Food Photography Blog

Welcome to the Food Photography Blog where Food Photographer, Michael Ray, gives his views on food photography, food photographers, commercial photography, and various food related topics.

"This blog will be a monthly (give or take) publication on the subjects of food photography, professional commercial photography, and other related issues. I will try to make the subjects interesting to photographers, photography students, food stylists, and other related food professionals. Your comments are welcome and if there are any subjects that you would like a article written about, feel free to make a suggestion."

Comments welcome:

If you would be interested in seeing Mike’s food photography
take a look at his on-line food photography portfolio.
If you find a need for a food stylist, please take a look at
Mike's food stylist directory.

Current Food Photography Topics

How To Photograph Food!

Sheen in food photography - 8/1/05 - NEW!

Food stylists and Food styling from a photographer's perspective.

Is your photography web site doing what it should?

How to become a better photographer.

How to photograph food on a grill

Tricks of the trade in food photography

What are food photographers’ web pages for?

Morning Light...

'True' fill light in food photography

Bigger is not always better…

future blog topics

Food Photography Art Direction via email

What makes one photographer better than another?

How to become a professional Photographer

Basic Photographic Lighting

The Photographic Portfolio

Photographic Lights


How to photograph food or... Food Photography for wannabe Food Photographers

About the food photographer.  I’ve been a professional photographer now for more years than I care to admit and for the last five or so years, I’ve been specializing is photographing food.  I may not be an expert, but I’m as close as your going to get for free, here on the Internet.  So you be the judge and learn what you can, and if you find yourself disagreeing with what you read here, tough…  Ya get what ya pay for, or as my six year-old niece explained to me about the fair distribution of the toys at her daycare,  “Ya get what ya get!”

Purpose of Food photography

I realize that the discussion of different types of photography may not really help you in learning how to photograph food, but it may answer a few questions regarding the profession of food photography.  I’m attempting to cater to three different audiences here.  I would like to help educate the budding student professional or high-schooler that is trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up.  I’d like to give them a little glimpse into a profession that not too many individuals know much about.  I would think that the typical high school guidance councilor knows little about the typical day of a food photographer.  The second type of viewer that I’m reaching out to, and most likely the largest audience of this article, is the advanced hobbyist photographer.  Maybe their brother-in-law is offering them a few bucks to photograph his new restaurant menu or maybe they just want to expand their photographic skill set.  For whatever reason, something inside drives them to learn more and more about this fascinating hobby of photography.  Finally, the third type of viewer I expect to visit this site is the advanced professional.  Because of this person, my competitor, I won’t be able to explain all my secrets.  I’m not quite as dumb as I look! Hey…? 

To save you some time, I will try to point out areas that pertain to the profession of food photography and also those sections that relate to the technique of food photography.

Food Photography Profession

Basically, there are three main types of food photography: Packaging, Advertising, and Editorial.  These are vague, abstract categories and you will always be able to find exceptions to the generalizations I’m about to make, but for discussion sake, here we go.


Of the three types of food photography, packaging tends to be the most technical, tedious, and anal-retentive type of food photography.  It is not unusual in a packaging shoot to actually count the number of peas shown on the plate.  Strict rules in advertising make everyone involved in the process.  Lighting must be relatively flat to show maximum detail and there is definitely not room for special effects.  Your job is to show the food in a realistic, favorable way.  An Art Director and a layout will be supplied and you are expected to match that layout to the best of your ability.  Most details of the shoot regarding cropping, propping, and backgrounds will be pre-determined.  Your input and creativity will be put on the back burner.  Most of the time at the shoot will be spent poking very small details and dropping images into layouts to see if everything fits just right.  Please don’t get wrong, it still beats “working for a living” but of all the types of food photography, this kind of work is the toughest.


I’m using this category of food photography as a broad “catch all” category encompassing actual food ads, menus, product brochures, and possibly billboards.  This type of food photography tends to be less tedious that packaging, but still can be quite restrictive because of layout parameters.  Someone, usually an Art Director, or possibly a Designer, has a predetermined idea of what end result will look like.  There is usually a layout, and everyone expects that the final photo to end up looking very close to the Artist’s illustration.   There is usually some room for taking advantage of unforeseen opportunities such as props or lighting special effects, but the end result must communicate the idea behind the photograph.  A pretty picture will sometimes take a lower propriety to communication.


This is the type of photography that most food photographers love the most.  The most important thing is “making a beautiful image”.    Instead of needing to communicate “Heinz’s hot, moist, meaty, abundant, corn fed ground meat stew”, you just need to make the viewer say “Wow!”   This kind of shot usually makes “lighting” the big issue of the photo.  Ya, it has to be well composed, and beautifully styled and nicely propped, but if the lighting isn’t spectacular, the shot ends up being just so-so. One of the greatest compliments I ever received was from a food stylist that said, “Mike, you can make a turd on a paper plate look good”.  Now that’s high praise!

The food photography team

Again, this info is for those of you who want to know more about the profession of food photography.  I’ll get around to actually giving you real tangible advice a little later.  In the world of Professional food photography, the picture is created, not by an individual, but buy a team.  This team consists of the following personal:

Food photographer – The food photographer’s job is to make sure that the Client and the rest of the team are happy campers.  Sometimes the experience of the shoot is as important as the actual photos that you end up producing.  Theoretically, you are in charge!  In reality, you are about fourth or fifth down on the chain of command.  Basically, my main job as photographer, other that client relations (schmoozing), is to make the initial lens selection, determine depth of field, and to artistically apply the lighting.   As the shoot goes on, the photographer’s job is to work with the team to refine the shot in such a way that as many team members as possible, end up happy with the final results.  Of course there are members of the team whose opinions are more important than others, like the guy with the checkbook, for example. 

Other Food Photography Team members (I’ll try to expand on this someday)

Photo assistant

The food stylist

The Prop Stylist

The stylist’s assistant(s)

The client

The client’s client

The client’s client’s boss

 The process of the shoot. (subject under construction)

 Different issues related to food photography

Food Photography Technique

Cropping – It’s kinda tough to discuss composition here.  I’ve spent twenty or so years learning about composition and it seems to be one of those topics that don’t translate very well into words.  Good composition is sort of like pornography.  You know it when you see it.  We could discuss things like shapes, tangents, compositional flow, balance, and all kinds of other high-faluten words, but they wouldn’t mean much.  The trouble is that Art is so damn subjective.  One man’s garbage is another’s Rembrandt.  If you can list a bunch of compositional rules, I’ll take those same rules and show you how they’ve been successfully broken.   Sometimes during the course of a photo shoot, I’ll make a stand and fight the rest of the team on a compositional issue, but not very often.

Propping – The props or background in food photography can be a very important element of success.  Not having the right prop can mean the difference between success and failure.  The correct prop or background will help set the mood of the photograph.  High key lighting with low-key props can be a recipe for confusion and disaster.  Many times in a food photography shoot, the entire team isn’t happy with the shot and no one really knows why.  In these cases, propping is usually the problem.  The propping is the thread that ties everything together.  The color, texture, and style of the props must complement the food for the “concept” of the photograph to make sense to the subconscious of the viewer.  I know, it sounds a little weird, and it is… It’s all really subjective and on most shoots, not everyone ends up completely happy with the end results.  As a matter of fact, I would venture to say that an all shoots, not everyone gets his or her way, but the important thing is that the end result be consistently excellent.  You need to trust in the rest of your team members.  If you don’t, you need to tweak the team so that the results are better and the working experience continues to be a pleasurable one for the majority of the team, or at least the client.

Camera Angle – Many times the angle that the food is to be photographed from has been determined in advance by the layout artist or art director.  He or she will usually have an illustration or sample photograph to show you what they expect you to produce.  If not, I would suggest that you choose an angle somewhere between 10 degrees and 45 degrees above the table surface.  You job as photographer is to make a two dimensional medium, (a photograph) as three dimensional as possible.  If you shoot from directly above so that you can’t see the sides of the food, you eliminate one of the two dimensions left available to create the impression of three dimensions. Not a good idea. The lower angle you shoot from, the more height the food will appear to have.  If you go too low though, you won’t be able to see the top of the food, thus eliminating another dimension.  These suggestions here are only basic rules of thumb.  Always remember, breaking the rules can sometimes be a fun and exciting thing. (I sure hope my daughter doesn’t read this…  This never ever applies to doing your schoolwork or listening to you PARENTS!)

