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Man Vs Food: The Difference Between Photographing People & Plates

As food photography continues to grow in popularity, Hunter McRae explains how tips you may have picked up from portrait shoots can also be applied to your foodie captures.

| Food

If you were to break down the average person’s Instagram feed into three categories, you’d roughly see three primary types of images: landscapes, people and food.

It’s only in the last decade that food images have crept into primary colour status among photographs. Perhaps it’s the growing emphasis on knowing where our food comes from, or the increasing celebrity status of chefs. Whatever its roots, food photography has inspired countless amateurs armed with smartphones (to the cringe-worthy bane of many a proud chef) and also created a vibrant niche for professionals.

As a photojournalist and travel photographer, my assignments increasingly include requests to photograph a particular dish at a restaurant, or to include an array of food shots from a city in my overall submission.

Although my university training prepared me for portraits, still lifes, landscapes and anything else you can imagine, I’ve definitely noticed an increasing emphasis on food photography and have adapted and expanded my skills to capture Cuban sandwiches, crab Benedicts and vibrant vegetable platters. While many of the skills necessary for attractive human portraiture applies to food, there are also some key differences we’ll explore here:


Man Vs Food: The Difference Between Photographing People & Plates: Plate of food

Image Caption: Simple vegetables like potatoes, onions and carrots garnished with rosemary (like these from personal chef and caterer, The Blue Root) can look strikingly beautiful with the right lighting and composition.


1. Personality

To capture a beautiful portrait of someone, it helps tremendously to have their trust and build rapport before you shoot. It’s hard to show up to someone and immediately take a great picture of them. With a person, especially a stranger, you’ll get your best shots if you spend time with them and they feel comfortable with you.

The most engaging portraits reveal a human connection. Annie Leibovitz, perhaps the most iconic portrait photographer of our time, once explained, “A thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people.”

That speaks volumes! If you’re trying to capture someone’s spirit and truly show who they are, you have to discover what that is for yourself. 


Man Vs Food: The Difference Between Photographing People & Plates: Portrait

Image Caption: To capture a subject’s light-hearted ethereal spirit, look for stances and locations that go beyond the traditional straight-ahead pose.


Similarly, you should understand the food you’re photographing before you click the shutter, and build a relationship with the chef who prepared it. But although you might feel “in love” with a particular dish or food, it’s still an inanimate object that won’t respond to your emotion, so the relationship is one way. Personality is a huge aspect of portraiture that’s only a tiny sliver of food photography.

Note: There are exceptions, of course, like the steely gaze and gripping eyes of a cold stare captured by a documentary photographer on the go. But these images, while compelling, rarely reveal truths about the life of the subject. 


2. Expression and Timing

The moment that a photographer clicks the shutter is the most important aspect of portrait photography. When shooting people, it’s all about waiting until the moment is right. A photographer should watch and anticipate, capturing bursts of emotion as they reveal themselves on the subject’s face. It’s a game of patience.

With food photography, it’s often the opposite. Food can age quickly, especially with dishes that include both hot and cold elements. I recently shot a plate of French toast that emerged from the kitchen looking regal and stately, with a perfect plume of hand-whipped cream atop the towering stack. I acted quickly, because within five minutes, it was reduced to a melted, sagging pile of bread. 


Man Vs Food: The Difference Between Photographing People & Plates: Cake

Image Caption: Shoot fast to capture beautiful food shots. Just a few minutes can mean the difference between a proud stack of French toast standing tall and a noticeable droop and melt (as seen here!).


Although many professional photographers that specialize in food have customized studios and stylized shoots, for the majority of working pros, we’re dropping by a restaurant and shooting one dish that the chef brings out. It’s important to be ready at that moment and capture the dish quickly.

Which brings us to …


3. Lighting

Photography- food or portraiture - is all about lighting. In both cases, you want to use light that will flatter your subject and make it/he/she look their very best.

For food and people, I prefer natural light. Although with both, I’ll manipulate sunlight with a reflector and/or scrim when needed. A 4-foot silver or gold reflector will enhance and even the light across a plate or face, while a scrim defuses and balances harsh light from directly above. Both are invaluable tools for food and people photography.


4. Presentation

Whether you’re shooting food or people, there may be elements of setting the scene (as long as it’s not journalistic or documentary work!). When shooting a portrait of a couple or family, I often direct them with specific ways to interact with one another. Sometimes, that may require a pose that doesn’t feel intuitive to the subject but looks completely natural in an image. 


Man Vs Food: The Difference Between Photographing People & Plates: Portrait

Image Caption: This pose might not be how a family would normally sit to relax on the beach, but it looks natural and relaxed in a photograph. Experiment with poses that look beautiful in an image, and practice giving direction to subjects.


Likewise, food photographers may use tricks like a light coat of vegetable oil to make a dish look vibrant and fresh. Food needs to look crisp, clean and bright, and that may require the chef preparing it differently than they would for consumption. Vegetables like broccoli and peppers, for example, can look their best when just slightly cooked.

These same principles carry over to post-processing as well. Although portraits of people can often look their most striking and beautiful in black and white, it’s rare that food images benefit from removing color and tone! Likewise, a vintage or muted color filter on a food image can make it look unappetising and unnatural.

If you’re passionate about photography and well versed in one style, it’s a terrific idea to branch out and experiment with different styles. Learning to photograph food with proper lighting and presentation will benefit your portraiture work in subtle ways and expand your skillset. At the same time, it’s important to recognise that just because you’re extremely talented at one doesn’t mean that you can immediately jump into the other. Just as there are similarities, there’s also a world of difference between a delicious-looking plate and a smiling face. 


About Author: Hunter McRae

Hunter McRae is an award-winning photojournalist and wedding photographer from Charleston, South Carolina. She is also a photography writer for eBay where she shares her tips and tricks with photographers at every skill level.

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