The rise of minimalist cooking is changing the art of food photography. The following is a look at some of the techniques adopted by photographers to capture the simplicity and the spirit of this modern cuisine. Whether it is because of the recession or a genuine desire to downsize and simplify, minimalist cooking has become extremely popular. Everything from expensive and hard to acquire ingredients to rarely used, specialized utensils and equipment have been pared back to the bare minimum. Less is definitely more. Many photographers have noticed this change, either consciously or intuitively and are evolving and adapting their techniques to suit. The old sumptuous saturated glistening overfilled image just doesn’t seem to be a good match for this new approach to cooking and food in general.
The photographers who get this and have a feel for the subject have started to utilize a few specific techniques which serve to emphasize the subject matter but in a much more understated way and this article will lay out a few of these basic techniques. It is not intended to be a comprehensive photography primer and most of the techniques will not require expensive equipment. It needs to be stated though, that even a basic dSLR camera will be capable of much more flexibility than even the best point and shoot due to the amount of control available to the operator. This does not mean however that perfectly acceptable results cannot be achieved with the point and shoots, just that the range of possibilities is smaller.
Simplicity is the Key
When composing the shot keep things very simple, plain white plates and brushed steel or plain counter tops work very well. If the image needs a bit of additional color, a sprig of a fresh herb such as sage is more than enough. Shoot on a level with or just a few degrees above the food. We are used to looking down on food and, in photography, offering a fresh perspective is always a good idea as it wakes the viewer’s brain up. It also adds interesting possibilities for lighting but more about that later.
A blurred background is generally a good thing as this emphasizes the subject. This can be achieved by either using a long lens e.g. a 300ml with a wide aperture from a few feet away with a dSLR or by utilizing the macro setting on a point and shoot and getting in really close, normally within a foot of the subject. Both of these approaches have the added benefit of giving a very narrow depth of field. This means that only a small proportion of even the main subject is likely to be in focus. This concentrates the viewer’s attention even more.
The only piece of equipment that is essential for taking high quality food photographs, other than a camera of course, is a tripod. It may not be required for every single shot but not having one would rule out a lot of potentially good shots. The choices would be between a small tabletop model, probably best with the smaller point and shoot camera. This would enable the tripod to be set on the same surface as the item being photographed, very useful when the camera has to be close to the food. There is a small tripod available that has flexible legs enabling it to be wrapped around objects such as tree branches and signpost poles. This type of support would come into its own for say, picnics or barbecues. The bigger dSLR cameras tend to be too heavy for the smaller tripods and generally require a normal sized model. The advice usually given to photographers is to buy the most expensive tripod that they can afford. I would say buy the tripod that will do the job without breaking the bank.
Whatever tripod is used always either release the camera’s shutter remotely or use the timed delay function built into just about every camera now on the market. Pressing the shutter causes the camera to vibrate so doing this off camera or giving the camera time to settle down before the shutter release makes for a much sharper photograph. This leads us to the main reason for using a tripod: the photograph can be taken in natural light, i.e. flash isn’t essential. As a rule of thumb good natural light is always preferable to artificial if the choice is between one or the other but often the best photographs use a combination of the two.
While the above applies to food photography in general there are specific lighting approaches that give a more minimalist feel. The use of a very strong back light is one such approach. The best source is a window that occupies the entire background. This will give a very bright background with any colors reduced to pastels and objects such as trees, cars or other buildings reduced to abstract shapes. Now if this were the only light source used the food itself would be silhouetted and appear far too dark so a little fill light is needed. This is a blast of light from the camera’s flash that is not as powerful as it would be if there was no ambient light but is powerful enough to illuminate the main subject. Point and shoot cameras generally have a setting that automates this process while a little more experimentation may be required with dSLRs and flashes.
A couple of quick points about lighting that applies to all photography. Direct light is harsh and produces heavy sharp shadows. I think that it is safe to say that in all minimalist food photography this is a bad thing so we need to soften the light. This applies to both natural and artificial light. With expensive off camera flashes a small diffuser that fits over the bulb is usually enough. In the case of smaller cameras with built in flashes a little ingenuity goes a long way. If the flash can be covered with a piece of semi transparent clear plastic or even a piece of greaseproof paper results can be improved dramatically. The worse light source for photography is the small built in flash units on cheaper cameras. As for natural light, direct sunlight is to be avoided which is why a North or south facing window is best. If direct sunlight is the only option then a semi transparent plastic shower curtain attached to a frame of plastic piping makes for a great diffuser.
Of course the process does not end with pressing the shutter. Once the session is finished, or even during the session, the images are uploaded to a computer and edited. Usually the editing consists of little more than a bit of sharpening, a slight color correction or a minor crop. It is possible to use the computer for just these technical chores but, with a little imagination, the computer, can become a creative tool in it’s own right. A minimalist approach to photography requires an awareness of what is essential to the image and what is incidental. It is often possible to lose information by increasing the exposure at this stage, often an increase of two thirds to a full stop can really make an image pop. Part of the reason that this is so effective is because it makes dull and off whites bright. This effect is often used in fashion photography but works equally well with food.
Technique and Eye
There is no great mystery regarding what makes for great minimalist food photography. The best advice, as with all types of photography, is to find images that you like which were taken by others, see which techniques were applied, then practice. Hopefully a combination of good technique and a practiced eye will produce something unique. The following techniques work well for me: diffuse natural light from behind the subject and fill flash to fully illuminate the subject; a low point of view, get close to the same level as the food; blur the background and aim for a small depth of field; on the computer, sharpen the image a little, crop and color correct if required. Above all, experiment and have fun. One day I may be practicing and writing about a technique that you have discovered.