Inspired by a recent photo book I purchased, "Creative Flash Photography" by Tilo Gockel, I set out to create a series of food photos this week as part of a Thai dinner theme my wife and I decided on. The principle here was simple: create a great image using a single speedlight and a bounce card. That’s it.
The final image should appear as though it was shot in a restaurant near a large natural light source, although this couldn't be further from the truth. The final image here was shot in my apartment (which is already fairly devoid of natural light anyway) at 8 p.m.
For this shoot, I used a single Yongnuo YN560IV speedlight set to manual mode and fired wirelessly with the YN560-TX on camera trigger. You can get two of these flashes, plus the wireless trigger, and a pack of gels (very useful for creative flash photography) for $180 from Amazon. An incredible deal considering Canon’s comparable 580EX II speedlight is $430 brand new without a wireless remote. I’ve had these for two years now and they’ve never failed me yet. If one did I could easily replace it. Does it have TTL? No, but I would argue that shooting manual is preferable in most cases anyway. High-speed sync would be nice but that is for another article. The point being, if you don’t own a flash yet you should definitely get one as it opens a door of endless possibilities for your photography.
The flash was fired into a 45-inch Westcott umbrella with a black backing set diagonally behind and to the left of our main dish. Directly opposite, camera right, was a large piece of white board balanced against a stack of books. No umbrella? Use a large piece of computer paper folder in half so it can stand. Fire the flash directly into the paper placed approximately 8-10 inches back for a similar effect. You could also substitute white paper on the opposite side as a bounce.
My camera is a Sony a7R II with a Canon 100mm f/2.8L macro lens. Yes, an expensive setup, but you could just as easily do this shot with a Canon Rebel and the kit lens. The background might not be as blurred but if you zoom all the way out and get very close to the plate, it will do just fine for our purposes.
My wife and I decided to meal plan for the week and decided on a Thai theme. Our Monday night dish was the famous Pad Thai which has a myriad of colorful and interesting ingredients. Any dish will work, but the key is color coordinating everything in the image for a balanced look and feel.
For my shot I used a very basic white circular plate with a small, green bowl in the back. We shot on the coffee table which has a nice, unfinished wood top for a neutral tone. In the background I placed a bottle of white wine vinegar as the label had a green that would match our bowl and some of the toppings to our dish. I also added a stemless wine glass in the back to provide a bit of sparkle and additional background interest. Finally, a faux succulent pot in the very far back to provide a bit of geometry to the background and a sort of stopping point for the viewer’s eyes.
Camera Settings and Shooting
Before we ever started cooking, I set up my gear and starting playing with the composition of the image. This is probably the most tedious and time-consuming aspect of any food shoot. I obviously wanted the main dish to appear front and center but because the plate was fairly large, I didn’t want it to dominate the entire scene. I opted for a portrait orientation to eliminate some of its size and positioned the green bowl directly behind and to the right for a left to right flow through the frame. This is a very natural progression for the eyes because of how we read. I used a bottle of hand sanitizer as a food placeholder and set my focus using an aperture of f/2.8. You’ll want to generally shoot as wide open as possible for a nice blurry transition from front to back.
I used a shutter speed of 1/125 sec to completely eliminate the ambient light in the scene. This is very important as you do not want any light contamination on the subject. The ultimate goal is for the shot to appear bright and white as if shot near a large window. Most camera sync speed’s, i.e., the fastest shutter speed you can utilize with any given flash, are 1/250 sec or less so be sure and check your camera’s manual to figure this out. Going over the camera’s sync speed will result in an unsightly black bar appearing across your image. Take a test image with the flash turned off and it should appear virtually black. If 1/125 sec does not eliminate all ambient light, turn off more lights in your house or stop down your aperture with the latter being a last resort. Set a white balance of "Flash" for consistent color.
Finally, turn your flash on and set it to 1/64 power. You shouldn’t need much juice for a shot like this. I ended up on 1/32 power when it was all said and done, give or take a few 1/3 power increments. Check your histogram and be sure it is slightly to the right with no blinking highlights for a proper exposure. Make sure your flash and bounce are fairly close to your subject for a nice even illumination. Take a few shots and make sure you’re happy with the composition and lighting. Even small movements in the flash or the bounce card can make significant changes in your image. In the "before" image below, the bounce card is further from camera right versus the "after" image where it is closer. It is highly advisable to try a few variations and see what looks best.
Finally, the food. Cook the food and plate it as soon as it is done. Food for photos will generally last 5 to 10 minutes, after which the oils and fats begin to cool and lose their luster. At this point, the image will not look near as tasty. Be sure and clean your plate as fingerprints or spots will show up very clearly.
Focus will be the trickiest part, and in my experience, this is where the most errors occur. It is difficult to gauge focus from the LCD preview so be patient and try a few focal points before you decide. In the end, it should feel very natural where the focus lands and if something feels off when you look at the shot, it probably is.
I am constantly amazed at how easy and affordable it can be to do great photography. If you have a chance to check out Gockel’s book, I would highly recommend it. He uses incredibly simple techniques and gear to make amazing images and gives step-by-step instructions on how to do so. Hope you found this article helpful.