Thyme Exposure: A Holiday How-to Special
Ever look at a picture of plated food in a magazine and just want to eat the page? It's the texture and the light that triggers your appetite.
Kana Okada's signature style uses backlighting to create depth, and that gradation from brightness at the top of the frame to darkness at the bottom gives the photo so much beautiful atmosphere. Showing the edge of the table at the front further emphasizes the depth, and has the added benefit of making viewers feel as if they were sitting at the table. The diffused light from behind makes lovely soft highlights on the food.
To add even more contrast and depth to the photo (above right), Okada set up a black card to the right of the plate to hold some of the light back from bouncing on to the food from the side, thus deepening the shadows and adding even more depth and contrast. Use the same little auxiliary table and props that you set up for your tabletop picture, but this time, position your camera so it faces the light. (You can see the full setup above left.)
For our plated-meal shot, we used a 60mm macro lens, which on the D90 is equivalent to about 90mm. We placed the camera on a tripod at a high 45-degree angle from the plate. To get the focus to fall off at the back edge of the plate, we chose f/8. The shutter speed? 1/10 sec at ISO 400.
When you plate the food, arrange it carefully but don't try to go overly elegant with your presentation. A little messiness makes the meal look more natural and much more appetizing. As with the tabletop shot, keep your setup uncluttered. One or two glasses, a napkin, and a fork on the plate are more than enough to make your photo complete without distracting from the most important subject -- the food.
The best part: When you're finished with the shoot, you can eat your model.
7 TIPS FOR THE PERFECT TABLE
1. SEEK THE LIGHT. Before you begin to set up your photo, choose the angle of the light. Unidirectional light is simple and will make your food look great. Choose sidelight when you want to emphasize texture and shoot from above. Go for backlighting when you're shooting your plated food to create lots of drama and atmosphere.
2. DIFFUSE IT. You want the light to fall softly on the food, not create a lot of harsh contrast and shadows. Whether you're using direct sun-light, a studio strobe, or an accessory flash, you must keep the glare off your subject. To diffuse sunlight, you can put diffusion paper over the window (we used Roscolux Diffusion Paper) or just soften it with a sheer curtain.
3. SET UP UHEAD OF TIME. Nothing ruins a picture -- or dinner -- faster than cold, congealing food. To avoid this, plan ahead. Arrange your composition and check your light long before you bring in the meal. Consider filling your dishes with stand-in food so you can get a sense of the shot before the star of the show arrives.
4. CUT BACK ON THE MEAT. Kana Okada isn't a vegetarian, but she's not crazy about the texture of meat. It's brown, it's oily, and it's one of the hardest things to shoot. The trick to great photos of meat? Distraction. Garnish your main dish with beautiful, colorful food. But don't let it get too dark. That big turkey casts a shadow, and you don't want to add to it by surrounding it with something even darker, such as purple grapes. The same principle goes double for red meat like roast beef.
5. USE WHITE PLATES. To make your food pop, leave the brightly colored plates in the cabinet and stick with simple white. A border is nice for color, but choose something neutral to set off the main course.
6. KEEP THE SETUP SIMPLE. A crowded table may look festive when you're ready to sit down to eat, but it will make your photo look messy and the food seem like an afterthought. Choose one or two decorative elements to set off your dish, not distract from it.
7. BRACKET YOUR SHOTS. If you want to eat your food while it's still hot, cover your bases by shooting frames at slightly different exposures. Most DSLRs have settings that will bracket for you automatically, so that each shot in a burst, for example, will cover a range of exposures in 1/2- or 1/3-EV increments. Prefer to handle it manually? Change your exposure by shifting your shutter speed a few stops above and below the meter's reading. If you have time, shoot a few with different f-stops, as well. This way, you give yourself the option to choose your favorite depth of field after the fact.