Great Food Photography Involves The Senses

For food photographer Bill Brady, great images involve more senses than sight alone.

PHOTOGRILL: Tell us about your photography.

PHOTOGRAPHER: Food photography is one of the more challenging genres in the photography field. When done correctly it can be very powerful. Food in real life can be tasted, touched, smelled and looked at. But on the photographic level we rely on only our sense of sight. The photograph must make up for the missing three senses. So it has to possess something special to do that.

A commercial food photographer gets paid to execute at the highest level. I generally work in a studio. Though I can also bring a complete studio to you. Some clients can only be serviced on location. Whether I’m in the studio or on location the results are the same. I use mostly artificial light but I try to make it feel like natural light. Some photographers use and insist that natural light is the only way to photograph food, I disagree. If you know how to light food, you take control of the situation. If you rely on natural light exclusively then you are at the mercy of an uncontrollable element. Natural light is beautiful and I do use it, but the challenge is that the exposure and the light can change radically. When the light fades you’re done.

PHOTOGRILL: Is photography fun, business or both?

PHOTOGRAPHER: As a commercial photographer I get paid to execute assignments. There are usually large budgets and peoples jobs are on the line. Making the wrong choice and hiring an inexperienced photographer could be costly, so clients usually go for a person with a track record. Usually you have already taken a very similar photograph. The client knows you can shoot their ad because in essence you already have. How do we get a portfolio so vast by shooting all the time. I shoot for myself. Both stock and self assignments, to grow a new look and style. Photography is fun for me, so when I am not getting paid to shoot, I still shoot.

PHOTOGRILL: Why did you take the Imperia Vodka photo?

PHOTOGRAPHER: The Imperia shoot was a self-assignment taken in my studio in NY. My food stylist Brian Preston Campbell actually conceived the idea. We found out that the ad agency in charge of Imperia was looking to do a job. So we decided to do some test shots with a 300lb. block of ice. Brian not only styles food, he is a consummate thinker. He used a chain saw, and he picked and cut out the ice cave. My job was to bring it to life. Depending on the job there can be anywhere between 1 and 20 people on set. The core crew usually consists of myself and a food stylist, an assistant food stylist, and my assistant who also doubles as my digital technician.

PHOTOGRILL: How important is lighting to this shot?

PHOTOGRAPHER: Lighting is the entire ball game when shooting any image. Unless it’s a journalistic image (where the moment is crucial), a poorly lit photograph does not have the impact and interest that a well lit one does. I used broncolor strobes, two in the back. A soft box on the side right and a bounce card on the left. I also used a mono light with a snoot (a conical light shaping device), to ‘pop’ the cap. Exposure was at f16.

I use strobes, so only the modelling lights are hot, 250 watts. It takes a long time to melt a large block of Ice. No test shots were done. I usually don’t like to over plan, it takes the spontaneity out of it. The lighting was easier than you may think. The ice acted like a soft box and I was able to both back-light, and side-light through it. The only post-production was with colour correction and removing flaws. It’s not a composite.

It took about 3 hours including the carving, which took most of the time. I move pretty quickly and I know how to light so I usually don’t struggle with it.

PHOTOGRILL: What cameras and strobes do you use?

PHOTOGRAPHER: I use medium format Leaf/Mamiya and Digital SLRs. I have broncolor strobes.

PHOTOGRILL: What post processing went into the photo?

PHOTOGRAPHER: Post-production is a great tool. When I was coming up as a photographer we did not have post-production so you had to get it right in camera. Back then you only got two shots done in a day. Now a client expects to have 10 done in a day. I will say this, it’s OK to take a short cut in order to speed the process along. The decision should be wether it will take longer to fix on set or in post-production. There is no right or wrong way. There are some shots that can be achieved ten times quicker by compositing and some can’t be done at all without it. I use photoshop as a tool. It serves whatever purpose it has to in the process towards the end result.

PHOTOGRILL: Is this photo exactly as you first imagined it or are there differences?

PHOTOGRAPHER: What distinguishes a professional from a hobbyist is that the photograph should be the execution and completion of what is in your head. Being able to think of an idea then make it real is what I get paid to do. A hobbyist will arrive at happy accidents resulting in a great photograph. If they can then apply those accidents and create the same result they are on their way.

PHOTOGRILL: What is the goal of food photography?

PHOTOGRAPHER: The goal of food photography is that the viewer should want to eat the food! Look it and go yum I want that. I once received a call from a client who I can not name. I had been involved in a large packaging re-branding project. My contact called me up towards the end of the project and was acting funny. She started asking me questions like were there any other elements added to the images, did I use the ingredients exclusively in the package? When shooting package design you have to use only what the package contains. You can’t swap anything out. I said “Of course I did. What is this about?” She explained that the manufacturer doubted that we used the actual product because in his opinion nobody could make his product look that good. I laughed and assured her the images were legit. I also pointed out that that was my job description, to make food look better on camera than in real life.

Find more great food photography at Bill Brady Photography, or follow Bill Brady’s Blog

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3 Responses to “Great Food Photography Involves The Senses”

  1. Bill Brady says:

    The cap has a highly reflective element to it so you can see the card and the soft box. If memory serves me correctly the angles on the bottle hid the reflections.

    The shot glasses were retouched.

  2. csillitoe says:

    Hi James, good question. I don’t know why I didn’t ask that, but I’ll ask Bill to respond.

  3. Those shots can be absolute rocket science.

    I can see the soft box and white card he talked about reflecting on the bottle cap but not on the bottle itself or the two glasses above. I wondering how he did that in one shot?

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