In our continuing series on food photography, Tessa Huff of Style Sweet CA will be showing us how she styles and photographs the wide array of baked goods and desserts she creates by breaking down her photos for us.  There will be lots of tips and tricks to help guide you with your own food photography, as well as a healthy dose of inspiration.  Today she walks us through the challenges of photographing food outdoors - timely for summer!

Outdoor Food Photography | Food Bloggers of Canada

ISO 100 f/7.1 28-135mm lens

As we enter the height of summer, I bet many of us will be toting our cameras out and about, snagging great pics to highlight the season’s best events and gatherings. With the sun shining bright, and many picnics, BBQs and potlucks on the horizon, I thought this would be a great time to start a conversation about outdoor food photography. Our first instinct might be to head right out into the bright sun and start shooting -- the more light, the better, right? While an abundance of natural light can be great, there’s more to a great food pic than treating the sun like a spotlight.

Direct sun can be harsh and unflattering to our beautiful summer fare. Too much direct light can cause strong shadows, blown-out highlights and severe contrast. While sometimes those traits might help the story you’re trying to tell, at other times they can be distracting and extreme. Working outdoors is more or less an uncontrolled environment (will it be cloudy or overcast that day?), but there are a few simple tricks and tips to help put you back in charge of your photos. Let’s explore.

Weather/Time of Day

Even though it’s summer, Mother Nature still has a way of mixing things up from time to time. Weather is never guaranteed, so it’s important to be prepared. Consider the time of day when scheduling photo shoots. Early morning and late afternoon, or the “golden hour,” offer up softer light than that of high noon. If you must shoot in the middle of the day, pack a diffuser in your kit. Unexpected clouds? Don’t worry! Clouds and overcast skies act as natural diffusers for harsh sunlight.

The Subject

For this lesson, I created and styled a summer berry trifle. It incorporates fresh seasonal produce (letting us know that it’s summer) and is a great dish to bring to an outdoor picnic or event due to its portability and individual servings.

Food Photography: Outdoor Food Photography | Food Bloggers of Canada

ISO 100 f/9.0 28-135mm lens

The Styling

First and foremost, I considered the location of the shoot and let that help guide my styling. I wanted to show a bit of nature in the background to indicate that we were outside. The use of a picnic basket as a tabletop lifted the trifles off the ground and quickly implied that we were indeed at a picnic.

I placed the trifles in sealable glass jars. The clear containers revealed their beautiful layers and showed that they were easy to transport to the park or a backyard bash. A few scattered berries hinted at the flavours inside, while one of the jars was left open to show the garnished dish ready to be served. Another was already half eaten.

The Set-up

I shot the trifles twice: in the shade of a large tree and under direct, yet diffused, light.

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Food Photography: Outdoor Food Photography | Food Bloggers of Canada

ISO 100 f/9.0 28-135mm lens

For the first set-up, I placed my subjects under the branches of a large tree. I shot these photos in the middle of the day, with the sun shining high and bright. The sun (my light source) was behind me, but was diffused by the leaves of the tree. My goal was to take advantage of the beautiful dappled light coming through the branches to help tell the story of a sunny day without the sun interfering too much. This way I was also able to keep some soft shadows, which I personally prefer.

Food Photography: Outdoor Food Photography | Food Bloggers of Canada

ISO 100 f/10 28-135mm lens
Setting up under a tree and finding just the right amount of shade/light.

These photos were shot straight on to show off the layers of the dessert.

If you don’t have a tree to provide natural shade, then a diffuser is a must. I have a small round diffuser in my kit, but a white bedsheet can work in a pinch. The direct sun was too harsh for what I was trying to capture, so I used a diffuser to cover everything in my frame. Be sure to place the diffuser between your subject and the light source. Here, the light is much softer and makes the subject appear more appetizing. The even light of the diffused set-up creates shadows that are even more subtle and the photo has less contrast overall than the first set-up.

Food Photography: Outdoor Food Photography | Food Bloggers of Canada

ISO 100 f/20 28-135mm lens
Using a portable diffuser to block out some of the light on my subject.

These photos were shot at a 45-degree angle, or how you would normally view a dish sitting at a dinner table. This way you can see inside the jars, while still showing the sides (as opposed to a true overhead shot).

Food Photography: Outdoor Food Photography | Food Bloggers of Canada

ISO 100 f/7.1 28-135mm lens

Food Photography: Outdoor Food Photography | Food Bloggers of Canada

ISO 100 f/9.0 28-135mm lens
Shooting without a diffuser creates harsh shadows and severe contrast due to too much direct sunlight.

End Notes

  • Since there was an abundance of light I was able to set the ISO as low as possible, keeping the photos crisp, without extra noise and grain-free. Take advantage of the light and set your ISO accordingly.
  • When shooting outside, pay close attention to white balance. Between the sun, shade and clouds, different hues of light may be cast upon your subjects. You can customize your white balance before taking the photos, or adjust in post-processing if you shoot in RAW format.

Looking for More?

Food Photography: Outdoor Photography was written by Tessa Huff. Tess is a Vancouver-based pastry artist, food stylist, and photographer. Before moving to British Columbia, she was a cake decorator for several years and owned her own cake boutique. Huff currently runs her blog, Style Sweet CA, and is a freelance recipe developer and photographer. She just completed writing and photographing her first cookbook (Abrams Books, Spring 2016) and is having fun spending time with her husband and their new baby boy.

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Trudy @eatliveandplay

Thanks for this great article Tessa! I love the idea of shooting outside but it’s tough to nail a nice shot without a lot of harsh light. If you want to check it out the Rosemary Rhubarb drinks that you see on my blog, they were shot outside but to be quite honest I was not happy with how the photos turned out. I think I will use a diffuser as you suggested next time. Thanks!

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