Another factor in the decision of camera angle is that the lower you go, the better the food looks, but the more props you need to take up some of that vertical space created in the composition.  Also, remember that the professional is attempting to fill up image space in such a way as to make the client happy.  Food tends to be a horizontal subject matter, but sometimes the ad space you are trying to fill is vertical and sometimes there is copy (words) that you need to work into the composition.  If you’re an amateur and just trying to make a pretty picture, you will probably find yourself taking mostly horizontal pictures from kitchen chair height.

Focus – Along with lighting, focus tend to be a very trendy component of food photography.  Limited focus usually produces a more “artsy” feel to the photo and is seldom used in packaging and often used in editorial food photography.  Maximum focus is usually the technique of the packaging project.  Of course, there are always exceptions.  When limiting focus, make sure that you pick out the plain” of focus with great care.  Usually, you will want to select an angle of the food that is either at the very front of the plate or somewhere in the first third.  Try to choose an area where there is something specific to look at. If there is a pea sitting on a field or rice, focus on the pea.  Give the viewer something prominent to look at.  I find that I either shoot almost wide open, or I shoot for max, depth of field. (usually wide open)


Mood – Before you begin lighting a subject, you need to know which way you want to go, weather it’s high key, low key, or somewhere in between.  You can always change your mind and go in another direction, but at some point, you have to begin in one direction or another.  Most times, the mood of the shot will be determined by the art director or the leader of the project.  Their printed piece will have a “look” that they are attempting to maintain.  This look should be supported by not only the lighting, but also the propping, focus and composition.

Shape – Probably be biggest decision a food photographer will make during the creation of a photograph, is where he will place the main light.  Most novices will not realize how important in inch or two can be when positioning the main light.  Remember! Your job is to make a two-dimensional object (the final image) look as three dimensional as humanly possible.  One way you will do that is by lighting the object in such a way as to create as much shape and texture as possible.  The placement of the main light is made to create shape.  Is the main object being photographed most like a cube, a sphere, or a cylinder?  There are “classical” ways that artists have used to illustrate these shapes for centuries and there is a good reason for that!  You might want to consult a “how to draw” book at Boarders next time you’re there.  You’ll be amazed how much you can learn from drawing books.  Your real challenge is not so much to learn how to light well, the real challenge is to learn how to “see light” and what it does to the world around you.  The great thing is that you don’t need to be in a photo studio to learn this.  You can study light anywhere you find yourself with a few extra moments to give a little thought to what’s sitting in front of your face.   Another great way to learn how to light is to visit sites like the Black Book or the Work Book.  These sites are advertising mediums for the best photographers in the world.  Just for fun, try to figure out how they did the shots that you find yourself admiring.  They don’t have to be food shots either, just really good shots.  Good Lighting is good lighting… Where was the light placed?  How big was the light?  How many lights do you think they used?  Was it the light that “made” the shot, or was it the shadow that made the shot great?  LEARN TO SEE THE LIGHT.  Then it will be easy to see the light on your shots too.  Take a picture Look at it.  No, I mean REALLY look at it!  Move the light, take another picture and compare it to the last one.  (repeat as needed)  You need to think in terms of learning to see the light, not in terms of making pictures.  Pressing the shutter, does not a photographer make…

Which is the most important surface of the main object? If you put the main light on that side, will the shadow obscure some other important object?  Is that necessarily a bad thing?  What if I raise the light a couple of inches?  Will that change the shadow and make it worse or maybe better?  What about if I move the light a little farther behind the subject?  Does that give me a little more texture, or does it cause a glare on the surface? 

Texture - Do you want to emphasize or deemphasize the texture of the subject?  I like to “scrape” the light down the side of a food item when I’m looking for maximum texture (which is most of the time)  One inch can really make a difference when you’re trying to do this.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to reposition my lights and reflectors after the client has spun the plate just a fraction of an inch.  In food photography, inches really do matter. And bigger is not always better, either…

Another issue that is much more important than most photographer realize is light source size.  Boxes are more forgiving, and they’re a lot less textural too.  There is a rule of thumb in food photography and photography in general.  The bigger the light source, the less texture you will end up with.  If you’re shooting people, texture usually isn’t you friend.  That’s why so many people shooters us large umbrellas and boxes.  In food photography, texture is your friend, your desire and ambition.  In food photography, small light sources are a good thing. 

With all good things, there are drawbacks.  When you have small light sources that produce beautiful texture, you also get very crisp cast shadows.  Sometimes these shadows are unsightly and unwanted.  You will need to experiment with various fill techniques to alleviate these downsides.  Believe me though; the advantages of small light sources far outweigh the disadvantages when it comes to food photography and creating texture.  Having said that, if you live in Pittsburgh and you make a living photographing food, I strongly recommend that you use the largest light box possible!

Some food objects have a characteristic that make its texture somewhat unique in the world of photography.  Most things we are asked to shoot are opaque objects, but when it comes to food photography, many of our subjects offer us an interesting alternative way of showing texture.  Some of the things we are asked to shoot are translucent.  The translucent leaves of a salad can show the interesting texture we so desire to create, even more spectacularly than “scrapping light” can produce.  Keep you eyes peeled for opportunities like this.  Take you time and look to see what each food subject offers in the way of uniqueness.  Is there a way to create something special from this particular subject that other subjects do not offer.  Just think to yourself that this photo will only be good if you can somehow figure out a way to make it “special”.  Food has different types of reflective qualities.  Maybe it’s the sheen of the food that will make it special?  It’s all in the light.  It can be bland and boring, or it can be spectacular, depending on the lighting.  It’s up to you.

Types / brand names of equipment – Sure I have personal preferences when it comes to equipment, but there are plenty of good photographers (much better than I am) that don’t use my preferred equipment.  It’s sort of like asking a mechanic what type of wrench he prefers.  He’ll tell you, but if you ask him if he could do the same job with another brand, he’d answer in the affirmative.  Don’t get hung up on the hardware.  It’s all about what you do with it.  Having said that, I prefer to use a view camera to shoot food.  It gives me a few more focus options to work with, but I have some very good competitors that do not use a view camera for their food work.  (and I hope they never do… :-)

Rules of thumb in food photography

Use a smaller light source than you feel comfortable with.  Larger light sources are more forgiving and easier to use.  They also create very little texture on your subject.  Smaller is better!

Keep the light lower than you think you should.  Low lights create more texture on the top surface of moist food items.  Too many food photographers keep their main light to high that they don’t get as much texture as they could. They do this, mostly out of habit and because the cast shadows from high light sources are less distracting.  What they don’t realize that shadows can also be “interesting” too.  I read on some forum somewhere that it’s not the light that makes most photographs beautiful, but the shadows that make the shot.  I whole-heartedly agree.

The Steelers are the best (self explanatory)

Use more mirrors than you think you should.  Mirrors are like little baby “main lights” whose shadows can be hidden.  If I don’t have a hundred little mirrors lying around my studio, I don’t have a one.  Mirrors are great things.  You can either make them in all shapes and sizes or take them off to the shapes you need at the time.  There are times you need the light to be long and thin and there are other times when you can use a circular mirror.  I love mirrors.

Use less overall fill light than you think you should.  One mistake many photographers make is to use more fill light than they need.  The rule of thumb is that the less fill light, the more drama and texture your end up with.  You can go too far though.  Very seldom do I see a successful food photograph with black areas in it.  Black food is usually a no-no.

Keep the main light as far back as you can without creative too much glare of the food surface. Most armatures light from the front.  You can’t get too much texture from lighting from the front.  Don’t light from the front.  Did I mention lighting from the front? Don’t

Use either a really short or really long lens.  Unusual perspectives are interesting.

