Jeff Kauck has been photographing food for magazines, cookbooks and advertising clients for more than twenty years. He has a strong fine art background with classical training in watercolors, which has helped define his style. Here he shares some tips for getting the best possible food photos whether you're shooting with natural light, artificial light, or even Instagram.
What is the prep process like for the typical food shot?
It depends on which industry I’m shooting for: editorial (magazine and cookbooks) or the advertising industry.
If the shoot is for editorial, I’ll start out by going over a recipe with a chef, as well as reviewing the plates and silverware and anything else that might go into the set. The chef then cooks it, plates it, and hands you the food piping hot and you take the picture.
If the shoot is for advertising, it’s similar, but there are some differences. There will be a recipe and a layout ahead of time, just like with editorial, but you’ll do what they call a “stand in shot,” which is sort of a dry run. This allows you to fit things with a little more precision and get things exactly the way the client wants them. Then you move onto what is referred to as the “hero photo," with all of the refinements made.
Do you normally shoot with natural light or controlled light?
I almost always use natural light when shooting for editorial or cookbooks. The goal is to make the scene look like it's actually happening. In advertising, the food needs to look the same at the beginning of the day as it does at the end. Obviously dalylight doesn’t offer you that option, so you need strobes.
My inspiration for light is always nature. Studying painting was a great help for me because I studied watercolor and when using watercolor, there is no such thing a white paint, you have to leave the white paper. So you’re painting with the midtones up into the highlights and that’s the way I light.
What are some tips for maximizing natural light?
People tend to shoot using daylight from a window as it is. But you can still actually control the light by filling it in with a reflector or changing the distance from the source. By reducing the size of the window, you get to a smaller light source which gives you a lot more control of the shape of your light. You can also use cards to block the light from certain angles to shape the light.
When shooting with natural light, what times of day are you looking for?
If the shot is just atmospheric, I would prefer to shoot first light or last light. I prefer first light as I find the light to be a little cleaner. If I’m actually shooting food, it’s not so much the time of day, but more the direction of the window and north light is the best light. Typically from 2pm to 3pm you’ll have great northern hemisphere light, especially by me in the Chicago area.
How many lights do you normally shoot with when you are using strobes?
One, always. Nature is the best light source in the world, and you have only one sun, and one sky.
How do you make light from a strobe look natural?
If you are in your house with your shot set up, instead of aiming your strobe light at the food, aim it at the wall where the window is—doing this will result in a much softer light that is similar in quality to daylight.
You can also take the diffuser off of your flash so its bare-bulb, and just shoot it at the wall or into the corner of the room and just let the light mix. Let it do what it does and let it come back at you. It can be beautiful like daylight.