There are many ways to film food and food products. No matter what type of food you are filming generally the goal is to make it look appetizing, but what photographic elements make food visually appealing? On branded shoots, many food clients will have their own “look books” and outlines detailing the specific photography requirements of their brand. On a shoot allowing more loose creativity I will provide a few insights from the experience I have gathered shooting food over the past six years.
What type of food are you filming? What makes it look appetizing? Color and texture are the most important elements in food. Typically it’s a good idea to slightly increase your overall vibrance and saturation for a more appealing look. Exaggerate satisfying textures with close-ups. With most food there is a tendency to film lots of close-ups, but also know when to back away if the texture of the food isn’t as pleasing as it should be.
Liquids (clear) - What makes clear liquids look appealing?
COLOR | Backlight
Backlight is most essential element when it comes to filming clear liquids. The intensity of the backlight combined with the background refracting through the liquid controls the color, brightness, and glow gradient of the liquid. How bright should the liquid be? Make sure to not use too much backlight so the drink still fits in in its environment.
TEXTURE/CRISPNESS | Shutter Speed + Strobe
Increasing your shutter speed adds a crisp texture to bubbles, but can make camera movement feel choppy. Renting a strobe light that is synced with your camera to rid of motion blur completely is an even better way to add crispness.
Food (solid) - What makes solid foods look appealing?
COLOR | Exposure
While it seems obvious, maintaining correct exposure brings out the richness of colors. Try not to let dark chocolates go too black, or salts, sugars, or flours to overexpose.
TEXTURE | Contrast Ratio
The harshness of your lighting can change the appearance of the texture of a food. While generally nice big soft lighting is a good initial approach, increasing contrast will add dimension to food, texture to grains and salts, and visibility in monotone foods like whipped cream.
Does the food product actually work? While usually the food prep team will have already flagged any issues, sometimes when products arrive on set they don’t look or act like they should. There are chocolates that won’t melt nicely or maintain a pretty texture. Certain cheeses won’t pull apart the right way or can sweat too much. Sometimes your canned hero green beans look brown next to some fresh spinach. It is sometimes necessary rearrange framing or to cheat or fortify products to meet your visual needs. This can be tricky territory if the client is present and it’s their own product not meeting standards.
Does the temperature of this food make it more appealing? If so, emphasize the visual look of the temperature. For hot products, make sure to use and appropriately light steam. Combining a harsh light and dark-toned background will help the steam appear white. If the product should be cold, especially a drink, consider having it sprayed down with water (or a karo/glycerin spray) for a droplet look. For a frosted look try using dulling spray or wax.
How not to film food…
Twice in my life I’ve filmed food in black and white. The first time was a stop-motion love story between an apple and a pear filmed on Tri-X Reversal stock. That sort of worked. The next time was ten years later on a promo for the box office crash Venom. Audience response was negative to say the least. Food without color couldn’t be duller.
On this shoot we shot a woman preparing and serving food in a home setting. In this case, the product was the cookware.
LIGHTING: Since the actress was moving around the whole room in various places we lit the kitchen traditionally with M18’s through the back windows, which provided a nice backlit look throughout the day. Inside, we kept a 800w Joker bouncing into the ceiling as needed for foreground fill. For food close-ups we re-created a soft-box look closer to our subjects. We decreased contrast further by adding 4x silks to soften the light and occasionally a 4x bounce for more underside fill. Surrounding close-ups in white sometimes also helped get rid of any unwanted reflections for a cleaner look.
CAMERA: If you watch any food reel online you will see a lot of slow motion and speed ramping. On this shoot we rented the Alexa Mini, which can record up to 200 fps. For super dramatic slow motion shots the Phantom Flex is a more appropriate camera, but that wasn’t the best fit for this shoot. When recording slow-motion it is always best to shoot at frame rate slightly faster than you might need. It is easier in post to speed the footage back up than to slow it down. What looks good in slow motion? Mainly things that are happening fast! Objects falling, fire shooting out, liquid spraying… just keep in mind to use it on heavy action and movement and not on fairly stationary events. On this shoot we used slow-motion and speed ramping on some stationary items to keep the flow of the montage and emphasize products, like plating and sheets.
Shooting food is a lot of fun and often times very delicious. The most important thing is to trust your instincts! If you see something, say something! We biologically know what looks appetizing. The other part of filming food is about keeping things looking clean… like noticing a chive that’s out of place, removing a crumb that fell on the plate and looks messy, or commenting that the meat looks dried out. When doing macrophotography oftentimes the person behind the camera will notice details first that others are distracted from. When dealing with clients, it’s best to assume they are always right and if there is an issue, do you best to solve it, or pretend to solve it, and sometimes that will solve it! Bam. Mangia!