Food Photography class with Penny De Los Santos

January 11, 2010

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.

Food Photography Class

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.

Food Photography Class

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

You Might Also Like

  • noelle {simmer down!} January 11, 2010 at 3:38 am

    Thanks for sharing this, Matt. I just got a tripod but it’s really for last-resort type situations since in my flat, moving to a location with “better light” sometimes just isn’t an option. I have the same frustration with the prep shots too- my kitchen is tiny and not too bright. Sometimes I’ll arrange some items on a cutting board and bring them into another room, but it’s hard to be doing that all the time since it interrupts the flow of my cooking. Always good to get more tips though, especially about the lenses.

  • Peter G January 11, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    What a great post Matt and what a wonderful opportunity to have this experience. It’s very interesting to read about her approach to a food shot. I’ll be def trying some of those out!

  • kitchenbeard January 11, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    Another trick I learned is to use salad plates to present main courses. Sometimes a 12″ plate will overwhelm my food, but an 8″ plate lets it really pop out.

  • Carrie @ Deliciously Organic January 11, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    Great tips. Thanks for sharing. I’m amazed at photographers who can shoot food without a tripod, I only wish my hand was that steady!

  • Gloria Hass January 11, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    Great article and pictures!

  • SinoSoul January 11, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    lolz. DITCH THE TRIPOD. What a concept! And I totally agree! If you need a tripod, it’s too damn dark. Wowza. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Not to mention, really, you can’t go into Alinea with a freakin’ tripod, and restaurants is where I take 90% of my photos.

  • Sortachef January 12, 2010 at 12:55 am

    Thanks, Matt. I’ve been using some of these techniques – some on purpose, and some definitely by accident – and this fills in some gaps. I’m going to have a hard time putting down the tripod, though.
    Cheers and keep up the great work!

  • Neel | Learn Food Photography January 12, 2010 at 3:18 am

    Thank you for putting together this. This helps us a lot. Also have included you in the list of all other posts related to Penny De Los Santos .

    Its here:

    This post has articles from:
    • Twitter
    • Flickr
    • 6 other blogs – including your blog.

    Thank you for sharing

  • zenchef January 12, 2010 at 3:23 am

    What an enlightening post! Thanks for sharing those insights from such an icon, Matt. I would be petrified to show my photography to someone like that.
    I really wish i could shoot more in natural light. Not easy since i often shoot in badly lit kitchens. Not easy!

  • Michelle January 12, 2010 at 4:22 am

    How did I just now find your site?!
    I know what I’ll be reading tomorrow with my morning cup of coffee. And every morning. Until I’ve completed the archives.

    Beautiful. really beautiful.

  • Tim Limon January 12, 2010 at 4:48 am

    Great tips! I’ve also heard from other photographers who use small desk-style make-up mirrors. (You know the ones with a flat mirror on one side and a magnified mirror on the other.) These can be pointed to add specular highlights to the food to add interest. Great post, I’m getting hungry!

  • Helen January 12, 2010 at 5:23 am

    Wonderful recap Matt! Thanks for taking the time to write it all up.

  • my spatula January 12, 2010 at 5:37 am

    excellent post. thanks so much for sharing the evening and insights with us here.

  • Divina January 12, 2010 at 5:39 am

    Great food photography tips. I would like to attend one but I realized I need some basic photography lessons first. But what could be the equivalent of 24-100mm F4 L series canon lens for Nikon?

  • Kathryn January 12, 2010 at 7:33 am

    Very interesting indeed. Always love hearing the tripod vs. hand held opinions. It’s all win win in the end. Thanks for sharing all that great info Matt!

  • matt January 12, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    Thanks for all the comments! To answer a few questions:

    Noelle: I know where you are coming from, I don’t have time really to take prep shots as I am cooking. Often if there is a bunch of prep shots on this blog, Danika has taken them for me as I cook!

    KitchenBeard: I tend to plate my food on large plates, just to give some white space.

    SinoSoul: I agree, and disagree. Sometimes I like to really compose a shot, and for that I use my tripod, and often will teather the camera to my laptop

    Zen: Whatever you do, keep doing it. Your photographs are bloody awesome.

    Tim: Yes, those mirrors are really invaluable sometimes

    Divina: I don’t know the Nikon lens series at all – but from looking at their site – they have a 24-85mm f2.8 that would be a great choice if you are looking at shooting with a zoom.

  • Rebecca January 13, 2010 at 2:22 am

    Matt, what a great and informative post! Sounds like a wonderful workshop, thatnks for sharing. Congrats also on your radio interview!