My wife is always right, and I seldom am.  You married?  Enough said…

Image Talk

This is a good example of using a small light source. You can see the cast shadow on the left of the plate made from the main light. Do you find it distracting? Do you think that a large light source could create the same degree of texture? Take a look at the two shadows cast across the upper right of the background. No matter how hard you try, can't do that with a large light source. Also, notice the highlight area on the lower left hand side of the food item. By using a small mirror reflected back from the main light, I was able to light only the lower half of the item, enhancing the appearance of depth. Also, the texture of the white dish is enhanced by the use of the small light source. The minimum depth of field was chosen to isolate the viewer's attention. I think it worked. You?

Please note the direction of the main light.  You can see it by looking at the bowl in the upper left of frame.  Not from the front, is it?  This image is a really good example of the magic that small light sources and translucency can cause.  Take a look at the lettuce leaf and shrimp tail.  Besides the neat translucency, backlighting causes increased texture and rim light effects.  Rim lighting helps to create that third dimension we photographers strive so hard to create. Also note the light ratio.  The front surfaces are intentionally under lit (compared to the rear main light) to enhance the appearance of depth.

Ok, I don't always use small light sources.  As a matter of fact, this is probably my all time favorite image.  Remember what I said about breaking the rules?  Here ya go...

I wanted to use this image to point out something I forgot to mention in the copy above.  The texture of a subject doesn't always mean "rough" texture.  BBQ sauce has a texture all its own, smooth.  If I would of used a small light source here, I would have ended up with a bunch of bright tiny highlights all over the subject.  (like there are in the front of the bottom piece)  By the way, sauce and gravy are very tough to deal with.  You need to use a broad light reflector to add layers of highlights.  Soft highlights.  The thing that really makes this shot, in my opinion, is the color pallet of the image. This color blue is really beautiful.  As a matter of fact, just this month, there were two Food magazine covers that used the same colors.

Another example of large and small light sources in the same shot. Notice the graduation of tone across the meat? Adds a little interest, doesn't it? Also, check out the reflection on the plate from the large backlight. It's a nice technique and I use it often.

You want sheen, but not too much on surfaces like this.  If there is no sheen at all, the steak looks dry, too much and can't see the dang food.  You need to work as a team with the stylist to come up with the quality wants.  Sometimes the sheen might be the stylist's fault, but more times that not, it's the lighting.

Yet again, a small light source.  Which way is the main light coming in from?  See how the tip of the slice is becoming transparent?  See the little spectacular highlights on the filling of the cake?  See how the from of the icing rose is in shadow?  Shows a lot of dimension , doesn't it? What do you think that this shot would look like if I would of placed the main light beside the lens, like most novices would have?

This is an example of an Advertising image. Notice how all the products are in focus. This usually isn't the case with Editorial work. Most brochure designers need to sell several products at one time. Quick quiz... Large or small light source? From behind or in front? Did I use any mirrors? How about cast shadows? What shape are the beans? What is the typical way to light that particular shape? Is the light ratio relatively high, or low? Of all the products in the shot, what one item dictated the direction of the main light? Ok, you pass.

Again another example of translucency and rear light.

Remember when I talked about lighting for shape? What shape are these food items? Again a large light source, right? Yes and no. The large rear light creates some really cool reflections on the plate (I use this technique all the time), but is that the only light source that I used? I'll never tell... There's a lot of texture in the front of that wrap, not a large light source thing, is it? Look at the translucency of the tomato. Sort of adds dimention, hey?

Look at all the texture on the top of the pie! How did I light the inside of the pie? Do you think that the slight cast shadow across the front surface of the ice cream box adds any dimension? Any of those leaves appear transparent? Small light source? Remember, the key to getting better as a photographer, is to learn to see the light. You do that by observing images and experimenting.

Ok, now it's your turn. Go for it!


Food styling from the perspective of a food photographer.

If you want to learn as much as possible about food styling, you might want to know what a food photographer thinks about food styling and food stylists.  Just remember, this will only be one perspective, and a biased one at that.

As a food photographer, I really don’t get to touch the food very much.  Every once in a while, when the stylist isn’t looking, I might reach in and tweak something or another, but that’s it.  The food stylist’s job is to prepare the food to its best advantage for the photo.  The food photographer’s job is to compose the shot, choose perspective, lens and lighting.  Just remember that the food photographer and food stylist are there as a team to do one main thing, make the client happy.  The stylist and photographer need to work together as efficiently as possible to please the client and to do this as quickly as possibly.  That doesn’t mean that the team can’t go above and beyond the call of duty in order to produce a shot better than the client’s wishes.  Just remember that time is money and if the client is happy, he or she may consider you wasting money if you spend too much time on one shot when the client wants to move on to the next one.

Food Styling - Dos and don'ts

Here are a couple things that you can do as a food stylist that would be greatly appreciated by your teammate, the food photographer.

Arrive well before the client. Nothing starts a day off as badly as when part of your team shows up late to a shoot.  This means the stylist, the photo assistant, and yes even the photographer.  The day starts of under a lot of pressure and usually goes straight to hell after that.  The client knows for a fact that he is spending a whole lot of money and wants to see the day progress as efficiently as possible.  It’s his nickel, so we’re here to give him (or her) want he (or she) wants.

Unless the photographer specifically asks you not to make a stand-in, do it. You may think that you are saving time by not making a stand-in, but more times than not, you will be wasting time and creating a situation that will end up with a poorer final food photograph.  The reason is…  A photographer makes decisions about his composition and lighting based on what the food item looks like. When I say stand-in , I mean food that looks as much as possible to the hero, including size, shape, surface texture. If he has nothing to practice on, he can’t make vital decisions until the hero food hits the set.  And then, the time required to compensate for what he thought it was going to look like, may take longer that the life of the food.  Not only that, it makes the photographer look bad to the client.  And believe me, photographers really don’t like that.  And it may show the next time the photographer is involved in the food stylist selection process.

During your day’s chit-chat with the client, make it a point NOT to talk about other photographers.  Whether it’s good or bad, photographers don’t like it when you talk about their competition in front of clients.  Maybe we’re all just a little insecure, I don’t know.  I do know that I really hope it when a stylist mentions another photographer in front of the client.  When the client leaves, sure go ahead.  Most photographer love to hear gossip just as much as anyone else in this world, just be careful of what you say.  If you say the wrong kind of things, the photographer may wonder just what you say about him behind HIS (or her) back.

Compliment him (or her) on the way out the door.  I know this sounds kind of shallow, but photographers are in a field where their egos are dependent on the subjective interpretation of their work.  Everyone likes an “attaboy” once in a while and people tend to like people that let you know that they admire you in some way.  It’s only human nature and besides, what can it hurt?  Who knows, he may even give you an “attaboy” too.


Is your photography web site doing what it should?


Why your photography web site probably sucks!

Pretty catchy title, hey? Or course, I probably haven’t seen your particular web site, but if yours is like most photographer’s that I have seen, it sucks.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that your pictures aren’t beautiful, I’m saying that the site isn’t doing what it is supposed to do or possibly could do. If you’re like most professional photographers, the main reason that you put together a web site is to drum up business, right?.

As I see it, a professional photographer’s web site has basically two functions.

1. To communicate various details about our business. We all use our web pages to communicate many details about our business. For example, we will most certainly want to give out our contact information, driving instructions, and maybe even a client list to assure any prospects that we have "been around" and that other companies trust us enough to do their work.

2. To show clients and potential clients our portfolio. This is probably the most important use of the photographer’s web page. In the old days, we used to lug around our portfolio from agency to agency or from company to company hoping that one of these prospects would like our work enough to hire us for a project or two. Hopefully the buyer would like that first job we did for them so much that they would turn into a repeat client. Now a days, we photographers still have our portfolios but we now depend more and more on the Internet to show prospects our portfolios. The great advantage of a web page is that people can see our portfolio without ever asking us to show it to them. That’s if they can find our site…

I’m a little reluctant to share this information with the rest of you guys, but more and more of my work is coming from the Internet. Usually, it’s companies that have found me via some search engine, saw my web page, liked it, and hired me over the phone to do a shoot for them. Yes, it does happen. And it’s happening more and more every month. I think it shows that people are becoming more and more comfortable purchasing items and services over the Internet. For those of us that can recognize this trend and be ready to capitalize on it, it means lots more money in our piggybanks.

