How I Shot Tacos

Photographing Taco Mexican Food Have you thought about photographing tacos?

How would you go about photographing it? Would you photograph them open or closed? Would you go about styling them with or without salsa? What about the background? The Light?

In today’s post, we will learn one photographer’s approach to photographing tacos. Mexican food in general is very unique. Tacos in that can be photographed in many different ways.

We invited Phi to share her photography journey and take us behind the scenes of this Taco photograph. She walks us through, in great detail, about her thought process, decisions she made and styling choices.

You can find at her website PrincessTofu. Phi… take it away. 

About  the Photographer

I’m a designer by training, an architect by education, and an eater by all other measures. My blog is actually a writing endeavour; I wanted to improve my writing, so I decided to create personal space that I can use as a learning tool.

If you were to take a scientific analysis of my brain, I think most of the brain-bits would be about food and my love for food. Naturally, my writing would be focused on food – the photos are just an extension to storytelling in a comfortable medium that I can use to compensate for lack of poetic words. Writers like MFK Fisher can talk about food without photos, I cannot.

Personally, I find photography to be much easier than cooking or writing, though obviously not easier than eating the food, but I may have a few more advantages than someone who’s never taken courses in design, art, or photography.

My introduction to DSLR photography was at Georgia Tech where I took Photography 101 – a film-based photography course where I learned to develop and print my own shots, resulting in pretty unimpressive photos by most standards.

In fact, I think most people can do better with their iPhones, but we all start somewhere. I started pretty low. We even had pin-ups and art critics, but I wasn’t eating/sleeping much then, so I didn’t gain much from creative feedback.

I even took a few general art & art history courses in high school and later some drawings lessons throughout college where I learned make digital renderings of buildings/interiors with 3D software and Photoshop. My photographs are a culmination of years of working with visual imagery, but my photos have only improved through practice, which has taken a lot of time.

Her Food Photography Process

Each recipe is a story, so if possible, I’ll test my stories with raw ingredients and a few props prior to taking photos of the finished, cooked foods. This is how I get my best results. I’ll even take my .raw files into Photoshop to see if the final colors and mood will work.

My first step is to select a set of props or paint new ones that I think will work with the shape/colors/textures of the food – think of it as a visual mood board. Sometimes I do this days before I take the actual photos so I can start sketching out ideas and compositions in my head.

I usually try to approach each project with at least 3 different shots in mind, since they don’t always work out. Additionally, I can never have enough extra raw materials from the recipe since I like to style my photos with messy, raw, fruits and veggies.

Styling is super important, but it’s not something I can describe in an interview or a book, and I am certain it’s not even something I can observe. I have had days when styling my own photos gets nearly impossible.

It’s a lot easier to take a great photo if you have a great subject, which makes a good stylist, in my opinion, worth their weight in gold. If you are new to styling and want good composition, you should steal it. Not literally, but figuratively.

All good photos are based on the same characteristics: lighting, color, contrast, geometry, balance, texture, layers… you can describe an image with any of those words, and once you start to analyse not just photos, but also drawings and paintings with those things in mind, you can create your own style.

If you are starting out, study art history. My favorite inspiration for food photography are still life paintings from the Dutch Masters. Their virtuosity with chiaroscuro is what I aspire to do with my own photos. Obviously, if you like Andy Warhol your photos would look and feel significantly different than mine. Photography, as a medium, is no different than paint or words.

Lastly, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of empty space. Not every inch of space needs stuff. When composing, create spaces where the eye can wander to and rest. Put everything onto your scene and then arrange it so that there are areas that reveals the background, the wall, etc. If possible, I try to take the viewer all over the composition.

Food Photography Camera, Lenses and Other Gear

My props are gathered from all sorts of places like the Goodwill store, Etsy, the clearance rack at Sur la Table, Anthropologie, or just random pieces I find around the house. I have a bunch of wooden pieces that I’ve gathered from personal projects at school and bits from the junk yard that doubles as surfaces and backdrops.

I’ve also permanently borrowed bits of my boyfriend’s duvetyne. 🙂

In fact, I’m actually using my boyfriend’s gear right now for everything on my blog. He’s a wildlife film maker and is terrific at answering any technical questions I might have.

After a year of taking photos of food, I’ve narrowed down the particulars of how I like to shoot with his Canon Rebel T2i and his 50 mm. From time to time I will also use the Rebel kit lens for wide shots as well as a manual 55mm macro lens.

I’ve recently begun taking pre-shots with the VSCO cam app since it lets me manipulate contrast, color, and even exposure with great film-like presets. When I take trips, I use my Harinezumi for personal photos and experimentation because it’s small and fun. The video setting is like magic.

(Neel’s note: If you are hearing about the Harinezumi camera for the first time, take a look here. Read the reviews. The results are very unique. Here’s the link.)

I also have a Nikon with a few lens, but I have not shot photos in film in ages (unfortunately).

First Decisions to Shot Tacos

Tacos are hard to style – I think they are a weird, unshapely, but delicious mess.

I chose to place a bunch of them in a curved line for that reason. Together, they hold each other up while creating a more composed shape. This is something I often do for raw ingredients as well since I like photos to have good lighting, good massing, and good details.

In fact, my best images, whether graphic or photographic, are usually composed with 3 levels of details – the first glimpse, the closer look, and the long gaze.

Since the taco fillings are smoky black lentils and green tomato salsa, I decided to set up for black, green, and beige neutrals. I almost always narrow my color palette down before selecting props since that generally eases the rest of my decisions. I used clear glass in this photo because it doesn’t conflict with any other colors while adding more geometry.

Like most, I am constantly collecting photographs and paintings on Pinterest  so I can look at inspiring images prior to styling and shooting my own photos.

