We've all seen them. Or are them—those people who can't help but take pictures of what they're eating and/or drinking. Whether it's a plate of pasta glistening in an herby, buttery sauce or a cocktail exploding with color, sometimes it is
irresistible to snap and share.
"I have a profound respect for chefs and mixologists who put in hours of thought and recipe development to present me with a dish or drink at their establishment … that disappears in a matter of minutes," says Santa Fe's Liquid Muse mixologist Natalie Bovis. "I'm at the age now where I don't care what other diners think. … To not take photos of the food or drink, nowadays, is an insult to the chef or bartender, as far as I'm concerned."
That said, most people (raising my hand) don't really take the best food
photos. There's a definite art to it, and whether you are a chef, a blogger, a
bartender or just a foodie, there's always room for improvement.
Assuming I am not the only one who could use some help in this area, I asked for advice from one of the best visual storytellers I know, photographer Claire Barrett. Barrett travels the world capturing beautiful images for the likes of Chanel, Rolls Royce, Louis Vuitton, Dom Perignon; and also for Bovis, whose various books on mixology are graced by Barrett's images.
"By far, the most important element of food and drink photography is lighting," Barrett points out when asked about ground zero of culinary photography mistakes. "Dim tungsten lighting—the very kind found in restaurants and your dining room at dinner time—makes everything the same dull shade of yellow. The food might taste great, but nobody has the desire to eat it because it doesn't look good."
There's not a lot one can do to change restaurant lighting, but it turns out there are ways to work around it. Tip number one from Barrett's top three pieces of
advice for people like me has to do with this most important aspect.
"Nothing beats natural light. The best sources of natural light indoors are usually windows, and the closer you get to them, the more light you will have available to you." If it's night, or you're in a dark bar, Barrett suggests "maybe borrow your friend's iPhone and light your drink from the side or back, at a 45-degree angle, using their phone's flashlight with a napkin over it for diffusion."
For those interested in shooting at home or in a space with options to move around, Barrett points out that "light will change throughout the day and harsh light can come in [windows]. You can soften the light with a diffusion panel: a simple white sheet or even a piece of paper. Remember, you don't have to be in the kitchen, the best lighting might be in the living room or in the garage with the door open. Study the shooting space beforehand and observe the lighting at different times of day."
Barrett's second pointer: Change your point of view. "Don't shoot the food from the same vantage point that you eat it, it's often not the best angle," she advises. "Instagram has certainly been responsible for the popularity of the flat lay, where the camera is directly above the subject looking down. Many food items do look amazing from this vantage point: … pizza, shellfish, cakes. It's also great for showing multiple ingredients, props, and reaching hands."
Barrett continues, "Drinks fare better when shot at a 45 degree angle, so you can see most of the glass but also a little over the rim, while burgers and sandwiches are best shot from the side, so that you see the delicious layers. Be sure to move around your food—get a ladder, even—and determine which angle works best."
The third piece of Barrett's advice is to convey meaning through the image you choose to create.
"We are always looking for meaning in images, often subconsciously, and great food and drink photography evokes the viewer's emotions," she tells SFR.
"Images that have a sense of storytelling to them will have a more powerful impact. It can be very simple: a broken eggshell, a bite taken out of the cake, a hand reaching for a morsel, a cocktail shaker spilling ice. I'm a great admirer of
people's enthusiasm for food and drink photography. They're very passionate about it and, if they made the dish themselves, proud and hoping to share the images for positive feedback. I try not to dampen anybody's spirit with criticism, but a little gentle nudge in the right direction can often help to improve their technique."
If a little nudge from a pro is what you need, Barrett helms a full-day workshop covering the basics of photography, visual storytelling and post-production techniques.
Editor's note: SFR's annual Food Foto Contest kicks off Thursday Aug. 1. Visit
SFReporter.com/contests for more info and to enter.
Claire Barrett: The Focused Feast
2-6 pm Tuesday Aug. 6. $155.
220 Shelby St., 216-0836