Monday, April 1

Penny De Los Santos on What Makes a Great Food Photograph

Food and travel photographer Penny De Los Santos blogs for us about her sources of inspiration, her travels, and her favorite bites and sips along the way. You can follow Penny on Twitter at @pennydelosantos. 

I was editing a serious of images from a shoot I did in Minnesota, and I came across the frames in this post. It got me thinking about color and composition, about the elements of what really makes a great food photograph.
Photos by Penny De Los Santos. Click to enlarge.
For me, it’s several elements:

First and foremost, start with appetizing food or food that is interesting. This can be tricky. Case in point: the images I’m showing in this post. But here is the take-away: The food should make you hungry. Remember that you want people's mouths to water. If your mouth doesn't water when looking at the food, no one else's will, either.

Composition: There are some general rules to great composition, but for the most part this is something that is learned over time. It starts by studying really good photographs and breaking down every element in them to understand why they are so successful. You basically continue to do that throughout your career so that you stay engaged and inspired and always working toward improvement.

Light: This will make an average photograph great. Always look for nice light. Whether it’s bright from a window or streaming through a doorway, find it at every location and center your photographs around it.
Color: Look for interesting color in food. The mood and content of the image can make the photograph even more interesting. In the photograph above, the colors are muted and monochromatic, but that palette gives the food context and place, making the photograph more interesting. In the photograph below, it's the opposite: The food is brighter, with more contrast and color. It tells a slightly different story, evoking a different mood completely. 

A few additional notes that will elevate your photos even more:
*Arrive early and stay late. My best photographs happen before anyone ever shows up—or long after they’ve left. The best stuff happens when no one thinks you’re looking.
*Think about how to tell the story of a food. I know this sounds crazy; you're thinking, “it’s just hummus on a plate…booooring…” But trust me, you can create mood, movement, and tension in a food photograph. It starts by adding drips, crumbs, torn bread, messy spoons, interesting light—get the idea?

Note: Still wanting more advice? Here are some tips I offered on National Geographic.