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Make Their Mouths Water

Updated: Jun 26

Are you a foodie, or a stressed out restaurant owner? Probably a bit of both. But chances are you want the presentation of what you are passionate about look its best. Creating images of that amazing delicious item means cherishing your food photography as if you were getting professional portraits taken of your newborn baby.

Well when was the last time you hired a photographer to shoot with a cell phone? So many restaurant owners are over-relying on their phones to present their amazing food to the world. Granted todays phones are fantastic in their sensor design and ability to generate hi-res dynamic images. And pixel count right??

That doesn't matter. I could dig out a cheap 15-yr old DSLR with only 12 Megapixels and somehow beat a 45 megapixel ( or more ) new phone.

But how you ask ? Read on.

Now providing the food looks fresh and is well plated, the real secret to great shots lies in the light. And more specifically the quality of the light.

RULE #1 - Don't Shoot Under A Light....Shoot Beside A Light

I have seen far too many owners trying to shoot photos for their socials under the kitchen ceiling lights. Just because its bright enough doesn't mean its good enough. What we want to always have on hand is a nice large window beside your table top with your food. But the sun can't be too intense. Perhaps a little cloudy to diffuse the sun.

Can we guarantee these conditions when we need to shoot ? No.

Enter the photographers best friend - the trusty off-camera speedlite and large soft-box or umbrella. Typically off to table left pointing across the table and down slightly.

With repeatable consistent results, this setup can produce diffuse lighting ( like a cloudy day) , soft shadows, and daylight-colored white light to produce rich honest colors that look like the best window light possible when you don't have the window and weather to cooperate.

RULE #2 - Make It Larger, Not Brighter

The quality of your light can be controled by increasing or decreasing the distance to the food - this creates an apparent light source that looks small, or large to the food. Small sized light sources produce sharper more contrasty light. Larger apparent light sources produce more diffuse, softer light.

Think of how small the sun looks in the sky, and then look at the overly contrasty lighting & sharp shadows it creates. Now place that sun behind a passing larger cloud, and watch the contrast soften and shadows smooth out.

Unlike the sun which is essentially the same intensity anywhere you stand, an artificial light source isn't - and has a drop off with light intensity that varies as 1/r^2 . We can control the power of the light, fine tuning the exposure which depends on it's distance to the food. The closer you get to your food with the softbox/umbrella, you will require much less power than being further away with the umbrella light.

So while closer light sources will drain your batteries much more slowly, there is a catch.

RULE #3 - Tilt and Bounce

Imagine a 12-inch plate. The intensity change across a 1-ft wide plate, from a perpindicular umbrella light 1ft away, would be 1/4 or a 75% drop over a 1ft plate. Thats a considerable loss of light on food on the far side of the plate. But changing the light distance to 5ft away (and bumping the power ) produces a change of ~ 32% intensity drop over the same plate. To compensate for this, place a tilt on the umbrella direction slightly downward to lessen the effect of 1/r^2 . Further, any light that is not immediately impacting the plated food can ( and should) be bounced back toward the plate with a white reflector to re-fill the shadowed side of the plate.

RULE #4- Don't Shoot With Your Cellphone

But can you do this with a cell phone camera as an owner? Not easily - you can't use a speedlite which flashes very fast aprox 1/10,000 of a second burst. Your cell phone shutter is controled by your finger, and i'm guessing you are not that fast to shoot when the light triggers. Cell phones also typically don't have the flexibility of a DSLR which controls how the light enters the lens (via aperture), and for how long ( the shutter) seperately. And this is important. While a cell phone camera needs the ambient light present to expose the shot ( all the kitchen lights), the DSLR with Speedlite doesn't. It can essentially ignore the garbage overhead ambient lighting through a "too-fast" shutter speed, which would normally render the scene dark. But the real magic lies in its ability to synchronize its shooting to capture the high-quality burst of light leaving the speedlite through the umbrella. By shooting "too-fast" ( say 1/250s), the powerful but brief flash of umbrella light easily covers the intended subject- the plated food. You are essentially turning off the kitchen lights by under-exposing them, and firing off a powerful but short range light which only covers the table. Cell phones do not have this ability. All you need is an affordable wireless speedlite trigger mounted to the cameras hotshoe. Even an old DSLR can accomplish this!


If you are serious about how your food photography looks to your customers, I would strongly recommend to find yourself a used DSLR with speedlite flash, trigger, and umbrella to produce amazingly delicious photo results. The cost of that setup would be far cheaper than an amazing new cell phone. A little experimenting with settings, umbrella distance and height can be fun, but to start use a camera with manual settings of 1/250s, f8, and perhaps 1/2 power on the Speedlite.

And failing that, pull out your expensive cell phone, and call a food photographer - like myself - who would love to shoot your food items and take care of everything for you.


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