Like I mentioned above, the chain of events goes like this…

Found me via a search engine, saw my page, liked my work, hired me.

No one will ever hire you if they can’t see your work and they can't see your work if they can't find it on the search engines. And that’s why your web page probably sucks. So, you don’t think that your web page sucks. Try this. Go to Google and type in "photography" or "photographer" and your city. If your web site doesn’t come up on the first three or four pages, it isn’t working hard enough for you.

I want to give you a few tips here on how you can get people to find your web page on the Internet search engines. Please realize that I am a photographer and I am NOT a S.E.O. (search engine optimization) guru. I’m certainly no guru, but here is what I know on the subject of S.E.O.

Tip #1. Pick your battles. You probably realize that you can’t "come up high" (CUH) on every search done on the Internet, nor would you want to. Your goal is to let people find you when they are looking for your specific services. You have to put yourself in the searcher’s shoes. The person searching is going to type in two or three words that define what they are looking for. Try as hard as you can to figure out what those words are most likely to be. Those words or phrases are called your keywords. Choosing those keywords is a very important task. If you choose incorrectly, it may cost you quite a bit of money.

When I designed my first web page, I came up with a list of words and phrases that I thought represented my business. (Pittsburgh, photography, photographer, commercial) Every time I searched for myself on the engines, I CUH and I thought everything was hunky dory. Then, one day just for the heck of it, I asked a client a hypothetical question. I said, " If you wanted to find a photographer in Dallas Texas to do a job for you, how would you do it?" He said that he would go to Google and type in "Dallas Photographers". Photographers? I never even thought of that. It seemed so obvious, but somehow I had overlooked it. I went to Google and did a search with his key words and sure enough, I was nowhere to be found. I learned a lesson. Don’t take your key words for granted. The most important thing you will do when optimizing your page is to come up with the correct set of key words.

Tip #2 Know where to put your key words. This is where things get a little technical. Don’t worry too much. I don’t know enough to get too technical.

A web page is a computer file that is made of different types of fields and these fields tell the computer to do different things. As I understand it, there are four places that search engines look for information that eventually determine where they list your page.

Title field
First 250 words in your index page

If you don’t maintain your own web page, don’t sweat it. Just tell your designer what you want him or her to put in these fields. They’ll know what you mean.

The "title" field is the copy that gets saved when you "bookmark" a web page. I guess that search engine developers think that that is a good representation of what is on the page. Many web designer give more thought to how the words look like and less to what they communicate to the search engines. The words will never look like anything if the person searching, doesn’t find your page in the first place. In other words, try to stuff as many "key words" into your title as possible. Instead of my title saying "M I C H A E L R A Y P H O T O G R A P H Y". I would be much better off with a title such as "Michael Ray Photography – Pittsburgh Commercial photographer". That way I get four key words into the title. In the first example, there were no recognizable words at all because of the spaces between the letters. Starting to catch on?

The next field that you need to be concerned about is the meta tag "keywords." The Keywords field is the place where you list the words and phrases that describe your business. Don’t let the name of the field mislead you. You will want to come up with words and phrases for this field. The reason that you want to come up with phrases, in addition to individual words, is because if someone does a search using your phrase, your page will come up higher than someone else who has those very same individual words in their keyword list. For example, If someone did a search for "Pittsburgh photographer" and my keyword list contained the phrase "Pittsburgh photographer" my page would appear higher than another photographer's page who listed those same keywords individually. Just for fun, do a search on "your" keywords and then look at the source code for all the pages that CUH.

The next field to deal with this the Meta tag "Description". Search engines will often use this field if they include a short description next to your listing in their search results. This field should be a clear and concise sentence packed with as many keywords as you can stuff into it. Since people may very well end up reading this sentence in a search engine listing, make it readable and use proper punctuation. I have read that search engines place more relevance on complete sentences as opposed to random phrases (non punctuated lines of copy).

The next area of your web page that will effect your search engine placement, is the first 250 words on the index page. This is where most photographers get into real trouble. If you’re like most photographers, you have little or no copy whatsoever on your pages. Computers and search engines can’t tell what kind of photographer you are or how good your photos are. And to make things worse, many web designers use graphics to replace much of the copy that does appear. Your logo my say "Cleveland’s most wonderful fashion photographer" but all the search engine sees is "logo.gif". Some people add an "alt txt" file with verbal descriptions of the picture, but I hear that most engines ignore this information. Search engines love "copy" and don’t give a hoot about pictures. You have to figure a way around that if you ever want to CUH on the engines. You may actually have to sacrifice some of the aesthetic appeal of your site to make it more search engine friendly. When you do write the copy for your web page, you again want to pack the copy with as many keywords as you can and still make it sound logical. Don’t go crazy with the keywords either. I have read that you do not want to repeat any keyword more than seven times. Some search engines actually will penalize you for trying to "get over" on them. Some people try different tricks to maximize their placement. Some of the tricks work and some don’t.

This brings me to a subject that I know will really upset many of you. Search engines hate Flash. Flash is a movie file and search engines can’t see into the flash movie to read their much beloved copy. If your page is flash, you might as will cut your wrists right now. Ok, maybe that isn’t necessary, but don’t count on ever CUH on the engines. You can add the title, keywords, and description fields to the flash site, but you can’t add the copy that some of the engines look for.

Google is King, by the way. Most searches done today are done on Google. All search engines have their own way of determining how they will list our sites and all these ways are closely guarded secrets. These secret ways are what differentiate them from their competitors and therefore, remain closely guarded. There are actually some very good forum web sites where Search Engine Optimizations experts gather to give their theories on how Google ( and the other search engines function. I sometimes lurk on these forums and this is what I’ve learned. Remember, this is ALL theory, bits and pieces gathered and assimilated in my very limited brain. So look out and remember the source.

There is something they call "the sand box effect". This theory says that no matter how relevant your site is, your stuck in the sand box (very low listing) for the first six months after registration. There are also people that believe that the longer your site has been in existence, the higher you will appear, all other things being equal. From my experience, I have come to agree with both of these theories.

Google places a great deal of weight on how many highly ranked sites you have linked back to your site. Google ranks sites on many factors and the higher the site’s ranking, the higher up on the search engine listing that site will appear when the relevant search words are used in someone’s search. The Google ranking is based on a scale of one to ten. If your page is ranked a 3 and you can get some higher ranked sites to link to you, your site will eventually be ranked higher too.

So, this is what you need to do to CUH on the search engines

1. Dump the flash
2. Spend a lot of time coming up with just the right keywords and phrases.
3. Jam as many of those key words and phrases into your index, description, and keyword files.
4. Write some copy using lots of your keywords and include that copy on your home page. (repeat those keywords no more than 7 times)

After that, you need to let the search engines know that your site is ready, willing, and able. There are free search engine submission page on the Internet that will submit your page to a bunch of sites for you. My favorite is
Again, remember that if Google is king, Yahoo is probably Queen.

And another thing… See if your ISP has a stats program attached to your site. The stats program will look at the “Web log” file on the server that houses your web site and will give you a bunch of really good information. It will tell you things like how many visitors you are getting, how long they stay, what pages they look at, where the visitors are coming from, and what phrases they used on a search engine to find you. Really good, useful information. If your ISP doesn’t offer this service, you can buy some relatively inexpensive software yourself.

Good Luck


How to become a better photographer.

Observe, shoot, analyze

I’ve been in this business for a long time. When I was first starting out, I used to spend hours and hours looking through old and new copies of the “Black Book” and “Work Book”. I would go through and find images that I really liked. I would study them and try to figure out WHY I liked them. I would go back time and time again to answer little questions that I would think of later.

