Food photography, elevated: Sweet Paul Magazine

Paul Lowe, of Sweet Paul Magazine is one of our absolute favorite food stylists (oh, and to be honest, one of our favorite people) in the world. Sweet Paul is a gorgeous magazine full of inspiration, creativity, and, very importantly, incredible food photography. We were lucky enough to chat with him (and his friend, professional food photographer Colin Cooke) recently and get some wonderful insider knowledge to help beginners create beautiful photographs of their food. Read on for tips from one of the best food stylists in the business.

Food photography: Oysters

What’s your workflow? When you’re shooting, what angles do you look for?

Whatever makes your food look best. Look at the plate of food in different angles and turn it around to see what’s best. Sometimes it can be best directly from above or at an angle.

Do you make the food yourself? How do you make the food itself more attractive, before you even start shooting?

Yes I do. Buy the best ingredients you can. If you’re shooting vegetables, go to your local farmers market to get the best looking ones. My best tip on plating food is to keep it simple—use light plates that make the food stand out, since its about the food, not the plate. Here are some more tips:

  • Grill marks make fish and meat look more juicy.
  • Have a little spray-bottle of water handy in case something looks dry.
  • Be careful with using to much oil—it can make the food just look greasy.

So, good ingredients and keep it simple.

What is good equipment to have if you’re just starting out?

Food photography: A picnic outside

You can take great photos with your phone or iPad—you don’t need a fancy camera.

What kind of lighting do you use? Does natural light help?

When shooting food its all about natural light—food looks best that way. Place your table next to a window and balance the light with a white piece of paper to fill in the shadows. It’s really easy.

Where do you get your props? Do you have any good secret sources?

Here in New York you can rent amazing props. There are many places that specialize in tabletop props. I also love to go to flea markets and vintage stores to find stuff. Another great tip is to do “buy and return”. You buy a few plates, use them, wash them really well and then return them—its not really kosher but it can be our little secret.

What is the biggest mistake you see brand-new food photographers making?

Overworking the images. Just keep the food and props simple at first and then you can go crazy once you’ve got it down. Look at magazines and books that you like and try to mimic the photograph.

And here are a couple of more specific questions about food styling for photo shoots:

What’s the best way to photograph hot dishes? Right when they are “ready to serve”? Or should you wait until there’s no steam or heat rising?

Catching steam is very difficult. Now people add steam in post. But yeah, warm food should be photographed warm, don’t want any hardened sauces.

How do you photograph dishes with food items that react when exposed to air (like green apples)? Are there sprays or other things you can use to keep things looking fresh?

Just add some lemon juice, works on apples and avocado.

What is good equipment to have if you’re just starting out?

There are so many useful and reasonable cameras on the market these days that it’s hard to pinpoint one manufacturer or another. For a starter, I would make sure the camera had over 12 megapixels per shot for good resolution and a zoom lens of maybe 35mm to 90mm range. Other than that it’s up to the person behind the camera!

What kind of lighting do you use? Does natural light help?

Lighting is everything. Commercially I will tend to use Strobes or Tungsten lights. For Editorial or Blogs you cannot beat natural light. I should say that Commercially I use it as well. All one needs is a window with indirect light, a nice surface to shoot on, and a white card for filling in the shadows. It’s that easy. One can get excellent results. In fact, Sweet Paul requires natural light!

What kind of lenses do you use?

I only use one lens—a 100mm f2.8 macro lens. I use it mainly because I can get a nice shallow depth of field, no distortion and, with the macro, get very, very close. I recently shot a project of small single chocolates. The client wanted very high resolution so I had to fill my frame with each piece and the lens was about five inches from the product. One has to have a macro lens for that—the detail that close is amazing.

If I just have a generic lens, how can I get a macro shot? Or mimic a macro shot of a dish?

Probably the best thing is to use a 2X lens extender which attaches between the lens and the camera. There are also diopters, which are single screw-on filters for the front of the lens—but the quality is sometimes compromised with those.

How do you expose certain foods?

Natural light can work for almost anything. With pizza you may want to put it between the camera and the window so you get a good “angle of incidence” on the freshly melted cheese and vegetables. Be sure to use a fill card here too. Ice cream requires quick timing and is often times best with strobe/flash to get the texture nice and firm before it starts melting. One has about 30 seconds here. And with soups, stews, cereals, etc., you may want to also shoot into the direction of the window and fill the shadow side. Most other foods like burgers, sandwiches, etc., something that stands up in the plate can use side light from the window. And you can decide whether it should be more dramatic with no fill card or not.

Anything else to share?

Like almost anything else, being a better photographer requires experience and time. I recommend shooting what you like or are passionate about on a regular basis and you will see after a time that your work gets better and better and you also get faster and faster.

And when that happens … you know you have arrived!

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