate the weaker/unimportant elements.
2) Brighten – Use ‘image>adjustment>curves’ to gain more subtle control without the appearance of harsh editing.
3) Enhance colour – the easy way is to go on to ‘image>adjustments>hue and saturation’ and raise the saturation.
Here is a more precise way we used to enhance our colours. We created a new layer and painted a brighter red over where the ketchup is underneath, and then set the layer type from ‘Normal’ to ‘overlay’. This alone was too bright so we then made the layer a little transparent by adjusting the opacity in the layers panel. This technique was also used to add more colour to the cheese, and turn a ketchup smudge on the lettuce to a sneaky green.
To decrease the twilight lighting, we played with the levels in ‘image>adjustments>colour balance’ in favour of the warmer colours.
Here’s what you can achieve following the colour enhancement steps:
4) Moving things around.
The clone stamp tool helped copy the best parts of the bun and the burger over the less interesting textures and imperfections. It also smoothed out any unwanted shapes in the background.
To ‘melt’ the cheese and smooth out any rips, we used the smudge tool on a mid-strength setting.
We also decided that the bun was too angled, so copied one side of it lower down and faded the new edges out with a soft brush in the eraser tool. The tomato was brought up towards the bun in the same way. A shadow was created in a new layer, painted with a dull red soft brush with the layer set to ‘multiply’.
Food Photography Tips: Experiment Number 2: The Miniature Pork Pie
This was a boring looking thing, so we had to accessorise the living daylights out of it. We used those cheap paper napkins again to sexy up the background and covered it with posh rocket leaves and ‘black pepper’. Ok – so the black pepper was actually more coffee granules – we were improvising!
The oil spray made the most difference here, taking the pie from looking slightly dried up to freshly prepared.
Cutting an actual slice form a miniscule pork pie was a surreal experience, but revealing some filling is just what you do when you photograph a pie, right? We mostly just found more pastry so we had to add in the filling anyway on Photoshop (a few dabs of pink translucent paint).
The same camera techniques and a lot of tight cropping later, here it is, what do you think?
What Did We Learn?
The food photography tips that we used definitely enhanced our ‘before’ photos. And it wasn’t just a trick of the light. We had many many requests from colleagues saying that they wanted to eat the burger -despite explaining that it was uncooked and covered in coffee granules, which is slightly worrying…
Later in the week we’ll be experimenting with latte art, so we’ll let you know how that goes soon!
Hannah from The Jobs Menu
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