How to take the perfect food shot
A Singaporean hobby
With a keen eye for photography, Eleanor Tay's love for food and culture is palpable on her vibrant Instagram feed. From coffees to waffles, burritos to Japanese shabu shabu, scrolling through her account is a veritable feast for the eyes. Tay is a marketer by day at ReferralCandy/Candy Bar with a love for gadgets and automation, and also organises social foodie meetup group, Coffee & Cravings, in her spare time — a platform for strangers to get acquainted over a meal. We chat to Tay about the appeal of food photography, her editing process, and why anyone can take an impressive food photo these days.
What is it about food photography that appeals to you?
Making food look delicious and the ability to share something I love with others. I've always liked sharing good products and food with my friends. I also enjoy the challenge of photographing food within limitations (i.e. taking photos of the food at restaurants and cafes where lighting can't be controlled most of the time and you only have your surrounding objects to use as props). During my recent talk at Apple Orchard Road, I shared with attendees my tips for food photography, such as looking for good lighting, working with angles, catching the action, getting in close, creating depth with portrait mode, using grids for alignment and getting friends' help if necessary.
What are the three most important things when it comes to food photography?
1. Lighting is very important to ensure the food looks delicious. It helps to define the textures of your food too — whether it's liquid like sauce vs. something dry like bread; the reflections from light will help to bring out these features. Lighting also helps when using the portrait mode on iPhone to create more depth in a photo — the subject should be well lit so that it can stand out from the background.
2. Colour tone and ambience. You don't want your food appearing too yellow or blue due to the lighting conditions, and when shooting on location, it's hard to always have natural lighting. Adding some light to the object can help, but adjusting the colour tone in Adobe Lightroom CC can make a lot of difference in making the food look more fresh and appealing.
3. Angles and framing. Not all food dishes will look good from a flat-lay (top down) angle and not all will look good from a front on angle. You need to take a look at what's on the plate or table and consider which are the most important elements to highlight and frame that food item whilst also bearing in mind where to place other plates or props around it. Setting up your camera app with guidelines and the levelling tool will help too.
Which cuisine inspires you most?
I'm quite inspired by fine dining dishes as there's usually many elements on the plate to take into consideration for the shot. Fine dining dishes usually have a story behind the elements too. This makes the dish much more interesting and a challenge to bring out the different textures of all the ingredients used. Apart from that, Japanese cuisine is interesting to shoot as everything is very clean and structured, such as sushi and donburi bowls. The challenge would be to make these common dishes stand out and look appealing.
"I think anyone can take a good food photo as long as they understand the basics of lighting and working with angles to bring out the best features of the food item."
How does one make hawker food look appealing?
This depends on the food item itself. You could rearrange some of the ingredients to make sure they're featured in your shot. With noodles, you could twirl the noodles around your chopsticks or lift up some with chopsticks. This will allow viewers to see the texture of the noodles instead of having it hidden under the sauce or other ingredients. Lighting is very important with hawker food because some can just look like a brown mess — you can usually see more details and ingredients with natural lighting. Hawker food is a big challenge, so angling the dish to capture the key ingredients clearly or ensuring the table or background is clean and clear so that the focus is on the food helps.
How long does it take you to edit a food shot?
As apps are so advanced these days, I can edit a shot in minutes on-the-go. This is also because I have a clear understanding of the type of images I take and my style of editing. Some pictures that require more touch-ups (which I rarely will modify too much, as I like to present the true presentation of the food to viewers) would take 10 to 15 minutes, but is quite rare. I usually do my editing on my iPhone or iPad whilst getting from place to place or while lounging around at home.
If I want a really quick edit for Instagram Stories, I do that within iPhone's Camera App as it has great adjustment tools to control lighting and colour tone. Within iPhone's Camera app, there's also a feature to access the editing tools from apps like Adobe PS Express if you need a little more control over the editing. For photos that I need for Instagram, client work or print, I use Adobe Lightroom CC as there are additional tools like Selective Edit and Healing.
What would you like to see more of when it comes to food photography, especially on platforms like Instagram?
I'd like to see more behind the scenes action and even videos. I feel that videos can provide a more immersive experience. I've also started taking more videos of food using my iPhone, as the stability is good enough for social media posts.
Any tips for people wanting to master their food photography skills?
I think anyone can take a good food photo as long as they understand the basics of lighting and working with angles to bring out the best features of the food item. With a good understanding of lighting, angles and a little editing, iPhones are great for use. It also allows you to take more photos which you can easily review to build an understanding about food angles and composition. Taking more photos, and analysing what you like about photos that you see on social media will also help to shape your food photography.