A Feast for Your Eyes (And For My Face)

In Life, Photography

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My wife Megan is, as many of you know, a rather prolific food blogger. One of the advantages of being married to a food blogger is that I have the opportunity to try out all kinds of delicious food. I consider it one of the highest sacrifices of my love to so give of myself to be a taste-tester for all of her wonderful creations. With all the amazing dishes she has already made and is going to make, my canonization is surely right around the corner…

This first image is of some Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies Megan made on a whim last night. I had several, needless to say, and they did not disappoint!

This second one is Megan’s Chicken and Feta Flatbread. So tasty- I hope she makes it again very soon.

This last one is of Megan’s Homemade Tortilla Chips. Unlike most chips, these are baked, and they are so amazing that I don’t think we ever need to get chips from the store again. I think next time she might experiment with putting chili powder and lime in them, which would clearly be amazing.

Megan lets me take some photos of her food, and so I have quickly learned some tricks to what is hopefully good food photography. I have also been experimenting with some HDR techniques for food. Before I started I tried some searching on the interwebs for advice on how to do HDR food photography, but there doesn’t really seem to be a whole lot of people doing it. I joined an HDR Food Photography group on Flickr, but I seem to be one of the only people who actually posts to the group. So, I guess it’s just a lot of trial and error. I have learned a couple of things in my HDR attempts with food, and so I thought I’d share:

1. It all starts with a good non-HDR picture. If your ‘normal’ exposure of the bracketed exposure doesn’t look good, the HDR process is not going to help. Food needs to be well lit, and while some shadowing can give it dramatic effect, it can also make it look dull. While deep and rich blacks look good in other types of photography, in food photography they can really make it seem as if there is too much contrast and it might start to feel radio-active!

2. If you have to choose between too much exposure and not enough, go with too much. Food needs to be very well lit and as the subject needs to be exposed correctly. If it’s too underexposed, your bracketed exposures are going to end up making it look flat and dull.

3. Lower the ISO as much as possible. The HDR process invariably adds noise to your photo, which is probably going to have to be removed. While something like Topaz DeNoiser can do wonders, any bit of noise reduction is going to cause you to lose detail. This is the most crucial part of food photography- with landscape and architectural HDR, most of the subjects are further removed, so a little loss of detail normally isn’t a deal-breaker. With food photography, you are usually up close and personal with the subject, and it’s the little nuances of detail in the food- the textures and lines and crinkles and such- that really make it look appealing. A lower ISO will keep as much noise at bay as possible, and when you go to remove it later the loss of detail will perhaps not be as dramatic.

One trick I use: if you find that there is only one really noisy part of the shot- for example, a darker background- try lassoing in Photoshop, duplicating that selection and then using a heavier denoiser on that section and a lighter one on the rest of the photo. When selecting, over-select and then create a mask. Pick a large brush with 0% hardness and feather the edges. If you have de-noised judiciously, you can have a seamless image that still retains the detail in the subject.

4. If you are doing the tone-mapping in something like Photomatix Pro, be very careful. It is easy to completely over-do it in this step. Instead, it’s probably best to see something like Photomatix as an intermediate step in the HDR creation process. Adjust the settings until you find something you like, and then tone it down a little bit more. Food photography can be artistic, but if it doesn’t look like food anymore then it’s probably a failure. Food that looks like it is generating its own light or that appears to be radioactive is probably not what you want. Let Photomatix create an nice intermediate HDR tonemapped image that you can sweeten in Photoshop.

5. In Photoshop I start by running an UnSharp Mask from the Filters>Sharpen on the image. This will hopefully correct the bit of blurriness that the camera invariably adds to the image. I then duplicate this layer and apply a Guassian blur (Filters>Blur>Guassian Blur) to the duplicated image- something like 25px. I try to get it to look nice and blurry. Then I set the blending mode to either Overlay or Multiply, depending on the overall brightness of the image. (It varies from image to image- I just experiment with the blending mode and opacity until something works.) This has the effect of smoothing things out a little bit and pulling out some of the colors a bit. You are probably not going to want the opacity to be 100% on this layer; just experiment until you have something subtle and tasteful.

Generally by this point the image is too dark, and so I usually use an Exposure layer adjustment. (Layer>Adjustments>Exposure) This is one you have to use some discretion on…I usually pull up the Gamma a bit and then boost the Exposure ever so slightly. I will then go back and adjust the opacity of the blurred layer if necessary. It’s kind of dance between this layer and the Exposure Adjustment layer. Just make sure you do not blow out the highlights.

6. The last thing I usually do is use a final layer adjustment- the Selective Color. This is one of the most useful layer adjustments that Photoshop has, and can give you a lot of control over color-correction. It’s easy to over-do it, so be judicious with it. It will vary so much from image to image that I don’t have any presets, so you kind of have to experiment, which is fun. Right? Right.

Anyway, that’s all I know. I am still trying to figure out the whole HDR thing for food, as well as trying to figure out photography in general, so take any advice here with a grain of salt as coming from an amateur.

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