Was the shadow soft or hard? Was the light direction from “behind” or from “in front” of the subject? What was the overall color pallet of the image? What type of perspective / lens did I think the photographer used? Did the photographer use minimum focus, or was everything in focus? Was there anything in the way of special effects used? If so, how did they do that? How many lights were used? What shape was the highlight, round or square? Did it even matter to the shot? Did I like the shot because of the subject matter (scantily clad hot babe?), the lighting, or the novel composition? Or was it even something else. How high was the light source? Were there long or short shadows? How much of the subject was in shadow? Were there cast shadows in the frame of the picture from objects outside the photos. Was the environment real or was a set constructed for the shot? Was the crop “tight” or loose? I would keep leafing through the books and keep asking questions. If you keep “observing” and experimenting yourself, you’ll improve.

One way to get better at shooting, is to shoot more. Now in the era of digital photography, you really don’t have much of an excuse not to shoot more than you do now. Don’t wait for someone to hire you to shoot something. Do it on your own. I know that there are other things in your life demanding your time too, but if you want to get better at this thing called photography, you’re going to have to work at it. It’s all about priorities. From time to time there is something I like to do and I think that you might want to give this a try. Find a shot or a technique that you really admire and try to copy it. Yes, that’s right, I said copy it, exactly, if you can. But isn’t that illegal, you might ask.? Not if you don’t show anybody, it isn’t. Besides, you probably won’t be able to copy it exactly enough to make it illegal, anyways. What you will do though, is learn a heck of a lot. You might even invent another way to do the intended technique or even invent a new technique of your own. Trust me, it’s a great way to learn new techniques and to improve on other aspects of photography too. You’ll find solutions to problems you never even knew you would have in the first place.

Don’t be too worried about failing. (unless your client objects – details, details) Failure is a great tool it you learn to use it correctly. If you keep swinging at the ball, you’re bound to learn how to hit the thing sooner or later. Take the time to really look at your attempts / experiments. How could you have made the shot better. Forget the excuses, jobs will always bring with them limitations. The really good photographers produce great photos even with the client or reality imposed limitations. Mediocre photographers make excuses, good photographers over come the barriers and make the shot great. Maybe not all the time, everyone can have a bad day. It’s just that the really good photographers have less than everyone else. And when they do make mistakes, they have the ability to learn from them so that the next time a similar situation should come up, they know for sure what doesn’t work and have probably already figured out what will probably work.

That’s how you really learn to light and to be a better photographer.


How to photograph food on a grill.

Ok, some of the things that I’m about to tell you are top secret. If you tell anyone else, I might have to kill you. I’m letting you in on some of the tricks that do separate me from my competitors. So, if you’re a competitor of mine, please don’t read this.

Some of you probably don’t realize this, but a food photographer doesn’t get to play with the food, except to maybe move it a hair or two when the food stylist isn’t looking. I have fork scars on the back of my hands from severe wounds caused by a few irate food stylists angered by me actually touching the food. Only the food stylist touches the food, if I’m lucky, I get to pick the lens, the camera angle, and the lighting, sometimes. If any of you are in the business of commercial photography, you already know that our primary job is to make our client happy with what we do, secondarily; we are in the business of making great photographs. Sometimes we actually get to do both, depending on how good of a client we have. What I’m trying to say is, most of the choices that we make in a commercial photo shoot, are subject to the approval of the client and of the other members of the crew. It’s a complicated subject, maybe we’ll talk about it at another time.

So here’s the project. We’re to photograph a tuna steak on a grill for a local grocery store chain direct mail promotion. This is a fun project. If you’re doing food photography for packaging or advertising, you sometimes have very little creative license, but on these kind of editorial jobs, the object is to simply make appealing photos marketing the chosen subject matter. In other words, make pretty pictures. The client simply wants us to promote grilling their Tuna.

Here’s how we did it.

Here’s the part that you can’t tell anyone about. How do you think we keep the crew from asphyxiating from the grill fumes? Right, we fake it.

Step one. Sawzall off the bottom of the grill. (If you’re doing this at home, I suggest that you either first consult with your wife, or better yet, borrow the neighbor’s grill) Set the bottomless grill on top of a glass or Plexiglas surface that is supported from the two ends. The glass tableshould be elevated off the ground so that you have enough room underneath the glass to place an upside down light box. On top of the glass table surface, we placed a piece of frosted plex, and on top of that we placed a piece of orange gel. To simulate burning charcoal brickets, we used new charcoal brickets with “fire place” ash (stylist supplied fire place ash is preferred so that I don’t have to remember to bring in my own) sprinkled over and between the brickets. We used a stick to make spaces in the ash where we wanted the “fire” (gelled light from down below) to show through. The ash dirties the new charcoal to make it look like it’s already half burned. I know of some photographers that will use baby powder sprinkled over the charcoal to give a similar effect. You will need to experiment with the intensity of the “fire light” to get the desired brightness.

On this shot we used a black metal grate. I have sometimes used a new chrome grate and if you do, you need to add some type of white reflection in the chrome, or everything looks artificial. I prefer the black grate, big time.

If you ever stick you nose down into a grill while it’s burning, you would see, through singed eyelashes, that the environment is pretty dramatic. You will want to “skim the light” as much as possible across the food, keeping as much light off of the charcoal as possible. This will help the fire to look more dramatic. I used one light (big 10”) and some mirrors and reflectors to kick light back into areas that needed a little help. I like to use mirrors to reflect light back into the subject because then I can be very specific where that light is placed. If you use white cards or other types of reflectors, the light is much less controllable, and just sort of washes out large areas of the image instead of small specific areas. The intensity of the lighting was very low to create a minimum depth of field. If your faking something, it's a good idea to keep it out of focus. I also used my “true fill” light set at a really low intensity to keep the light ratio as dramatic as possible. (I hate to brag, but I’ll tell you more about my big 10” at another time.)

At this point I’ll tell you a few stylist tricks. The grill marks are put on one at a time with a metal bar that has been preheated over a flame on the stove. The direction of the grill marks is always an issue of discussion relating to the overall composition of the shot. NOTHING in a shot like this, “just happens”. The position of every little element, no mater how small, is there because we either wanted it there, or it was there because we couldn’t change it.. The tuna and veggies were lightly oiled before the shot.


Tricks of the trade in food photography

Here are a few little tricks and gadgets regarding food photography and commercial photography in general. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a stylist and don’t claim to be. I’m a photographer, and as a photographer, I need to be able to fend for myself whenever the food stylist isn’t around.

Pure Lemon Extract. Ya know that blue ink that the manufacturer prints on most bottles, usually indicating the lot number (I think)? There is only one thing that will take that type off. Not bestine, not rubbing alcohol, not Goo-off, only pure lemon extract. You can find it at any old grocery store.

Bestine – Before you start playing with this stuff, read the label, nasty stuff! If you have a label on something you need to photograph and it’s giving you a hard time coming off, try some Bestime. A warning though… If the material the tag is stuck on is Plexiglas, or some kind of transparent plastic, or even a painted surface, be very careful. Sometimes bestine will melt (yes, melt) the material. This can be a real problem, especially if you need to return the product being photographed.

Dulling spray – My favorite brand is Krylon, but I’ve been having a hard time finding it these last couple years. As I become more experienced, I find myself using less and less of this stuff. If you spray something with dulling stray, it usually looks a little fake. There aren’t too many matt stainless steel sets of silverware on the market.

Fun*Tac – Basically, this stuff is like clay, only it doesn’t leave a residue on a surface once it’s removed. We use it for making things stick to each other. In food photography, Fun Tac keeps the fork where you want it instead of sliding down the plate where gravity says it should be. There are a million uses for this stuff. In the studio, it has a nickname, “Blue shit”, as in, “where’s the blue shit”. Everyone knows what you mean.

