Food photography class

12 Jan
Ikura at Sakura

Ikura at Sakura

A number of months ago I went to a food photography class downtown taught by Neil Speers, who is a PPOC (Professional Photographers of Canada) member, along with the host of a website and Facebook page devoted to photography “Best Photo Lessons”. (I was planning on doing something else with these photos, hence why it has taken so long to get this post up.)

As a professional photographer, his equipment is obviously more expensive than my iPhone camera (he anecdotally confessed that he carries about $8,000 worth of camera equipment in his backpack when he’s just going out for a little stroll) but a lot of the techniques he was sharing were more about lighting and styling than the actual camera used.

(As an aside, I use my iPhone a LOT when photographing food for Happy Sushi Belly, but also use a Canon Powershot SX110IS with a 10x optical zoom, and on rare coactions my Nikon DSLR 3100 or Nikon D100 which both were gifts.  Mostly, whatever is easily accessible.)

The camera isn’t important

To illustrate his point, he talked about a friend, who had saved up thousands of dollars for a high-end camera.  His (camera-store) boss at the time told him he didn’t need such an expensive piece of equipment, but his friend was convinced that the excellent quality of the tool would translate into the best photos possible.  In an experiment, when his camera arrived, his boss challenged him to go take one really great photo.  His friend went out to the mountains and came back the next day with a 8×10 print of a gorgeous mountain scene.  The boss then took a very inexpensive point-and-shoot camera from the display case, and went out the next day to the same location.

But, instead of going during the middle of the day, the boss went out near twilight.  He found nearby rolling hills, a farmer smoking a pipe leaning against the fence, and sheep who would come when the farmer whistled. Yes, the mountain was still in the background, but in the same location, the boss was able to create a far different and more interesting photo with an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera than the employee with his very expensive model.  Lighting, composition, and being able to tell a story with the camera made for a far superior product.

However, another comment he made later in the class was that “bodies all work really well; spend the money on a good lens”, suggesting that an inexpensive DSLR body would perform nearly as well as a high-end body, but that cheap lenses were a bad idea if a higher-quality one was available. He suggested that we head to the Canon Image Square on 8th Avenue downtown – the Canon Experience Centre, where we could look at a variety of different products and compare them under the exact same circumstances.

“At Canon Image Square, you can explore and interact with
Canon’s line of consumer and office equipment. Experience
our PowerShot digital cameras; the EOS lineup of digital
SLR cameras; a wide selection of lenses & accessories;…”

Creating beautiful food photography

To start off the class, Neil asked what was the first thing to consider.  While I said “audience”, and another individual said “lighting”, another classmate gave the answer Neil was looking for: “Making the food look good; making it look like food.”

To this end, Neil highly recommends starting the shoot with a food stylist.  While he conceded that food stylists are expensive to hire, he also suggested that for a professional shoot (restaurant menus or editorial food spreads for magazines) they’re worth their value.  As a second choice (especially for those of us shooting for fun rather than with a budget…) he recommended starting out with the chef.  A good chef not only prepares the food well, but also presents it well (amongst all the other things good chefs do!).

Now light it up!

Neil discussed three types of light:

  • Studio lights (in class he had a softbox with a  grid to diffuse the light evenly across the subject)
  • Natural light
  • Flash (off the camera ideally, but if on the camera, then bounced off a reflective surface)

Next, he discussed the direction of the light.  He suggested that the worst (least flattering) lighting is straight on – it exposes every flaw, and although with a model with PERFECT skin it can create an attractive glow, on everyone else it just shows every bump and line.

(As an aside, get an idea of this from watching this video, Sparkles & Wine from Opale)

Further, he went on to say that if working with natural light, that sometimes the photographer will need to move him/herself along with the subject (that tasty plate of food!) to get the best light possible.

