Photo ideas: ‘fine art’ food photography

Turn fruit and veg into photo art – all you need it a light box and a very sharp knife. Follow this food photography project to create stunning pictures for your kitchen wall.

It’s time to get creative with your dinner ingredients with one of our favourite photo ideas. In this project, we’re going to show you a few simple photography tips that you can use to take beautiful ‘fine art’ styled pictures of fruit and vegetables. Food photography is always fun, as you get to eat the subjects after you’ve taken the shots. Not that we started chewing on the red onion featured here though…

In addition to a DSLR and tripod, you need:

A light box

A light box is essential for this kind of food photography. If you don’t have one, they can be picked up second-hand through the well-known online auction sites relatively cheaply, or if you’re more adventurous, try making your own. All you need is a sheet of glass, some tracing paper and an angle-poise lamp.

A right-angle viewfinder

A right-angle viewfinder isn’t essential for this project, but it will make composing your shots a lot easier. With the camera suspended between the legs of your tripod it can be quite awkward to frame your shot. If you don’t have a right-angle viewfinder, live view is a good alternative – if your SLR has it.

A macro lens

As you’re working fairly close to the subject and you’re limited by the height of your tripod – particularly as your camera  is suspended beneath its legs – use a macro lens with a relatively short focal length. The Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 (mounted on a full-frame Nikon D700) we used here was perfect.

Fruit and vegetables

You don’t need exotic fruit and veg for this project – you can try anything you like. For a few quid you should be able to get more than enough to get started. Visualise how a specimen might look when sliced and placed on a light box. The red onion, cucumber, orange and kiwi used here worked a treat.

Camera settings and technique:

1. Set up your tripod

Remove the central column of your tripod and reattach it the wrong way round with the head hanging below the centre. This will enable you to take pictures of the flat surface of the light box more easily. Place the tripod over the light box and attach your camera. If you’re working on a small table top, make sure the tripod is secure by applying some gaffer tape around the feet, fixing it in place.

2. Prepare the food

Use a clean, sharp knife to slice the fruit and vegetables as thinly and evenly as possible, then place them on the light box. Any unevenness will affect the tonality of your image. If you’re using multiple slices, such as in our main red onion , arrange each slice carefully so that together they create a balanced and harmonious composition. Moving each slice just a millimetre or two can have a big impact on the final shot. Now close the curtains to darken the room and prepare your exposure.

3. Choose the exposure settings

Like most close-up work, it’s best to switch your focus from autofocus to manual to ensure pin-sharp results and avoid the frustration of the AF searching for a focus lock. The bright light of the light box will deceive your camera’s light meter. It’s a little like shooting in the snow – all that brightness will cause the camera to underexpose in an auto mode. For the best results dial in an exposure compensation of between +1 and +2 stops, or switch to manual mode. Ideally, you’ll want to use an aperture of about f/8 for enough depth of field. To avoid camera shake, lock the mirror in the up position and avoid touching your camera by using a cable release or self timer.

4. Check the histogram

Assess your exposure using your camera’s histogram. Don’t be alarmed if it looks like there’s some radical clipping on the highlights on the right of the graph. It doesn’t matter if they burn out – this will be down to the parts of the image that should be totally white. However, it is important that there’s detail in the subject, so check this carefully. If you’re in any doubt, take the time to download a test shot to your computer to review before proceeding.

Top tip: shooting tethered

For indoor photography projects such as this, attaching your camera directly to your computer and shooting tethered is a great way to maximise your workflow and get the best possible results. Programs such as Adobe’s Lightroom 3 make this easy. It’s particularly useful for this project, because looking through the viewfinder can be a little awkward.

Taking it further:

To make a striking and innovative piece of fruit and vegetable art we created a simple grid, bringing four of our specimens together. You can download 10 free photo grids, or create your own in Photoshop. Shoot each slice individually, then in Photoshop CS and above, or Elements, use the Free Transform tool to alter the diameter of each slice. Then copy and paste them into a new document as multiple layers and form an artful grid. Once you’re happy, print, frame and put it on the kitchen wall for a striking piece of art.

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