Tungsten wire – Now a days with Photogshop and everything, I don’t use this like I used to, but “in the old days” (back when the snow was deeper and the hills higher) we used to use this stuff to suspend small items. It’s basically very very very fine thread. Did I say how fine it is? Strong too. Now with cloning and everything, we just don’t use it as much as we used to.

Blocks of wood – Not one of the more glamorous pieces of equipment around, but we use them almost every shoot. Basically, we cut up a bunch of 1 x 4s and 2 x 4s so we have various sizes of blocks to prop things up on. Sometimes we prop up the backgrounds, sometimes the props or dishes, sometimes we prop up the food itself. The more blocks and sizes of blocks you have the better. Make sure that you have “sets” and just not random sizes. Sometimes you might need to use two blocks (one at each end) to prop something up and will need two of the same size block to make the thing level.

Fake ice cubes – If you don’t know about Trengove, you’re not a real food stylist. Trengove is a special effects store in New York. They have some really cool stuff there and one of the things a food photographer will use all the time is fake ice cubes. They come in all shapes and sizes and you might want to buy this stuff as you need it, or even rent it. I think that “top of the line” ice cubes are going for about $35.00 a cube. Don’t worry though, it doesn’t melt.

Ice powder – This is another product that Trengove sells. It’s some kind of gelatin that comes in a dehydrated form and when you add water, the substance becomes a clear slushy mess that very closely resembles ice. It’s very fine and it’s the stuff that Budweiser has sticking to the bottles on all their commercials and billboards. The fun really comes when it’s time to apply the stuff. We’ve found that the best results come when you “flick” the stuff on. Things get really messy fast, but it’s a darn good time.

Crystal ice- This is very similar to Ice powder but much coarser. When these things are totally hydrated, they can be an inch or so in size. One mistake that I always make is to pour way too much of this stuff in a container of water. Let me warn you, this stuff makes TONS more ice than you think it will. Also, it takes a while to totally hydrate, so give it some time (1-2hrs.?). The Ice powder blows up much quicker.

Glycerin – This is some kind of oily, clear liquid that is used to treat burns, I think. We in the land of food photography, we us it to make things look fresh. We dilute the glycerin in water (50-50 and then apply the mixture with either an atomizer or the larger droplets, with a syringe. The beauty of this stuff is that it will not evaporate. The downside is that it makes the food uneatable. We don’t use this stuff very often anymore. I guess that explains the new belt I just had to buy… Damn wife keeps shrinking my clothes!

Red Wine and Beer – If you’re from the IRS, this is an essential ingredient to food photography. I’m not sure quite how we use it but it ends up being one of the larger line items on the “supplies” column of my tax return. I confess it’s mostly for after the shoot. Ok… 2/3 of the way through the shoot. It’s 5:00 somewhere…

I’ll probably be adding things to this list from time to time as I think of them. If you’re interested, you might want to check back to see if there is anything new. I’m sure that I forgot a bunch of things.



What are food photographers’ web pages for?

I’ve been trying to get an idea off the ground and I’ve been running into a brick wall. The idea is to start a photography link club. Sounds easy enough, but for some reason, nobody seems to be very interested. I just don’t understand. You spend all the time and the money to create a site and then you don’t do everything possible to get people to see it.

There seem to be two “uses” or schools of thought regarding photographer web sites.

One photographer makes his site, usually a very pretty flash site, and then sits around wondering why he isn’t getting any business from the investment.

The other photographer does everything he can to get as much business as possible from his or her investment. He maximizes it for search engines. He promotes it when he is slow shooting. He includes it an all his promotional print materials and does whatever he can to get the word out. He realizes that are people out there looking for photographers on the web and he wants to be there to be found when those people are looking.

It baffles me that so many good photographer are so poor business men, Maybe I should just count my blessings that the competition isn’t as fierce as it could be.


Later, I’ll share my ideas on how to get more people to your site and more people to hire you as a photographer.


I have this new idea, tell me what you think?

It's in the really early stages, but I think that it has a bunch of potential!


Morning light…

Morning food shot

In my opinion, one of the toughest things to do in food photography and professional photography is to translate the client’s words into the photographic medium. For example, “I want this to look like it’s 7:00AM on a Sunday morning in the month of April.” Or a client might say, “I want this shot moodier”, or they might say, “I want the lighting to be more FUN.” No kidding… I’ve actually had clients say stuff like that to me! And not just once, either, it happens all the time. The assistants and stylist that I work with all find this to be hilarious, but for the guy that has to translate these swords into lighting, it’s sometimes far from amusing.

I’ll do you guys a favor and tell you what I’ve learned in the way of translating the language or “Art Director” into the medium of “food photography”. Since there is no standard to refer to regarding the language of “Art Director”, the definitions that I am about to give you may vary form region-to-region, or even from Art Director to Art Director. For now, here is one term and it’s meaning.

Morning light – I get this one all the time, and I’m still not sure what the heck it really means, but the clients keep coming back, so I guess I’m doing something right. If you think about it, what is the difference between light in the morning and light from other times of day? Well, I guess the first obvious difference is the fact that in the morning, the sun is low on the horizon, right? One problem… Isn’t the sun low on the horizon in the late afternoon too? In my part of the country it is.

What is the difference then between morning and late afternoon light then? It’s really a stretch, but this is what I came up with. I think that is has to do with diffusion and color temperature. Even though the sun’s color temperature is the same when it strikes the earth at the same angle in morning and in evening, there are a couple of other factors that become introduced that could possibly make the difference, at lease in the subconscious of the average Art Director. The only two factors I can possibly think of are fog and sleep. I know it sounds weird, and it is, really, but listen to my argument and see if it doesn’t make at least a little sense.

Fog happens much more often in the mornings and it tends to “soften” the sunlight streaming through it. The fog also tends to “whiten” the light (don’t ask me how) where as, afternoon light seems to be “warmer” or oranger, right? Translation… Morning light is “cooler” and “softer” than evening light, meaning you would use a low, relatively large light source, with maybe a very slight blue filter either over the light source to cool things off a it.

Sleep – Ok, maybe sleep isn’t the right term, but hear me out and see what you think. When you wake up in the morning, and the bedroom window is open, what is the affect? Right after you curse yourself for drinking too much the night before, what is your reaction? Damn, it’s bright in here! It’s really not any brighter than afternoon light, but because your pupils were dilated from sleeping, everything seems a little brighter than normal. Translation… Over expose a little, or maybe be a little selective in the props that you select. Choose “lighter” colored props and it may help reinforce the “morning” feel. You might want to “backlight” the subject a little more to reproduce the “streaming in the window” feel too.

So class, what did the crazy guy come up with? In Art Directorize, morning light means, “Use a blue, large, rear, low light and over expose a little.”

Good luck.

Comments welcome: - food photography portfolio


Food Photography Art Direction via email

Over the last couple of years, I’ve seen an increase in Art Direction via email. Part of me thinks that this is a curse and part of me thinks that this may be the answer to a dream, a curse and a blessing.

Especially in the world of food photography, waiting for an “OK” from some Art Director in some meeting a hundred miles away, is not an option. Things move, things change, things start to curl, dry out, and basically, start to go to hell. Like it or not, Art Direction by email is here to stay. If it’s not the actual Art Director that isn’t at the shoot, it’s the client that has to see the image before we move on. I can’t begin to add up much time I’ve wasted sitting around waiting for some distant “big wig” to give their approval of some food shot.

Part of me hates it and part of me loves it. The reason that I like this whole idea, is that it opens doors that may never have been opened before. Tell me, if the art Director isn’t at the shoot anyway, why does she have to be a client that is only five miles away? Why not a client 1500 miles away? Why does she have to even be in the same hemisphere? See what I mean? Now, we can open up our client base to the entire freaking world. If the client is only an email away, the world is our market. (at least the part of the world that is at work at the same time as you are) We’re no longer geographically bound by how far the client is willing to travel. We’re not quite there year, but I think that it’s coming. As clients become more and more comfortable with the idea, the more we can count on finding new clients from distant areas. Why can’t I work for food magazines in New York, when I live in Pittsburgh? But don’t forget the flip side of that. Maybe that client that you count on right now, will find someone else (me, I hope) to do their food photography.

