12th December 2018
Severien Vits on the art of food photography
The Kent photographer reveals why great shots are more than a flash in the pan
We’ve all seen it: That photo of a mouth-watering dish on Instagram, in a cookbook, or on a magazine cover that stops us in our tracks. Perfectly lit, framed and set – with the decadent, ‘this is M&S food’ deliciousness inside already oozing out – these salivating shots are as much about the photography as the dishes themselves.
This is something that Severien Vits knows all too well. As a professional food photographer and blogger based in Tonbridge, she’s shot all kinds of ingredients and meals in her time, working closely with chefs and producers to bring the story of each and every picture vividly to life through her lens.
“I love working with the person who’s passionate about the subject I’m photographing,” she says. “I feel strongly about making this look stunning in the photo, so together, that usually ends up being really fun teamwork. We then both try to convince the rest of the world of the brilliance of the product as well.”
In Severien’s case, the camera does the talking, as she employs a variety of techniques to make the most of the food on show. The right lighting is, of course, essential, while finding the correct setting and backdrop can work wonders for adding a new dimension to the plate.
“Light is key, absolutely,” confirms Severien. “I work almost only with natural light, because it’s what I know best. I shoot during the daytime when natural light is available, and switch off all other lights if I can. If I use artificial lights, it’s only ever to simulate natural light, as I place them where I’d like my natural light to come from. I also use black and white boards to reflect or absorb the light, and to cast the direction of light on the scene, creating dark and brighter zones in the image.
“Finding the right angle to capture a dish can be tricky. This can depend on what type of plate or dish is used, and how the food has been plated, as well as how the styling is finished. A pizza usually works best photographed from the top, whereas a deep plate with some vertical build-up may work best from a very low angle.”
Technical elements aside, it’s the food itself that’s the real star of the show. Throughout her career, Severien’s worked with some top chefs, restaurants and producers, most recently on The Cook Book, which brought together recipes from around west Kent to raise money for children’s healthcare charity Tree of Hope, celebrating the Garden of England’s vibrant food and drink scene.
So, which foods work best for the camera?
“Some are easier than others, especially because they give you more time,” Severien considers. “Cakes, biscuits and breads don’t fade as quickly as a cooked dish, while good-quality and super-fresh produce is almost always beautiful. Brown dishes need more styling, and melted cheese tends to look plastic if you’re not careful.”
For Severien, long gone are the days of elaborate substitutes and inedible makeovers in her industry. Where possible, she prefers to shoot a meal just as it is, employing equal parts ingenuity, creativity and skill to optimise the food on display in the short window of time she has available – which isn’t to say she doesn’t have a few tricks of her own up her sleeve, that is.
“I make my own backdrops, but am always looking for new ones to make or use,” she explains. “That’s what I like about restaurant photography: There are always different tables and backgrounds onsite. I love the old, rough wooden tables in restaurants; they make great backdrops.
“There are styling tricks you can use, but I keep the food edible at all times, which I think is a general trend, as we don’t like to waste food anymore. You can’t avoid warm dishes going cold, but I fiddle with the bits and pieces so that, even if it isn’t as attractive to eat as before I started working with it, it’s still good enough!”
In our Instagram age, anyone with a smartphone and the right choice of filter can make their meal at the latest local hotspot an award-worthy masterpiece. The use of these filters can be an issue of contention for some professionals, but Severien sees it as another opportunity to learn and improve her own craft.
“I like the fact that people talk about food so much on social media, as it’s such a big thing in our lives anyway,” she reveals. “I love seeing great food photos, and try to understand and analyse why I like them, but never use filters for food myself. I don’t mind seeing bad food photos on social media, because that shows the value of my skill, and makes me think how I would do it better.”
That said, does Severien have any words of wisdom for budding food photographers trying to capture that perfect shot? Above all, patience, planning and preparation go a long way towards getting it right, it would seem.
“Think about how you want your photo to look beforehand,” she concludes. “Think about light, style, colours, props and background before you do anything else. Use natural light, and only bring out the food when your set is ready – you want to catch it as fresh as possible.
“When you’ve found your setting and decided on your look, bring it all together and start playing around with an empty plate. Try different angles, as certain foods work better with some than others. Take many photos, and look, tweak, look again, tweak again, look some more and tweak some more – most importantly, take your time.”