We asked eight talented food photographers to discuss their tricks for capturing mouth-watering dessert photos. Here are their top tips.
This year, amid coronavirus lockdowns, baking became the world’s favorite hobby. From brownies to lemon bars, people around the globe took to their kitchen to whip up creative, Instagram-worthy confections, while sharing their best #quarantinebaking photos on social media.
To meet the growing craving for desserts, sales of bakery items—fresh and packaged alike—boomed. According to one report, many of us started buying more comfort food than we had in previous months. Meanwhile, online searches for banana bread recipes soared, and people celebrated their birthdays with homemade cakes.
By August, as part of The Shot List, Shutterstock had named “junk food is comfort food” as one of their trends, with customers searching for images of everything from donuts to chocolate snacks. Let’s see what delicious, home-cooked images these eight inspiring food photographers have in store for us.
1. Play with Natural Light
“Natural light is always best for food, so I try to use the light that is available and manipulate it to give a feel for the different seasons,” London-based photographer Timothy Atkins explains. “You can block out light with a bit of card or use diffusion material to soften, color correct, and spread light more evenly. I’ve used Rosco diffusion roll, light fabric, bubble wrap, and plant foliage to create dappled light.”
2. Light from the Sides or Back
“I used to think it was best to light something from the front, but that’s actually the worst light for food,” London-based photographer Liesel Böckl explains. “Instead, opt for side or backlighting. Side light is great when you have some height. The light wraps around the food gently, showing off the details.’
“Back light is great for a more dramatic look with more contrast. It’s also great if you have transparent or translucent textures. I suggest finding a space by a window, setting up a table, and just playing around with different directions. Try different times of day and see what works the best.’
“When I shoot at the window, I block out all other windows with boards for a more dramatic look with shadows. I love shadows and really think they add depth and beauty to images. Japanese architect Kengo Kuma said, ‘There is no light without shadows,’ and that’s so true for photography, as well.”
3. Incorporate Rich Tones
“Colors that are rich, dark, and saturated look more ‘delicious,’ so my advice is to avoid gray and tans,” Brooklyn-based photographer Evan Sklar explains. “Aside from that, beautiful light can make almost anything look pretty. Photograph real food in real light in a real setting. If the food looks beautiful and you have nice light, then you are ninety-five percent of the way there to having a great picture.”
4. Add a Pop of Bright Color
“Props are just as important as the food, as they give a platform for the food to sing or make a statement,” Timothy Atkins says. “I try to use neutral tones in propping, light tones for the summer, and darker tones for autumn or winter. This lets the food stand out if it has any color. If the food doesn’t have vibrant color, on the other hand, I would use a bowl, plate, or napkin with color to lift the food and give it more energy.”
5. Finesse Your Compositions
Before your shoot, it helps to plan or sketch out an idea of the composition you have in mind. “The most important advice I can give emerging food photographers is to think about what you want to say with your photos,” Italy-based photographer Sonia Monagheddu explains.
“You should lead the viewers’ eyes through the composition and to the focal point(s) of the picture. How can you achieve this? One easy way is to include an element in the foreground, one in a central position, and (obviously) a background. That way, you can obtain a good depth of field. Another option is to use the grid on your camera and add other elements—like ingredients and/or props—to catch the eye.”
6. Get Messy
“I’ve noticed that I get the most compliments about a food photo if there is some kind of melting, sprinkling, or oozing involved,” New York-based photographer Evi Abeler tells us. “People love seeing a dripping ice cream cone, a nice pour of chocolate sauce, or a smear of honey.’
“When you set up your next dessert shoot, start with a clean, perfectly-styled scene, and then gradually layer in some action, drizzle, take a bite, and make a sexy mess. Go all the way! There might even be a great shot in the aftermath.”