Another great thing about having the Art Direct, or “OK” person, not at the actual shoot, the photographer will have greater flexibility in displaying his or her creative vision. Too often an overbearing Art Director stifles the photographer’s vision, right at the very beginning of the shoot. If there is no Art Director and the shot actually “gets going” before the first set of approvals, the Photographer has a better chance of getting his initial vision made into reality. Then again, the down side is that all the time before the first approval, will be wasted.

So let this be a warning to you. Things, like always, are changing. You can change with them or fight the change. Maybe it’s time to geographically expand your marketing efforts, or maybe it’s time to hunt down those few clients that don’t want to change either. The choice is yours

Like I said, is it a blessing or a curse, problem or opportunity? You can be the judge…

Comments welcome: - food photography portfolio


'True' fill light in food photography (and all other photography)

Ok, this is more of a technical subject, but I think that it’s worth the electrons as a topic of discussion. Pretty much every photographer understands lighting enough to know the concepts of main light and fill light.

The main light gives the subject, whether it food or people, shape and form. Probably the biggest decision is lighting a subject is deciding where to optimally place the main light. On some subjects, an inch left or right, or up and down, can make or break the shot. Don’t get me wrong, on many shots, and inch or two in the light’s position, does not make much of a difference, but in some shots, especially food photography, an inch can make a huge difference in the quality of the photograph. We’ll talk more about that at another time.

The other, lesser thought of light source, is the fill light. When most photographers set up their lights, they will place the main light to one or another side of the subject and the fill light will usually be placed very near the camera, most likely on the opposite side of the camera as the main light. The idea being that the fill light is meant to “fill’ in the shadow of the main light. The intensity of the fill light is increased or decreased to give the subject matter the desired “light ratio”. Right? That’s right. The problem is that the fill light that is meant to ONLY fill the shadows, but in reality, it ends up casting it’s own shadow and there are usually large areas of the image that the fill light never reaches. Don’t believe me? Try shutting off you main light and take a picture using just your fill light. You will notice that the fill light doesn’t really fill, especially areas “under” the subject. If the subject has any type of overhang, like a plate lip, for example, that shadow area ends up being in shadow from both the main light and the fill light, making it totally “un lit”.

Ideally, the fill light should surround the camera, theoretically, casting light from below, above, and from both sides of the camera “filling” in everything and not casting any shadows of its own. The ideal light would probably be a really big “ring light”, but in reality, most ring lights are too small and end up casting their own shadows. In food photography, you can see the lack of fill light in a very textured subjects like a salad, for example. Each leaf of the salad acts as a little awning, preventing the main light and the fill light (any light from above the camera axis) from actually getting to the shadow areas. The result is very very dark shadows. What’s the solution? Glad you asked…

Years ago, I bought a 10’ x 10’ sheet of material from Chimera, the company that makes the light boxes. The material is the same material that my light boxes are made from, so in theory anyway, the light that I transmit trough the material is the same color temperature as my light boxes. I hang the material directly behind my camera and project two lights from behind and trough the material. The lights are far enough apart from each other so that the hanging material works as a 10’ x 10’ light box. The big advantage of the is light is that some light ends up coming from below, above, and around the camera, making it a “true” fill light. The camera and food photographer does obstruct some of the light, but a portion of the light does und up coming from slightly below camera axis, filling in any “awning” areas in your photo. It really makes a difference. Try it yourself.

True fill light in Food photography

11/11/04 - Happy Birthday Angela!
Bigger is not always better…

You know what they say, it’s not the size of the wave, it’s the motion of the ocean. This concept not only applies to lesser endowed males, but also to food photography lighting.

When it comes to source size for lightning food, or any type of a photographic subject, bigger is not always better. The advantage to using larger light sources is that it tends to be a little safer, more forgiving and easier to use. Bigger light sources tend to make softer shadows and a more gradual conversion form “in light” to “in shadow” across the subject matter, which sometimes is more appealing than the contrasty look created by a larger light source. (follow that?) The big disadvantage in using larger light sources is that the larger the source, the less texture it tends to create. The smaller light source tends to create itty bitty shadows across a surface, where the larger source tends to automatically fill in the shadows. The best way to create texture in the studio is to “scrape” light across the desired surface. The smaller the light, the more texture you end up with. (given the same amount of fill) The more texture you get, the more drama you create.

(tangent subject – one of the tough things you will find in professional photography is translating your clients words into the photographic image. Drama is one of those words. Drama usually translates to using a small light, without much fill light, and at a harsh angle so that much of the subject is in shadow.)

Another nice thing about using small lights, is that you can intentionally cast shadows across the image (as in the background of the image supplied above.)

The down side to using small light sources, is the really crisp shadows that the small light casts onto the surface you are shooting on or across some of the other objects in the picture. The cast shadows across other objects can be avoided by adjusting the composition or by possible selecting another position for the light. With a little experimentation, you will find that these shadows can be minimized by using reflectors (or mirrors) to bounce light into just the shadow areas.

So… if your goal is to create as much texture as possible, try using a small light source in place of the big freaken box you usually use. And if you screw up and your client hates it, give them my number. : )

Comments welcome: - food photography portfolio


Future Food Photography Blog subjects

I figure that I need to give this blog a little kick start because it’s so new.

I’ve made a list of subjects that I plan on writing about. Maybe this will entice you to return once in a while to partake of my thoughts and ideas:

What is “true” fill light? How to use mirrors., light source size, low light magic., What does a food stylist do?, three elements to a photograph, learn to see light, the evolution of a lighter, the prop influence, why digital is better, SEO, the view camera explained, why most photographers are men, a photographer’s style is based on their equipment, pushing the envelope, the value of experience, Art direction by email, promotional ideas, how to get better, styles of art direction, client relationships, dappling, you need a dummy, kite, morning light, my kitchen table, light control, rear light , color temperature, grill gells, lighting silverware, studio size and style, lighting in layers, studio equipment, lighting equipment, how to light food, which lens & why, why food photography, how to light high key, how to light low key, focus manipulation, sheen of stuff.

Comments welcome: - food photography portfolio


What makes one photographer better than another? (part 1)

I have this theory… I think that all photographers (food, commercial, whatever) are on this “ladder of understanding”. Take me for example. I’m certainly not the worst photographer around, but I wouldn’t consider myself the absolute best either. There are many photographers’ work that I admire and frankly, that I envy. I believe that each photographer, from his own step on the ladder, can see what separates himself from other photographers that are on lower steps. In other words… When I look at the work of a “worse” photographer than myself. I can see immediately what makes him “not as good” as me. On the other hand, when I look at a photographer’s work that is better than mine, I have no freaking clue, why he is better. I know that there is something, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. If I could figure out why, I guess that I would make the changes in my work that would enable me to bring the quality up to the higher level. I call this phenomenon, “The ladder of understanding”. You can clearly see down an unlimited number of steps, but ya can’t see up a single damn step. I think this ladder of understanding applies to all types of art, photography, food styling, whatever…

Comments welcome: - food photography portfolio


Sheen in food photography

Photographers spend large portions of their careers finding ways to eliminate sheen or glare from the subjects of their photographs.  I agree that it’s true that there is such a thing as “bad” glare, but photographers do themselves a disservice by eliminating too much glare.  As a matter of fact, I have a hard time getting enough glare into my food photography.

Why some food photography can look fake.

It’s my opinion one of the most challenging parts of a food photographer’s job is to try to fool the viewer’s subconscious into believing that what they are viewing is as real as possible.  Often times a photographer is attempting to simulate an environment while shooting in the confines of the studio.  The food photographer will create elaborate sets to convince the viewer that the environment is indeed real. 

