How to create macro food photography that leaves you wanting more
A 100mm macro lens can be an excellent teacher. It teaches us to pay attention to the details. It takes us for an adventure into the world of “unseen” textures, patterns, and colors. It invites us to experience the world from a completely different viewpoint. It offers an element of surprise — for us, creators, and for the viewer.
My passion for macro photography all started with my growing passion for food. When I moved to England, I became interested in learning more about cooking and baking, getting to know ingredients, and exploring new flavor combinations. When I got my first camera, I quickly found myself naturally drawn to photographing the seasonal produce that I found at the farmers market, as well as the delicious recipes I was so excited about making.
One day, when I was researching tips on food photography online, I found a food photography competition and entered with no expectations. Much to my surprise I was selected to be one of the finalists. It was like someone believed in me, before I believed in myself. After that, I started a food blog and started to think about food photography more seriously.
Since then, I've practiced every single day, and that commitment to practice has helped me develop my style. Of course there have been a lot of mistakes along the way, but I’ve always been stubborn and I’ve always loved to learn, which has been not only helpful in growing my skillset but also in growing my photography business.
The black peppercorns in image number 1 (white), look pretty much how my eyes would see this ingredient on a kitchen counter - small, dry specks. Nothing extraordinary, someone might think.
But looking at the same ingredient with the macro lens (image number 2) reveals the captivating texture and how this texture glows in the light. The way our eyes see is very different to how the macro lens sees things. We just don't look at the world from such a close perspective, and we often miss beautiful visual details. That's why it always pays off to stay curious, look thought the viewfinder, and experience the world though our macro lens.
When I want to exercise my creative muscles in food photography, I like to pick up a 100mm macro lens and challenge myself to look at familiar ingredients from a fresh perspective, and to see something I've never noticed before. I work with Canon 5D mark iv, and what I love about this lens is its superpower to turn even the simplest things into something extraordinary. In this post, I’ll break down my creative process for creating delectable macro food photography — both behind the lens, and when editing in Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom.
Get started: Picking a theme
Photographing with a 100mm macro lens can be a great opportunity to explore a “theme” in food photography too. There are so many food groups that can be explored from a close-up perspective — spices, herbs, lettuce leaves, citrus fruits, berries, dry pasta, nuts — just to name a few. If you'd like to give macro food photography a go, start by taking a look at what's in your pantry or cupboard, and challenge yourself to bring a creative, artistic spin to that ingredient with your photo. Show your audience what magical details you noticed and what caught your attention!
Coming up with a theme for your photography shoot can help to narrow and sharpen your focus and let the ideas flow more freely. It encourages us to dig deeper into this one area, and that is usually a road that leads to new, exciting discoveries. Not to mention that a set of images can help to engage our audience too, by offering them something extra.
A group of ingredients that definitely fit the same theme.
Choosing the right background
Even though we usually don't see a lot of the background in close-up shots, or the background is often out of focus, finding a great surface to photograph our ingredients on is an important first step. A great background is a foundation of our food image, and it can make or break our shot.
Food photographers (me included!) obsess about textured backgrounds, but when it comes to these close-up shots, we need to keep in mind that macro lenses will intensify the texture of our background. That means that the texture of the surface, especially the part that is in focus, can sometimes start competing with our subject. Personally, I look for backgrounds that are the perfect stage for the ingredient I'm photographing — a subtle background that provides contrast and that will highlight the star of the show but not overpower it.
There are a lot of incredible food photography backgrounds available these days and they really are worth investing in. At the same time, finding a perfect background for our close-up ingredient shot can be a great exercise in creativity.
Since our subjects are small, a lot of the items in our space can become interesting photography backgrounds. Even things we might have never considered as a surface to photograph on should be considered, e.g. a scarf, wrapping paper, or even a notebook cover. You might be surprised how many interesting surfaces for close up shots there are around you, and the best way to find them is to grab a camera and test, test, test.
For these food shots, I chose different ceramic plates and bowls as my food photography backgrounds. Earthy textures of the ceramics add interest to the image, but without overpowering the subject, and their dark color highlights ingredients in a powerful way, adding eye-catching contrast and a sense of depth to these images.
Additionally, their rim can work as a frame for the subject and help to draw more attention to it.
Playing with aperture
A 100mm macro lens offers a beautiful, shallow depth of field, and that's what we all appreciate it for. But when we photograph close-ups of ingredients with this lens, we might find choosing the aperture more challenging than when working with other lenses or when photographing wider food compositions.
