I’ve been taking photos of food for years… whether it’s in-context restaurant and cafe plate shots, studio shots for product campaigns or street-food images as part of a travelogue gallery… nothing makes me happier than seeing people drool over a food picture I’ve taken - as then I’ve done my job as a photographer: eliciting an emotional response from the viewer.
During the Coronavirus Lockdown, my wife has fired up the stove and been industriously baking to fend-off boredom. Great news for my gob... not so great for the last remaining notch on my belt. But it turns out that there’s a lot of mileage to be gotten from a humble cake. First you can pour over all the cookbooks that have been festering away on your kitchen shelves; next there’s the big make... OK, so the air may turn blue as icing sugar fills the air and half an egg shell gets dropped in the cake mix but there’s real achievement when something stunning emerges from the oven... and finally, you get to eat the blighter! What better way to soak up a wet mug of tea than with a slab of delicious cake? But during Lockdown I’ve found that there’s an additional stage of enjoyment to be had in the cake creation process...
And that’s photographing your creation.
As I have a camera glued to my eye for a living, I actually take fewer and fewer pictures for fun these days. (Which is a pity, I suppose.) With all this newly-available spare time on my hands why not pick up for the camera for the hell of it? And so I did. (And so can you.)
First off: staging… I’ve got a fair few photography backgrounds lying around the place... from beaten-up old floor boards and reclaimed pallet wood to specially created photography displays - you just need to create a scene... light and airy, moody and oppressive or rustic charm?
Next: lighting... as this is just a bit of fun I left the studio lighting back in the studio and opted for natural light from a window in our dining room - so I moved the background boards to a corner of the room with a strong light source. If you’ve doing this at home, opt for a position that has one light source, not wrap-around light… ideally you want to have light on one side of your cake leaving a bit of shadow on the opposite side… don’t be afraid of shadows or think that you have to light your subject from every angle - shadows give a sense of three dimensionality. If they get too strong you can always hold a piece of white card or paper on the opposite side of the cake to bounce light back and fill-in the shadow.
One important tip: try not allow a direct shaft of bright sunlight on to your set... this creates harsh highlights and unbalances your shot... if this happens, either move your set-up away from the light and out of the reach of the sunlight; or hang an old white bedsheet in the window to diffuse the harsh light.
Styling: this is your chance to create a mood and atmosphere in your image and even tell a bit of a story. Don’t just reach for anything to arrange around the main subject, think about what you’re doing. What ingredients went into your cake? If it’s a strawberry cake then scattering a handful of strawberries in the scene is probably a good idea; if it contains lemon juice, then perhaps a whole or half lemon in the frame. This subconsciously gives the viewer a sense of taste. What about colours? If the cake has predominantly red accents, then what about a red table napkin in the scene? Or a complementary colour like green? Also what story are you trying to tell? Do you want to display the cake proudly, as in a bakery window or perhaps you want to capture the scene as if the cake is still being created... so perhaps you want to have some half-cut fruit in the shot or a strewn tablespoon of spilled icing sugar or maybe even a whisk still caked in whipped cream? Gather your props and ideas before you start shooting.
The shoot: arrange your cake amongst the dressings and props on your staging, set up your camera and frame your shot. You can be as technical as you want here, depending on your equipment... if you have a camera with some manual settings then I'd advise getting it on a tripod and experimenting with depth of field; open your lens right up and focus on specific portions of the cake... either the front face or perhaps some hero components, such as a great looking cherry or walnut. If you only have access to a basic compact camera or phone camera, that's fine too... you'll get great results from these - it's the set-up that does most of the work for you on a shoot like this. (I've actually sold photos taken on a mobile phone... it's not the kit you have, it's what you do with it!) It doesn't matter where you start photographing or at what angle but just be sure to move around... if you start square-on to the cake, take a couple of shots, then move in closer and take some more. From here move your angle of capture... perhaps up to 45 degrees, take more shots; then zoom out a bit and include some of the props you've arranged.
Next, move completely overhead to capture a flat-lay image... again, moving in closer or pulling further away to alter the shot. Move around the cake so that you are photographing a different side of the cake and so that the light is hitting the subject differently, relative to your point of view. Also, don't be afraid to manipulate the scene. If you don't like how that napkin is arranged, change it. If it needs moving closer, move it closer. If the scene looks a bit cluttered, remove some items. You're in control of this set-up so bend it to your will.
The edit: taking the photos is really just half of the process. You can really make your cake pop in the post-production phase. Whatever editing programs you use: Lightroom, Capture One or Instagram, play around with settings, cropping and filters to complete the look of your image.
The best bit: after you've created a beautiful image don't forget to reward yourself for all your hard work with a cup of coffee and a piece of cake!
Plus, you can send your friends crazy with jealousy by showing them what you've been munching during Lockdown!
Happy eating! (... and photographing.)