“Just give me a second….one more…ok!” How many times do you utter these words before digging into a new and exciting meal – your camera phone at the ready?! Living just South of Lisbon, these words escape my lips frequently. Why? Because food in Portugal and Spain is absolutely beautiful with its rustic simplicity and fresh vibrant colors. It’s an art to make food taste as good as it looks, and in Iberia, it’s commonplace!
The trick is to know how to capture that food on camera in order to help you remember what you ate, to potentially replicate it at home, or to show off the delicious foods tasted during your travels. Once that “trick” is firmly understood, food is worth photographing to whet the appetite on each shot!
Any photography class, tutorial or book will tell you that lighting is the key to good photos regardless of the subject. Photography is, after all, the art of capturing images by way of light. This means we need to take special care with it.
This leads to the number one rule of photography that I can’t stress enough; do not use flash. Don’t do it. It makes for washed out, unappetizing photos and it can irritate other people around you. Plus if you want to be discreet it will most surely draw the attention of everyone in the immediate area (we’re talking waiters, chefs, and other patrons as well as passers-by).
Instead, find a window seat or request to sit outside. Most places have outside seating. However, if they don’t, request a table next to a window which should provide you with plenty of light.
If you are in a place with low lighting, then your best bet is to use a makeshift tripod. A book can do this really well depending on the angle you want. If there isn’t something else to use, use your elbows to steady your hands and the camera.
If all else fails for a light source, you can always ask a friend to turn on a mobile flashlight on their mobile phone and place a piece of white paper, or thick paper napkin, directly between it and the subject. This will diffuse the light so it’s not harsh, and it won’t be too distracting for other customers/staff.
Another type of light to look out for is shade. Shade during mid-day, when the sun is at its highest and brightest, can really be your friend. This can keep your food from looking washed out and flat. No one wants flat food, and the mouthwatering food of Iberia needs to have those greens, yellows and reds to pop rather than blend together under strong sunlight. This is a particularly good tip if you’re eating at one of the many festas around the peninsula, just find a bit of shade and start snapping away.
Whether you’re using a $100 point and shoot camera, a camera phone, or a fancy DSLR, you need to know your camera inside and out to get good shots. I suggest not only reading your manual from cover to cover, but also doing a bit of research online. Digital Photography School is a great place to start learning about a variety of cameras. If you have a particular question, they even have a forum where you can ask questions to many avid photographers, both amateur and professional.
When it comes to food photography, a good 50mm lens for either a Canon or Nikon will do. I love this lens because it doesn’t stand out, and it’s better for getting close up, sharp images in low lighting. There are lenses available for mobile phones as well, but I recommend a good app like Google Camera (free), the ever popular Instagram (free), or VSCO Cam (free with filters available for free/purchase) for photo editing.
Once you have a basic idea of the settings of your camera, then you need to play with it. Work with your camera of choice before you set out on your Iberian food adventure so that you have an idea of what works best for you!
This is something that takes time to get the hang of and practice is your best friend. A photo of your morning café won’t look as good from the same angle as the photo of the beautiful paella set in the middle of the table that
you took yesterday.
Try different angles, and when it comes to certain cameras, there are some tried and true vantage points that almost always work. Take a camera phone for example. Taking a shot from directly above the food, or from straight ahead, almost always guarantees a good shot.
Another composition trick to remember, grab and friend and get them involved in the photo! Have your dining/traveling companion interact with the food. They can choose to use utensils, or just hold the dish it’s being served in as if they are handing it to the viewer. This makes for a more interesting photo and gives it character.
Remember to fill the frame with the food, not random restaurant objects. A close up of that bifana, with a drip of mustard oozing out the side, is much considerably more appealing than a photo pulled back that includes the neighbor’s goat chomping on grape leaves.
It’s amazing how many people will be more than willing to talk to you about the food they want to share. They will often tell you how to make it, or the story behind a dish, when you show just a touch of interest.
Remember not to let language be a barrier! Use hand gestures to help you communicate. People get the gist fairly easily once the camera is raised and you’re pointing to the object of interest with a smile plastered across your face. In most cases, you’re sure to receive a nod of approval and a warm smile in return.
Once you know the history behind the food, and feel warmth from those sharing their culture, you’ll find yourself connecting more profoundly. It’s the equivalent to the “secret ingredient” in most family recipes that results in a delicious experience.
I can’t stress enough the importance of editing your photos. Whether you use Lightroom to edit your raw DSLR photos, or a photo app such as Snapseed, Pixlr Express, Camera+ or Piclab, a few simple adjustments will make all the difference in the world. In many of the apps, you can auto-correct the cropping and straighten the image if necessary, then adjust and increase the sharpness of the image. If you’re feeling creative, use a filter (such as Drama in Snapseed), but try not to overdo it, as it can make the food look unnatural. If you’re needing extra focus and impact, add a vignette, which will darken the corners and draw your eye into the photo.
In the end, the goal is to simply have fun! Use the rules, don’t use them, just get creative and enjoy the process of making some beautiful photos to remind you of that beautiful day spent in one of the most gorgeous regions of Europe.
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