Thyme Exposure: A Holiday How-to Special
From Thanksgiving to New Year's Day, the holiday season is all about the food. And though your family and friends (and maybe you) work really hard to create those feasts, their beauty is short-lived. So why not capture a special meal in all its glory -- before everyone chows down?
Getting pictures that look good enough to eat doesn't require trickery or a fake, lacquered turkey. In fact, these days, the pictures you see in top culinary magazines are photographs of real food, expertly captured. With the right lens, the right angle, and the right light, your meals can look as good as they taste.
To prove that beautiful pictures of a meal can be taken with an ordinary camera and nothing but natural light and a reflector or two, we invited professional food photographer Kana Okada over for dinner to show us how she makes her magic. The catch: She had to use a Nikon D90 instead of her usual medium-format digital or large-format film cameras.
She brought along prop stylist Denise Canter to give us tips on how to arrange the table beautifully. Then we cooked a classic holiday feast, and started shooting.
THE OVERHEAD SHOT
Nothing says holiday like a table laden with a beautiful meal. You can't tell from the fantastic overhead angle of our opening photo, but we didn't shoot it at a big banquet table. We shot it on a card table placed near a window that gave us great light.
Indeed, before you prepare to shoot your tabletop, consider its location. If you have a room in your house with a lot of sunlight -- even if it's not the dining room or wherever you plan to serve your meal -- consider setting up a miniature version of the table there just for this photograph.
If your food won't be ready till it's already dark out, use studio lights or flashes instead, and place them at the same angle that Okada recommends for the window light.
Making your own mini-studio just to shoot the food will give you lots of flexibility. More important, perhaps, it won't annoy the chef, who is more than likely under a time crunch and wants to have the dining room table set perfectly for the guests. The trick here is to get your faux tabletop arranged ahead of time so the food can be brought in, captured, and then delivered to the real table while it's still hot.
For an overhead shot like the one on the previous spread, set your table so that the window light hits the food from the side. Sidelight will show off the beautiful textures and details of all your dishes. Use a reflector on the opposite side to help fill in the shadows and make the overall effect slightly more even.
Then choose your table arrangement. Even if you're going bold for the real meal that's happening in your dining room (say, with a red tablecloth and green dishes), for your photo use place settings that will best show off the food. We picked a white tablecloth with a slight green design for a little bit of color and pattern. Your dishes matter, too: If you can find serving bowls and platters of different heights, all the better. Dishes that overlap slightly from above make the picture more interesting.
Consider your composition carefully -- and figure it out well before the food is ready. Bring a ladder up to the table, and choose a wide enough angle to capture it all. We shot at 35mm, which on the D90 is equivalent to about 52mm in full-frame terms. We went with an aperture of f/8 so we'd be sure to get all the food in sharp focus. Since we were holding the camera and balancing carefully on the ladder, we didn't want to have to worry about camera shake. So we dialed the ISO up to 400, affording a shutter speed of 1/50 sec.
Enlist the help of a willing guest or friend, and direct them, while you look through the lens, in arranging the tabletop in an appealing manner. Be careful to keep plenty of negative space in the composition -- remember, it's the food you want to highlight, not the elaborateness of your still-life. Consider adding a distilled version of your real holiday centerpiece. In this case, a few glass Christmas ornaments were enough to add sparkle without much clutter.
Check your histogram to get the exposure right, then bring in the food. If you've done your work ahead of time, you'll get the shot before the food has even begun to cool, ensuring not just a beautiful picture, but a beautiful meal and a happy chef, as well.