They will do whatever they can to make the shot look as “environmental” as possible and still there are times when something just doesn’t look just quite right.  Objectively looking at the picture will produce few overt clews as to whether the picture was shot on location or in the studio, but to the trained eye and to most people’s subconscious mind, the shot just doesn’t seem real.One of the biggest differences between “real” environments and the studio is that in the studio, everything is added to the shot and on location things are usually eliminated from the shot.  On location, there may be a window off to the side of the table and in the studio, there may not even be a window.  On location, the ceiling is probably five feet above the set and in the studio, the ceiling might be fifteen feet from the set.  In the studio, the nearest table might be twenty feet away while on location, the table next to you may only be inches away.  All these objects reflect light.  Sure, most of these reflections end up being very small, but they’re there.  Instead of being just a deep rich colored area of gravy in the studio, on location the same gravy would have a slight glare from the ceiling overhead or the white wall behind it.  Which one is better?  It all depends on what you want, or more likely, what you client wants.  The gravy manufacturer would probably like the dark rich colored shot, but the magazine editor would probably prefer the slight glare and the more “natural” look.

Another thing that affects the number of reflections in a shot is the way a food photographer prefers to light their subjects.  Many photographers prefer to use light boxes placed relatively close to the subject.  This method of lighting usually eliminates much of the light from bouncing around the studio and therefore from lighting various things around the studio that might end up reflecting into the food subject.

The use of strobe light also affects the amount of reflections in a photograph.  When a food photographers uses strobe light, they usually dial up the power and dial down the shutter speed.  The whole idea is to overpower the existing light and to create the lighting that they think best displays the food.  When a photographer overpowers the ambient light, they eliminate the light on the various objects and light sources in the environment that cause the miscellaneous reflections we are discussing.

Like I mentioned earlier, these reflections are not necessarily good or bad things.  Each reflection has its affect on the photograph.  Some reflections add to the photo and some reflections detract. Not all viewers will agree on which reflection does what…

Bad Reflections

Again, I might like a reflection and you may not.  I may generalize a little here, so keep in mind that what I’m about to write is subjective opinion, and you may totally disagree.  Usually, a reflection from the dominant, or main light, is not a good thing.  The reflection from the mail light is usually so bright that the highlight that it creates ends up being much “acute” in nature.  These highlights end up being totally burnt out, with no tone to them what’s so ever.  I often times select the placement of the main light specifically to avoid these acute highlights.  Food items with rounded surfaces tend to be the most difficult to light without these “too bright” highlights.  These types of highlights can sometimes be hidden by selecting the precise angle where the corners of the food minimize the reflections.  Most of the time, you will just have to experiment with the placement of the main light to give the needed shape to the food while at the same time minimizing any unwanted glare you might create.  The placement of the main light is often taken for granted by novice food photographers.  Professionals know that the EXACT placement of the main light is one of the most important aspects of good food photography.  Even an inch to one side or another, or an inch higher or lower, can make a huge difference in the final photographic results.

Other bad reflections are the ones that are so bright that they obscure the color of the food beneath them.  Manufacturers are usually very picky about the color of their product.  They want to see as much color as possible.

Good Highlights

When lighting, a good professional photographer will select the placement of the main light to enhance the texture of the food, while keeping an eye on the reflections created in the process.  Once the exact angle for the main light is selected, the photographer will determine the correct amount of fill light and then where any additional light is needed.  The additional light might be provided in the form of a reflector, another light source, or even a mirror.  I use all the above, often times in the same shot.  One of my favorite glare creators is a piece of foam core, or other large white surface.  I like to use 4x8 foot sheets of foam core. 

The way, I set them on the floor and lean them against the table where I need them.  That size is big enough that they can cover a relatively large surface area reflection needed by some reflective food elements such as gravy, syrup, or even soup.  One of the keys to getting a good glare on something is to be able to control just how bright the highlight gets.  That means you need to control how much light hits that foam core. The best way to do that is to light it separately.  Keep the main light off the reflector as much as possible and add another light just to illuminate the reflector.  This allows you to not only control the intensity of the reflections, but it also allows you to control the graduation of the highlight.  If you use a spotlight to light the reflector, you can put the hot spot of the light in one area and then let the other portion of the reflector to get less light.  This smooth graduation of light will give you a very nice effect on any shiny food item, and also on any plate that your food is sitting on.  You will have to look to see what you are getting every time the light is moved.  It’s best if you can continue looking through the camera as someone else moves the lights for you.  That way, you can see what happens as the light moves.  There are times when some really cool things happen when you lease expect them to.  If you remain at the camera to observe the changes in the light, you may be able to see some of these “happy accidents” as they happen.

Lets look at a couple of images and discuss the highlight issues in each food photograph.


Show me a subject where you have no reflections and I'll show you a flat / bland photo. Sheen in photos is what tells your subconscious valuable information about the texture of the objects in every photograph. Too many photographers work way to hard to eliminate reflections. Reflections are a photographer's friend. (some of then anyways... 

I love this photo. It's one of my favorites. But tell me, what would this photo look like without the reflections? This is one of those shots where the lighting "makes" the photo. And the reflections are a big part of that lighting. Welcome the reflections. Yes you have to control them, but reflections are a natural happening.

This is a case where a very subtle glare over the gravy makes the sheen look natural. If you look at the gravel on your turkey in your kitchen, you'll see a glare from your ceiling. Without a glare, this shot wouldn't look natural. (It helps the silverware too.)

The sheen and reflections on the cake filling add a whole bunch to this shot. I'm glad too, because I spent a lot of time getting them there. The bright highlights in the background add a bunch to the shot too. Too many novice photographers spend all their time getting rid of things that actually help to improve the shot.

The difficult thing about learning to live with reflections is deciding how transparent the reflections need to be. I can't give you any hard and fast rules about this. Too much glare and you can't see through to the color of what's underneath, too little glare and things tend to look flat. On this shot, there is a very large reflection over most of the ribs, but the glare isn't so bright that it obscures the color of the sauce. I guess that you can think of it in two terms, size of the glare and brightness of the glare. The trick is to separate the two and control them to give you what you want, or at least what you can live with. Large reflections that don't go too bright on you tend to be "good' reflections. See the real bright, small reflections on the horizontal rib? I really don't care for those reflections, but I needed to brighten up the shadow beneath the top rib. Life is a compromise, right?

Soup is one of those things that need a bright reflection.  You want to place the light just far enough behind the subject so as to start to get a reflection on the meniscus of the perturbing objects but not so far behind the subject that you get a glare over the flat surface of the liquid.

Here is another shot where the reflections "make" the shot. On your next still life or food shot, intentionally add a couple of reflections and see what happens.  Who knows, maybe you'll find that you've discovered a tool that you've overlooked in your photographic toolbox.   Remember, rules are made for sissies.  Go ahead, break some of those lighting rules and see what happens.  And if it doesn't work, you can do what...?  Yes, call it art!

Good Luck

Other Photography articles of interest to novice photographers, by Michael Ray:

How to become a professional Photographer

Basic Photographic Lighting

Photographic Lights

Photographic Portfolios

Links Of Interest:

Food Photography portfolio - food photography portfolio of Michael Ray

Food Designs - Food Stylist resource

International Association of Culinary Professionals

Food On Film - Food styling and photography seminar - International film and TV productin resources

Trengove Studios - props and special effects

Mike's Food Stylist Directory

Forum Links:

PDN - Photo District News, professional photography

Style Share - Food Stylist Forum

FM Forums - Photography - Photography

Rob Galbraith - Photography

Google Optimization - S.E.O.

Web Food Pros - Food Styling Forum

Link Exchange:


Pittsburgh Creative Directory of Advertising Agencies and Graphic Design, and Public Relations Firms

Pgh Photo - Directory of Pittsburgh photographers


Pittsburgh People Photography

Photography Resources

Image Fx - Digital image enhancement

Agora Gallery


* MyBlog Directory and Search Engine for Blogs - blog directory articles and resources.

Food Resources

Linda's Gourmet Cookies - bakes unique gourmet cookies for personal enjoyment and exceptional individual and corporate gifts.

P o r t f o l i o:

These images are from Michael's portfolio. Click on any one of them to take you to see his on-line food photography portfolio

© Michael Ray 2004