7. Take a Bite (or a Slice)
Taking a bite or cutting into your dessert can also be a great way to bring your photos to life. “I always like to cut into a cake so you can see the filling,” Spain-based photographer Jordi Calvera tells us. “If I can’t do that, I might also accompany the dessert with raw ingredients or aromatic plants to evoke the taste or smell of the dish. For me, a great photo always conveys that sense of aroma. For that reason, I tend to use raspberries and blueberries a lot.”
8. Add a Seasonal Twist
“I think baking photos always do well around holiday campaigns—nostalgic foods, baking ingredient shots, etc.,” Toronto-based photographer Lauren Miller tells us. “One of the greatest tips I’ve ever gotten … is to think about the relationship between the light and the story the food is trying to tell, and this applies to seasonal desserts.’
“For example, is this dessert being eaten with afternoon tea? On a rainy day? Adding that layer of moody light to something cozy and wintery, or a streak of sunlight to something happy and summery, is what takes your photos from being nice to moving and memorable.”
Right now, Sonia Monagheddu is excited about autumn-themed photos. “This time of the year, I think people like to see traditional fall desserts: apple pies, pumpkin pies, chocolate cookies, etc. They have that warm and cozy feeling. So, any time I see one of these pictures, I instantly wish I were sitting in front of my (imaginary) fireplace, eating those desserts, and drinking a cup of tea or hot chocolate.”
9. Celebrate the Holidays
“In my experience, the three most popular ingredients in commercial dessert stock photography tend to be fruits and berries, chocolate, and ice cream, but I also find that holiday desserts are popular,” Italian photographer Vitalina Rybakova tells us.
“Now, for instance, photographs of desserts that are traditionally prepared for the holidays—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas—are selling well. These can also vary depending on your culture and where you live. Maybe it’s apple pie, gingerbread, fruit cake, decorated cupcakes, tarts with berries and fruits, or something else.”
10. Show the Process
“I always try to capture as many different photos as possible—from simple, minimalistic photos to more complex ones—showing the baking process. One last thing I wish I’d known earlier, some dishes might need to be half-baked in order to get that mouth-watering effect in your photos.”
11. Play with Depth of Field
“Remember to use depth of field to showcase the main item,” Washington, D.C.-based photographer Linda Hughes tells us. “For example, in this photo, I used depth of field to render the whole cake slightly out of focus but still recognizable, with the slice being the emphasis.’
“Beyond that, lighting for color and texture separates a great dessert photo from a good one. So, sometimes I’ll use a polarizing filter to reduce glare on desserts with a glaze. Another trick I wish I had known about earlier is to use fabric strips that go around cake pans to ensure evenly baked and flat layers of a layered cake. YouTube has a myriad of food styling videos which I have found to be very helpful. So, that’s a great place to start.”
12. Be Bold
“I love the current hard-light, full-focus look in advertising photography that has also entered into the world of food photography,” Evi Abeler explains. “It’s a bright and powerful approach that I am very excited by. I am experimenting to see how I can merge that look with my own aesthetic and come up with a fresh point of view.”
13. Try Plant-Based
Vegan foods are trending, and several of the photographers we interviewed plan to add some vegan desserts to their portfolios in the near future. “I’m plant-based myself, so I’m super excited about the emerging plant-based dessert trends, and I love seeing them photographed!” Lauren Miller says.
Get Creative with Ingredients
Timothy Atkins is always experimenting with new dishes, making his portfolio timely and diverse. “These days, I’m a big fan of sourdough doughnuts, matcha soft serve, poached pears with vegan chocolate, and the idea of coconut yogurt (COYO) drizzled over toasted banana bread,” he tells us. “I also like desserts that challenge your mind to question whether it’s savory or sweet. I recently had an incredible tart with British gooseberries, turmeric, and pistachio frangipane.”
While staples like cake, ice cream, and fruit pies will always be in vogue, don’t be afraid to try fun, new desserts, as well. “Whatever you shoot, I think it’s great for the photographer to understand how desserts are made,” Atkins adds. “This will give you an understanding of the time frame in which you have to capture the imagery and get the best out of the ingredients on the page.”
Cover image by Timothy Atkins.
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