Tips From the Pros: Food Photography
August 7, 2012
I’ve never claimed to be a professional food photographer. In fact, I’m far from it. But thanks to the insight and inspiration of the various VIP bloggers here as well as other great photographers in the outdoor cooking community, I am slowly becoming better. That’s why I was thrilled when Richard Wachtel of Grilling with Rich decided to sit with our good mutual friend, Ken Goodman, and come up with some quick tips to better your photo taking skills.
The Grilling with Life series focuses on the “other aspects” of grilling and since we are your #1 source for the latest BBQ and Grilling news, we want to make sure that you get the best information possible. We have extremely high standards for the “experts,” that we allow to post on the site. For this specific article about ways to improve your barbecue and grilling food photography we searched high and low for not only a photographer who is an expert in the field but also someone who knows their barbecue.
Ken Goodman is a freelance photographer who is based in the New York City area. Ken specializes in food and chef photography, concerts, events and even candid family shots. Ken’s work has appeared in the Art Culinaire Magazine and he has photographed, among others, Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Jimmy Fallon, Michael Stipe, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Mariska Hargity and Bryan and Michael Voltaggio of Top Chef fame and so many others. Before his photo career started he spent 20 years in the restaurant industry as a classically trained chef, and he is a member of the nationally ranked barbecue competition team: IQUE, and his photos can be seen in IQUE’s: Wicked Good Barbecue Cookbook. So Ken has some serious chops, both for barbecue and for photography.
Eight Tips to Improve Your BBQ and Grilling Food Photography
My name is Ken Goodman and I’m a proud member of the New England based BBQ team, I-QUE. I’m also an NYC based freelance photographer, and a native of Philadelphia. This is a tricky triangle when it comes to sports, and other than my absolute disdain for the Yankees; I’m all over the place. But I digress, as this article isn’t about sports loyalties, but rather the art of food photography and specifically BBQ photography.
Today most people are turning to their fancy smartphones or tiny point-n-shoot cameras to snap a quick pic of their prized Q, and that’s all fine and good. Instagram away! However, if you really wish to capture the true essence of those perfect pork ribs, I would recommend using a DSLR (digital-single-lens-reflex) camera. These cameras are more expensive, but they offer superior image quality, a wide range of lens options, and perhaps most importantly, they offer shallow depth of field. Now I’m not going to get too technical here, but if you’ve ever seen a photo where a portion of the image is sharply in focus, while the rest is buttery and softly blurred out – that’s depth of field. It’s a secret weapon for pro photographers and with a DSLR camera; it’s easy to learn. Nikon and Canon are best, but go to your local camera store to test drive these babies.
I started applying depth of field when shooting BBQ after my teammate and I-QUE pit boss Chris Hart complained that my photos of his competition BBQ were too revealing. He had a valid point, so I began narrowly focusing on the food so that the rest of the image was blurry. The irony here is that he and our fellow teammate Andy Husband would later co-author the highly acclaimed cookbook Wicked Good Barbecue and use my images to help give all of our team secrets away. That said, I guess I should credit Chris for helping to evolve my photographic style… just don’t tell HIM that.
So, after shooting thousands and thousands of BBQ images, and mostly outdoors at BBQ competitions, here is what I’ve learned:
1. When Shooting Outside, Avoid Shooting in Direct Sunlight – even though BBQ looks great in sunlight to the naked eye, shooting in direct sunlight can lead to harsh images that have high contrast, blown out highlights, bad shadows and colors (such as BBQ sauce) that often appear overly saturated. Move into the shade, make your own shade, or wait for some cloud coverage. You’ll find that diffused light evens things out and that beautiful BBQ will shine every time.
2. When Shooting Inside, Find the Light – Short of investing in proper studio lighting, shooting a great BBQ image indoors is a pretty tall order. The artificial light in homes and restaurants, whether standard or florescent is simply not ideal. Diffused sunlight is still your best bet, and there’s usually at least one window that does the trick. Choose a window with lots of natural sunlight pouring in and use that light. However, the rule about direct sunlight still applies, so you’ll likely need to diffuse or soften the light. Try taping large pieces of white parchment paper over the entire window to act as a diffuser. You can also use a sheer white fabric curtain, a plain white bed sheet, or even a lightly opaque shower curtain… a clean one. You might run into shadows or dark spots on the portion of the image that is not in the light. If this happens, reflect light back onto the dark side by using things like white foam core, thick white paper, or my personal favorite, a mirror.
3. Vary Your Angles – I often shoot an image three ways, (1) directly overhead looking straight down, (2) at about a 45 degree angle, and (3) just about parallel with the food. You can shoot the same food at these 3 perspectives and get 3 very different images. Every now and then I’ll shoot at, what’s known in the biz, as a Dutch angle. This is where you tilt the camera to create a slanted horizon line.
4. Shoot Close – Zoom in tight on the food and really fill the frame with that delicious BBQ. I want people to almost taste the image. Sure, you can always crop an image later, but it never feels quite the same. Shooting tight will also give you those great shallow depth of field images that really make an image stand out.
5. Take Action Shots – It’s not only about the finished product and I love to get images of people creating their secret BBQ. I’m drawn to cooks throwing dry rub, slicing brisket and ribs, pulling pork shoulder, and assembling that perfect competition box for the judges. Their faces, their movements, their passion… these are always great images.
6. Look Past the Obvious – BBQ is a beautiful mess and I love shooting things like a messy pot of sauce, a dirty knife laying on an equally dirty cutting board just after the meat was sliced, or a saucy mop brush… things like that. I find it really helps tell the whole story of BBQ.
7. Go Manual Mode and Shoot RAW – Assuming by now you’ve purchased that spiffy new DSLR camera, it’s time to learn what it can do. Read the owner’s manual, watch instructional videos on YouTube, make friends with the camera geeks at your local camera store, whatever it takes, but learn to shoot in manual mode. It will take your photos to the next level. Once you’ve gotten familiar with the camera (and it won’t take too long), set your camera to shoot images in RAW versus jpeg format. Shooting RAW will give you more options and control when editing your images. When your camera is programmed to shoot in jpeg, it makes lots of decisions for you and IT decides what the image should look like. It’s kind of like buying pre-marinated meat instead of applying your own marinade. Why bother?! I know it’s a fairly advanced step, but you can seriously elevate your photos without becoming a professional photographer. You get what you give… get it?
8. Edit! – All digital photos need some level of editing to make them pop, especially RAW images. And unless you’re a professional photographer, you don’t have to spend a fortune on photo editing software. In fact, there are many free photo-editing programs you can download for both PC and MAC users. I like programs such as Picasa, GIMP, Paint.net and even iPhoto. The most basic software will include key features that adjust brightness/contrast, hue/saturation and image sharpening. Think about all of the time and effort that goes into making that outstanding BBQ. The least you can do is take some time to properly edit the images.
I hope these tips are helpful and I hope to see you on the BBQ trail with a DSLR camera in your hands. And lastly, if you’re eating and photographing well-crafted BBQ and you’re not having fun, then my friend, you are doing it wrong.