Bites, camera, action

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 August, 2011, 12:00am


To say we live in the golden era of so-called food porn is an understatement: most Hong Kong diners will be familiar with the sight of fellow patrons taking photos of the dishes they have ordered. Perhaps you are one of them. The hobby has taken off with the arrival of social media networks such as Facebook, Flickr and Weibo, as the online giants tempt diners to chronicle their latest wining-and-dining conquests.

'Food is such a big thing in Hong Kong, where people dine out four or five times a week. In Britain or the US, they cook at home more often, which is why you see more food photographs taken of home-cooking images,' says dining critic and blogger Jason Tse, who has posted more than 8,000 photos for his blog,

It is also the case that photography is a very popular hobby and that there has been a tremendous advancement in camera technology, including the arrival of mobile phones with built-in cameras, encouraging us all to take more and better pictures.

Whatever the motive for posting food photos online, the common goal for uploaders is to seduce the viewer's appetite with tantalising images. However, judging by the mediocre quality of many of the shots on some social networking pages, even with a point-and-shoot camera, food photography is more complicated than pointing and shooting. We have persuaded a few food porn experts to share their tips.

Firstly, assess the level of light shining on your dish. Is it artificial or natural, harsh or dim? What is the source? 'Lighting is one the most important elements in photography,' says Nicolas Lemal, who left his corporate finance job two years ago to pursue his passion for photography full time. Along with fashion and art, he's photographed food for restaurants and artisanal grocers such as Brat, La Maison du Chocolat and Premiere Pression Provence.

Besides positioning your plate to get the best illumination, Lemal stresses the importance of adjusting the colour balancing settings on your camera to prevent the source of light skewing your device's ability to accurately portray the dish's colours. You don't want the burger looking eerily orange because of your device.

'Often lights in restaurants in Hong Kong are from tungsten bulbs, which makes the light yellow. [This is] great for making the restaurant's space warm with mood but the camera sensors don't understand that and capture a yellowish image,' the Frenchman says. Blue counterbalances the unwanted yellow, he adds. With the advancements of camera technology, you don't need blue filters or sensors at hand: most point-and-shoots are equipped with 'white balance correction', in the manual settings. Switch to 'AW' or 'AWB' setting, which stands for auto-white balance.

What if you're in minimal light conditions? The consensus among most food photographers is not to use flash, even if that seems contrary to common sense. 'Unless you're using an SLR [single-lens reflex] camera, avoid flash from phones or regular cameras - they glare directly on the subject, killing the image,' Lemal says. He suggests using a diffuser - anything available that's white, such as a napkin or piece of paper. Place it horizontally beneath the flash to drive the light up to the ceiling and then land on the dish, lending a softer illumination to the subject.

Generally, pocket devices are not capable of capturing great photos in dim conditions. A better idea is to request a seat with the best light. Or you could shoot during the day, near a window, as natural light is the most prized setting in photography.

Marco Veringa, executive chef of the United Services Recreation Club, agrees that flashes from phones or point-and-shoots are not your friends when snapping food. The Dutchman is a food photographer and chef, and has turned his hobby into a side profession. He has shot for countless restaurants, including those under Staunton's Group.

'Flashing from your vantage point ... aims right at your dish, which is harsh,' Veringa elaborates. 'Notice the aggressive, ugly shadows behind the dish.' He suggests investing in a regular camera with wide aperture. 'If it can open very wide, it's a fast lens, which means two things: it lets light in quickly but also the focus is shallow. Anything with a 2.8 maximum aperture is fantastic, which doesn't have to cost a fortune.'

Veringa's favourite lighting tip is illuminating the dish from the back. 'In 95 per cent of cases, I light food from behind as it accentuates the dish and highlights its nuances.' Sometimes he uses an A4 sheet of paper or aluminium foil at the front to throw light back onto the dish and fill out any shadows.

