Food Photography How-to: Before you take a bite, take a picture!

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.


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.

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.

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.