Food & Light: Photographing Challenging Food & Personal Assignments

I realize many of you are probably sick of the photography banter.  Sorry!  But not that really.

Since that’s what I did this week, and since my blog is not only a recipe source but also a lifestyle blog, and because photography is my passion, I am going to continue on with what I learned.

Feel free to skim, tune out, or just go look up the recipe for Flourless Peanut Butter Cookies and make those instead of reading about photography.

For the rest of you, time to press on with the photography talk.


After our morning lecture session on Day 1 with Diane (see lecture notes & tips from Jen & Matt here and Diane’s amazing notes & tips here  <–I’m so glad many of you told me that her photography tips were helpful.  I personally think they are worth their weight in gold!  And I will be reviewing them over and over for myself)

Watching Diane in action was just profound.

Before even picking up my camera, or looking at the dishes and props, I looked at the food table.

But I had no idea what to select to shoot.

Since I had already shot cupcakes here and here, I decided it was time for some plants.

These radishes had definitely seen their better day but I tried my best to make some tired looking radishes be the prettiest little radishes I’d ever laid my eyes on.

I wanted so badly for this shot to succeed and composition-wise, I think it’s fine.

But the produce looked like it had spent time in the garbage disposal before making it’s way onto my wooden board.  Frustrating!

The images below I believe are better.

I was very attracted to the radishes I selected because they are two of my favorite colors: pink and purple.

Let’s call this Image A

Nature really does have the best color palette. MAC, you got nothin’ on nature.

Do you notice any differences between Images A & B

Look closely in the background.

The below is image is what I am calling Image B

Really, the only noticeable difference between those two images is that Image A has a spoon with peppercorns blurred out and Image B has a knife blurred. <– Those are the kind of tiny subtleties and nuances that can make and break shots.  Start paying attention to every.single.detail.

And re-read Diane’s notes.

I really wanted an overhead-top-down shot but it just highlighted the sorry state of affairs of the radishes.  Darn.

In the end, backlight, a bit blown out, shooting straight on was really the only way to disguise the mangled leaves.

And shooting that way also brought out the best of the pink and purple shades I believe.

Peppercorns worked slightly better than a knife, but a toss-up, really.

The Moral of the Story:

The theme of the shoot we did wasn’t an attempt to make beat up food look better, or at least make it look acceptable.

The theme was not to try to shoot challenging food.

It just sort of turned out that way for me based on the produce I selected.

I could have taken the easy way out, scrapped the radishes, and opted for and photographed a peanut butter and chocolate chip cookie

But I wanted to push myself and stretch myself.

Because let’s face it, when you’re photographing anything from your grilled cheese sandwich at 8pm after work with horrible lighting to your slightly boring iceburg lettuce salad to that mushy-ish peach you’re snacking on, we all know that not every piece of food that passes your lips is camera perfect. 

Sometimes you have sorry looking food and you need to try to make it look better.

The same could be said for photographing people, your cat, your uncooperative nieces and nephews, whatever it is, not everything or everyone wants to cooperate for the camera.

So challenge yourself with these situations; push yourself, stretch, try to grow and improve.

If there is one thing Penny de los Santos hammered home on my Photography Tour of Mexico City, it was to give yourself assignments and then do them.  That’s the only way you’ll grow.

If you want to become a better and faster runner, you put together a training plan with some mileage and speed goals, and then you do it.  If you don’t, you’re not going to improve.

Same with photography.  Or anything.  You have to give yourself assignments, or goals.  And then follow through.  Diane also suggested this on our final day of the workshop too: long term projects and assignments.


1. What is hard for you to photograph?

I have discussed this before.  I have quite the arsenal of not so pretty food pictures.

I think comfort food like hotdishes, casseroles, mac ‘n cheese, even spaghetti can be hard.

Mushy food like mashed potatoes, stuffing, pudding, hot cereals, oatmeal.

Runny food like soups and stews and chili.

Vegetarian proteins such as beans, lentils, baked beans, chickpeas, currries.

Brown and tan-colored food from beans to soups to meats to eggrolls to oatmeal.

All of those foods are hard to photograph effectively.

I must have taken 100+ images of Cheesy Taco Casserole to get a half dozen that were acceptable. 

The lighting was good, the dishes where white

But mushy food, a casserole, melted cheese, rice, tan-ish/yellow-ish, vegetarian, comfort food.

It had all of my challenging elements in one recipe!

What’s hard for you to photograph?
  It can be hard to photograph cats, dogs, and kids, too!

2. What assignments or goals have you given yourself recently?  Not necessarily with photography, but with anything?

I believe that stagnation with anything in life is not really a good thing.  When we stop pushing ourselves and challenging ourselves, seeking out new endeavors, finding new passions, discovering new twists about life or learning more about subjects that we already thought we “knew” all about, is when life becomes less than interesting for me.