I totally admit to stealing styling ideas from photos I admire, but my photos are never complete replicas, as much as I’d like it them to be. I probably looked at a hundred tacos photos before taking my own.

Food Styling and Prop Styling Decisions

This composition was not my original intent with the tacos – they just ended up that way when I started composing them on the cutting board. I had a beautiful green plate I was going to put them on, but the tacos were getting wet and falling apart.

They were very fussy so I ended up leaving them on the board and using my dark wooden boards to add another dimension of material on the bottom. If you are working with tacos, you should double the shells so they will not fall apart.

Further, the lentils were very undercooked. Cooked lentils are mushy and delicious, but looks like dog food, unfortunately. Photos of lentils, beans, and other legumes are almost always undercooked so you can actually tell what they are.

I wanted the board to look less cutting-board-like so I had it bleed of the edges. I took this photo as-is without cropping because I knew what I wanted. If you are new to photography, you should take wide pictures with plenty of extra space in order to experiment with cropping for different geometrical effects.

Lighting Decisions

I’ve learned that in low light I need a wide aperture, but I can still capture a lot of details with a shallow depth of field by shooting from above. Aside from my usual edits, I did some perspective correction in Photoshop to make my board be a perfect line on the right and top. Even with a 50mm … you will get visual distortions.

Here are the specs: (I lost the head to my cheap tripod so for the last six or eight months I have been doing handheld. I’ll probably get a nice tripod eventually but it usually slows me down.) Canon Rebel T2i 50mm ISO: 200 f/2 1/200 Taken on September 29, 2013 in San Francisco, probably a cloudy afternoon given ISO/shutter speed.

The last bit is key – if I were to take the same photo now, using the same natural lighting set-up I did in that photo, and it would be terrible. I would have to use at least an ISO of 800 and pray for fog.

My lighting in SF is different than say someone in Florida or New York. I think it’s nice to see how photographers use their latitudinal advantages as an expression of photography throughout the year. For that reason, I’ve pretty much stopped using reflectors or diffusers, which, I know is unorthodox.

My walls are made of giant,industrial windows that open to the south and west. The building across our alley to the south bounces red light onto my work space which makes white balance a nuisance.

Basically, I take photos when the sun is low enough to be ambient or when there is cloud/fog cover which means I have about 30 minutes of perfect light to take my photos.

If I am feeling particularly dedicated to a subject, I’ll take photos on consecutive days to get the perfect shot. If you have a small northern window, that’s ideal.

Advice to New Photographers and Readers

Don’t be afraid to tackle Photoshop. My favorite way to see how others manipulate photos is by downloading free Photoshop actions and seeing how they manipulate settings. Saying no to digital post-editing is like taking your film to the pharmacy for printing.

When I was in architecture school, we did a lot of light studies by making models and taking site-specific photos throughout the day/month/year. I think it’s been the most helpful thing for my photography – every photo is a sun dial. If you’ve never done a lighting analysis or don’t know how to read a sun chart, start here:

Lastly, you don’t have to be original, but you can be unexpected. Taking great food photos will come with practice, so if you keep trying your own style will come through out of your own personal circumstances, even if you take ques from other photographers and stylists.

In fact, I think creativity comes from having a unique set of rules and boundaries, and of course personality. No one else will look at a plate of food the same way you do – let that be your strength and guide, show me how you see.

Best of Luck!!!

I love talking about food and photos so feel free to drop me a line: Website

(Neel’s note: On her website, find her facebook profile and twitter link and many many other social media networks where Phi is active. Don’t miss saying hello to her.)

One Question for You

I hope you learned about how to create a photo of Smoky Lentil Tacos from this post. In the comments below, in one line (or more), tell us what was the inspiring thing that you learned from the post.

  • Sean

    I have made “stabs” at food photography. Some came out good, many just so-so.
    What I like most about your Taco shot post is the concept of choosing (and limiting) a color palette prior to set-up/shooting. I have been taking color art classes and one idea I now attempt to incorporate into my food photography is complementary colors (or at least a splash of a complement in a corner). It seems to add more tension (to hold the viewer) and always adds energy to a photo. But I have never consciously thought to create the color palette before I set the shot.
    If I was to imitate your great taco photo, I might add a complementary color of the green (like a bowl of red salsa or just some speck of red tomato on just one of the tacos to incorporate the complement someplace in the photo). But that is the style I am creating for myself.
    Another idea I came away with from your post is photographing straight down or over the composition. Although I use that technique from time to time, the idea of wider aperture and greater detail w/ shallow DOF never crossed my conscious mind. It is a “duh – of course” moment (with the usual slap to the forehead for good measure).
    thanks for the great blog. Now to try to imitate your taco photo

  • Wow, I especially loved your bit about Lighting Decisions. About a year ago we moved from a house where my studio was in a garage with one wall open to an enclosed courtyard. The light was fantastic there ALL day as the roof extended well past the garage no-wall area. I now have a beautiful studio inside our new home but face the same issues of white balance distortions (glass walls on two sides and a high roof window on the other). I generally, too, shoot either in the early morning – prep is done the night before or late afternoon when the sun is low. And love those cloudy days. They are the most productive so I always hire a kitchenhand to assist with cooking so that we can get 10-15 shots done on those days.
    Thanks for the seasonal photography suggestion. It’s perfect really for when you eat seasonally.

  • Thanks Phi. First of all I love your taco picture. Secondly you gave me hope. I thought I was destined to mediocrity but when you said your initial photos were not so good you are gave me hope to get better. I’m already looking for photography courses at a nearby college and maybe a history of art course.
    The inspiring thing for me from your post was “to approach each project with at least 3 different shots in mind”. I never did that. Will try with my next post.

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  • Ramona

    I think this shot is near perfect.