When you start to truly master all the photographic techniques and you’ve found a style you like, you might start to rest on your laurels and let a certain routine start to set in. I know about this better than anyone.
And then one day, you’re sick of the work you’re doing and want to push forward with your efforts to try out some more creative shots.
It isn’t easy to be innovative and grow even if you’re trying to break out of your box.
With these 10 tips, I want to give you some ideas and some inspiration so you can vary the types of shots you take.
1- Change your lens
If you can, try out some other lenses. I started out by shooting only with a 35mm, but then I changed to a 50mm. Today, that’s what I use, along with a 100mm macro lens. I sometimes still turn to my wide angle, but only for specific types of shots.
Each lens takes a specific style of pictures.
The 35mm achieves a sensation of grandeur and space. Individual elements seem to have greater distance between them.
The 50mm will correspond a bit better to human vision.
As the 100mm lens crushes perspective, the space between the various elements in the scene will be reduced. The use of a macro lens also lets you get really close to your subject.
People usually say you need an 80mm to 100mm lens for culinary photography. I’m not quite in total agreement with this. It’s really sad to limit oneself to these focal lengths because a “wider angle” focal distance will bring you a more original view that won’t be the same old thing you usually see.
With a wide-angle lens, you can easily take shots from above and cover the entirety of your scene. But beware of distortions! The 50mm lens will let you take a picture without too much distortion while you maintain well-balanced proportions that are closer to reality.
As for the 100mm macro lens, it lets me get up close to my subject and really plunge the viewer right into the dish.
Also, changing the lens lets me vary the scale of the shot I take: from wide view, tight frame, or close up. You’ll see your scenes differently in your camera’s viewer, so you’ll photograph differently. Then you can change up your style of shots.
2- Try taking shots from above
The most traditional culinary photo is at a 30° incline, lending a natural view to the scene, corresponding to what you would see when you’re setting the table.
But have you ever tried looking at your scene from above? At the very least, it’s a surprising view and it will open up a new dimension to your culinary photography.
The view from above will let you experiment with shapes and add a more graphic quality if that’s what you’re after. Get closer to focus on a specific part of the scene or move away for a view of the whole scene.
To make it easier to take this kind of shot, you could lay your scene out directly on the floor. That way, it will be easier to take the picture from above while you straddle the scene.
Otherwise, you can climb on a chair or use a tripod so you can place the camera at 90° from the ground.
But be careful and put your camera parallel to the ground, otherwise the photo will seem unsteady.
On the left, you see a picture taken from above, without tripod, with my arm raised. You just have to stand on a chair and put the camera above the scene. To achieve this shot, put your camera in Live View and then set manual focus. Start shooting! You will undoubtedly need to take several shots to get the desired result.
3- Put yourself in the shot
Putting yourself right into the scene in your picture is the best way to add a little life to your culinary photography. You don’t have to put your whole body in. You can still be anonymous! Just put your hands into the scene, or take a picture of a mouth eating or taking a drink. For this type of scene, you need to have a tripod or ask someone to help you. But I’ll address this topic in greater detail in a few days.
Here are some examples of this composition. Often I put my hands into my photos. When you’re on your own, that’s the easiest thing to do. Don’t you think this technique adds more life right away?
The last image is a self-portrait. I had to take lots of shots before I got the clear shot I needed with the right frame.
4- Head outdoors
Instead of always photographing inside, try to take some pictures in your garden to create a picnic effect, or you can even hit the road and take pictures in a forest, a park, or in a meadow somewhere… Head off the beaten path to take advantage of your environment so you can take some really original shots.
5- Change up your style completely!
Are your shots washed out and plain? Why not try some shots that are totally raw and messy?
On the other hand, if you like busy scenes, add peels, spices, crumbs, cocoa and more… Do you like when your pictures are full of life? Well, try taking pictures that are the opposite of your own style and try out a very minimalist scene.
Do you like a neutral ambiance, without too much color? Why not try to add in some color?
The steps are easy to follow: put down on a paper the adjectives that describe your style, and then put down their opposites. It’s the easiest way to change everything all at once! It takes a certain amount of effort. When you’re wed to a specific style, it can be difficult to change it. But you’ll see. This can be very instructive. The initial results might not seem very promising, and you won’t necessarily be happy with them. But little by little, you’ll achieve great results with your compositions.
Feel free to take inspiration from images on the Internet. Pinterest is a great tool for that.
For a long time, I had a rather somber style dominated by neutral colors. Over time, I began to create scenes that were a lot more colorful.
6- Open things up
When you’re taking pictures of your dishes, what aperture do you need: f/6.3, f/7.1 or f/8? But have you ever tried out the larger apertures your lens can handle?
