I Create “Dish Portraiture” as a Food Photographer

All images and text by Xavier D. Buenida.

This time, I want to tell you about one particular subject that influences the way I approach my food photography. A genre that at first it may sound odd as it sits on the complete opposite side of food but that it makes a whole lot of sense if you think about it: Portraiture.

For the latest campaign of a restaurant, I had to look at a lot of portraiture for inspiration and guidance on how to approach this shoot. When I get hired to shoot projects like these, I first look at the light and mood of the restaurant, then at the style of the dishes and then I work out how the client wants their style to be like. One shoot is never the same as no restaurant is either so there is a lot of research done beforehand.

In the Creation of a Food Portrait

I’m constantly reminding my clients that when I’m shooting food I’m doing “dish portraiture” I’m not just snapping away aimlessly but I’m looking into the chef’s mind, looking at the dish as a unique piece and getting the best qualities off it. This is where understanding portraiture comes in handy and what I believe makes me stand out from a saturated market.

A recent shoot will help illustrate better what I’m talking about. For this shoot, I grabbed inspiration from an article written by Chris Gampat here on The Phoblographer: Noob Photographer’s Guide to Backlit Portraits. I wanted to integrate these backlight techniques knowing what my setup would be for the shoot: I had a giant southeast facing window in the front of the restaurant, black tables and brick walls.

Backlighting a Food Portrait

The giant window gave me a beautiful even spread light with no direct sunlight hitting the restaurant. The black tables make the colours and textures of the dish pop out incredibly, they also reduce the depth on the photograph so the dishes look more substantial than they are and the warm tones of the brick walls contrasted very nicely with the cold light reflecting on the tables. With this in mind, I was after something striking and unique, I never get this close to food either so it felt like the right time to take a new approach.

Looking at the restaurant’s brief, the chef’s plating style and what I mentioned before, I knew that backlight was the way to go. I was after that glow mentioned in Chris’ article: “The best of us like to put light behind the head to give off a nice glow to the subject” as well as shooting tight: “While it’s totally possible to shoot a portrait that is backlight from a bit further away, the best results come when you work up close and personal”  This highlights the tiny details and subtle textures of the dishes.

An initial challenge was knowing what to do with the light reflecting on the table, either I get rid of it or use it creatively to my advantage; the light has a very pleasant effect and it is what you see when you’re sitting at that table so I decided to use it to my advantage. Knowing my sensor’s dynamic range helped, I chose to under-expose a step and a half or so to darken the reflections and use an old trick of mine wearing a white t-shirt to throw enough light back at the dish; This trick is a hit or miss depending on many factors but thankfully, this time it worked well.

We both are very happy with this shoot, my client feels proud of his dishes and I’m honored to have helped him achieve that!

For future shoots, depending on what lighting situations I’ll keep using these backlight techniques; they’ll develop into something different for sure. I’ve done backlight for food portraiture before but never as principal light for a shoot. It’s fascinating, exciting and fun to learn. You won’t believe how crazy you can go with your exposures.