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7 basic steps of planning for high quality images in Food Photography

my notes from following Rachel’s 7-day composition challenge on Instagram

I just completed the 7-day Composition challenge (on Instagram) led by Rachel Korinek from @twolovesstudio. It was more of a step-by-step guided process from ideation to presentation rather than a competitive “challenge” – since the only person I challenged throughout, was myself along with my own flawed habits 🙂

Rachel posted daily video guidelines and tips for each of the steps I have followed below, so if you’d like to understand why and how I followed these steps, do visit her Instagram feed. She is a fantastic teacher and a very inspiring photographer. Plus it’s a free resource! Since I loved the whole challenge and learnt a lot by going through with it, I’d still like to share my own thought process and learning at each stage, with specific examples of my own mood boards and images.

Hopefully it will help someone.

Step 1 : Choosing the subject:

At this point, my choice of subject for this project was either fresh produce or a summer drink. I also decided to pick produce of shades of yellow/orange, so that I could convey the summery mood.

Why? Well, fresh produce and drinks do not need cooking, so all my energy and time could be used to focus on ideation and planning, which was the end goal of this challenge anyway. And in the northern hemisphere it is summer now, so I wanted to convey the mood and light naturally available around me. (Also – the beautiful and photogenic summer produce!)

Step 2 : Creating a Moodboard

This time, I decided to use a Pinterest board for this. I have used Instagram (saved images) as well at times. You could also use any collage app, or Google collections, or even Photoshop/Canva. The basic idea is to simply put all the inspiration images together, so that visually they create a “mood” that we want our images to convey.

Why is this important? If you have been photographing food for a while, you already know how hard it gets if you haven’t planned for the shoot in advance. It is simply exhausting for one thing, to do everything “on set”. Also, it is impossible to control the quality of the outcome. Spontaneity is all very well but it also means that the results will be inconsistent. And you will have to be okay with that. But if you are one of those people who have grown to a point where “just playing” is not enough anymore, then you’ll have to create mood boards and plan in advance for your shots. Mood boards are for people who are “not okay” with unpredictable results and want to get high quality, pitch-worthy images every time.

Also, have you heard about the martial arts concept of Shu-ha-ri? Wikipedia extract follows:

Aikido master Endō Seishirō shihan stated: “It is known that, when we learn or train in something, we pass through the stages of shu, ha, and ri. These stages are explained as follows. In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forebears created. We remain faithful to these forms with no deviation. Next, in the stage of ha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process the forms may be broken and discarded. Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws.”[1]

This principle of learning process has always resonated with me most of my adult life and I apply it for nearly everything I learn. Simply put, I could explain it as “follow the rules, break the rules and THEN make up your own intuitive rules”…. I have heard many professional and accomplished photographers say that they are able to just “see” the crop guides or imagine the whole image in their heads and do not need to do a very elaborate mood boarding step (except to help their clients understand what they are thinking). But I don’t think they got there by being spontaneous right from the start. They would have practised every principle diligently and repeatedly, and THEN, one day, they reached the “ri” state where they could start “seeing” their images before they even shot them.

Until such a day then, for the rest of us, there’s the mood board. Haha, okay you know what I mean. 🙂

Few things to keep in mind while collecting inspiration images.

Start with a few keywords in mind. I used words like “summery” “bright” “cheery” “holiday” etc., …I also used my own strong summer memory (which is mango, and therefore golden YELLOW). This helps in your search for images. When you type in these words in Pinterest or google, you’ll get images close to the mood you are going for.

I did not just collect images of food, even though the images I want to make are those of food. Images we collect on mood boards can include buildings, textiles, colour swatches, automobiles, home interiors, places of travel, architecture, craft items and of course food. In fact, I usually steer clear of actual food images because then the line between being inspired and “copying” becomes blurred (even if unintentional). And we don’t want to copy someone else’s work even if it is inadvertent.

Now I hear you wondering – but what if I want to recreate a food picture I’ve seen somewhere? See that’s different. There you are practising recreating something and not “selling it” as your own creation. That’s just for learning and skill building and it does not require mood boarding. Also, when we re-create something, let’s make it a habit to credit the source clearly (name your inspiration artist/photographer).

Include food photos if you must, but for SPECIFIC aspects only and not for the entire image. For example, I did add a few mango lassi and other yellow drink images in my mood board later, but only so I could remember to pick up on their matt textures and colours and not to replicate the image itself.

There are no rules to follow at this point. You don’t have to decide everything right now. Not even the colour. Just bear in mind the general idea of the feel/mood, and include the images you like. But be mindful of the specific aspect of an image you are loving. Texture? Colour palette? Positioning? Lighting? And so on.

