Christopher Michel has taken pictures from outer space. OK, technically, it was aboard a U-2 “Dragon Lady” spy plane at the edge of space. But still.
Best known as founder of Affinity Labs, Chris has one of the most unbelievable bios I’ve ever seen. Between serving on the board of the U.S. Naval Institute and acting as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Harvard Business School, he’s managed to publish four fine art books full of his photographs. He’s the one responsible for getting me interested in photography. After taking my pic with his favorite M9 and Leica Noctilux (50mm, f/.95 lens), and after seeing me marvel at the quality, he insisted I get a proper camera to chronicle my adventures and misadventures.
But what camera to get? And what about lenses and all the other accessories? “50mm” meant nothing to me, nor did “f/.95.” The jargon is enough to make your head spin.
Based on my scattered research, it seemed that I needed an expensive Frankenstein’s monster of high-grade gear. Thankfully, before I could max out my AMEX, Chris suggested a smaller and less expensive combination: the Olympus PEN E-PL2 micro four thirds camera (body) and Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 Aspherical Pancake Lens. It was this precise suggestion that took me from my long-standing “I should really get into photography” to actual shooting.
The gear was no longer my bottleneck.
Chef Marco Canora serving up red snapper at the wonderful Hearth in NYC. We drank almost five bottles of wine that night.
And this combo! It turned out perfect for close-up food photography, even in very low-light conditions. It was simplicity itself to turn A below (iPhone) into B (exact same shot with Olympus/Lumix):
A – Parmesan and white chocolate macaron at Saison, complete with gold leaf. Taken with the iPhone.
B – Same shot… but much more beautiful. Taken with an Olympus PEN E-PL2 and Panasonic Lumix pancake lens.
Roughly 20% of the 1,000+ photos in The 4-Hour Chef were taken by me using the aforementioned gear. No Photoshop, no zoom, nothing fancy; just a nice lens and improved composition thanks to Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson, which is required reading.
That’s more than enough to get started and kick ass. The above is all I used for six months.
But there’s more fun to be had, naturally. Let’s look at the iPhone and the big guns, each in turn, as you can blend the best of both worlds…
There’s An App For That
What if you don’t want to lug a “real” camera to every meal? Np, as the youngsters say. The pros get sick of feeling like pack mules, too.
The following iPhone recommendations are from Darya Pino, a Neuroscience PhD and well-known food blogger at SummerTomato, one of Time’s 50 Best Blogs of 2011. Her posts feature photos taken with both professional gear (including full lighting set-up and tripod) and her iPhone. Some of the latter are jaw-droppingly stunning, which was always puzzling, as I couldn’t replicate any of it.
No longer. When Darya leaves the backpack at home, here are the apps she uses to level the playing field:
“This is, by far, my fave. It’s simple to use and all the functions work amazingly well. For quick editing, I use ‘tune image’ for the kind of adjustments you’d make in Photoshop: levels, brightness, contrast, saturation, white balance, tilt shift, etc. I like to up the saturation a bit to brighten the greens, etc., especially in low light. Tilt shift is similar to depth of field, making the focal point more focused and the rest blurrier.
This is the minimum I do for most photos I post online. If you need a little more functionality, Photogenie is also a great editor.”
Snapseed With Tilt Shift – Fish On Sticks
“This is essential for taking the photos before you edit them. It really helps for food photography. The biggest issue with food is that it is wet. Plus, it’s often served in low lighting. In restaurants, this makes dishes look brown and disgusting, especially if you compound the problem with flash.
You won’t need it every time, but in weird lighting or situations where you want a lot of detail, it can’t be beat. It also has some basic editing capability, but I usually move to Snapseed instead. Camera+ also takes nice pics and has some interesting filters, but it has too many functions for my taste and feels heavy. Kevin [Kevin Rose, her fiancee and renowned tech influencer] likes it a lot, though.”