With these, you can get a beautiful blurring effect in the background that will immediately soften your image. Large apertures are also useful for honing in and directing the viewer’s eye to the main subject and keeping it from wandering over the other elements in the photo.
Don’t go with the lowest setting on your lens. Usually, it will be lacking in sharpness. After all, you need minimal clarity for a successful shot.
Try a lens aperture of 1.8 if you can, or if not try 2.2 or 2.5. I use these very often for the pictures I post on my blog (work done for clients is different). What I like with these settings and especially with the f/1.8 aperture is the vignetting you get on darker photos, creating a cocoon effect that I just love! I often go ahead and accentuate the effect somewhat in post-processing. I turn the drawback of my lens into a strength for my photos. Why not do the same?
These 2 photos were taken in f/1.8. In the photo on the left especially you can see the vignetting achieved by the aperture. Meanwhile in the photo on the right, the blurring of the background elements is very pronounced.
7- Choose something besides traditional plates
Maybe you’re bored with taking pictures of your recipes using regular and ordinary dishes. Why not experiment with some objects you find nearby?
For example, I found some candle holders I use as little containers for sauces or spices.
Tins are very nice containers for displaying your recipes. They come in different sizes and shapes. Save them, remove the labels, and maybe even shape them to create a unique style. Do the same with glass jars. They are great as glasses, jars, ramekins, etc.
Another neat idea to try: if you need to shell walnuts, or use pralines, or dried fruit for your dish, instead of putting a rolling pin into the scene, substitute that for a hammer you grabbed from your toolbox!
Round wood slabs are a great substitute for regular plates. You can make them yourself if you’re handy with tools, or you can find them online.
Finally, if you’re tired of taking pictures of regular dishes, you can also take the shot of the dish while it’s still in the pot, in the pan, or in the baking dish. This will mix things up and add some spirit to the scene.
Here’s an assortment of pictures to illustrate my ideas (the hammer, the jam jar, the wood plate, and the cookware)
8- Break your recipe down into its ingredients
I suggest that you take your compositions a little further. Try breaking your recipe down into its parts and photographing the ingredients. The idea here is to place in the scene both the ingredients that make up the dish as well as the final concoction you’ve made. It’s really neat to playfully lay out these ingredients in the form of a math formula. For example, write on a board or on paper the “+” signs between the ingredients and a “=” right before the end result, just like in the photo below. You can photograph this composition from above (which is undoubtedly the most appropriate angle) or facing it directly.
You can also lay the ingredients out in bulk in your scene, jotting them down, pointing to them with arrows, with the finished dish in the shot too, but not necessarily as the focal point of your picture.
The photo should be fun too! Whenever you’re working with a dish that lends itself to this type of photograph (meaning it doesn’t require too many ingredients), go ahead and give this type of composition a try.
Photographers often tend to do whatever they can to capture all the light they perceive. But some compositions are particularly well-suited to being under-exposed. That means you create an image that is darker than the real conditions.
This is a style that works with scenes that are already darker, with brown, midnight blue, or better still, black tones in the background.
Under exposure can give your picture a mysterious, intimate feel. The idea here is to shift the exposure cursor to the left. Not too much though, because you still want the viewer to be able to distinguish the various elements in the scene. To get this effect, you’ll need to play with the light by adjusting it in such a way that you’re creating reflections on the plate or on the dish. You can even go ahead and add elements to the scene that can reflect this light.
Post-processing will be the final step in achieving this under-exposure so you can darken shadowy zones and brighten up the lighter areas of the shot.
On the left, I made a balsamic caramel that I laid out in a very mysterious way. I really wanted to play with the light. This is the perfect recipe for that effect. You just have to put your light source in the background and position yourself so you can see the reflection on the caramel.
On the right, it’s a little different. What inspired this angle is the rich, warm character of the dish. I wanted to put the whipped cream most directly into the light and leave the rest of the scene in the shadows.
10- Make a bold cut
I’ll close this article with some tips on framing your shot. Instead of always showing your entire dish, try cutting your shot so that only half or just a part of your dish is actually visible.
The spontaneous move is to shoot the whole dish, so that the picture is purely descriptive, not artistic. But there’s no need to show the entire thing! On the contrary, don’t hesitate to be selective and create a more dynamic and original image. It won’t bother the viewer at all because he or she will easily imagine what isn’t shown.
Make sure you boldly frame your subject. Anything approximate will create the impression that the framing was done incorrectly.
Go for a bold cut. It will just make your photo more dynamic.
Under the pseudonym chefNini, Virginie has written a culinary blog by the same name since February, 2008. She shares her recipes, technical articles, purchasing guides and test products.
Since 2011, she has offered photography, styling, and culinary creativity services.
She has written a book on culinary photography published by Pearson, as well as a Cooking Almanac published by Editions 365.