Like I mentioned on the first and second parts of this series of food photography posts, composition is probably the most difficult aspect of food photography (and photography in general) to master. There are many techniques and mechanics that need to be considered when composing a shot. However, they should be seen as guidelines more than rules (or at least that is my approach).
I say this because photography is subject (like almost everything else in our fast moving world) to trends, currents and moods. Just think of the food photographs you saw in magazines 10 or 20 years ago. The trend back then was very different. Most pictures were shot from above with very complicated settings and props. The food itself wasn’t the focus of the picture, but the ambiance that surrounded it. Now think of the pictures you see in current cookbooks and magazines. The main focus is the food with vibrant colors and very simple settings, props are minimal.
That’s why this last post about composition is all about focus. Something that has worked for me in my recent food photography adventures is to plan ahead. I sit down and plan the pictures I want to shoot. I make a list of the ingredients, props and backgrounds that I would need for each picture, but most importantly, I picture in my mind what the main focus of the picture will be. Will it be the cooked dish or an uncooked ingredient? Will I focus on the garnish of the dish, a plate, an specific prop or the setting in general? Will the food be flying, dripping, hot, cold? Will I tilt the camera or will it be a straight shot? etc.
Life is not perfect and things never (or very rarely) go according to plan. That’s why you need to have a backup plan with your pictures. Changing the main focus of your picture is good and encouraged to see the results from different approaches. For example, I tried different approaches for these bell pepper shots:
I first tried to focus on the three bell peppers with an overhead shot.
I then approached differently by tilting the camera and focusing on the yellow pepper in the background.
In the last shot I changed to focus to the orange pepper in the foreground.
Even though this setting is very simple, there are many different ways to direct the viewer’s attention to your focal point. Keep in mind that your images have direction and energy. Any viewer will look at this and will follow the (invisible) line set up in any picture. This process is unconscious, but it is helpful to understand how these mechanics work and how we can take advantage of them. Here I will try to explain some of the techniques I’ve been practicing from Lou Manna’s book, Digital Food Photography.
1. Bullseye. This is the simplest one and consists on placing your main focal point right in the middle of the frame. The viewer will almost immediately focus his/her attention in the middle if the focus is clearly there:
2. Spiral. For westerners, we are used to readig from left to right and from top to bottom. So when you look at a picture you almost automatically follow this same pattern. When composing your pictures you have to keep in mind this. The spiral technique directs the viewer’s attention from the top left corner of your picture towards the middle where the main focus of the picture is.
3. Rule of thirds. Even though this is not a rule (it is more of a suggestion than anything else), this technique is encouraged to be used in almost any kind of photography. It consists in dividing your frame in into thirds (both horizontally and vertically so that you have 9 parts) and placing your focal points near the intersection of the lines. You don’t have to place a focal point in each intersection, it is only a guide that will help you in the composition of your picture.
In the picture above I have 2 main focal points (the tomato and zucchini in the foreground) but I also have a point of interest in the other two intersections.
I realize that this post might look too technical or complicated (that’s exactly what I thought when I first read Lou Manna’s book), but with a little bit of practice and patience you will understand, and time master, these techniques. I really hope I could explain myself and didn’t complicate things even further. I’ll be trying to answer questions and give further information and resources in the comments section of this post.