That’s when I naturally seem to find myself wanting to travel, learn something new, make something new in the kitchen.

I always need to keep challening myself.  The way that I am wired (and my brain that never seems to shut off <–wish it would) won’t let me just rest on my laurels, so to speak, for very long

Lately my goals and assignments are photography related but sometimes I have other goals and intentions from becoming debt free to getting more sleep.

P.S. The winner of the Healthy Cookie & Brownie Giveaway is:

Heather @ Kiss My Broccoli August 1, 2011 at 5:57 am

When it comes to healthy cookies, I am ALL OVER peanut butter chocolate chip hummus balls! I think I actually prefer them to regular cookies! Haha

Congrats, Heather!

56 comments on “Food & Light: Photographing Challenging Food & Personal Assignments”

  1. I’m not sick of the photography talk at all! I’ve loved the step by step instruction you’ve shared with us. :)

  2. A greatand imformative post! I think lighting is so important when taking pics. I’m no photographer but I have noticed that my food pictures look so much better when better lighting is available.

  3. I wish my assignments in school were more like these :( haha

  4. I love learning from you. So keep up the photography talk!

  5. I LOVE the photography banter!!! Keep it coming! It’s amazing how much you’re learning!

  6. I’m not sick of the photo talk…just hoping some of it rubs off on me! My biggest issue is lighting!

    I haven’t had any assignments lately—just work tasks. I should give myself an assignment to spice things up a bit!

  7. I’ve loved all the photography posts, I’m finding them super helpful. Yesterday I received my new lens in the mail and challenged myself to go downtown and take pictures of all the street musical performers from pretty close up. I felt awkward at first but quickly got over it after the first few. It was a lot of fun and I’m glad I challenged myself!
    One of my favorite quotes… “Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness.” I always go back to this for the same reasons you said in your post… a stagnant life is not an option for me!

  8. Everything is hard for me to photograph LOL. Orange foods are my enemy I think.

  9. I admire your determination! Thank you.

  10. I think foods like soup or casseroles in general (like the one you mentioned) are hard to photograph — when they are all one color you really have to work on what is around them (which I think you do a great job with adding props, etc in the background).

  11. I love your photography posts! I struggle with lighting the most as my house was built in 1924 and most of our rooms are poorly lit. and it’s florida and 100* and 100% humidity outside right now :(

    I think brown foods and warm foods are the hardest. Even chocolate can end up looking… less than appealing – but I found adding a few berries or sprigs of mint can brighten that right up :)

  12. Your pictures have improved so much over the years, its really impressive. I am trying to teach myself food photography so I love all the photography related posts, keep em coming!

  13. i ENJOY the photo talk! pass along all the tips you wish, averie!
    i do not get jazzed about photographing food. i DO enjoy taking pictures of my neighbourhood, and i like snapping pics at parties, gatherings…this weekend, we have a family party, and i am really going to push myself to get some great shots of the location and of the guests – esp my little nieces!
    again, so awesome that you have had these opportunities, lately. enjoy trying out what you’ve learned, now that you’re back home!!

  14. I am really enjoying your photography tutorials Averie! Thanks for sharing what you have learned at the seminar. Since I do underwater photography, my subjects are often moving. The most challenging thing for me to photograph is sharks! They move quickly and are often found in deeper water. Deeper water typically leads to lighting and color challenges.

  15. Oy. I have far too many assignments to think about. Classes start in a month….eeeeeek!

    I think everything is hard for me to photograph. I lack patience and desire.

    Image A – STUNNING.

  16. I have like no patience with photography- I need to work on that! Sounds like this was an amazing experience. My MIL just got a nice camera and I sent her a link to your blog!!

  17. LOVE the food photography post & discussion!
    Any tips and ideas are much appreciated, I’m trying to learn more about food photography and photography in general. I’ve had a DSLR for 3 years but it takes TIME to learn all the intricacies… and we are all pressed for time! Beautiful images, you’re learning so much so quickly!

  18. I am not sick of it !! I actually had all your notes from yesterday swimming around in my head for yesterdays ‘shoot’. Normally I don’t take many shots, but that time I had over 60?! Was definitely trying to move around the food and also move the food around to try out different angles… so much fun.

    Speaking on ‘tired produce’… I bought the most beautiful bunch of basil from TJ’s and took it outside for shooting and it was dying in the heat?! UGH. I don’t ‘think’ the little green leaves looked as wilted and tired as they looked to me in the actual picture. What was weird was when I took it in the house, it was pretty much dead :(

    I agree with you on all your hard to shoot foods. A while back I was trying to shoot my latest hummus and I didn’t have the right sized bowl :l and it seriously made it look like someone went to the bathroom in the bowl… UGHHH. SO frustrating. That day, the hummus won. lol.

