– As a good practical lesson, for one week shoot everything you eat just before you eat it, whether in a restaurant or somebody’s kitchen. This primes the pump and introduces you to food photography challenges.
The Magical Part of a Meal
Pictures of desserts are the ultimate eye candy. Well, next-best-to-ultimate. Ultimate being the actual dessert sitting in front of you. You have probably already realised that writing about food is it’s own little shtick. It is a genre. So too is photographing desserts in the world of food photography. Setting up sweet-scapes with ice cream mountains and berry-syrup streams is a speciality. Moving from macro-photography to dessert photography is a nice segue. If you’d like to try this special form of photography, here are some considerations; and randomly sprinkled among them will be 10 tips regarding dessert photography. (TIP 1 happened above, TIP 2 follows below, etc.)
– Prepare a shot list noting all possible photos you’d like to see. Think of things like including hands, tools, or combining desserts in one shot. Think about props. Look at lots of dessert photos for inspiration.
● Camera, Lenses, Tripod.
If you are building a shot – fiddling with the dessert itself, the lighting, the props, etc. – you’ll want to use a tripod to keep the camera stable while you change other stuff. Most any decent DSLR will work, and the lens it came with will usually do just fine. You will over time want to add a macro lens and perhaps a longer lens.
Every photographer harps on lighting conditions, but it seems dessert photographers are especially adamant about controlling light. They abhor use of on-board flashes because of the awful results they consistently produce. Diffused natural light or bounced light gives them the best control over their dessert subjects.
– Always shoot in "raw" format; it gives you the most info for any post-production work such as with Photoshop.
Is a hot fudge sundae hardware? No matter. One of its properties is to lose its appeal almost immediately. Have a competent dessert maker on hand to make replacements as required for this and other “meltable” desserts.
Your props can include the plates or serving dishes, napkins, tools or flatware, and even sliced fruit or sprigs of mint. Maybe a “bobble” hula girl would look interesting next to the coconut macaroons.
Fire in the pan! Sometimes you want to photograph the experience of having a particular dessert rather than the dessert itself.
– Have everything set up before putting the desserts on the plate. Hot desserts lose appeal as they get cold; the opposite for cold desserts. Have props, scrims, bounces, camera, and other aspects of the set-up ready to go. Maybe use a stand-in item while you prepare. Then plate and place the dessert, make some final tweaks, and shoot.
Art and Design
Will you be showing single items, groups, how-tos, or entire scenes?
Stacked foods such as cupcakes, a half-circle fan of cookies, and other configurations are options for plating. Keep it simple, but don’t stifle your imagination.
Flowers, colourful sauces, raw foods (for instance, eggs, cream, and sugar next to a carton of ice cream), toys, or other fun things.
– Use a water spray mister or glycerine to keep things moist and shiny looking.
You might want to purchase a colour wheel to remind yourself of contrasting and complementing colours. Look for contrast if the desserts seem to offer it; or go with a monochromatic theme if you’re working with pastel-coloured desserts.
● Set Design.
Will there be any background activity? How will you deal with backgrounds? Blurred, recognisable, flat, or back lighting?
– Carry a kit that has lots of "fasteners" and "holders" such as straight pins, tape, push-pins, white glue, crazy glue, artist brushes, tooth picks, stapler, tweezers, thread or string, modelling clay, rubber bands, small Styrofoam blocks, index cards, pieces of cardboard. Also include paper towels, mild detergent solution, glass cleaner, water mister, canned air, razor blades, cotton swabs, olive oil, bottle of glycerine, and dark felt-tip markers in primary colours. With time and experience, you will add and delete items from your kit. This kit should help solve any "if I only had" regrets.
● Depth of Field.
This refers to that portion of the photo that appears in focus. You will usually want to keep it shallow. Only the food is in focus; backgrounds are usually hazy. Use the “Rule of Thirds” when shooting just as in regular photography.
● White Balance.
Different types of light sources throw off differnt colours of light. The differences are subtle to the untrained eye, but sunlight has more blue tones than tungsten lights, which show up more orange on film. Remember this when shooting colourful foods under different kinds of lights. Set the white balance yourself with your camera using the techniques described in your guidebook or owners’ manual.
– Lighting from the bottom, maybe through a bed of ice, is a great way to photograph cold desserts or cold dessert beverages.
● Control Light.
Don’t use an on board flash. Have some light stands so you can really control your lighting. Have white board for bouncers or reflectors. Have open mesh cloth that can diffuse light from a window or other source.
● Points of View.
Take lots of shots at lots of angles: top views, 45 degree angles, vertical vs. horizontal.
● Move Quickly.
Food is perishable, even more so underneath studio lights. Ice cream melts, cones and other pastry shells get damp and discoloured, oils seep and stain, mint greens wilt. Food that isn’t fresh photographs poorly. Be sure you have a constant and fresh supply of the desserts you will be shooting.
Capturing Contrasts! Strawberry sorbet in a fresh coconut and colourfully accented with limes makes a perfect picture. Note the black plate and white tablecloth – more contrast.
– Use mashed potatoes in place of ice cream; dye in appropriate shades; add appropriate fruit bits or candies.
Three Ways Food Is Presented
Desserts can arrive at the shoot in at least three different ways. How they are used depends on the intent of the photo session. Desserts may come already made in their own special manufactured package. You will also see desserts as unpackaged or made on the spot. One blogger refers to these as “naked” products. You may also be asked to “display” set-ups. These cold include groups of similar desserts, or a whole range. These would be used as cover shots, or general shots for a blog opening, or a shot to sum up all a particular establishment has to offer.
– Shoot tethered. Tether your DSLR to your computer via USB. This way you can control the camera via computer and almost instantly see what your photo will look like. Sure beats the camera viewfinder. If you have it, use "live view" as well to update your image in real time while you fiddle with the exposure, F-stop, composition, and lighting.
The Sweet Message
How you photograph a dessert depends on what idea you’re trying to communicate. Is your photo a smashing photograph of the dessert itself? If so, you may want to shoot against a backdrop or blur the background. Maybe it is more about the experience of having a certain dessert and thereby creating a need for busier backgrounds or even busier foregrounds.
– Have a big memory card. Shoot lots of images. Use your tripod for some, but also move around a lot to shoot the dessert from many different angles, including straight down or table level.
Soak It All Up
Just as a pound cake can soak up a nice raspberry sauce, you want to soak up as much knowledge and gain as much experience as you can. Read blogs and websites focused on dessert photography, look at lots of cookbooks and gourmet magazines, plenty of books about food photography are seeking attention from bookshelves, eat out a lot, know your camera inside and out, and practice or experiment as much as you can – especially with lighting.
If you can write well, if you can skilfully style and plate desserts, and if you as a photographer and artist are technically skilful, you can have paying clients and avid blog readers eating dessert right out of your hands.
Written by Ferina Santos; Ferina Santos is part of the team behind Open Colleges, Australia’s provider of graphic design courses. A feisty nerd at heart with an obsession for media and vanity, she captures all her random musings with daily photographs in her blog, A Pink Banana.