7 Inexpensive Tools for Food Photography
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Thankfully food photography has moved far beyond the odd, old tricks of using glue thickeners but there are a few things I like to keep on hand for shoots in restaurants or in a studio.
When I was starting out as a food photographer, I read a guide of items to have for food photography that listed off a bunch of typical photography gear such as a tripod and full frame camera. I didn’t feel anymore prepared to tackle a food photography shoot afterwards than I did before reading the list. So for this list, I wanted to share the tools I use specifically for food photography but I’m bending that intention a little bit here.
A diffuser and reflector are both good to have in general for any type of photography but I initially picked mine up because I often found myself struggling to find good light in various restaurant situations. Sometimes a sunny spot near a window would be too bright and having a diffuser on hand helped me out. Occasionally, I found myself shooting in a dark restaurant with only a tiny bit of light and then a reflector saved me from having to contort myself into some sort of weird shape in an attempt to squish my body as close to a window as possible.
Over the last few months, I haven't had much time to take test shots or photos specifically for this blog so I've been doing a lot of that at night. A good chunk of these sample photos were taken well after dark. The photo above on the left is actually brightened up a bit and most of the sample photos were taken at night.
Once you spend an hour or two trying to photoshop out plate smudges, you will never forget to quickly wipe down each plate before shooting. It’s a 2 second task that can save a lot of editing time. I also like having towels on hand for functional uses such as moving hot plates around and wiping up any condensation that might occur.
For commercial food shoots, I tend to have a range of kitchen towels to use in my compositions. In the GIF below, I added a blue towel under the 2nd glass to fill add a little color and depth.
At home, I have a glass swizzle stick that I picked up at a little antique shop, which has come in handy for coffee cinemagraphs, sparkling wine photos and when I need to gently nudge things around into the perfect spot. There are also all sorts of decorative swizzle sticks that are good to have around as photo props or stirrers.
One of my favorite quick tricks that actually feels like a photo hack is using a swizzle stick or more likely a plastic stirrer to revive a beer that looks flat. If you quickly stir up a flat beer, it froths up again and looks freshly poured.
It can sometimes be difficult to photograph a dish so it looks appealingly glistening and not greasy. Occasionally, I prefer to control the situation by lightly dabbing a greasy item with a towel and then brushing on a bit of oil to control the overall shine.
I also use a tiny bit of oil on fruits and vegetables from time to time if I need to brighten up the highlights in my photo.
Do you need a spray bottle? Not exactly. Should you get one? Absolutely. To be totally honest, I probably have an irrational love of mist, which led me to make up all sorts of justifications for buying a spray bottle. It’s not expensive. It’s small and packable. It makes mist!
Mist when photographed in front of a sunbeam looks incredible (or a beam of flash in this case). It’s frequently unnecessary but in the right moment it can be a perfect thing to have on hand. I almost never pack my spray bottle for shoots but I love having it in my back pocket at home. Sometimes you just gotta live a little and buy that prop that doesn't make sense and you'll almost never use but it'll be total delight when you do. A spray bottle is that prop for me.
When I have a handful of photo shoots stacked up in one day, I don’t want to carry a lot of equipment. Having a camera body, two lenses and a tripod might not seem too heavy at first but after 3 shoots it can feel like a thousand pounds. My back doesn't want to hear it after a day of schlepping around town. So, I have a small pocket mirror tucked into my bag that can act almost like a mini reflector if I need a little bit more light but have chucked my reflector off to the side at home to save space and weight. For detail dish photos, I’m often photographing a pretty small area so a pocket mirror is just enough. This won’t do much for large items but it’s perfect if I’m in a pinch and trying to get a detail shot. It also weighs about as much as feather and my back doesn't have a hissy fit at the end of the day.
Every now and again I like to dabble in watercolor painting, so I have a couple of brushes laying around in a corner of my office space. While I initially purchased them for their intended purpose of painting, I’ve found myself grabbing them with surprising frequency when I’m shooting at home to dab on a droplet of water or smooth down some rebellious herbs into place or as a questionable photo prop.
These are the things that I have found occasionally useful during food photo shoots but you should also stay aware of the things around you. Whether you’re on location or at home, just about anything can be a prop or a tool. Don’t worry too much about having the exact right thing. In general don't worry about taking the right photo or having the right thing, just go create something that makes you happy.