A few months ago a received and email from Callisto Media. They’re located in San Francisco and they publish books. Lots of books. They were interested in talking to me about the possibility of writing and photographing a cookbook on sous vide cooking. I can’t begin to tell you how excited I got to being even considered for something like that. Of course my answer was yes and we scheduled a phone call in the upcoming days. I really liked them from the get go. They were pretty clear about their approach to publishing, their schedule, deadlines, process, etc, etc, etc. I went on and on about cooking and sous vide and photography, etc, etc. With my crazy work schedule I feared I would not be able to write and photograph (not to mention do all the cooking) in the proposed timetable. So I took a few days to think about it and was pretty honest about being concerned with delivering the writing and the photos on time. They understood, and the conversation almost stalled at that point. I suggested only doing the photography to what they seemed opened to but they needed to regroup and come back to me with a verdict.
A week or so ago I posted the first article of this phone food photography series in which I covered what I consider to be the 5 areas everybody with an interest in improving their photo skills should get pretty good at. I’m trying to keep these tips as short and concise as possible and I hope you find them helpful. Based on these first 2 photos and the ones on my last post, you probably think I live at a burger joint. I do.
In this article I will go over a few more concepts equally simple, stuff you can start applying right away. No gear or software needed maybe a free app here and there 😉 Actually, on this post I kept my photo post-editing to a minimum, sun light did all the hard work for me. The sun is the best light for food photography. Also, these tips relate to DSLR shooting or any kind of camera gear you own really. Let’s dive in again!
1.Level your shot.
Crooked horizons are famous across the world of amateur photography. I can’t recall the number of times I have taken a picture with a crooked horizon line. I mean, it’s really hard to actually get it right, even with tons of practice. Maybe with some preparation, a tripod, a level, etc.. but otherwise, it’s just hard.
Nothing worse than a crooked horizon line when looking at a sunset pic right? So let’s not do this or at least fix it in post.
Even if minimally I usually need to correct this annoying issue in post. Thankfully, this is doable inside the phone via the photo editing tools on the camera app or via plenty of other free apps. Just rotate the pic until it looks right and natural.
When it comes to food, things get a bit trickier though. There’s rarely a horizon line in the picture and yet, the shot can easily be shot at a weird angle that just makes it uncomfortable to look at. I’ve seen successful food photography in which the shot was taken at a weird angle, but the person behind the camera was a professional or a really lucky person. In most cases and I mean, most, gravity should point straight down and not in weird exotic directions.
2. Simplify your backgrounds.
This tip has more to do with food styling and composition (also cropping which we covered in the previous article) than with photography. Some people have the gift of home decoration. A rag, some orange pillow over in that corner, great colour accent, the whole room comes together. I don’t have that skill. I don’t even like furniture all that much. I enjoy visual simplicity otherwise I get stressed (I’m way way OCD) and that’s how I tend to compose my pictures. Really simply.
The complexity of composing a shot goes up with the number of props in the scene. I’m pretty sure about this one. I think if you’re just getting started in food photography…
keep your backgrounds as simple as possible. A clean backdrop, a simple plate, the food and go from there. It’s very easy to get distracted away from the food when too many object surround it. When I take photos of food at a bar for example, I remove my sunglasses. If there are too many coasters, I leave one in frame, maybe a portion of another in frame, I really try to get the complexity of the scene down to what really matters. My hamburger.
3. Wipe your lens.
This should be lesson number one in photography. It’s also common sense yet it happens all the time, dirty lenses. Greasy fingers are the worst enemy of phone photographers. I make this mistake pretty much everyday. A tiny imperceptible smudge over the camera lens and your whole shoot will be ruined. Nothing you can do about this other than… keep your phone smudge free. Really hard thing to do, specially when photographing food, that’s when fingers are at their greasiest.
If you plan on using JUST your phone to photograph your creations, then getting in the habit of wiping the lens clean before shooting should be routine and part of your prep. That’s what I do when I shoot with my DSLR which btw is mainly what I use to shoot food.
4. Use the Volume buttons to click.
Or not, depends on the shot. I won’t include a pic for this one. On my phone for example, having to look for that virtual trigger on the touch screen distracts me from framing the shot. Many cameras with touch screens have that problem. Phone photographers may have a hard time finding that virtual trigger on their touchscreens. I own an iPhone 5s at the moment, and when taking pictures, the volume buttons can be used as the trigger, and I often use them because I know where they are. I wish they were more sensitive, you really have to press down hard to activate them and that frequently introduces shakiness and blur, but with some practice, they can be mastered. Just keep that in mind as an option.
