Looking to make a career out of photographing food? The New York Times food photographer Andrew Scrivani names his favorite cameras, tools, and other resources you’ll need to get started.
If you’re familiar with The New York Times cooking section, you’re likely aware of the extraordinary photographs that accompany each recipe. There’s one man in particular behind many of those dazzling shots of holiday roasts, decadent desserts, and perfectly lit bowls of pasta. Andrew Scrivani has been photographing food for the Times since 2002 when editor Sam Sifton gave the then-budding creative his first assignment—shooting an ice cream parlor in Staten Island.
Andrew Scrivani seized that opportunity, and 17 years later has more credits to his name than just about any food photographer working today. In addition to his extensive work shooting for glossy magazines and trendy cookbooks, Scrivani started teaching a course on food photography beginning in 2012, and just this year released an instructive book inspired by his teachings entitled, “That Photo Makes Me Hungry: Photographing Food for Fun & Profit.”
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If you’re hoping to make taking pretty pictures of food more than just a hobby, there isn’t a better resource to get started. In his new book, Scrivani outlines everything from lighting and aperture to food styling, and camera settings, with tons of helpful (and specific) tips like keeping your garnish in cold water until it’s time to shoot for brighter color or using simple card stock and aluminum foil to perfectly light a stack of dark brownies.
That Photo Makes Me Hungry by Andrew Scrivani, $17.79 on Amazon
Speaking of tools of the trade, we asked the veteran what he recommends any amateur photographer looking to break into the business have at their disposal, and what to consider when buying. From the all-important camera and lenses to editing software, accessories, and more, these are the must-have photography tools and resources to nail that shot, according to Andrew Scrivani.
David Watsky: What should one consider when buying a camera for food photography?
Andrew Scrivani: One of the most important things to consider when choosing a camera for food photography is the ability to change lenses. You want to have the flexibility to get very close with a macro lens and you don’t need to break the bank either. There are some excellent mirrorless systems from Fuji X cameras, Sony A-Series, and in a range of prices, that are versatile, lightweight, and do well in low light for those tricky restaurant shots.
Fuji X Series Mirrorless Camera with 15-45mm lens, $399.99 on Best Buy
Panasonic Lumix Long Zoom Digital Camera, $398 on Amazon
DW: What about camera lenses?
AS: Believe it or not, I do the majority of my work with three lenses: a standard 50mm, a 50mm macro, and a 100mm macro. I use Zeiss and Canon lenses on all my camera systems. For food, and I have rarely needed to move from these focal lengths. These lenses give me coverage on table overheads, and mid-range and close-range macro shots. It’s a great frame to become familiar with. I am not a fan of zoom lenses for food. Obviously, not all manufacturers sell the same focal lengths, but if you get close to these numbers than you will get comfortable with your frame and have good results.
Zeiss 50mm Manual Focus Lens, $615 on Amazon
Canon 50mm Telephoto Lens, $299 on Amazon
Canon EF 100mm Macro Lens w/ Altura Photo Accessory and Travel Bundle, $699 on Amazon
DW: What are some helpful photography accessories for a budding food photographer to have handy?
AS: As far as backdrops I use a range of wood and stone tabletops that I have collected over the years. To be honest, if you have three to four light, medium, and dark surfaces to work with that should be plenty. White marble, a dark-toned wood, and something grey is a perfect starter kit. I’ve paid as much as $1,000 for an antique zinc surface, and as little as $5 for wood tabletop I found in a thrift store. Don’t spend a lot on surfaces but do have a piece of inexpensive black velvet or duvetyne for those dramatic dark backdrops.
White Marble Backdrop, $26.32 on Etsy
Simple yet elegeant for a rich-looking image.
Reclaimed Wood Replica Board (2x3), $69.95 on Amazon
Perfect for those rustic shots.
Shabby Chic Replica Wooden Backdrop, $10 on Amazon
Vinyl makes an affordable solution for various backdrops.
Lighting is key, of course, and though I prefer daylight for most of my work, I also own a range of lights ranging from inexpensive clamp lights with daylight-balanced bulbs that cost around $20 at a hardware store to a $6,000 Arri Skypanel movie light with accessories. In between those, I have Speedlight Flashes, LiteMat LED’s, Fiilex LEDs, and some very reasonably priced Elinchrom strobe lights. There are great options at every price point. Lighting has become a very advanced science, and the LED market is where I have spent the majority of my money on lighting, recently.
Clamp Lamp Light with 8.5 Inch Aluminum Reflector (2-Pack), $17 on Amazon
Gary Fong Lightsphere Collapsible Generation Five Speed Mount, $59.99 on Best Buy
Camera stabilization is also very important. One of the keys to good food photography, particularly in getting that ubiquitous overhead shot, is something to stabilize your camera. I have a FOBA studio camera stand in my workspace but cannot bring it on the road, so I use Manfrotto tripods of different sizes, with pan, tilt heads, and a cross arm to extend the camera over the table. It also has a remote trigger to release the shutter. This travels very well and gives me the ability to shoot slow shutter and overheads wherever I am. One rule of thumb is to get a tripod that is commensurate in price to the relative price of your camera. In short, don’t put a nice camera on a cheap tripod.
Monfrotto 61-inch Tripod, $69.99 on Best Buy
DW: Do you have any favorite carrying cases for your equipment?
AS: I have a wide range of carrying cases including several lightweight Chrome camera backpacks, and an array of Pelican cases of different sizes on wheels. I always consider plane travel when I buy carry cases. If it’s carry-on, it must be light and small, and if it’s checked luggage, it must be indestructible, and waterproof.
DW: What about photo editing software?
AS: Full disclosure, I am an Adobe ambassador as they represent my stock photography. I use the full range of Adobe products in my post-production work including Photoshop, Lightroom, Bridge, and Premiere. Adobe is the professional industry standard, and I find the programs to be comprehensive, and intuitive. I have also worked with an editing program called Photo Mechanic for many years that I find useful, and Capture 1 when I have to shoot tethered (which means shooting with your camera connected to a computer or tablet for instant viewing). It is simply the best tether software on the market.
Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom & other photo editing tools
DW: Do you have a computer preference for editing?
AS: I have been editing on MacBook Pro computers my entire career, but with the Adobe cloud of apps for editing and processing, any modern computer or tablet has plenty of power. My guilty pleasure, however, is the on-board editing platform in my iPhone camera. I think it does high contrast really well and I get great results with it. I also enjoy the built-in filters and widgets on Instagram since I spend an awful lot of time on the platform.
Macbook Pro (13-inch screen), $1,299.99 on Best Buy
DW: What are some other food photography resources you can recommend (besides your great book)?:
AS: There are lots of helpful online education platforms like creativelive.com (where I have classes), Masterclass, or Lynda.com. Lynda is actually free if you have a library card in some major cities and states. Getting good instruction and finding inspiration online is so easy and affordable now. Ongoing education should be a big part of your development as a photographer.
MasterClass with Annie Leibovitz
Header image courtesy of Hendrik Sulaiman / EyeEm Getty Images