behind-the-scenes: shooting recipes

May 1, 2019 Portland, OR, USA


This post was done in partnership with Canon U.S.A, who sponsored this post by providing the compensation and the Canon EOS RP camera kit to make it happen! I've exclusively used Canon cameras and lenses since the start of my blogging career, and I've very excited to share with you all the reasons why in this post. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own, and thank you for supporting the sponsors that make Hummingbird High possible!


Today I'm sharing the behind-the-scenes of a process that many of you have asked me about throughout my years of blogging: shooting a recipe!

First things first: I'm completely self-taught at photography. Back in 2011, the year that I started Hummingbird High, the food photography courses that are abundant today simply didn't exist! I taught myself by reading literally the ONE book about food photography that was available at the time, and perhaps more importantly, by practicing, practicing, practicing. I started by taking pictures of my baked goods with a cell phone camera (seriously!), before graduating to my very first Canon DSLR (a Canon Rebel XS, for those curious) and eventually building my way up to full-frame models like the Canon 5D Mark IV and the Canon EOS RP that I used for these pictures. And while I could probably write a book on everything I’ve learned about food photography in the last eight years, I figured I’d start by telling you all about the five principles I use to guide my photography while shooting a recipe:

1. With food photography, start with a good subject.


What does "a good subject" mean in food photography? That means a recipe that is appetizing and tasty, looks beautiful when plated and served, and something that you personally enjoyed and want your friends and family to enjoy too. However, remember that terms like "good", "appetizing", "tasty", and "beautiful" are subjective — what looks appetizing to you may look unappealing to somebody else. It's best not to get too hung up on them! So instead of worrying about others’ standards, I encourage you to focus on what they mean to you.

And what do those terms mean to me, exactly? Well, when it comes to the recipes in my blog, my aim is to style them in a way that looks like it could be ready for a slightly elevated gathering of friends and family. I’d serve it neater than what I’d ordinarily serve myself and Erlend on a weeknight. That means wiping down any smudges or smears from the plate, and styling the food a little more thoughtfully — like plating cakes on cake stands, and maybe garnishing with something fun like sprinkles and candy if we're celebrating a special occasion.


But other times, I'll go for a more casual look and create a scene that's more low-key: maybe there's a little bit of mess on the table from garnishing or finishing the recipe with one of its ingredients. Maybe all I've done is move some cookies off their sheet pan and onto a wire rack. Or maybe even not, because the cookies looked plenty tasty out of the oven without any intervention needed. Regardless, this is really where you can have fun and develop your own style by embracing any quirks and what YOU think looks best.


2. Understand the basic technical rules and angles, but don't be afraid to experiment.


When it comes to food photography itself, you'll notice that most food photos are shot from the same two angles: overhead (the technical term for this is "flat lay"), or from a three-quarters angle. The former is meant to mimic a bird's eye view of the food, while the latter is meant to mimic the view of somebody sitting down at the table. The truth is, you're almost guaranteed to get a decent shot of your food using either of these two angles.

Flat lay is great for food that tends to be "two-dimensional" and, er, flat — like a sheet pan of cookies! The flat lay really allows you to see details like the puddles of molten chocolate or flakes of sea salt that you wouldn't see as well from other angles:


The three-quarter angle is better for food that is bigger and more three-dimensional, like cakes. The flat lay angle doesn't really allow you to see the detail on the cake’s sides like the three-quarters angle does:


But of course, don't ever feel restricted by these two popular food photography angles. I frequently shoot cakes straight-on, or sometimes even from an angle that's slightly below the cake and pointing the camera upwards to make the cake seem bigger and more impressive:


Similar to my first rule, experiment with different angles and find out what works for YOU.


3. Chase the best light by staying flexible and adaptable.


There’s a saying that photography is the study of light and that light determines everything — what you can see, the mood of the picture, and ultimately, the overall story you’re telling. That means using the very best possible light you can. For me, that means shooting my recipes in natural light. With natural light, the colors in your photographs will be their most true selves, with little editing needed.

So what does being a natural light photographer actually entail? Literally chasing light. I shoot most of my recipes at the time of day when the sun is streaming the most light through the largest windows of my house. Oftentimes, I rewrite my entire schedule to catch the most amount of light; it can change dramatically depending on the time of day, the season, and the weather. And even with my flexible schedule, it can be a challenge (especially living in Portland, where it’s rainy and gray for over 200 days a year).

As a result, I’ve learned to be adaptable and figured out ways to maximize the little light I sometimes get: I use tripods and C-stands to stabilize my camera while I shoot at large apertures and slow shutter speeds; I use foam boards and white backdrops to reflect back light on my subject; and I use an LED panel to help boost the natural light.


4. Rely on the right camera.


Although many people rely on their phones to take food photos, I really, truly believe that you need a good digital camera to take your photography to the next level. For me, that means choosing a Canon camera. I tried a bunch of brands, but at the end of the day, I loved the way colors really popped on Canon cameras. Not to mention how their cameras felt in my hands, too — Canon cameras are so well-designed and ergonomic that even their heavier models feel like a natural extension of my hand.

For the food photos in this post, I used the Canon EOS RP. Unlike a DSLR camera, which uses a mirror inside the camera body to reflect the image into an optical viewfinder, the Canon EOS RP is mirrorless and has no such mirror, making it much lighter and more nimble than my full-frame DSLR. Not only is this a great quality for travel and out-and-about photography, but the Canon EOS RP literally *saved my back* when I was finishing the photo shoots for Weeknight Baking, my upcoming cookbook. People often underestimate how physically demanding photography can be; the final shoots lasted about twelve hours per day, and I was on my feet with the Canon EOS RP in my hands for the majority of those hours. Its lighter weight really helped reduce the physical stress that long shoot days usually have on my body.


5. Be kind to yourself and have fun!


If you read all of the above and thought, “Wow! This is definitely more work than I thought it was.” Yes, that’s true, lol. There are a ton of days—or weeks, even—in which photographing recipes for this blog is frustrating, like when it’s the middle of winter in Portland and I haven’t seen sunlight in weeks, or when I’ve worked hard on a tasty and delicious recipe that just doesn’t look the way I want it to on camera. But it’s also a lot of fun, and that’s what’s kept me shooting, practicing, and learning about food photography almost every day in the last eight years. The challenges are part of what makes photography rewarding and make the journey as a whole worthwhile. So be kind to yourself; if you find yourself frustrated while shooting a recipe, remember that food photography is an art and not a science — there’s no right or wrong way to do it.

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