A Mouth-Watering Food Photography Workshop
When I signed up for the food photography workshop with the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture, I thought mainly about the photography tips I would use for food posts. I didn’t expect the waiter to pour wine for me and the 9 other students, and didn’t expect such beautiful dishes to appear before us, expertly cooked and plated by chef Tony Chittum in the Iron Gate restaurant where they held the workshop.
Better yet, after each course — the generous samples of appetizers, the main course, and dessert — we got to taste everything, every last crumb. This is the winter root vegetable salad with Chapel’s Country Bay Blue cheese. The small dish on the bottom left is house made “Nutella” and last season’s preserves.
Our teacher was pro photographer, Mollie Peterson, who moved around the tables, chatting casually with us about the craft of photography and how to bring out the best in a dish.
Molly is a photographer and farmer, which is how she is acquainted with Arcadia. She and her husband are sustainable farmers in Rappahannock County, Virginia, where they raise grassfed and grass-finished beef and pastured pork. She’s a contributor to three cookbooks — two due on the shelves in early 2014 and one in 2015.
As part of the first course, they served these savory hearth-baked crackers and sourdough bread with three dips: parsley, beet and walnut, and kohlrabi tzatziki.
We quizzed Molly on the lenses she uses, how she chooses her ISO, shutter speed, and aperture settings, and white balance. We asked if she does any “tricks” using fake food or props. (She doesn’t.) We also asked her a lot about being a farmer.
Molly has the same camera as I do, the Canon 5D DSLR, and uses three main lenses, a 50 mm, a 24-70 mm, and a 70-200 mm. She often starts out with the 50 mm and says she’s often perfectly happy with that lens for the entire shoot. She also shoots in RAW format, which is format that minimally processes the data, unlike JPEG which compresses the image right from the get-go. She also shoots on manual, starting with an ISO that suits the lighting situation; for us 640 was a good starting point. We then bracketed the setting by going up or down in aperture width to see the effect.
She taught us to shoot from many different angles, which was fun to do when capturing the crispy folds of this phyllo-wrapped custard with powdered sugar.
I asked her if she’d avoid showing a blurry edge of the plate like in this photo, and she said it’s fine because the eye is drawn to the food.
Some of us felt free to stand up on our chairs and shoot directly downward. The idea is to take advantage of the shape of the plate as well, looking for nice curves that accentuate the curves in the food.
She also encouraged us to turn the plates around to take shots from all sides of the dish, and to push the napkin, plate settings, and glassware close, to fill the image with a pleasing background.
Here are baked hen eggs, beef and pork meatballs, tomato and burrata cheese.
Molly says she works fast, especially when photographing meat or fish which can look flat and unappetizing if you let it sit too long, quickly taking many shots from many angles, with one lens or a few, right when the chef presents a dish. This was one of the second course dishes — grilled Virginia rockfish, braised gigante beans, baby kale, and spiced tomato broth.
She talked about how to bounce a flash to fill in shadows or to use a reflector. The important thing is to “read the light,” to look at where it falls naturally. Then, if a side of the dish is obscured by shadows, you can use a reflector, like a piece of white foam core. When the light hits it, it will bounce back and “fill in” shadows. When using a flash, you want to avoid pointing it directly at the subject, which will cause unflattering glare and washed out areas. Instead, if you can bounce it from the ceiling or wall. Without a flash though, you can move the dish close to a light source.
Here is the winter citrus salad, with torn spearmint, Geata olives, and organic olive oil.
The two hours flew past as I took a hundred or more photos, some with Instagram, but most with my DSLR, and took a few notes. For Instagram lovers (and Molly sang its praises as well), she recommended an app called PicTapGo!, as a really versatile editing tool. Unfortunately, it’s not made for Android at this time.
Molly sometimes looked at our photos and offered advice on composition or exposure, reminding everyone of the classic “rule of thirds.” Instead of placing the subject smack in the center of the image, you divide the image into a tic-tac-toe like grid with 2 horizontal lines and 2 vertical lines. The points where you want the eye to be drawn are placed along these lines or intersections to create more tension, energy, and interest. This tip applies to any type of camera.
Most of the students were advanced photography hobbyists. There was another blogger, a nutritionist who wants to post food photos on her website, and one professional who came along to learn from another pro, but the workshop welcomed photographers of all levels with any kind of camera, even an iPhone or other smartphone.
I snagged up a few of these sticky sweet nuggets for the walk home.
They’re greek doughnuts with orange blossom syrup, the perfect end to a wonderful event.
Here’s a round-up of some of the tips Molly gave us for shooting food, no matter the camera:
- Shoot quickly after the food is plated when it’s the most fresh and eye-appealing.
- Take a lot of photos at different angles, even shooting straight down.
- Turn the plate to see how the dish looks from different sides.
- Bring silverware, a napkin, and glassware close to the plate and see how that looks. Molly even suggested learning different napkin folds to add some variety when you style your image.
- Try different ISOs and exposures if you can change those settings easily.
- Avoid using the on-camera flash, especially if it points straight ahead. Instead, move the food to an indirect light source.
- Try bouncing the light back onto the unlit side of the food using a piece of foam core. Make sure it’s white or else you’ll bounce a color onto the dish.
- Practice the rule of thirds when composing your picture.
- Save your image in RAW format if you’re using a DSLR so you have more leeway when editing for exposure and white balance (is the image too orange or blue).
- Practice, practice, practice.
I do hope the Arcadia Farm offers another photography class. If they do, you’ll find the listing on their Arcadia Events page.