He also discussed the five zones of light:

  1. Secular highlight (nice in small amounts, darker skin can look better with more than lighter skin)
  2. Main light with the best exposed area
  3. Darkest area with the shadow to create depth
  4. Transition from highlight to main light
  5. Transition from main light to shadow – A broader light creates softer transitions

Truth in advertising

One of the asides we discussed was ‘truth in advertising’ – that if the photo will be used to sell something, then that ‘something’ has to be actually in the photo.  For instance, if the photo will be used to sell ice cream – then the ice cream must be real ice cream (and not mashed potatoes which are sometimes used in place of ice cream since they don’t melt!).  However, garnishes or items that aren’t the main subject for sale can be fake.  The instructor talked about fake ice cubes, splashes of acrylic to mimic splashes of liquid frozen in time, brushed on oil to bring back ‘juiciness’ from dried out food, and other tricks.

You won’t want to eat it when I’m done with it!

When plating the food (or, when the chef/stylist is plating the food!) Neil was quick to remind us that the food we’ll use to shoot with, isn’t the food we’ll be nibbling on later.  Starting off with the perfect example (a flawless apple, the greenest leaves of lettuce, the most perfectly-shaped bun) will mean less time with Photoshop and more time with the camera, but a lot of food is ‘ruined’ in the styling, and the food used for shooting might not even be good to eat to begin with.


Neil illustrated that meat is often photographed undercooked – which keeps the pink appearance and the juiciness that looks appetizing in a photograph, but isn’t always safe to eat.  Sometimes meat is ‘styled’ with a torch, and not even cooked at all.

He illustrated this point with a story about a turkey – cooked in the oven just long enough to brown the exterior, then one slice carved, and the exposed meat ‘cooked’ with a torch just enough to take out the tell-tale raw pink colour.  The rest of the turkey was indelibly raw.


Although real wine would be easy enough to shoot, he suggested that in a pinch apple juice diluted with a bit of water would stand in well.  Why bother? Perhaps the wine is just for the background, or opening up a bottle of wine at 10:00 a.m. is just a bad idea in some circumstances 😉

Plating that food

Our instructor recommended that the plainer the plate the better.  Unless shooting down-home, country-style fried chicken, that pretty flowered plate is best left in the cupboard, and instead he shoots plates that are similar in style to what is currently used in restaurants. The in-class example was a modern square white plate.

He also suggested watching a reality TV show “Restaurant Makeover” for inspiration for plating. (I’m not sure if it’s still on the air though…)


Time to shoot!

While I had hoped that we would all get a chance to shoot (as apparently did the majority of the class, as nearly everyone I saw had brought their camera) instead Neil set up his subject and then shared a number of shots with us (via his iPad and a digital display screen) so we could see the differences between all of the subtle changes.

For the following examples, he said he was shooting with F9, 100 ISO, using a 300 watt softbox at about half power, no flash, overhead fluorescent lights.

Cafeteria shot

The "cafeteria" shot

The “cafeteria” shot

For the first shot, he stood above the food and just took the shot with the soft box to the side of the food. He joked that this looked ok, but looked like a food shot from a cafeteria.

Just a note – all of the actual food photos are iPhone photos of the tv screen where the photos were displayed. Sorry for the low-quality, but like I said, we didn’t actually have the chance to shoot ourselves.

Second shot

Getting down to eye-level with the food (well, if the food had eyes!)

Getting down to eye-level with the food (well, if the food had eyes!)

For the second shot, he changed his perspective and lowered himself to be more at ‘eye level’ with the food.

Third shot

For the third photo, he moved the softbox to the side-back.  I asked about alternatives if he didn’t have the softbox (I don’t) such as an off-camera flash and a reflector which he agreed was a good solution, which he ended up shooting later.

With this third shot, the background was darker, and the wine bottle and glass was brighter and more sparkling.

Forth shot

For the fourth shot he changed to F10, and with the gain of the depth of field, he also thought that the foreground was getting a bit dark.


Fifth shot

For the next photo he turned the overhead lights off to line up a shaving mirror to bring light back into the foreground.