  • Melody Fury January 13, 2010 at 2:39 am

    Another impressive write-up, Matt! thanks for sharing the pointers with those that couldn’t attend! Lighting is my biggest issue, considering that I’m in a loft with 2 small windows on one end of the suite but I’ll keep working at it 🙂

  • zoom yummy January 15, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    I love your site! It is gorgeous! You are very, very talented and your heart shines through your work. Thank you for such a wonderful blog. I learn so much from you…

  • laura January 20, 2010 at 2:32 am

    I just read your linked post on food photography and it is the most helpful information I have found yet for a beginning food photographer. Thank you so much.

  • white On Rice Couple January 21, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    Wonderful re-cap and thank you for sharing all this great info! It’s definitely enlightening to understand another photographers approach to a shot. That’s how we learn and become better— to be exposed to different techniques, opinions and experiences. Keep up the great work!

  • Tokyo Terrace January 23, 2010 at 12:01 am

    Great post- I agree with the bit about the tripod vs hand held shots. I have tried using a tripod, but in most cases the light isn’t good anyway and the photos are just not great. My favorite shots always come from great natural light (unfortunately not always available) and hand held shooting. Also, this reminds me how great it is to photograph food that messed with a bit…I often times just take a photo of the food looking all pretty and untouched, but how will anyone believe how good it is unless I dig in and photograph the evidence?! 🙂

  • Nikki Stoyko January 23, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    Those are all fantastic tips! I am such a fan of naturally light, and I think that is the reason why I post so little on my own blog, I cook in the evening after I get home from University and here in St. Albert, Alberta, cooking anytime after three during the winter months yields the absolute worst lighting (if there is any at all!) I have told my friend so many times that one of the best pieces of equipment I ever purchased was a $5 piece of white foam board, great for reflecting and sometimes even a backdrop…. you can’t beat $5 equipment! Thanks for sharing the knowledge! Happy cooking!

  • Mercedes January 29, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    Thank you so mucho for the review. I would really loooove to go to some of Penny’s Workshops but I live a little bit far away: in Argetina. That’s why your summery is so helpful.


  • Caroline February 2, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    I actually prefer Canon’s 24-70 F2.8 L for shooting food. Lower F stop = more blur.

  • Karen Robertson February 3, 2010 at 12:42 am

    Thank you–oh how I wish I could have been there!

  • Chris Wright February 7, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Ditching the tripod is easier with the 24-105 F4L lens – (its 105 by the way bro, not 100) – as this lens has an excellent IS system. Shooting handheld with a non-IS lens will be tricker unless you are in good light.

  • Andrea @ Fork Fingers Chopsticks February 8, 2010 at 6:11 am

    So glad to have found your site this weekend. Thank you for sharing these photography tips. Love your photographs.

  • LoveFeast Table February 11, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    Thank you so much for posting this!! We are a newer blog and have learned so much this past year and are beginning to gobble up any info on getting great shots! We both just upgraded our cameras and are trying to learn how to use our new tools!
    Kristin and Chris Ann

  • Stephanie - Wasabimon February 13, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    Ha, thanks to Chris for pointing out that the lens is a 24-105. I’v spent the past ten minutes trying to figure out how this mystery lens popped up that I didn’t know about. 😉

    Question – a lot of these shots here look like they were photographed in low light conditions. Clearly you were shooting wide open, but how did you get these without any blur if they were handheld? What was your shutter speed?

  • mattwright February 13, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    Steph: I shoot most stuff with a tripod – and yes, relatively low light –
    winter in Seattle you know…

    For hand held I have no choice in the winter but to up the ISO and
    drop the F-Stop (wide open). I happen to like what wide open does for
    food shots anyway – softens the light a bit.

    Thankfully I have a camera that operates pretty well at high ISO,
    which is a good thing.

    Some other suggestions for handheld shooting at relatively low shutter

    1) Take three shots in quick succession (really just hold the trigger
    down..). You will generally have more shake on the first one, and the
    second two should be pretty clean.
    2) Shoot on manual, and deliberately underexpose 1 stop – if you shoot
    RAW you can crank it back up in lightroom/CaptureOne/Photoshop. The
    shot will not be as nice as one shot correctly exposed at the time of
    shooting, however it will have less shake and will be useable.
    3) Slow down your breathing, and breathe out when you press the trigger.

  • liz @ zested February 27, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    Great write-up, thanks Matt. While I love that lens (and its wider 2.8 little sister), I’m curious if there was any discussion about the use of macro lenses? Even at full zoom, there’s a limit to how up close and personal you can get with the food, and you mention she doesn’t crop. Also, I’m amazed (and jealous) yet again that this many people have enough natural light to shoot without any lighting. Clearly I need to move somewhere warmer!

  • Mandy March 6, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    That sounds great, now how do we get Penny to come to England?

  • barbara April 9, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    This is really helpful.Thank you.