You can take food photos like the pros

This photo of lamb sliders from the White Dog Cafe was taken off-center with natural daylight.
This photo of lamb sliders from the White Dog Cafe was taken off-center with natural daylight. (Photos: STEVE LEGATO)
Posted: September 08, 2011

USED TO BE, cameras would come out at restaurants only for a family photo or special-occasion snap. These days, even the cheese is saying cheese.

In keeping with the food-porn frenzy that goes along with restaurant reality shows, celebrity chefs and a navel-gazing obsession with farm-to-table cuisine, taking pictures of dinner is de rigueur, whether it's a chili dog or a prime rib of beef stretched across the plate. Seems like everybody's a food paparazzo these days. It's enough to make a vodka sauce blush.

All you have to do is take a look at shutter-nut groups like I Ate This on Flickr, with more than 432,000 images logged by 24,000 members, and the popular Foodspotting, a share site with 16,000 Facebook likes and its own mobile app, to know that your Korean taco had better be ready for its close-up. Self-appointed reviewers are another group, eager to post their musings and macaroni mug shots on sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor. Add in bloggers and foodie professionals, and a person could almost forget to eat.

The problem is, most of these photos are less than appetizing. Unlike a professional food photographer, the average salad shooter hasn't a clue about lighting, composition and angle. She just wants her Facebook friends to know that she's eating just-picked micro greens. Although some restaurateurs and diners find this obsession with chronicling one's king crab annoying, others think it's cool.

"I do it all the time myself," said London Restaurant owner Terry McNally. For her, like many food snappers, it's all about the iPhone. "I got the iPhone 4 because it had a better camera," she said. "I'm most happy when I'm eating, so if I'm loving a dish, I'm tweeting and posting about it." She even has an editing app called Photogene, which lets her crop and adjust the picture right on her phone, before she posts.

Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan loves the trend and calls himself one of the worst offenders. Now, instead of using a bulky SLR camera, LaBan takes pictures on his iPhone for publication and for research purposes. "If anything, the proliferation of amateur food-photographer fanatics has only made my own ministrations at the table blend in as the new normal."

Steve Legato, a professional food photographer, said that his camera of choice is a $2,500 Canon 5D Mark II. However, he's not averse to whipping out his iPhone to take a few shots. But he does say "ouch" at the often-poor quality of food porn posted on sites like Foodspotting. Legato, in the biz for 12-plus years, has more than 40 cookbooks to his credit, including the upcoming Les Petits Macarons, by Kathyrn Gordon/Anne E. McBride (October 2011, Running Press); Making Artisan Pasta, by local chef consultant Aliza Green (Quarry Books, January 2012); and Food in Jars, by Philly blogger Marisa McClellan (Running Press, spring 2012). And he's quick to say that you don't have to have fancy equipment to take good pictures.

"Even with an iPhone, you can adjust the exposure and focus by touching the screen in the area you want to expose/focus on," said Legato. "Most point-and-shoot, and certainly all single-lens reflex [SLR], cameras have controls over exposure, focus, macro abilities [the ability for the lens to focus close], zoom [wide angle-telephoto] and so on. Yes, you probably have to read your manual - but even a little knowledge will make a huge difference."

Philadelphia amateur blogger and Foodspotter Brian Lim has been shooting food for two years, since he started his blog Bridges, Burgers & Beer. He uses either an SLR camera, or, if he's on the run, his iPhone. Lim tries to use natural lighting whenever possible. Always ready to shoot, he admitted to being shy about pulling out a camera at an upscale place, or "if I'm on a date with somebody who doesn't know I'm a food geek."

When Marisa McClellan first started blogging about food in 2006, she used a cheap point-and-shoot Nikon Coolpix. "I thought it was amazing back then," said McClellan, whose popular Food in Jars canning blog inspired her upcoming cookbook. "I didn't know what I was doing, so there was a lot of trial and error. I'd look at the pictures other people were taking and wonder why mine weren't as good. What was missing?"

As her experience grew, McClellan upgraded her equipment, and now uses a $600 Nikon D90 digital SLR. "But don't feel like you need fancy equipment," she advised. "Just learn to use what you have." In working with Legato on her book - she made the food that is illustrated in each of his photos - she could tell that he envisioned the shot, even before he took it. "That vision is something I've been working to develop, but I think most of it is a gift you're born with."

Legato, a photojournalist who fell into food photography by chance, remembered well his first assignment with Philadelphia magazine. "They asked me if I could do food and I said, 'Of course.' But I hadn't shot food at all. Next thing I knew, I was shooting these tiny, 2x2-inch pictures, and they were all terrible. I was so bad at it. Talk about a trial by fire."

Following a few simple rules (see tips) can make a huge difference in the quality of your shots, said Legato. "Start with avoiding wide-angle distortion by backing up a little from the food, and then using your zoom to get closer. If you can use a regular camera, you have more options."

What you don't want to do is use your camera like a Xerox machine - taking an exact image without working on the lighting, perspective, depth. "Just keep shooting and looking at cause and effect," he said. "Don't just take five pictures and think, 'I'm done.' Take 50 or 500, and see what happens."

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