Food Photography Tips from Lou Manna

On the south side of Seattle in a cavernous brewery-turned-loft-space, acclaimed photographer Lou Manna led a full day workshop on food photography. As we studied a series of images from Lou’s body of work, I worked feverishly, scrawling notes in the studio’s dim half-light. Less than an hour into his talk, I caved and purchased his book, “Digital Food Photography.”

Food photography is an enormous subject and you could easily spend a lifetime developing your craft. While most bloggers will never have a dedicated studio or six lights strategically aimed at tonight’s dinner, Lou touched on a number of points I’ll be incorporating:

Know Your Equipment

- Study your camera’s manual. Whaddaya know? Understanding your camera’s features and how to use them properly, improves your photography. Lou takes his camera manual with him on trains, planes, and even to the potty. (Before this workshop, mine had never been out of the box!)

Control the Light

-Backlight or sidelight gives more dimension to your subject.

- Never, ever use direct flash.

- Slightly off-center composition is better. Remember the Rule of Thirds.

- Natural light is great but sun & shade turns photos flat. Outside, Lou shoots with a strobe 90% of the time and diffusion panels to soften the light.

- Do your photos have a blue cast to them? That’s from shooting natural light in the shade. Be aware of the blue cast. “Is the food blue?” No! Fix the white balance on your camera.

- Lamps cast a yellow tone to your photos.

- Custom white balance is best. Don’t know what that is? Read your manual.

- Light and the ability to control it is what makes a great shot.

Lou's Tips for Shooting Food

- Aim for a circular composition.

- Use a lightbox and a reflector.

- Use a small compact mirror or a reflector to bounce light and add detail back into the food. (Lou uses a portable mirror kit, made up of a variety of makeup mirrors. Especially helpful are mirrors with stands attached.)

- When using mirrors, know that they make a hard, controlled spot of light. (Example: To highlight the top of an appetizer, etc.)

- Use different sizes and shapes of food elements.

- Avoid having things line up perfectly (Think: Tangle of green beans vs. a stack of green beans. You want the tangle.)

- Simple composition is better. Make it clear. (Reviewing a photo of mushrooms sautéeing in a pan of butter. In the hot pan, butter is foaming excessively. Lou said, “What is this? I can’t tell. Use a pastry brush to remove some of the foam…The mushrooms will be more obvious.”)

- Remove any distracting elements in your composition. (Example: napkins in the background, extra glasses, question each piece of silverware, etc.)

- Keep it simple so the food is the star.

Two of my practice shots: