Claire Gunn

Introduction to Food Photography

Posted In: Creativity | Food | Photography

I am going to share one of my passions with you today: food photography.

I started photographing 8 years ago after changing industries from being a full-time chef to a full-time portrait photographer. I started with weddings and conceptual portraiture, then moved back to my original love – food. This was 3 years ago. Now I shoot Cape Town’s most exciting restaurants and chefs, local and international magazines, blogs and cookbooks.

I’m going to share some of my top tips with you to help you improve your food photography and be inspired to create!

Claire Gunn

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[Food is a feeling]

When creating an image as your own expression, you naturally want to have an emotional connection to your work, which in turn will help your viewer to have that same feeling themselves. This is true of any artful image, and food is no different.

Food is fuel, so it is easy to be emotive about it. It is as essential as air to us and we have a love affair with everything around it. We think of delicious rewards, yes, but we also think of relaxing, enjoying time with friends and the romance of a gathering.

I like to think of farmers’ markets, baking, and fire light. Food is poetry in motion and if you want to make deeply sensational imagery, you need to make your viewer feel your love for food and its ambience.

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[Know your subject]

If you are photographing food then you are most probably a foodie, a passionate home cook or avid consumer of fine foods, even if its just in the digital format.

A love for food is important, but a knowledge of your subject is vital if you would like to be versatile, descriptive, inspirational and even commercial.

Where do your ingredients come from? Do you know how foods are grown? How often do you cook or bake to be able to produce the food you are shooting for someone else?

If you want to make food look good, it’s extremely helpful to know the life cycle of a dish.

I spent many years preparing foods as a chef and when I became a photographer I spent more time going to the farms to see how it was grown. This really deepened my appreciation for the produce, and it helps me to tell the story of food. I’m not suggesting that everyone should become a chef, just that if you are photographing food for clients, it’s invaluable to know your subject and how to cook yourself.

If you just want to photograph food in your home studio for your own pleasure, then I highly recommend cooking or baking the entire dish yourself. If you have just started on the food photography journey, then flood your eyes with cooking tutorials and Pinteresty images. If you know food then you can more easily take its portrait, highlighting what is great and eliminating what is not.

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[Composition and styling]

Successful images resonate with us because they have balance and harmony.

Learning how to compose and create an engaging image starts with understanding composition, shapes and their relationship to each other.

You are telling a story, leading the viewer into the image and delivering a message. You need to know the visual language.

That perfectly-frosted ombre cake just off-centre with the smeared icing still on the palette knife, teetering on the marble counter, vintage mixing bowl in the background, poetically worn-down baking sheets and twirled duck-egg blue tea towel… we have all seen many images like this. The elements are well-placed and harmonious and it all seems to be effortless.

Why does that collection of spoons, plates and sliced cake look good to you? The relationship between the elements creates flow and tension in the right places.

Take inspiration from all the well-composed images you see. It is good to understand why an image works compositionally, so that you can grasp the principles  and recreate a look and feeling at will with different props and dishes using the same approach.

Generally a good rule of thumb is to place the sweet spot of the subjects and their supporting props by using the rule of thirds.

I also like putting a plate directly in the middle of the image, and I love to use even patterns. Don’t use too many props and don’t include props that do not add to your actual core story. Anything unnecessary is a distraction rather than an augmentation.

Of course, there is always artistic licence, and you should always experiment and push boundaries, but make sure you have a reason for adding a luscious frond to your food composition.

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[Lost and found]

One of the most distinctive techniques in my food photography is a combination of sharp and blurred areas, or ‘lost and found’ areas. This allows me to focus in on what I want the viewer to look at and the rest provides ambience. For this I shoot in a shallow depth of field. I use a Nikon D610 and a 50mm f1.4 prime lens to shoot 90% of everything I do.

I also use my 24mm f1.4 for travel, interiors, editorial portraits and wide top shots of food. It also allows me to get the actual camera very close to the food. At times I use a 105mm macro lens, but it is quite an indulgent lens to own, because the same effect can be achieved using a magnifying screw on lens to get closer up to your subject. This is the approach I prefer and it is also far kinder to your wallet. You can also use extension tubes for some interesting effects.

I tend to blur out parts of my images by my choice of lenses as this is my style and what comes naturally to me. I find beauty there. For more extreme blur, I use the very manual LENSBABY lenses, Edge 80 and 50mm double glass optic.

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[Food in motion]

Static top shot images have become classic in this day and insta-age and are certainly pleasing and commercially viable. Well thought-out, stacked dishes shot in studio for magazines convey the message that this is tasty stuff and you should make it. Sometimes, though, I prefer to create images that are not perfect and are in motion between set-ups. After all, food comes into being by ACTION so shooting it in process is part of its life cycle.

We used to make people pose glumly for portraits in a classic studio set up somewhere at the turn of the century, but now we have evolved to taking families or couples out to the beach or local neighbourhood to photograph them just being themselves with each other – the documentary of everyday life. It’s the same with food.

Use the human element by adding hands, chefs, bakers or the making-of. Dusting, squeezing, stirring, pouring… the list of inspiration is literally infinite, ladies and gents. I also specialise in chefs and restaurant/kitchen photography within my genre which means that I shoot kitchen documentary as much as I shoot final dishes.

It is one of my most favourite subjects because I have spent so time as a chef in the environment I now photograph.

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[Light as an ingredient]

I choose to shoot mostly in natural lighting. This started because I was hired to shoot restaurant dishes and interiors, so I learnt to capture what was available to me. I shoot at the edge of the light, close to windows and doors and only sometimes use a reflector. Shooting on a grey day can mean flat food, so a reflector is good for bringing structure and separation of the elements. But if the sun is shining, I will always opt to put my dish right next to it, get the ‘safe shots’ in the shade and then I push the dish directly into the sun beams.

I have been told that shooting in the direct sunlight is not good for food, because it creates high contrast and causes big shadows, but it often becomes my favourite part of a shoot with its unexpected shapes and moods. Food glistens in the sunlight, gleamy, sparkling and otherworldly. Use the shape of the sun’s rays as a prop to tell your story.

It produces brilliant bokeh and energy and I highly recommend experimenting with it.

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[Darker food moods]

Use darker values to create mood.

You can make an image darker to convey the feeling of comfort, luxury, winter, indoors, cosy bake day or seriousness.

The key to this concept’s success is in choosing one area to highlight so that there is contrast of lightest and darkest side by side. This technique is good for structure and bold statements. Light your subject from one side only and make one part of the image stand out in brightness against the dark background and shadows of the subject.

Don’t make your darks completely black – keep a small bit of light in the shadows just to give the slightest hint of detail. You don’t want a black hole in your image. I use window light to achieve this and sometimes a black card in the shadow areas to make the contrast deeper.

This technique is wonderful to experiment with as you delve deeper into telling your story through food photography and mood.

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[Play your heart out]

My last tip is to experiment as much as possible and shoot, shoot, shoot. You will discover a lot about your personal style and about yourself along the way.

Use odd lenses, get in very close, use only two colours in your composition or shoot hand held if you usually shoot with a tripod. Get out of your comfort zone and just go wild. Shift your perspective to shift your artistic eye. Who knows what will happen?

I hope you have learnt a thing or two and go forth to make beautiful imagery and enjoy the bliss of inspiration and play.

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