    • your last paragraph…totally what all of us who shoot food daily go thru! YES!! I can relate!

      and glad this stuff was in your head all day…that means when you go to pick up your camera, you already have been thinking about it..and the shoot will be better :)

  19. That first shot of the radishes is my favorite; very nice.
    Have you ever checked out Golubka? The most consistently beautiful food photography I’ve ever seen on the internet.

  20. Welcome back Averie! Thanks for sharing your notes from your photography class. It will really be very helpful! For me, it is challenging to take photos of food that comes in varying heights (ex: a plate of mac & cheese plus a glass of veggie juice). Maybe I will try the top down approach and see how that looks =)

  21. This is a great post which clearly shows that there are so many factors that come into play when it comes to food photography. When i first started blogging my photos were horrendous compared to what they are now… and it was the same camera i use now. I learned that there had to be adjustments made to each meal…factors of hot and cold (ie. steam from oatmeal)… how much light was coming in and how bright, as well as the angle it is shining through the glass window… how close to the camera i shoot it.. or the differences in plate sizing, among so many others in addition to the factors in this post. But wow it definitely gives a person a lot of natural experience doesn’t it! :)

    xoxo <3

  22. While I wasn’t that into photography before, I’m starting to really be interested in it because of your posts. Your passion shines through, and I have an empathy problem, lol. Whenever someone is super excited about something, I start to perk up even if it’s not my thing. But, I have always appreciated beautiful pictures, so now I just get to find out behind-the-scenes stuff, and I AM passionate when I feel like I’m getting an “insider’s scoop.”

    Right now I’m trying to plan out what I want to do with my life and feeling like there are entirely too many darn possibilities. My project is to make some concrete decisions and follow a path, even if it is just to find out that it was the wrong one. But I want out of limbo!

  23. Love love LOVE that pic with the spoonful of peppercorns in the background! I have so much to learn when it comes to photography and using props is definitely something I need more practice with! I am loving all your posts about photography! I love how I can feel your excitement through the words and pictures!

    I think I find it the hardest to photograph brown/tan foods too…I’ve never had good luck with beans, especially lentils and I REALLY wonder how some people can make a bowl of oats look so beautiful when mine always come out looking like brown mush!! Haha!

    Ahhhh, so excited to have won your giveaway! I’m emailing you my addy now! :)

  24. My issue is when I have a composition set up but the lighting isn’t perfect, I know I have to get up and move around the house. That is difficult because picking everything up is such a pain and I’m not sure exactly where the better light is! Chasing the light…that is my story.

  25. Girl keep the photog posts comin! I star every one I fine useful and would actually request more of your aperture/ISO on your favorite pictures :)
    Follow that passion…you’re an awesome food photographer!

  26. I’m traveling and super-busy with class about to start, but I find this kind of post probably more interesting than the standard recipe post. I so totally agree with you about constantly learning new things and staving off stagnation. I found your endeavors with the radishes really interesting, how you managed to keep attention on the beautiful roots and away from the rather tired leaves…

  27. The radishes really do have such a gorgeous glowing color — and you captured it perfectly. I can already picture the bottle of essie nail polish — radish-ing instead of ravishing. hehe.

  28. I love seeing your new photographs!! So petty and fun! (seriously. is there anything more fun to photograph than food? I think not. )

    And I think any kind of soft, mushy, casserole type thing is hard to photograph. What do you put it in? A bowl? A plate? decorate it somehow? It’s just weird.

  29. Cleary I’m not about to ever get sick of your photography banter. In fact, I’m so glad you are sharing all those wonderful tips from the workshop. You rock girl :)

  30. I feel we are so alike in some things.
    The reason I fell out with my flatmate is because she never sets herself ANY goals and stactats, which might work for her, but I am the exact opposite. I am always challenging myself and I love it. Also, I love your blog :)

  31. Awesome pictures, I had run reading about and comparing the radish shots. So true on challenging yourself.

    1. For me it’s lighting, selecting dishes to make the food pop, and arrangement. I need more time to challenge myself in these areas.
    2. Money saving goals, house project goals, photography goals, etc.

  32. your photography looks gorgeous I always struggle with hummus and greens !

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  34. Averie your photography is perfect!! I need to fly out so you can teach me some things ;)

    I notice I have hard with chocolate or anything dark in color. Have a hard time getting contrast and texture.


  35. I am pretty sure that you are amazing. I would never have thought anything bad about those photos of the radish’s, had you not said anything. It also makes me so happy that you are pursuing things that you are so evidently passionate about!

  36. Hi…I got this shocking news today; maybe you would consider letting people know about it? They are accepting donations to help this innocent businessman post bail/pay for legal bills. Lots more info. at the natural news website and is worth a read. Pictures, too.

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  40. My life seems to be full of assignments and goals … I have a bunch at all times. Right now I am working on making sure that my sister’s wedding on Friday is perfect. I also have plans to do some research this week for my thesis.

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  42. Sick of your photography posts? No way! They are my favorite thing about your blog!!!

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