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Food’s food

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By Erick Lirios

Food’s food, right? Not when it’s for photography purposes. Here are certain things to consider when you do food photography.

It’s best to work closely with a chef. This we did with Chef Gilbert Domasian of Quezon City’s Luxent Hotel. Chefs are artists and part of the art is creating something pleasing to look at as well as eat. After all, if something doesn’t look appetizing, people may not give it any mind. That’s how it is. That’s why plating is very important in the culinary arts and as photographers, we have to look at how to appreciate a dish from a very visual standpoint. The chef took time out to make things look good and attractive to the eyes, and eventually to the palate, and it’s incumbent on us to make sure that is communicated. Eventually, the goal is to make people want to try that dish after they see it.

Chef Domasian complained that someone had taken photos of his food once and the images came out dark in the publication. There are at least three reasons why that happened: 1) The photographer wasn’t doing his/her job properly; 2) The publication had a faulty printing process resulting in a properly exposed photo ending up dark; and 3) The two previously mentioned possibilities happened at the same time. Especially in this day of Photoshop, exposure can at least be salvaged during post production.

  • Oven roasted sea bass, sweet cauliflower puree, and coriander-pumpkin sauce

  • Seafood sampler

  • Pan fried salmon, set overfresh asparagus,and herbed roasted potatoes

  • Dark and white chocolate mousse

  • Poached prawn and avocado salad served with lavosh bread

  • Grilled sirloin steak, parmesan creamed mashed potatoes, and marsala jus

  • Braised duck breast, savoy cabbage, and thyme scented mushrooms

    How does one approach food as a photographic subject? Always with a lot of respect and, as the art of painting goes, you can either go with a more Zen or Ikebana approach or the more western way of doing things. How’s that? Don’t take the terms too seriously. What we mean here is that the canvas or frame is left as simple as possible. We leave nothing else but the subject so that there are no distracting details in the background. This approach is necessary for many reasons. One is when your photo has to be published perhaps as a menu, a poster, a billboard, or as part of an article. You have to also consult with the layout artist to find out what the end result should be. It’s pretty darn hard to deal with a layout artist who says something like, “Basta shoot ka lang.” There’s a way to deal with that so read on.

    When shooting with a plain background, your main focus is making sure that, if necessary, the background can very easily be removed or dropped out by the layout artist. To do that, you need good contrast between your subject and what’s around and behind it. You can use a plain background like a big piece of cardboard. Notice we didn’t say a “white background.” The reason is because there are many plates that are white and to make things easy for the drop out process, it’s not good to have white on white. It can be done but it will take much longer and entail more effort.

    Another way, as mentioned, is the more western approach in painting and that is by having much of the background visible. This is excellent when you want a more environmental way of presenting things. Think of bright, sunny, restful mornings in a garden setting with time spent with your closest friends. It would be such a waste to omit the background in such a case.

    For our purposes, since we’re starting you with this, we want to keep things simple, focusing just on the food. Will you need light? Of course. The only real practical question is, “How much light?” If you don’t have studio lights, LED lights, or even flash units, fret not. Some of the best food photographers say “No” to such things. There’s a photographer in the U.S who shoots only with natural light. She insists on shooting only with available light (read: sunlight) and will use reflectors of various types to bounce light onto her subjects. Don’t reflectors also cost money? Yes and no. You have the choice of using simple household objects—tissue paper, bond paper, cardboard, the inside of a tetra pack, mirrors, foil, etc. That’s what she does. However, the main need we have here is for the main light source and that’s the sunlight coming from a window or around you.

    Feeling sorry for yourself for not having lights? The great John Chua started his career with no lights, traveling to and from shoots on a motorcycle. He just insisted on shooting at certain times to make sure there was ample light.

    Do you need to do it the way they did, using only natural light? No. It’s an artistic choice. Personally though, it would be good to know how to use natural light and artificial (studio) lights so you have the freedom to choose whichever approach. Plus, hey, this is the Philippines so you can’t really say when the weather will give you dark skies.

    Along with this issue of using studio lights or not is the issue of lens or camera. While using top-tier cameras and lenses may result in better images, nothing provides a better start for you than your entry-level camera with your kit lens. Yes, your kit lens. Far too many people diss the kit lens but it really is quite good. Besides, it’s there already. You don’t get really macro close-ups but for most food shots, you really do need a rather wide shot anyway since you need to include the plate and the rest of the plating details. Remember, the chef put it there so it’s best to have them there.

    Remember the point about dealing with “Basta shoot ka lang”? Here’s what you do: Shoot with a plain background then shoot with the loaded background. Also, shoot with natural light and then artificial light. It’s not as hard as you may think but it does take more time and a little more thought.

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