This a great season for sharing salad recipes, but do you find taking pictures of salads kind of challenging? Like, they never look as good as they taste?
I had the same problem for years. Years! And then I read Plate to Pixel and started to apply those food styling ideas to my frumpy, soggy old salads. And now my salads don’t look frumpy and soggy anymore, and I’m super happy about that! So I wanted to share three easy things I learned to do to help salads look fierce. You can do them, too!
1) Lay it out.
I used to fix my salads for photos like I fix them for myself in real life: throw everything into a plastic tub and shake. It’s quick and easy and makes a lot of sense when you just want some salad dammit, but when you’re taking photos not so much. Everything gets jumbled together, and the small and lightweight pieces tend to disappear completely. Grr!
I want to show off all the ingredients in my salad pics. There’s a lot of fun stuff in there, right? So I’ve found the best way to do this is to arrange them carefully.
So instead of chucking everything into a tub, I lay all the ingredients out separately in piles on a tray. And now it’s like a kind of artist’s palate (fan-ceh!) and I can easily grab ingredients and compose my salad just like I want.
I start with a base of leafy stuff and then sort of construct the salad on top of that. It goes like this: put stuff – look through the camera. Put stuff – look through the camera. Adjust as needed. Repeat until you have a prettier-than-real-life salad before you. Save a handful of leafy stuff and incorporate it here and there on top of the salad so it has a natural, fresh-tossed look.
The first time I saw a food pic where there was stuff falling off the plate, I swear a part of my soul lit up I didn’t even know was there. We’re discouraged from letting food fall off our plates in real life but in food photography – go for it!! Make a little mess! A few pieces falling off the plate can look fun and plentiful and just plain awesome.
And let’s be super real here. You can sometimes use fallen pieces to cover blops, drips and other stuff that looks less awesome and is kind of a big deal to fix on the fly. Shh – there’s a blop of dressing hiding behind that leaf on the right!
Here’s the last thing I wanted to mention about laying out a salad. You might want to hold back what I call a hero piece and put it on last. I think of it as a teeny little salad crown. It draws the viewer’s eye in and provides a focus point, which is especially awesome if you got a little too enthusiastic and overcrowded your salad like I did this one (d’oh). It’s also a nice way to give your photo instant personality and appeal.
2) Light it up.
What are salads, really? A bunch of little pieces of food coming together. An easy way to show all those little pieces is to make sure you’re shooting in plenty of light. If there’s lots of light coming from several directions, you have a better shot at everything being seen.
One of my favorite ways to shoot a salad is by lighting it from behind, or backlighting. Backlighting tends to create subtle tracings of light around the ingredients, which you can see in the pic above if you look real hard. It’s a good way to give all those little pieces some definition, and it just makes them look pretty.
I like backlighting to come from just off to the side because it’s easy to work with. Think of the 10 and 2 positions on a clock – either are great places for backlighting to come from.
Here’s how I lit this salad. You can see all the directions light is coming from and bouncing around.
My light source is a Cowboy Studio softbox, but it could be natural window light or a Lowel EGO Light, whatever you’re using. I positioned the salad so the light was sort of in that 10 position behind it, then I propped up whiteboards from the dollar store on either side of the whole set up. The whiteboard on the right is reflecting light from the source across the salad and over to the other whiteboard, which is bouncing it back. That’s a lot of light flying around!
The mirrors are a fun little thing I’ve recently gotten into. They’re just those self-propping ones you can get at any dollar store. They’re more of a nice-to-have than a need-to-have. I like to put them near places that aren’t getting quite enough light or that I want to emphasize, in this case the front and far back of the salad. Skip ’em if you feel like you have enough going on right now (I know that feeling so well!!)
3) Dress it last.
This one I got straight from Plate to Pixel, and I swear it changed my life. Put the dressing on last, after you have everything all styled like you want!
There’s actual science behind this. Many salad dressings have vinegary-acidy components, and the longer they sit on your salad the more they wilt and break it down. I went for literally years dousing my salads in dressing and then trying to arrange and take nice pics of them, and they always looked like they’d been run over by a truck 15 minutes in. So I kind of hated taking pictures of salads.
Now that I know to style my salad and then add artistic dressing flourishes – whoo boy, it’s on! I’ll take salad pictures all day.
So after you get your salad all styled, take a look for some obvious places that would look yummy with drips and drops of dressing. Then semi-carefully spoon some on. Don’t go too nuts (as I often do), or you’ll get that wilty thing going on sooner than later.
So there, three ways to make salad pics prettier! This spring and summer, when we have all those great salad recipes to share, we’ll have pretty pics to go with them!