On one rather cold and sunny morning in December I walked into one of Seattle’s best restaurants carrying my camera bag, tripod and laptop. Walking through the door the first thing that struck me was just how darn packed the place was. Packed with food bloggers and photographers.
We were all there for one thing – the same thing. A food photography class from Penny De Los Santos.
To call Penny a food photographer is like calling the Pope a churchgoer. She has shot for National Geographic, Saveur magazine, Time magazine, Newsweek, and most likely a whole heck of a lot more. Her portfolio covers food, travel, landscapes – and now she is teaching a food photography workshop right here in lovely little Seattle.
The emphasis here was workshop. This wasn’t going to be a dry lecture (quite honestly I don’t think someone with as much character as Penny could ever do dry), this was going to be a hands honest, up front (honest critique) workshop for new and seasoned food photographers alike. Count me in.
Lectures are good. Workshops with critique are better. I have spent a lot of my professional life both giving and receiving art critiques of various mediums and have really come to know one thing – you learn more from your mistakes and an honest critique than you ever will from your successes. Still, taking photos in this environment and having Penny talk about them was still pretty daunting.
The class started with a short talk from Penny, where she discussed her approach to food photography, how she does what she does, he tips for better photography, along with a talk through of setups she used for various photographs. Later the class was broken down into three distinct tasks – the first was to shoot some of the lovely food prepared by Spring Hill with attention to camera angle, depth of field and so on. The second task was to shoot some more of the Spring Hill nosh with attention to lighting. The third and final task was to shoot with an approach to editing a plate – that is removing food that might make the plate too busy, along with finally cracking into the plate of food, and getting some “eaten” shots.
Oh, and we got to eat all the food. Heck yeah.
The class ran long, and I was only able to stay for the first two tasks. I divided my time between shooting the food (4 plates between what must have been 30 people made it a waiting and elbow shoving game!) and shooting the great chefs and cooks preparing the dishes.
What I really want to share here is Penny’s approach to food photography, which has some striking differences to mine. This in my mind is why workshops like these are so darn important. Everyone has their own method – a certain setup and production style that works for them. You ask any 5 food photographers their approach, and they are all going to be different, yet they all shoot fantastic shots. In my mind these classes and discussions help you push outside your comfort zone, and start trying new and different techniques that you might well have never considered (and at worst completely discounted as “never being able to work”) and thus broaden your range.
Myself I like to use a fixed focal length lens (called a “prime”), a tripod, and I often shoot wider than I want and crop and image down (especially for my blog, where resolution isn’t so important). Penny is almost the opposite to this. So without further ado, here are some great tips and advice from Penny:
- Shoot in natural light. The food will generally look a lot more natural, unless you know a lot about lighting setup (and have the equipment). She shoots all her work in natural light, most of it on location at restaurants and so on.
- Understand light, and how to modify it. Practice with bounce cards, reflectors, and scrims. I have written about all these in a previous post about food photography here. This is critically important, especially if dealing with strong daylight outside. Thankfully the equipment to do this is very cheap, and most can be bought at an art supply store for less than $10
- She shoots with a zoom lens. This really goes against my style here. Penny uses one zoom lens for almost all of her photography (a very good zoom lens I should point out). Her approach for this is really that she does a lot of travel work, and cannot be humping around a bloody great camera bag full of lenses everywhere. Her lens of choice is a 24-100mm F4 L series canon lens. This is certainly a very nice lens, and is actually the one I shot my Seabreeze farms photos with. This to me is perhaps the best ever travel lens – especially for food photography. My personal preference however is for a lower F stop, so I can get a shorter focus range (more blur), this typically means going for a fixed focal length lens. Penny of course has yielded some fantastic shots from this lens, and has honestly made me think about using it for food photography more.
- Ditch the Tripod. Her approach is that if the light isn’t good enough to shoot handheld, then you need to move to a better lit location. She also likes how dynamic she can be shooting handheld. I totally agree with these statements – if you are in terrible light, find a better place. Shooting handheld is absolutely more dynamic. I typically shoot on a tripod for most of my stuff, because frankly I don’t have that steady a hand. I always finish up a shoot taking about 50 quick shots handheld. More often than not, one of those is the one I like the most.
- Edit the plate. Analyze the food plating, and edit it as need be. This is incredibly important. Remove food from a plate if it looks too cluttered. Spread food between a couple of plates – main focus on one plate, and the sides/salad etc on other plates slightly out of focus in the background. Most of the food shots on my blog aren’t the final thing I will eat. Whilst I might be skinny, I eat a ton – a lot more than I plate for a shot on this blog normally. It is much easier to do some great styling with a small amount of food on a plate than it is to go with Denny’s sized portions.
- Shoot shots of dish preparation. As you cook, take shots of some of the raw ingredients, food in pans and so on. This in my mind is harder to do in practice, especially if your kitchen has crappy light. Certainly something I am going to work on more.
- Take shots of half eaten plates. Edit the food. Once you have your money shot, break into the food with a fork, mess it up, eat a bit. Take shots of the half eaten plate – these can be dynamic, exciting, and all round irresistible.
So there you have it folks, some great photography tips from a true master.
Just time to say a big thanks to Seattle Bon Vivant for setting up the class, Spring Hill Restaurant for hosting it, and cooking the food for it, and of course Penny De Los Santos for giving the fantastic workshop.
Other posts on food photography setup:
Food Photography Setup Post One – learn about lenses, bounces, lighting, scrims, composition
Food Photography Setup Post Two – learn about post production work in photoshop, lightroom. Understanding a histrogram. Image brightness
Compact Camera Food Photography – hints and tips on how to use a compact camera for food photography