Aya Brackett's 5 Essentials for Improving Your Food Photography

Expert Essentials

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Aya Brackett is an accomplished fine art and commercial photographer. She worked as a photo editor for Dwell magazine for four years and has won numerous awards for her fine art photography, which often focuses on food. You can see her work in Sunset, Bon Appetit, Martha Stewart, Elle, The New York Times and in numerous books and cookbooks.

Today she shares with us her five essentials (and a few extra hints) for improving your food photography.

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Look for Aya's most recent work in the February 2014 issue of Sunset magazine where she photographed her brother, chef Sylvan Mishma Bracket, making udon (above). She also did the photography for the cookbook Bitter by Jennifer McLogin (10 Speed Press, Fall 2014) which involved shooting all manner of bitter foods like coffee, chicory, and citrus peels.

Aya also likes to 'paint with food' in her fine art work. Most recently she has been exploring the tension between edibility, beauty and disgust in her new series color photographs called Soiled. "There is beauty and also sadness in food which has been dropped to the ground and sullied," she says. "(The work is) inspired by the interplay of color and texture and an attempt to see food in a perplexing way."

1. The most important thing is light.

No matter what kind of camera you're using, if it's a phone or a fancy SLR, it's the light that's most important. Light is characterized in terms of temperature. Interior light bulbs have a warm and yellow-y light whereas sunlight is a much cooler, bluer light. If you mix the two, the camera doesn't know what to neutralize and you'll get a muddy result. So it's important to choose one or the other.

When I'm shooting in my kitchen from my phone for an Instagram photo, I'll always turn off the light and just use the light that's coming in the window. The light from a window is very beautiful. You have the light coming in from an angle on one side and it creates a shadow on the other.

It's sometimes nice to not have a bunch of conflicting shadows which is what you'll get if you have an overhead light and a couple of side lights — it can make your photograph look too cluttered. Too many shadows are overlapping. So again, try for a single source of light.

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2. Play with bouncing the light.

If you position white foam core cards near your shot, they will bounce the light back onto the subject. This will help to fill some of the shadows or you can also use a black card in the same way to deepen the shadows. You can even get foam core that has white on one side and black on the other. Or you can buy a big piece, score it down the middle and fold it at a 45-degree angle so you can prop it up to stand on its own.

3. Pay attention to the background.

I like to be sure that there's nothing distracting in the background that's not adding to the photo, like a dirty dishrag or a pile of books. Sometimes it's easy to focus on what you're shooting and not notice the background. Taking those things away can really focus the shot. Of course, sometimes you want that dirty dishcloth in the photo! Just be aware and look at the whole shot.

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4. Hints for making food look good.

As a rule for all photography, your photo is only as good as your subject matter. If you're shooting vegetables, dunk the whole thing in water and then shake it out so they're fresh and revived. When I'm on shoots, the stylists put wet paper towels on fresh ingredients so that they don't wilt. Especially herbs or little delicate greens which will wilt really quickly. Or keep a spritz bottle full of water handy.

Cutting into things is good, too. If you have English peas, open up the pod so you can see the peas inside. Or take a slice out of the pie and let all the filing ooze out. I was shooting radicchio for the Bitter cookbook and it was tightly closed up, so I started just loosening up the leaves and gently unfolding it and all of the sudden it was this beautiful flower — peony red on the outside with a white center.

5. Shoot at many angles.

Shoot several versions, different angles. Start out with what you think is the most inspiring approach but then be sure to try it out a few different arrangements, different angles (above, straight on, from all sides) and at different heights. It might end up making a better picture!

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Bonus Hints!

On using your flash on your phone. It's really an aesthetic choice. If you want that kind of over-exposed, punk rock look, then use your flash.

On taking pictures in a restaurant. I never take pictures in restaurants. It's usually at night, the light is often yellowy and the food ends up looking awful. If it's during the day and I'm by a window, then I might get a good shot. Otherwise, it's impossible to control the light and if you can't control the light, then forget it. Of course, you could take a picture as a form of note taking, for documentation, but as far as getting a beautiful photo, it's almost impossible. A long time ago I decided to just stop trying.

On painting with food. I really love doing still life work. I pretend that I'm painting. I work with the color and texture of the food and the background color and texture. It's like I'm composing a painting with what's in front of me. I really have fun with that, working slowly. It's what I choose to do on my own time, so that's saying something!

Food is so compelling in color and texture and cultural significance. I focus a lot on food when I'm traveling, too. It's so much fun to see what people are eating and to explore what's delicious in Paris, what's delicious in Oaxaca.

Favorite new phone app: Cycloramic. It takes hands-free, 360-degree panoramic pictures with your cell phone. You prop it up on a flat surface and it will start vibrating. The vibrations move the phone and the phone takes a bunch of pictures and you end up with a seamless panoramic.

What are you cooking these days? Impromptu soups for lunch! I put a little clay hot pot on the stove and add some leftover rice and a dashi that also has a little mirin and a little soy sauce, then greens from the garden — mizuna, chrysanthemum, mustard —- then an egg, maybe some chopped scallions. I stir it all up and it becomes thick and creamy, like a congee. Oh and some kimchi, too!

Thank you Aya!

More From Aya Brackett

  • For more information on Aya and to see more of her work, visit her website and her Instagram feed.
  • For more on her Sunset spread with her brother Sylvan, go here

(Image credits: Dana Velden; Aya Brackett)