If the aperture is too large, important details might fall out of focus. Too small, and we experience diffraction. It's all about getting to know your lens better and playing with different apertures to find the one that works best for your subject, for the angle you choose, and for your vision.
To get the star anise as sharp as I wanted it to be, I used a focus stacking method. I captured a series of images from exactly the same camera position, while using a manual focus and focusing on a different area in each shot. I had to be super careful to make sure that nor the camera, nor anything in the frame moves. I then stacked images and auto-blended the layers in Photoshop.
Depending on the subject you are photographing and the result that you want to achieve, you might want to explore the focus stacking method.
Get your tripod
When we photograph close-ups of ingredients with a 100mm macro lens, we also need to keep in mind that even the tiniest camera shake will be intensified by this lens. That's why for close-up food shots, when we need to use a faster shutter speed, a sturdy tripod and a remote are our best friends!
Pro tip: for overhead close-up shots, a tripod with a horizontal arm will come in really handy.
Use manual focus
To focus on the right spot, use a magnifying button on your camera (it'll show you the image zoomed in on your camera's LCD screen), then choose your focus manually.
Add visual interest and a sense of depth
To add visual interest to my subject and a sense of depth to my close-up shots, I like to play with different contrasts: tonal contrast, color contrast, or textural contrast; or all three!
Contrast helps to draw attention to our subject, makes it stand out more against the background and creates a powerful sense of depth in our composition.
I like to choose dark colors for the background, because they provide an eye-catching contrast for the ingredients and make their color, shape, and texture pop. Additionally, if my subject has a strong and interesting texture, I like to contrast it with a subtle, less textured background.
A tonal contrast helps to draw the viewer in, and photographing some of the ingredients in bowls creates a beautiful play of highlights and shadows and make the image more dynamic. Additionally, we can blur a side of the bowl in the foreground to create a stronger sense of depth in the image.
Layering ingredients on top of one another is another simple but super effective strategy to create a sense of depth and increase visual interest in our images. Exactly what I did in this image of cinnamon sticks.
Finding an interesting detail
Find a really interesting detail about your subject. Show something that will make someone go “Oh wow! I never noticed that” — maybe it's a color? When I photographed a close up of the black pepper featured at the start of this article, I was surprised that it has so many shades of brown.
Overhead macro photography of two nutmeg seeds placed inside a ceramic bowl. One seed has been partially grated to expose its interior textures and grain.
If not a color, maybe it's an interesting texture or pattern? When I photographed the nutmeg above, I grated a piece of it to see what it looked like inside. I was surprised to see the interesting texture and pattern, which made this photograph much more interesting.
I really wanted to make the images above even more rich and dramatic in Lightroom, so I deepened the Shadows and Blacks and added a Vignette, which made the subject stand out even more.
Once I was happy with how the dark tones look in the image, I grabbed a Brush and added a little bit of Exposure to the subject, while controlling the Flow. This created a lovely play between the dark and the bright parts of the image. I also used an additional Brush with Texture to enhance the texture of these ingredients. I did this instead of just adding Texture globally. because I didn't want to add this adjustment to the background.
In this set of images I also changed the Profile in Lightroom to Vintage 06. This gave an interesting feel to these dark and moody shots and I like the fact that I can control the amount of effect that is added to the frame.
Cleaning up your image in Photoshop
Macro lenses magnify extraordinary details, but at the same time, they also magnify all the things that we wish weren't visible in our images (like dust or our pet's hair!). I always make sure to keep tweezers, an air blower/dust cleaner (the same we use for cleaning our cameras), and a small brush near the set up to minimize these nuisances.
It wasn't until I zoomed in on this image in post-production that I was able to see a few tiny hairs on the plate. These distractions can be easily missed at the back of our camera's LCD screen.
But inevitably, things like dust will creep in, and for that I use Photoshop to remove anything that my eyes have missed! I zoom-in in Photoshop to scan my image from top to bottom, and from left to right, and use a healing brush and/or a clone stamp tool to remove anything unwanted and to clean up my shots.
Unlocking your inner creativity with food photography
Macro photography of ingredients is an excellent way to grow your food photography skills without having to spend a few hours on food preparation and food styling.
It's a great creative exercise too! It invites us to be more curious, to look at the world from a different perspective, and to start noticing little details everywhere. And once we start seeing these details, our photography and the world around us will never be the same — it will be filled with magic.