Shooting Food in Italy Q&A


When I returned from my vacation in Italy a few weeks ago, I posted some images from the trip, and as I mentioned in my initial post, I wanted to show the things, from a travel photography perspective, that I think of when I think of Italy.

So, I focused primarily on these topics: the architecture, the people of Italy, the food and wine, the history, and of course fashion. During the week of posting different photos, I had a number of questions and emails about the food shots I included in my posts, so I thought I’d cover some of them here.

Q. Did you use a flash for the shots?
A. The shots were all taken with available light. In fact, I didn’t even take an off-camera flash with me on the trip (and I don’t use the pop-up flash on my camera, unless I’m really upset with my subject).

Q. Did you use a Macro lens?
A. I didn’t have one with me, so all the shots were taken with that same 18-200mm f/3.5 to f/5.6 VR zoom lens. It lets you get surprisingly close, but in some instances I had to stand back from the table, and then zoom in to 200mm to get in really tight on the food.

Q. Did you tilt the images in Photoshop or did you shoot them that way?
A. I shot them that way (I hate cropping in Photoshop—-I always feel like I should compose in the camera; not in Photoshop. I will crop if I have to, but I always feel like I’m fixing something I should have done right in the first place). So, to get that look, I just simply rotate the camera 45° in either direction (sometimes I take the same photo twice, once rotated left, once rotated right, so I can choose which one looks better later).

Q. Did you use a reflector?
A. Only once—a makeshift one at that–in the wine shot shown above. The sunlight was pouring in from the window backlighting the wine, which made the wine labels too dark to read. I was whining about that fact, and my brother picked up a map leaning against the wall; flipped it over to the white side, and said “Will this work as a reflector?” It worked like a charm! It just reflected the light from window right back onto the labels.

Q. What f/stop did you use for these shots?
A. I wanted as shallow a depth of field as possible, so I shot wide open all the time (so, if I was using the wide angle end of the zoom, I was at f/3.5, and if I zoomed in tight to around 200mm, I was at f/5.6). I wanted as much of the background out-of-focus as possible, and when I was really zoomed in, I could get often get the front of the food in focus, and the back of the plate out of focus.

Q. What’s the secret to getting great food shots?
A. Shoot great looking food. Seriously, it’s like anything; if you shoot great looking people, your chances of getting a great shot goes way up. It’s the same with food; if it’s great looking food, nicely presented on the plate, it makes your job much easier.

I didn’t shoot the big Calzone they served us at a sidewalk cafe, or the Chicken McNuggets my son had at a local McDonalds. I waited until we were served a wonderful looking dish with a beautiful presentation—-then I grabbed my camera. Sometimes I had to move the food so the natural light lit it nicely, and occasionally I would hold a white napkin up to bounce some light onto the front of the food (I usually like to have the strongest light coming from behind the food), but other than that—it’s just waiting for a dish that looks beautiful when it’s served. Also, plates with small portions look best—it’s much harder to make a big heaping portion look good.

Also, of course it’s easier to shoot food in the daytime, when there’s lot of great natural light. If I sit outside, I try to sit under an umbrella so it’s not harsh direct light. If I sit indoors, I always try to get a window seat.

Q. Is this annoying to the other people at your table?
A. Oh absolutely. My long suffering wife—on this trip as soon as she was served a nice-looking dish, she’d ask, “Do you want to shoot it, or is it OK to eat it?” I’d be really quick about shooting it; especially if it was a hot dish. She was really a trooper, and amazingly accommodating when it comes to me shooting her food.

Q. Did you bring a table-top tripod?
A. I usually have one with me when shooting food on location, but in this case I left mine at home (remember, this was mostly a family vacation, so I didn’t want to press my luck). I have a little Bogen/Monfrotto table-top tripod that works just great, and it’s very small, despite the load it will carry.

Q. What about shooting at dinner time?
A. Then it’s time to crank the ISO, which I did on several occasions. I didn’t have my D3 with me, but I was amazed at how well the D300 did at ISO 800. I was impressed.

Q. Any other food shooting tips?
A. Right before I left for Italy, I was hired by a trendy local restaurant to shoot some of their signature dishes, and I did the entire shoot using two Westcott Spiderlites (my TD5 Scott Kelby StudioKit), and we were literally up and running in five minutes and they worked brilliantly.

The light from these daylight balanced continuous fluorescent lights looked so natural, you’d swear we were using window light, but it was actually shot in the middle of the restaurant, between lunch and dinner, with just these TD-5 Spiderlites. Being able to see the light and shadows live, as you move the light, is a huge advantage. I would recommend these to anyone shooting food, or product shots. It’s like cheating.

(Note: when I do paid shoots, 100% of my fee goes to the Springs of Hope, Kenya, run by some friends of ours who gave up their home, and their comfortable life here in the States, and moved their family to Kenya to build a clinic and orphanage for homeless children. Here’s the link if you want to help and literally put food in the mouthes of children who so desperately need it).

Well, I hope that helps answer some of your questions about shooting food. If you want to learn more, I recommend Lou Manna’s great book, “Digital Food Photography” (here’s the link to it on Barnes & and

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