ProHDR + Snapseed: After ProHDR, Darya used Snapseed to up the “ambiance,” improve the white balance and saturation, straighten the image, add a tilt shift effect, and crop it slightly.
“This is also worth purchasing, in my opinion. It only has one function, but it does it really well. Basically, it lets you turn a photo black and white, then selectively return the color to anywhere in the photo by rubbing your fingertip on it. It creates an awesome effect when used well.”
ColorSplash, With Fruit
“I use Instagram as a social app, rather than for editing. I use the above apps to shoot and edit, then I share the images via Instagram. One awesome thing about this app is that the web links (these appear when you Tweet your pic) take people to nice big, high-res pics that work for almost any blog.”
Photo from Instagram
But what it you want to take it up a notch? That’s when I pose questions to award-winning photographer Penny de los Santos, who’s shot for Saveur, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, and Time, among others.
Are there any real rules for shooting food?
People have all these rules about shooting food. Here are a few I’ve heard repeated by young photographers during workshops I’ve led:
• Avoid photographing food on purple surfaces or purple linens.
• When photographing spaghetti, tuck in all the ends of the noodles.
• Always use a tripod.
Throw those out the window. Whatever it is people say you shouldn’t do, ignore it. I shoot a ton without a tripod and I always laugh when people say it’s the most important thing.
The big secret is to buy the best ingredients you can. Go to the farmer’s market, not the grocery store, the morning of the shoot. Don’t buy one bunch of beets, buy 3 or 4. Buy the produce that looks the best. It’s not about how it tastes.
If you’re shooting meat or vegetables that have been cooked, it’s always nice to brush them up with a little bit of olive oil before you shoot it to make it come alive and give it some shine.
What are some of the biggest mistakes that novices make?
The first mistake a lot of amateurs make is they shoot with their camera’s built-in flash.
The second is they stay in one position, where the food lands right before they eat it. It’s important to look at food from every angle, not only adjusting your proximity to the plate, but also adjusting the food so that you see it the best.
The third is that most people shoot food way too close. They want to see the drips coming off the meat. Instead, pull back and give your subject some space.
Is there any equipment you can’t live without?
You don’t need to have a deep camera bag. You can do it with just one lens.
Once you have an iPhone 4s or better, you can choose depending on your budget:
I use Canon’s 24–105mm f/4L a lot (about $1,000)
Props are essential for bringing your photographs to life. Go to thrift stores and garage sales and find old vintage plates and weathered boards and start a prop closet. Collect forks and knives and bowls that have a lot of character, and then use those as a vessel for your food. If you can’t spend the time searching, Etsy.com and eBay are great for propping. If you have a budget and live in a big city, you can rent from prop houses. Or go check out a prop house to scout what they have, then set out to get your own.
If someone wants to teach themselves how to be a great food photographer, how do they start?
It’s important to learn the basics of photography first. Then, don’t miss opportunities to train your eye. Look at the food magazines—I like Donna Hay and Saveur. Study photographers, not just self-described “food photographers.” I’ve been inspired by four masters in seeing, finding moments, and harnessing beautiful light: Sebastian Salgado, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn, and Martin Parr. The last two see the potential in food and have a strong voice about it.
Take a food photography workshop to understand what it means to shoot food and how to approach food. Then challenge yourself. Give yourself five recipes one day, make the dishes, and really think about how you’re going to photograph each one.
Everybody has to eat, so why not shoot what you’re eating?
Be playful. Food photography isn’t just one glamour shot before your stuff your face. Take a few shots before you eat, a few more once it’s half eaten, and capture the mess at the end with the wadded up napkin. Perhaps that tells a better story?
And stories are what create better memories for you… and evoke stronger emotions from viewers. Have fun with it.
Related food pics and coverage — The 4-Hour Chef launch dinner:
– The New York Times – Fête Accompli | 4-Hour Feasting
– The Wall Street Journal – ‘4-Hour’ Man Masters Food, The Good Life
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 500 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.