When we think of food photography, we often think of pristine plates and beautiful gourmet styling. Indeed, there is an entire visual art to culinary plating – something we will explore further in a creativity exercise later this year. Right now, however, we’re going to explore the inclusion of food in the frame a bit differently.
Food is an an enormous part of our lives. It’s not just a physical necessity but an integral part of both our daily routine and celebration of extraordinary events. The foods we purchase, prepare, and consume can convey messages about ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, health, mood, season, and social relationships. This month, we’ll use food as a component of storytelling. Consider the following:
1. Identify a setting established around food.
Think about where you find food and how you can use such locations to provide a backdrop for your story or scene. The dining room and the kitchen are two obvious (and wonderful!) locations, but think beyond the home as well. What could be better than the rainbow of produce at a bustling farmer’s market? Or the rows of colorful brand labels at the supermarket? What about your favorite cafe? An ice cream shop? How about orange groves, apple orchards, vineyards, your grandmother’s garden, or the strawberry patch? Could you photograph a picnic in the park, neighborhood lemonade stand, or playroom tea party?
2. Think about the moods your chosen foods create.
We all know that foods powerfully affect our moods, and you can leverage the connotations of those foods to help establish a particular atmosphere for your image. Research aphrodisiac foods to illustrate romance in the frame (you already know about oysters, strawberries, and chocolate — but what about asparagus, cinnamon, or chili peppers?). Capture the carefree joy of summer with s’mores fixings next to a backyard bonfire. Think, too, of singular foods and drinks that make you feel a certain way — the exquisite indulgence of the perfect chocolate truffle or the warm awakening of a steaming cup of coffee. And when you think of “comfort food,” what comes to mind?
3. Incorporate foods that are personally meaningful or have sentimental value.
This relates to mood but is much more about personal significance than common associations. What would it look like to capture your mom’s best recipe (perhaps you could even incorporate a recipe card with her handwriting)? How can you photograph foods that represent your culture or family traditions? Are there particular foods that represent your chosen lifestyle? What is your child’s favorite food?
4. Focus on the characters.
Consider bringing in food as a foundational element rather than treating it as the primary subject. You might focus on the social aspects of meals — capturing a moment of grace as a family sits down to a dinner together or shooting the lively discussion that takes place at the lunch table. You might instead focus on the preparation of food – a Sunday morning family ritual of making pancakes together, your husband the grill master, the chef in a local restaurant, your child preparing a simple snack all on her own or helping to set the table.
5. Use food to establish storyline.
In many cases, including food in the frame can help the viewer to identify narrative progression. You might illustrate the beginning of a story by photographing a cook dicing celery, onions and carrots for mirepoix, a woman carrying in bags of groceries, or a beautiful table setting. Illustrate the story’s middle as a child sits on the porch eating a popsicle or as guests enjoy a lavish wedding buffet. Illustrate the end with the crumb-and-birthday-cake-frosting smeared plates, the sandwich crusts and banana peel left after lunch, or the empty, lipstick edged wine glass. Or bring the before-and-after full circle, as we often see with traditional food photography that showcases a completed culinary masterpiece adjacent to the component foods (e.g., a slice of apple pie next to a whole apple, apple slices, some cinnamon sticks, and a rolling pin).
6. Utilize culinary metaphors.
If you are interested in the use of symbolism and analogy to convey subtle messages with your imagery, food provides outstanding subject matter, for metaphors abound. Food based still life paintings in history often focused not only on the visual beauty of whole foods but on the symbolism attached to them — take a look at the opulence captured in de Heem’s “Still Life with Fruit and Ham” or the austerity of Cotán’s “Still Life With Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber.” Google “symbolism and [a specific type of food]” to see what your chosen foods might represent and how you can strengthen the message of your photography with that knowledge. Whole foods – fruits, vegetables, meats, grains, herbs, and spices – are particularly likely to have historical or cultural significance, though some prepared foods certainly hold great meaning as well. For example, grapes symbolize wealth and good luck; a pomegranate represents fertility and marriage; and the ubiquitous apple of course takes us back to the temptation of Adam. Did you know that an avocado symbolizes love? Onions have been thought to represent the universe or eternity, but their many layers could be symbolize other messages as well. Eggs symbolize new beginnings, but broken eggs will have a very different connotation. Bread, a nutritional staple in most cultures, is thought to be a symbol of life. And what about culinary cliches? From spilled milk to a spoonful of sugar to a bowl of cherries or box of chocolates, the opportunities are plenty.
7. Think about design elements.
As with more conventional food photography, you can best capture food beautifully in a storytelling context if you make the most of the visual qualities that make food such a rich subject. Utilize proper white balance to let the fresh, vibrant colors of fruits and vegetables shine, and bring together complementary colors such as butternut squash soup in a blue bowl or a collection of red and green peppers. Incorporate side lighting to bring forth culinary textures that heighten the sensory experience. Consider lines and the often highly recognizable organic shapes of whole foods in your compositions — the great lines of a long loaf of French bread, the repetition of circles in a handful of blueberries, the beautifully recognizable shape of the voluptuous pear.
Anna Van Demark
The goal this month is to photograph food in a way that goes beyond the product itself; beyond the simple portrayal of the food item, think about the process of its creation or consumption, associated rituals, the message or mood to which it contributes, or the significance it holds.
What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges. Every month, Sarah Wilkerson posts a new tutorial and challenges our members to join in a new Creativity Exercise on the Clickin Moms photography forum. At the conclusion of the exercise, we select Editors’ Choice images from among the exercise submissions and share them here with you on the blog. Congratulations to the ladies whose photographs included in the exercise above were selected as this month’s Editors’ Choices, and thank you to everyone who participated in the exercise!
And be sure to participate in the next exercise! Visit the forum where Sarah has posted “Photographic Time Capsule.” We’d love to see your work!
Sarah Wilkerson, New York
CEO | CMU Instructor
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Duke graduate and former attorney Sarah Wilkerson joined Clickin Moms as a member photographer in 2008 and quickly became a leader in the community. Together with Kendra, Sarah has led the evolution of the company’s mission, program development, and position within the greater photography community. She currently resides in New York with her Army JAG husband, three sons, one daughter, and two dogs. Sarah shoots with a Nikon D4, enjoys tilt-shift and atmospheric black and white work, and instructs CMU’s upper level composition courses: Elements of Design and Composition and Creativity.