5. Diffused and Direct Sun Lighting.
I talked about indirect sunlight in the previous post. Now, how about direct sunlight. It’s awesome lighting but a bit trickier to use. It can also be diffused. How do you diffuse direct sunlight. Well, any translucent piece of thin white fabric is ideal. Most thin white fabric is translucent and I’m guessing fairly easy to find around the house. Anything that is translucent and white should do the trick, just place it in between your food and the sun and the light will become diffused.
Diffusing sunlight or any light source will diminish the intensity of that light source. That means, your exposure settings will have to be adjusted. Luckily, most phones will do that automatically, but it is good to understand that the exposure of the shot might require a little longer since there’s less light available… which means…? You need to hold that phone super steady or otherwise the shot won’t be as sharp as it should be.
6. Wear neutral colours when shooting.
Might sound weird, but trust me, this is rather important, specially if you really want to take your food photography to the next level. Wear a neutral color or desaturated outfit. Food photography is close up photography in many cases, so any colour we wear might end up reflected on the food we are shooting. I love wearing red t-shirts. My photographs hate me when I do.
Sometimes I forget and go through an entire photo shoot wearing my spanish soccer team jersey, I mean, doesn’t get any redder than that thing, believe me. When I do, I introduce unwanted red reflections and a red cast on the entire picture. I hate my life during post. This is a PAIN to remove. Any bright colors will have the same effect. I’m sure when you go out dining, choosing your outfit isn’t driven by your food photography obsession and I hope it isn’t. We all may wanna wear our favourite outfits and look awesome, right? 😉 Just help it if you can, specially at home when shooting in a controlled environment.
7. Flattening perspective.
We’re getting fancy now. I love wide angle photography, specially if I’m shooting landscapes and stuff like that. For food though, I prefer longer lenses… but let me slow down a bit here and talk about focal length first. This is simply the distance of the lens to the image sensor inside the camera when the lens is focused at infinity. It’s measured in milliliters… and I realize most people are already yawning including myself…this is a hard one to explain in simple terms though. Phone cameras have small little lenses that have a wide field of view.
Basically they can see more of the world in front of the lens. With a zoom lens, the lens sees less of the world but gets closer to it. Ok, I’m confusing even myself now.. the best way to explain this without all the technical terms is with photos so let’s look at the pics here. We have the same subject shot 2 ways. With and without zoom. When we want to flatten perspective, the only way to do it on a phone is to use the digital zoom on the camera. Move the phone away from the subject and zoom right back in. The only problem is that digital zooms aren’t the same as physical zooms. The way a digital camera zooms in.. is really crappy actually. They just crop the picture, so there’s always a loss in resolution. Your pixels will become bigger and there will be detail loss. There’s no way around this. So keep your digital zooming to a minimum and your pictures will still look crispy.
8. Explore your subject.
If you have the luxury of time.. and by this I mean, you’re not just trying to snap a quick pic while nobody is looking at some fancy restaurant or some burger joint.. I get self conscious about this sometimes and rush the shot (even at McDonalds)… you should try to spend sometime taking pics from as many angles as possible and try spinning the plate around. You might discover that your dish looks nicer from a different angle. I do this all the time. I take a lot of pictures and then sort through them and select the winners. In a single photo shoot I take about 50 pics and then select 3, maybe 4 and post those on the given article. It might seem excessive, but it pays off. Also, be your own most unforgiving critic. It sucks but it helps.
My first time cooking for a a fellow blogger’s project. Last night I prepped this dish as a submission for a fun cooking project at stefangourmet.com, with a few restrictions, this cooking challenge was very attractive, it forced me to leave my comfort zone and try some new flavors and explore chinese cuisine a bit. Base ingredients were: chicken, chillies, greens and nuts…
Simple enough, right? well, easier said than done, specially if using ingredients unfamiliar to you. I wanted t come up with a nice asian recipe of my own using staple chinese ingredients (the only thing I know about chinese cuisine is that is delicious!). Here is what I did:
1. Research staple ingredients online
I ended up here. Super helpful. Most of the ingredients were familiar, but I’ve never used plum sauce, chili paste or chinese fish sauce, but I wanted to integrate those into my dish if possible. I chose a few unfamiliar ones.
