Arguably the best food photographers out there share their secrets
Other advanced photographic techniques include stitched panoramics of food. Their high-speed photography is made possible by both high-frame-rate video cameras such as Visual Research’s Phantom, as well as short-flash-duration studio strobes. Such layered foods as sandwiches are carefully photographed to simulate exploded diagrams, with each ingredient its own layer, shot from slightly different angles.
Nathan Myhrvold is the conceptual force and financial backer for both The Cooking Lab and Modernist Cuisine. Interested in both photography and cooking from his young teens, he was sidetracked professionally but never let go of his culinary passion in the intervening years: He was Microsoft’s chief technology officer and founder of Microsoft Research—a 14-year relationship—from which he took an extended sabbatical in order to acquire a cooking diploma from the well-known French culinary institute in Paris, La Varenne. Asked for suggestions he might offer novice food photographers, Myhrvold says: “Start by finding available-light situations that speak to you. Several pictures in the book, in fact, were taken at open-air farmers’ markets with very simple equipment. Shoot in open shade or filtered light, perhaps using a simple reflector or slight application of flash to open up shadows.”
What about gear? “A serious 1:1 macro lens is nice, but not essential,” he continues. “The most-used lens for this book was the Canon 24–105mm f/4L [which magnifies only to 1:4.3], because 1:1-type magnification can be too much. It puts your camera close enough to the subject that you’re often blocking your lights.”
As for skills, “develop the ability to compose and light ingredients so you accurately capture their shape, color, and texture,” he advises. Next, move on to small, off-camera shoe-mount flashes and then graduate to studio strobes. “The most important thing to learn about lighting food is not to shine your lights directly at your subjects. Instead, place your lighting so it reflects obliquely off the food’s surfaces.”
Best part of food photography? When you’re finished shooting, you can eat your subjects.
Shooting on Black: One of the studio setups shown in myhrvold’s book, this one is for subjects on black backgrounds. Photo: Chris Hoover/Modernist Cuisine LLC
“A yard or two of black velvet from a fabric store makes a fantastic black background that reflects almost no light,” says Myhrvold. “Just make sure you keep your light sources’ output from spilling onto it.”
For sexy reflections on a black foreground, use a sheet of black Plexiglas as shown here. For more mirror-like effects, Myhrvold recommends a sheet of glass whose reverse side you’ve spray-painted black.
“When shooting translucent food like this grapefruit, it’s fun to light it from behind,” says Myhrvold. “In microscopy, they call this ‘dark field shooting,’ and for translucent subjects, the light should be hard [no softbox or diffuser] and typically come from the back and at an angle. This technique is frequently used for glass subjects.”
D. Computer station
Myhrvold recommends shooting tethered to a nearby computer. “We love the immediacy of it. You can tweak your lighting in real time, and know when you’ve got the shot. The way you look through a viewfinder is fundamentally different than the way you see with a computer screen.” And in the end, there will be far fewer unpleasant surprises.