Step 3 : Choosing backdrop, props and colour palette:

Now that I’d chosen my subjects (yellow fresh produce) and created a draft mood board(as above) , I needed to choose my backdrop, props and colours that match the general mood I was going for. So here is the image I put together with all those ideas.

Why these colours? Since I’d chosen a summer mood for my project, I chose a golden yellow, mostly monochromatic scheme (like the sun), but with a few other bits of pastel hues thrown in – a bit of pastel blue (like the blue sky), a bit of beige and white (like the foamy waves and sands for beach vacation mood), and also a bit of green (because I like green and summer means lots of green vegetables :-)).

We could choose from complementary, analogous and monochromatic colour schemes for this project. I usually use this colour calculator to get my colour combinations right and add swatches or colour palettes on to my original mood board, but this time I made a separate board just for these (as above). Also, by this time I had spotted some yellow gorgeous tomatoes and physalis in the market so they were likely going to be my main models.

Why these backdrops? I had in mind a bright and cheery summer mood so obviously thought that my backdrops needed to match my colour palette and look bright and airy. I already had a blue one but I went ahead and painted two more (one green and one white, both textured) for this project, because I wanted to make sure I had everything I might need ready for the shoot day. And at this stage, it’s best to have a few backup options ready to choose from, just in case.

Why these props? Glass is transparent and airy and easily matched my chosen colour palette. I already had these glasses which I love, and also a green plate that I thought might work well for this colour scheme. So the fact that they were available and were perfectly suitable were the reason why I chose them. Also, since I had planned to go minimal I didn’t think I’d need any more props. I was just going to use lots of produce and would not rely too much on props to tell my summer story.

Step 4 : Thinking about textures

The image below is somewhat self explanatory. This is how I figured out how I would try to highlight the most important texture features of my subjects. I’ve captured my stream of thoughts as-is, so this image clearly shows how the styling came about.

If you are not able to start with this step easily, then try looking at your subject(s) and pay close attention. What are the unique texture features that can be highlighted? How can we convey the textures via a 2-dimensional photo? Here I’ve chosen to think about using lighting (and shadows), contrasting surfaces, the best possible angle of view and any other special styling techniques that I could use to bring out the textures in my chosen subject(s). Take a look and you’ll see what I mean.

Step 5 : Thinking about Layers:

Layers add interest to the image. They also create some lovely shadows and prevent the image from looking “flat” and boring. Keeping in mind Rachel’s recommendation, I’ve created six layers here, using food as well as props. This image is below is self explanatory, so take a look at the image below to understand what layers I created in my setup.

Step 6: Styling with S-curve and shooting the images

The choice of S-curve for styling was purely because of the challenge guidelines and you could obviously pick whatever composition style you like for your images. But it works out great when you have multiple subject elements like I have here. And if you end up using the S-curve, it’s best to start styling the elements from an overhead view and then change the angle of your view to suit our needs. The set will need some minor adjustments if you choose to shoot from other angles, but it is still easier to start with an overhead view. It would be a great idea to use tethering to be able to “see” the composition better. I however did not use tethering this time around. I did however use a tripod.

As you can see from the behind-the-scenes image of my setup below, I created two S-curves but decided to make the one on the left the primary one (refer to my final, cropped image) just so the composition did not look too busy. Which means at this point, I had already planned to crop the image tight enough to make the S-curve on the right somewhat secondary and almost invisible, except for a few elements peeking into the frame at the edges – just to provide some interest on what’s going on beyond the frame (story telling).

We were asked to create two shots – one showing the wider scene and the other a close-up, to show the textures. So that’s what I did . I shot more than two of course, because that’s what we should do when we’ve created a food scene. We play around with different angles and orientations so we have enough material to choose from later on.

Step 7 : Post processing and presenting the images

And here you go! All done! The final step of the challenge was to complete the editing/post-processing and then present the two shots as a diptych or a carousel. The idea was to present the whole story using these two images. I used Lightroom for editing and photoshop to create the collage/diptych of these two images. There’s of course more than one way to do all this. I am a big believer in freedom from tools, so there is no need to be married to specific tools. Use whatever you have or like.

I hope this post provides you with some insights on how I’ve used planning, ideation and pre-visualization to create good quality images over the course of a whole week, without getting overwhelmed or exhausted. I am definitely going to repeat this whole process in future, until it becomes second nature. I can already see how I might be able to create more and more intentional images with a little bit of planning ahead. I hope you find it useful too! Have fun!