Disclosure: Airbnb covered my expenses for this trip.
While the Beast from the East was creeping across Europe, we narrowly managed to squeeze in a break to Bordeaux before all hell (in the Brits-can’t-handle-2-inches-of-snow sense) broke loose. It was my first trip to this city, and boy did I fall hard for its charm. The folk are friendly and patient, even when faced with my pathetic French vocabulary. Bordeaux eateries serve unbelievably delicious food in humble and unpretentious settings: I definitely recommend Le Chien de Pavlov, La Tupina and (of course) all of the canelés. We also stumbled upon Hangar Darwin, a former military barracks turned into an ecological collective that is home to over 130 organisations, united in their common goal of reducing their carbon footprint – a must-visit.
There were a number of stunning Airbnb listings around the city but, as soon as I laid eyes on this one, that was that. Located in the historic centre, it was the perfect base as most spots I wanted to visit were within walking distance.
My food photography journey has come a long, long way. As amusing as it is to reminisce, I’m not ashamed nor would I ever go back and delete my older work because it stands as proof of what years of effort can achieve. Trial and error. Studying photos of artists I admire. Practise, practise, practise.
We all have to start somewhere so, if you are a newbie, here are some food photography tips that I’ve found useful along the journey to finding my own style.
Light is by far the most important element of any photograph, and especially so for food. Nothing beats natural light. Even a serious set-up of professional equipment can’t quite replicate it. That’s why you’ll rarely see night-time food shots on my Instagram feed. Regardless whether you’re going for light and airy or dark and moody, you’ll need plenty of natural light.
Decide on the focal point of your photo. A particular bit of the main dish, perhaps? Now play around with the angle from which your light source hits it. I find that side light works well to bring dimension to a flat scene; while backlight is useful for bringing out the colour in translucent drinks.
In low-light situations, don’t be tempted to use the in-built flash in your smartphone, as it will be head-on and harsh. Try to create another source of light, for example by moving a candle next to your food. If you’re struggling with blurriness, you can balance your phone or camera on a flat surface and set the shutter to self-timer mode. On a decent DSLR, pushing your ISO high allows you to take sharp photos. I’ve found the Google Pixel also performs amazingly at night.
Sometimes a close-up of a beautiful dish brings out details and textures, whereas a wider shot would better convey the story of the scene. Thinking about the reason you want to share a particular photo can help you decide how to frame it.
Negative space can be a powerful tool in composing a photograph. Leaving part of your image empty draws your audience’s eyes to the focus, making the overall scene more interesting than if you had filled the entire photo.
I recently shot some photos for a Mauritian chef. Though the food was incredibly delicious, a lot of it was brown or monochrome. A good tip is to add brightness by way of garnishes. Some freshly chopped parsley or red chilli can bring life to a monochrome dish. Keep fresh herbs in an ice water bath until the last minute, or they’ll start to wilt after a few minutes. Top tip: quality ingredients will always be more photogenic than cheap ones.
If you have many elements of a photo to style together, start with a leading line. Our eyes are naturally drawn to lines and patterns to make sense of a scene, so it can be an effective way to draw your audience’s attention. Study a food ‘flat lay’ photo that you admire. Even if elements seem randomly scattered, they seldom are. Food styling is a difficult skill – I’m still learning after many years – but the only way to improve is with practise.
You can incorporate hands, people and actions to tell a story. Food is about sharing and creating so, to me, the cook and the process are just as important as the actual dishes. I love a good shot of family or friends tucking into a feast – it makes me want to reach through my computer or phone to join in.
Introduce contrasting textures and dimensions by using cutlery, linen napkins, table decorations or attractive ingredients that were used in the dish. You can also get creative with backdrops; I use wood, blackboards, coffee tables, and a range of patterned paper to mimic different materials. Avoid the temptation of going overboard and creating a cluttered scene, though my prop collection at home is getting a little out of hand…
Apps & Editing
There are so many wonderful apps out there, many available for free, so it is tempting to go overboard with the editing process. Keep in mind that food looks best when it is natural and true-to-colour. The purpose of apps is to enhance, rather than to alter, so it’s always to try and get the real-life situation as close to your vision as possible.
My go-to apps are Priime for their filters, Snapseed for minor tweaks, and SKRWT for correcting skew. To maintain a professional look, I would recommend avoiding: borders, fake lens flares and blur effects.
There are so many more “rules” and guidelines to food photography but I’m also a firm believer that rules are made to be broken. It’s fun to experiment to find your own style. Be patient, step outside the comfort zone of your usual style or process, take a lot of photos (and keep all the outtakes) and – most importantly – have fun with it.
Social media is all about GIFs and videos these days. There are several ways to create them – including apps like DSCO Cam or GIPHY Cam – but I like to use Photoshop to retain full control of dimensions, settings and quality.
1. Shoot Frames
To capture a particular real-time action – like the street lights above – you need to take several frames in quick succession. A decent DSLR can handle this; or use the ‘burst’ mode on your smartphone’s camera. I use between 5 and 10 frames to create such a GIF.
Another option is to make a ‘stop motion’ sequence. More time could lapse between each frame so it’s important to keep your camera or smartphone in one position throughout the shoot, for example on a tripod. In the cookie stop motion below, I styled 42 frames in total.
If you wish to crop, colour-correct or adjust the photos in any other way, make sure you apply the same editing process to all of the frames so the GIF will look consistent.
Upload the frames onto Photoshop using the ‘Load Files into Stack’ function. Click ‘Browse’ and highlight the frames you have prepared. Select ‘Create Frame Animation’ from the Timeline menu, then ‘Make Frames From Layers’ to import.
Set the animation to loop forever, then adjust the timings of each frame as you wish. You can preview your GIF at any time by clicking the Play icon. A useful tip is the ‘Reverse Frames’ function from the Timeline menu. Photoshop sometimes imports the frames I’d prepared backwards so this flips the sequence.
When you’re happy with how the GIF looks, it’s time to decide on the quality you’re willing to sacrifice in favour of loading time. Go to ‘Save for Web (Legacy)’ and experiment with the variables to find the look you prefer.
In this cookie example, I chose ‘Selective’ and ‘Noise’ as the dither effect. Keeping the colour palette at 256 yields a GIF file size of 13.74MB so I reduced the palette size gradually and kept an eye on the size. I found that reducing the palette to 200 colours did not affect the final GIF too much so this was the final decision.
…et voila, my final stop motion:
To post GIFs on platforms such as Instagram, you will first need to convert the files into MP4 format. A search of “GIF to MP4” on Google will point you in the direction of several websites that offer this service. Note: videos uploaded to Instagram must be at least 3 seconds long so, if your GIF is shorter than this, have it loop a few times. Try to keep the video size under 50MB or else it will take forever to share.
I hope you found this tutorial helpful. If you used it to make your own GIF, I’d love to see. Leave me a link in the comments below… and have fun experimenting!