Sixth shot

Next, he had an off-camera flash, which a classmate held below the level of the table the food was on and behind the subject.  The addition of light made the wine sparkle more, and brought the background back more in focus.

Next, he changed things up a bit, and bumped the softbox up to full power.  He took out his light meter, and changed his ISO to 200, and F22.

Next, he turned off the softbox, and set up a reflector to the side, and used the on-camera flash, pivoted to the side to bounce off the reflector.  He changed his settings to ISO 400 with a shallow Depth of Field with a F4.

The first photo was pretty basic, but pretty good with this set up.

Next he used an off-camera flash, and shot the flash through the reflector/diffuser.

For the next photos he focused only on the bottle and glass of wine, and F4 setting. (He didn’t share his ISO/etc with us.  No softbox, just the overhead fluorescents.

Using just the on-camera flash, the result was harsh, with a lot of glare coming off the glass.  The wine bottle label was ‘blown out’, and fingerprints were visible. (He recommended cotton gloves for handling glass to avoid this…)


He added an umbrella for the next photo, using a stand adapter to add it to the stand the softbox had been on.  The umbrella was set up to the side-back, and he added an off-camera flash flashing into the umbrella.  With the same F4 setting, the wine began to “sparkle” with this shot, but the foreground (and the wine bottle label was dark.

For the next shot he added in a white reflector in front of the subject, which brought back the light to the foreground (and the wine bottle label).  He commented that backlighting ads ‘life” to liquids.

For the final photo he moved the subject further back on the table to make the change between the horizontal table and the multiple colours in the background less distracting.



While the class didn’t really have ‘homework’ per say, Neil did recommend we try the following ‘experiment’:

Set your camera to Aperture Priority, and Auto ISO

  1. Start at low f-stop with a bright window or camera flash, go all the way up, with the f-stops
  2. Repeat, moving further away from the subject.
  3. Line up three subjects, and get one, two, and then all three in focus.

Some suggested tools

While Neil was clear that good photography could be done on any budget, he also had some cool tools that I thought I’d note.

  • Eye-fi card on his camera, which sent images directly to his iPad which was running a program called Shutter Snitch. (An SD card, not a Compact Flash card, though an adapter was available). He noted that the image sent was a JPEG, but his camera was still saving a RAW file.
  • Lightroom software by Adobe – described as cheaper than Photoshop while still doing about 80% of what it does. Anecdotally he said that the three-day post-photo process from a wedding was reduced to three hours with Lightroom, however said that there are no recordable macros for the software (which I used a lot in Photoshop) but instead a lot of pre-recorded macros.
  • Light meter
  • Off-camera flash.  He suggested either the “pocket wizard” or the “cactus” models which run $190-200.  There are more expensive versions available as well (which is what he used).  All of them are fully digital, unlike my old optical slave flash.  He suggested checking out forums for tips and ideas. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be a valid domain (maybe I wrote it down wrong) but perhaps he meant the strobe forum on the photography-tips website?
  • oh.. and as a personal aside, since I’m looking for a new auto focus 55-300mm lens for my Nikon, I stopped by the camera store in Inglewood during my post-class walk and they’re selling it for $349.  I’ll take a look around at a few other places to see if I can get a better price somewhere else… (P.S. It looks like The Camera Store and Seneal Camera have the same price, while London Drugs is $429! Oddly enough I didn’t see it on the Vistek site when I looked. )

Posted by on January 12, 2014 in Uncategorized


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2 responses to “Food photography class

  1. Christopher Johnston

    August 8, 2014 at 7:14 am

    They are “specular highlights” not “secular highlights” LOL. He also probably meant for tips on off-camera flash.

    • Dawn

      August 22, 2014 at 7:21 pm

      LOL thanks for catching my typo!
      Thanks for the URL as well – no wonder I couldn’t find it – I was taking notes so quickly during class. (Sometimes getting notes is a good thing!)


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