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!
“Oh you’re the photographer with the hedgehog! What’s that like?” I get this a lot. Not complaining, I adore talking about Bramble to anyone willing to listen, and I totally understand the intrigue. But I always try my best to give a well-rounded account of my experience. She is wonderful and loveable but there’s also a lot of negative aspects of keeping an African pygmy hedgehog as a pet. So if you’re thinking about it, here’s my best advice and list of pros and cons after 4½ years’ experience.
African pygmy hedgehogs are, if socialised properly, very sweet and curious animals. She’ll happily snuggle into my or Nathaniel’s arms to sleep; or explore our home and annoint whenever she comes across something new. It’s a joy to watch her be a happy hedgehog. As long as she’s in a good mood (which is 95% of the time), Bramble’s muscles will be relaxed so her quills lay flat.
Relative to other household pets, pygmy hedgehogs do not need as much human contact. They don’t mind but also don’t need us. This independence comes with an important caveat: throughout her entire adolescence, I made sure she was playing with myself, Nathaniel or a friend (when we were away) every single day for at least 30 minutes. Without this socialisation stage, she wouldn’t tolerate us handling her as an adult now.
Bramble is fully-grown and only weighs 370g so doesn’t eat much. The recommended food for pygmy hedgehogs is good quality chicken-based dried cat kibble that is high in protein and low in fat. Pro-tip: a recipe developed for indoor cats means their poop won’t smell as bad! Bramble only eats 5-10 pieces of Purina Go Cat a day and stops after she’s full… a lesson I’ve yet to learn. As a treat, we also give her freeze-dried (and occasionally live) mealworms.
As long as they’re not in pain or highly distressed, pygmy hedgehogs make minimal noise which makes them apartment-friendly. At night Bramble can run for 5 miles so it’s important to invest in a sturdy silent wheel. With the doors of the room closed, this won’t bother anyone.
Pygmy hedgehogs can be litter-trained. We keep a tray of cat litter beneath her wheel, away from her food/water and sleeping areas. Like cats, they keep themselves clean and do not smell at all. We have only ever bathed Bramble twice in 4½ years, and those were oatmeal baths to soothe her dry skin. Aside from that, shallow foot baths for poop-y paws will suffice.
Native to Africa, pygmy hedgehogs don’t have enough body fat to hibernate through the European winter, and will die if they do. Therefore it’s crucial to keep Bramble’s cage at a minimum temperature of 23°C at all times. We keep an energy-efficient heater with a built-in thermostat directly underneath her cage.
Obviously hedgehogs’ quills are designed to hurt predators. If she’s in a bad mood, Bramble resembles a packed pin cushion with the sharp ends facing out. This usually only lasts for a minute when we first wake her up, but touching her during this time would be painful. When she meets someone new, she might also give their finger a bite. This isn’t an act of aggression, rather a test to see if this new thing is food, but her bite is strong enough to draw blood.
Although Bramble is a very well socialised and happy hedgehog, I can’t claim that she has any emotional attachment to us. Even though we try our best to give her a full life, I describe the reciprocal as… tolerance. If you’re looking for an affectionate pet, choose a lap dog instead!
I know fellow pet owners of other animals will also empathise with this one. Pygmy hedgehogs need their nails trimmed roughly every two weeks. Oh how Bramble will squirm and fidget if it’s me… but Nathaniel is the ultimate Hedgehog Whisperer. So thankful that she’ll stay perfectly for him (evidence here).
We recently had an awful experience with Bramble and, sadly, she had to have a part of her paw amputated. Luckily the only ‘exotic animal’ vet in London that takes private appointments is around an hour away (CJ Hall). I imagine it’d be a lot further for many hedgehog owners. Unfortunately pygmy hedgehogs are prone to cancer, and up to 10% develop Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome which sounds deceptively jolly but is an awful degenerative neurological disease. Before you buy one, make sure you have the financial and logistic means to care for your hedgehog responsibly. Also do your research to find a reputable breeder to minimise the risk of WHS.
I hope my honest advice has been helpful. Don’t hesitate to ask me if you have any other questions about African pygmy hedgehogs. You can follow along with Bramble’s adventures over on Instagram.