2. Research each ingredient in the context of a recipe online
Plenty of recipes online featuring chicken and chili paste, plum sauce and fish sauce, five spice powder, etc. This is getting exciting at this point. Exciting and overwhelming.
3. Select ingredients that would work when combined into a dish
I didn’t want to overcomplicate the dish, and my research yielded even more ingredients and more combinations of them, to the point where I needed to find common denominators that worked well and stop. No need to increase the odds of failure.
4. Buy ingredients
I live in Los Angeles, so finding the ingredients was super easy, I went to my local Ralph’s and was able to get everything there, but this can be trickier in other cities/countries I’m sure.
5. Taste each ingredient on its own
This was the funnest part, tasting chili paste for example, I don’t even like hot-spicey foods that much, I’m pretty sensitive to strong spices. The chili paste was so good! Spicy and full of other flavors! The fish sauce, that was the strongest fishiest saltiest thing I’ve ever had, I fell in love with it after one teaspoon. 5 spice powder, that reminded me of indian cuisine and garam masala mixes, it contains cinnamon, star anise, cloves, fennel seeds, peppers… and last but not least, plum sauce, delicious sweet and sour plum jam with ginger, salt and vinegar.
6. Based on their volume (intensity of flavor) come up with ratios
This is possibly the trickiest part. After having tasted chili sauce, plum sauce, chili paste, fish sauce and the 5 spice powder , all of which were delicious, I had to come up with how much of each ingredient to use, and how.
7. Plan your recipe by component
I wanted fried rice to go with my chicken, and I wanted some cilantro and parsley for garnishing. Those were the 3 components, so I wrote down roughly what I wanted to do with each one of them, how to cook them, how to flavor them, etc…
8. Plan your presentation
Having an idea of what a final plated dish looks like helps a lot. I drew some sketches, wrote down some notes, etc.. it really helps planing plating and choosing garnishes before you even go to the grocery store.
9. Get cooking
Always, prep ahead everything, this is key, specially when trying new things. I chopped veggies, mixed spices in little bowls, trimmed the drumsticks, made rice, and had everything lined up and ready to be used.
Below is a compilation of notes I wrote down for this dish, they might not make sense sometimes, but I didn’t want to alter them too much, it’s kind of fun to read them, and I sometimes didn’t or couldn’t do everything I had planned, like the drumsticks wouldn’t fit in the cream whipper (as weird as this sounds), so had to improvise a bit too. And it is not a recipe, but close enough:
Macro photography special edition, shanghai chicken for stefan:
Photography of final dish:
use cloth (darker than white stuff, yes)
take photo away from walls, bg shouldn’t compete and be darker
take macro photography as well of main dish
Prep (mise en place):
leeks (transversal cut extreme CU)
garlic (back light thin slices CU)
ginger (extreme CU, knife dicing ginger)
rice (macro photography of rice falling)
mirin (to deglace leeks and garlic) (macro photography super close up, oil and water splashing)
beat eggs, throw away half the white (high speed CU)
sugar + salt + pepper (need to food process more black pepper)
snow peas, open, peas in, steam in oven, brush with butter (ECU, backlit?)
pistacchios or almonds, crushed (great ECU highspeed chopping)
shouldn’t overcook yolks, should remain a bit runny and bright yellow
drumsticks (frenched), cut bottom so they can sit up at a slight angle
Infused in 5 spice marinade with , rice vinegar and garlic, fish sauce, pepper, sugar
use Isi cream whipper to accelerate infusion (use plastic baggies)
prep plum sauce: tbsp plum sauce + 1 tbsp chili paste + 2 tsp fish sauce + 2 tbs rice vinager (ECU whipping this mix)
roast chicken drums, sitting up, 20 mins, brush with plum sauce, bake another 10 mins
roast sesame seeds until golden
sprinkle sesame seeds over chicken (medium shot of tray, roasted legs being sprinkled)
prep soup plate, serin wrap
place leaves of cilantro and parsley over it
brush with peanut oil (ECU brush going over parsley)
microwave for 10-20 seconds or until crisp (ECU before and after would be nice)
Plating (should photograph progression step by step):
tsp of sesame oil on a plate
Spoon full of fried rice over it
Sit drumstick over rice
Butter snow peas, in, arrange nicely
Fried greens in, arrange nicely
finish with a drizzle of olive oil and some maldon salt
add a few drops of chili sauce over drops of olive oil
sprinkle chopped almonds
Until the next food project! Oh, I forgot, it was DELICIOUS! 😀