If you’ve ever liked a picture on Vega Team’s Instagram or Facebook, re-pinned a Vega One smoothie on Pinterest or printed out a drool-worthy image from the Vega Recipe Center, there’s a good chance it was shot by KK Law—Vega’s remarkable (and indispensable!) food photographer and stylist.
KK has spent over 13 years studying, practicing, and making a living in photography. He tells stories through photographs, and paints pictures with light to make people stop, look and think. Since Vegatopians are avid documenters of their meals (and we think you might be too), we asked KK to take a moment away from his camera to give you a few pro tips on how to improve your food photography:
Vega: What is your top photography tip to make food look appetizing and inviting?
KK: Use fresh ingredients! The thing I love about food photography is the vibrant colors and great textures that nature has to offer…when food is fresh. Tired herbs, soggy berries, and brown bananas taste blah and photograph even worse. For the Vega recipe photos, we make sure we always have the freshest ingredients in the kitchen to add to the various dishes showcased in each image.
Also, get closer. As close as you can get. You may need to buy a new lens or macro adaptor for your smartphone. You don’t need to see the whole pie to know it is pie, but it sure helps to see all those luscious blueberries tucked cozily under that flaky golden pie crust topped with an airy, wispy dollop of coconut whipped cream.
Vega: Are there any basics of food styling that beginning photographers should know and incorporate?
KK: If you want to create strong food images, it’s really helpful to have a passion for food and cooking. All the really good food stylists I know are very accomplished chefs. Knowing how food changes when you bake/boil/grill will help you visualize the final image. It will also help you achieve a certain look you’re going for, or to troubleshoot why your images aren’t looking the way you want. For example, if your asparagus is looking pale, maybe it needs to be blanched before you shoot it? If you don’t want your bourguignon to look like a bowl of brown, you’ll need to know that the wine will probably stain the veggies so it would be a good idea to hold some of those ingredients back and add them to the bowl just before the shot. You can’t style or photograph something you don’t know.
Don’t get bogged down in minutia
Maintain an eye for detail but don’t get bogged down in the minutia of it. Food photos should look clean, natural and purposeful, but not sterile and overly-produced. It’s very easy to get tunnel vision and spend hours arranging grains of rice in bowl to make them all line up. Don’t do it!
Take a step back
When you find yourself stuck in a rut, step back (literally) and look at the scene as a whole. Stepping back physically will make you focus on the bigger components of the scene and help you decide whether or not that almond needs to be tweaked anymore. Usually, it doesn’t because if you asked someone walking by “Does that almond look funny?” the answer is always, “What almond?”
Build, don’t take, a picture
Build the image instead of taking a picture. Don’t cook the recipe, plop it into a bowl and expect it to look amazing. I often will start with the components of the recipe separated out on a tray and build the final image step by step. This way I have complete control over all elements of the recipe and ultimately how it will look in front of the camera. Plus, I get to taste each part of the recipe for, you know, quality control.
Final thoughts on styling:
- Odd numbers of things look better than even numbers of things
- Food usually shoots better as a portrait versus as a landscape so style accordingly
- Learn to open a coconut properly and how to pour nice latte art
- You don’t need to fill a bowl with ingredients to make it look full—bunched up paper towels work really well
- Don’t be afraid of getting your hands or your gear dirty
- Learn to use chopsticks
- Vaseline is a great glue that hides well
Vega: What if you’re in a dark restaurant—how do you make food look appetizing?
KK: If you’re in a dark restaurant, please, please, please, for the sake of everyone in the restaurant (including the chef and kitchen team), put your phone or camera away, enjoy your meal and forget about taking a photo of it! Focus more on how the food tastes, what amazing harmony all the individual components combined make, on the wonderful person you’re probably sharing a meal with. The restaurant is dark—without proper lighting the photo you’re planning on taking will look terrible regardless of whether you have a smartphone or a professional camera. And no, just because your phone has a flash on it doesn’t mean it will make it look better. Just focus on what you’re going to have for dessert (I recommend the one-of-everything special).
Vega: What is the rule of thirds, and why should I care about alignment, angle, level, focus or symmetry in shots?
KK: The rule of thirds is a simple guideline to help compose balanced images. I can’t really explain it better than Wikipedia, but in a nutshell, if you draw horizontal lines and vertical lines across your image at 1/3 intervals and place the main subject of the photo along one of those lines or where they intersect, your image will be super awesome. Or in other words, don’t put the main subject of the photo in the dead center of your picture. Photos with the main subjects in the middle are boring unless that main subject is a person’s face or a cat with a melon on its head.
Photography is the opposite of painting; with painting you are starting with a blank canvas and keep adding things to it until the painting is finished. Photography starts with a full canvas and you have to remove things until all that is left is the photo you want. You can remove distractions by cropping them out of the frame, making them out of focus, hiding them in shadow or blending them into the background.
Vega: If you don’t have a professional camera and are limited to smartphone images, what are some limitations that you should know? What type of environment is best for point-and-shoot/smartphone shots?
KK: A smartphone is great because it’s convenient and you have it with you all the time, not because it will always take great photos. There are definite limitations to using them for food photography, such as lack of precise focusing, lack of exposure control, the amount of light required, etc.. With these in mind, the ideal setting for food photos with a smartphone is using natural light in your own home. Find the largest window in your house and you have the location of your new photo studio. As long as the window isn’t in direct sunlight, you should have a good even and soft light source.
The other major limitation is that pretty much everything in a smartphone photo will be in focus. So if everything is going to be in focus, make sure you only have things you want in the photo. Shoot against a neutral background or shoot as far away from a background as possible. And again, if you can get closer, get closer.
One thing to keep in mind if you’re a shutterbug: an entry level DSLR is probably less than a high-end smartphone. If you’re looking to get serious about photography, it would be well worth your time and money to invest in a basic DSLR with a lens kit. Not only will the photos look infinitely better, the amount you will learn from using a proper camera with full exposure control and focus adjustments will be significant.