Food Photography A Growth Industry

food photo
Food photography is one of the few growth industries in photography - by Sidious Sid via Flickr

One of the challenges in photography is to make enough to keep eating. In that light it may be somewhat ironic that one of the fastest growing specialty fields is food photography.

The field of food photography has undergone changes since the introduction of the cell phone camera. The rise of sites like GrubStreet and Tastespotting where users are posting their culinary adventures, complete with photos.

The rise of food blogs has in turn put pressure on restaurateurs to raise their visual game on both the food they serve and the visual environment on their menus and web sites. That creates a growth environment for food photographers.

Just like any other field of photography, it’s a tough slog to get established. You can’t expect to post a food portfolio online and have work rolling in. Even if you did, you run the risk of pitching a big time client when you lack depth in the industry.

Use a reflector to bring some more light to your subject - Photo by Emily Hill from flickr

Lighting, Lighting, Lighting

You’ve heard the old saying in real estate that a home’s value is related to location, location, location. In food photography the corollary would be lighting. The best food photographers are lighting freaks and happened to find a home in food photography because their passion for lighting combined with a field of photography that requires a slavish dedication to detail.

Many food photographers work alone, but some bigger shoots might have an assistant, a food stylist, an assistant food stylist, and prop stylist. Most prefer to work in their own studio due to the difficulty of hauling all their gear to locations, though sometimes that can’t be avoided.

The food photography studios I’ve visited look more like industrial machine shops and the really good ones are booked for weeks in advance.

While there is a lot of lighting, none of it is particularly big. Surprisingly, I saw one big floor flash and the rest were smaller, point source lights and a lot of articulated arms holding mirrors, scrims, and reflectors. There were none of the big softboxes, umbrellas and lighting kits you’d find in a portrait studio. It’s a different kind of lighting, more directional, more sharp shadows than you find in portrait photography.

Photo by Benjie Ordonez from flickr

While the market for many types of photography is changing and for most that change is toward fewer opportunities and less income, food photography is showing surprising growth. One of those reasons is stock photography is not terribly useful in this application. Most food shots are of unique creations specific to the client, a work of art you can eat.

Some large customers, like restaurant chains and some hotels, are creating master image libraries for their food pictures, but other than that there are few ways to cut corners. The market for food photography is likely to stay healthy for quite some time.

Six Tips For Better Food Photography

food photography
You can't do this at your local restaurant - By Elke Wetzig

I once visited what I thought was an industrial machine shop, but turned out be a professional food photographer.  He employed metal supports, chemicals like lacquer and linseed oil, compressed air, and scaled down stage foggers.

You probably won’t want to go that far, but food photography is suddenly in vogue.  From Flickr groups like I Ate This with over 240,000 pictures from 24,000 members and so called food porn sites like Tastespotting and Foodgawker, photographing your food is no longer reserved for professionals, we’re all becoming food paparazzi now.  If you’re going to do it, do it right.

1) Take a camera.   While many people are buying the latest iPhone just for food pictures, even a low end digital camera will do a better job.  Cameras like the Nikon Coolpix P7100 are popular for ease of concealment and their fast start up time.  Some users have upgraded to cameras like the Nikon D90 because they want better pictures of their food.

2) Be fast.  Cold food isn’t going to look good, so try to shoot while it’s still steaming and before anything melts, wilts or changes color.

3) Use natural light when possible.  Side lighting from a booth window is going to be better than a pop up flash.  If you’re buying an SLR for food pictures, then take the next step and get a diffuser for the pop up flash for those times you can’t avoid using the camera flash.

4) Use a low angle.  The big mistake a lot of food photographers make is shooting from too high of an angle.  Most people don’t view their food from straight down, so don’t shoot it from that angle.  Get down as low as you can without drawing too much attention to yourself.

5) Get close, go macro.  Getting a shallow depth of field on macro settings will put the focus on the food and blur out the table in the background.

6) Style it.  Many chefs spend an entire year in school just on presentation.  Most local restaurants will not have that training, so don’t be afraid to dress up your food a little.  If you get lettuce on the side it won’t wilt by the time it gets to the table.