Tse says when the plate arrives at the table, decide 'what the story you want to tell is - every dish has a story'. Determine the focal point: is it the atmospheric setting, or the symmetry, shape, temperature or textures of the food that you want to portray? Or the plate's artistic flair composed from the chef's cooking or styling? Lean on the aperture function of your camera, which selects an area of the image to become more focused than the backdrop. 'I like to blur the background while the focal part of the dish is sharpened, which you do by adjusting the aperture.'

Go close up if you want to focus on the food's textures and colours, especially if it's the interior of, say, a multilayer cake. 'Sometimes you have to stage the shot, so cut into the dish. For example, if want to portray the middle of a steak, slice into it; along with the [strategically] positioned utensils, that's the shot,' Tse advises.

Top-down shots are ideal for larger scale dishes, or plates with great overall symmetry (such as circular plates centred with round food like a pudding or risotto). 'Play with the geometric shapes formed from the plate and the food as a whole,' says Lemal. Essentially, experiment with a variety of angles rather than simply capturing photos from seat level, at a 45-degree angle.

Finally, consider post-picture editing to tidy your shots. 'Because I take pictures in raw format [from my SLR camera] there's modification I do, usually with lighting and saturation. But they are secondary to cropping, which I find the most important: it frames the message of the photo in sharper focus by taking out unimportant detail in the fringes of the photo,' Tse advises. He uses Adobe Lightroom software to do so. Less refined but great for beginners is offering similar editing features, and it's free.

With the progression of mobile technology, along with the boom in smartphone applications, food shots captured from your phone can be edited on the device itself. Karen Chan, art director of ACP Magazines and regular food photo uploader on Facebook, recommends Adobe's Photoshop Express app. 'It's a more basic, mini-iPhone version of Photoshop. You can crop or apply other popular Photoshop editing functions on the app like rotation and saturation.' Sometimes she uses contrast, too, to make the colours pop, tweaking anaemic shots to make them more vibrant.

Many photographic applications are available. 'Recently, I discovered AccuSmart Camera, which has a 'dish' mode. Go to the fork and knife icon, which makes colour corrections so the white is captured just like the white in real life,' says Chan. A 'night scene' mode brightens shots taken in low-lit conditions with pre-adjusted edits in this setting. Another plus about this app is the before and after shots to see the impact of these effects.

For mood-affecting effects, ClassicTOY offers a wealth of lenses (lomography, fish eye, double eye) and 'films' one can switch to with a swipe of a finger. Lomography gives an 'arty' feel to photos. Films also vary in ISO, or sensitivity to light. 'ISO is related to exposure of light and how long your lens lets light through for. I use 100 for regular daylight, 200 for cloudy days, 400 for nights. It all depends on the light in your environment,' says Chan. She uses Labelbox app for adding dish captions, or Photo Mess to compile collages so a multi-course meal can be composed in one frame.

Tied to social networks, these apps disseminate your dish shots to the social media page of your choosing instantly. 'They also make a huge difference in not just editing but adding extra touches to make photos more personal,'says Chan.

Hopefully, if you take these tips into account you will be able to show off your food porn skills with no embarrassment.

Clicks of the trade

How do you capture ugly food?

Try these tricks if your dish is flat, messy or generally not very photogenic.

Compose a scene; use props too

Marco Veringa hates shooting unusually flat dishes like pizza: 'Even from top down it still looks real flat,' he says. During a pizza shoot for the Staunton's Group, he decided to stage a scene: 'I used some props to make it look more 3-D, such as wine glass and a bread basket, which were put out of focus, adding more depth to the picture. It also guides the viewer to focus on the pizza.'

Play with your food; capture action shots

Jason Tse finds Chinese food particularly challenging since 'there isn't much presentation in Chinese cooking - everything is just put in a bowl, unless you're at a fine-dining restaurant.' So take a spoonful out of its context, or create action shots to make them livelier. For noodles, for example, use chopsticks to pull up a serving, then snap!