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Home photography ideas: Exploding food photography!

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Floating food stacks are very popular in both food photography and restaurant advertising at the moment. This trick shot requires a cunning combo of shooting skills and Photoshop techniques – and as you can see, it's very effective! 

We begin by setting up a series of precarious wire platforms for each item in our burger, so we can take the photograph. Then we remove the stack and shoot an empty frame. Next we piece together the frames in Photoshop and remove the wires at the edges of the image. 

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(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

However, we are still left with little visible parts of the wire that the food is resting on – ruining the illusion. To fix this, we will need to make use of Photoshop’s powerful Patch tool to retouch the wires and finesse the image.

It’s easier than it sounds, as the full walkthrough in our tutorial video above will demonstrate. You can obviously use this technique to shoot other tasty treats, so head to your fridge and get cooking up a great shot! 

Set up your snack stack

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

01 Hang the backdrop

Begin by setting up, and consider the background – we used a dark blanket so the backdrop would be completely black. Alternatively, you could arrange a scene with more context – a kitchen worktop or a dinner table would work well.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

02 Place two stands

Set up two light stands (or any other vertical stands) either side of the table like this, parallel to one another. You might also want to weigh the stands down to prevent them from shifting, or lash them together under the table to lock them in place.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

03 Create wire platforms

Using a roll of thin wire, wrap a piece around the stands to make a thin platform, then cut the wire and continue making more platforms for each ingredient you intend to use in the photograph. Make the wire platforms as taught as possible.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

04 Prepare the food

Slice the ingredients you want to use. For our burger we had red onion, curly lettuce, tomato, pickles, cheese, a brioche bun and a burger. We also had mustard and ketchup on hand. Choose the freshest, most colorful foods you can find.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

05 Arrange the ingredients

Place each ingredient on a separate wire platform, spacing them apart. It’s best to work from the top downwards so that, if something does fall off, it doesn’t take the rest of the stack with it. Take care that each item doesn’t overlap or obscure the rest.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

06 Take the shot

Fix the camera to a sturdy tripod, arrange your lights (see next section) and shoot the stack of delightful-looking ingredients. A prime lens like a 50mm is ideal for food photography, as primes tend to be sharper and faster than zooms. Be careful not to nudge the tripod – we need to take another frame of the empty scene once we remove the food and wires.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

07 On the wire

After taking the main shot of the stacked food, we also off a few more frames while holding pickles and onions on another piece of wire. This gives us a bit of extra variation in the heights of the food. We'll combine these later on in Photoshop.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

08 An empty frame

Once we'd taken the food shots, we removed everything and took a frame of just the table and backdrop. This is handy for removing the wires later in Photoshop – we'll combine the food shot with the empty scene and use a mask to hide the wires.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

03 Dollops and splashes

Finally, we try out a few frames while squirting mustard and dropping dollops of ketchup, attempting to catch them in midair. It’s best to turn off any ambient light so that the speed lights freeze the motion. We do this last, as it’s likely to make a reasonable amount of mess!

Speed lighting

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

02 Add a second flash

The second speed light is placed in front and to the right of the subject, and fitted with a silver umbrella. A wireless trigger is attached to the other flash, and this one is set to optical slave (S1) so it detects the other light and triggers at the same time.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

03 Control the output

Both flashes are set to manual; the frontal light is at 1/16 power, and the rear at 1/4. This creates cross lighting with highlights along the left side of the food, and fill from the frontal flash. The umbrellas diffuse, soften and spread the light.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

04 Expose for the flash

Our camera is also in manual mode, at 1/200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100. The wide aperture means that depth of field is limited, so the table and backdrop should be blurred. After focusing on the burger, we switch to manual focus to lock it in place.

Finish in Photoshop

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

01 Use the lasso

Now it's time to fire up Photoshop. Open the images of the burger and empty scene, and drag the burger into the other image. Grab the Lasso tool and select the food.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

02 Make a mask

Click the Add Layer Mask icon in the Layers panel. Get the Brush tool and paint with black to hide the wire around the edges of the food.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

03 Patch the wires

Make a new layer, grab the Patch tool and check ‘Sample All Layers’. Select parts of the wires and drag to clean areas to remove.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

04 Perfect the food

Use the Patch tool to retouch any messy parts of the food so that everything look's good. Next open up the other images, like the mustard.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

05 Copy in the extras

Select the mustard with the Lasso and copy in, then go to Select>Select and Mask. Select the object and set Output to: Layer Mask.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

06 Reshape the burger

When everything is combined, make a merged copy with Cmd/Ctrl+Shift+Alt+E then go to Filter>Liquify to reshape the food and make it plump and sumptuous!

Read more: 

The best lenses for food photography in 2020: make your supper the star
The best books on food photography in 2020: whet your appetite for photography
10 food photographers you should follow while in lockdown