Macro, motion and artful imperfection: five trends in food photography

London-based food and drink photographer Sid Ali explains how to produce bold, contemporary imagery guaranteed to leave viewers hungry for more.
Three glasses of a cranberry drink, filled with ice, fizz temptingly.

In this image taken by food photographer Sid Ali, three cranberry drinks are fizzing together in unison. But it's actually an illusion. "This would be impossible to achieve without having several assistants pouring drinks simultaneously," explains Sid. "To navigate this, I shot each glass with fresh fizz individually using high-speed flash, and then combined the different shots in post-production." Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100. © Sid Ali

Shards of stacked chocolate stand like a kind of edible skyscraper. From atop the structure, molten ganache oozes tantalisingly down. There's a playfulness about the shot (see final image) – like something dreamed up by Willy Wonka but with an air of luxury that appeals to adult tastes. In fact, all is not as it seems in this picture by food photographer Sid Ali. "I captured several shots of the glorious ganache you see dripping flawlessly at perfect lengths on each side, each documenting a different pour," he explains. He then created a composite of the multiple images in post-production.

Sid, who started out professionally six years ago, has fast developed a reputation for creating food imagery with personality. Whether for Marks & Spencer, Deliveroo or KFC, his pictures always offer something beyond your typical still life. "Every food photographer finds, develops and nurtures their own unique approach, but the common goal is to make food look delicious," he says. "For me, it's about constantly evolving and finding new and innovative ways of photographing food."

Here, Sid talks us through some of the current trends he's embracing.

 A roast chicken sits on some brown paper on a dark blue table. It's covered in herbs and spices, and surrounded by halves of oranges and cooked garlic cloves.

Sid decides which angle will best complement the dish or drink he's shooting. "If I was shooting something flat, like a pizza, I may shoot it from overhead, whereas I might shoot a bottle of drink front on," he says. For this image of a roast chicken, Sid used the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. "It's super versatile and a great all-round lens. I use it for overhead shots, generally sticking at around 50mm." Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 57mm, 1/200 sec, f/10 and ISO100. © Sid Ali

Trend 1: Showing the human element of eating

Food doesn't exist in a vacuum and Sid's images reflect this, often featuring a cook's hands chopping ingredients or a background that suggests a hospitality or domestic setting. In Sid's experience, this is the trend that has most come to the fore since he started out, reflecting our changing relationship with food. Now, more than ever, consumers in the UK market and beyond are exploring fresher, more sustainable diets, incorporating plant-based or raw options. Sid sees himself as part of this shift. "At university, where I was taught by some incredible still-life photographers, food photography seemed like a natural progression – it allowed me to combine my love for food, and in particular healthy eating and nutrition, with my passion for taking beautifully lit images."

He continues: "I haven't always photographed food this way, but it feels ingrained in me now. It gives the image context and enables the viewer to connect. I believe this has become a popular trend as it bridges the gap between food photography and the viewer, who can visualise themselves consuming the food. It is a powerful marketing technique that lets brands not only hit their core demographic, but also reach out to new consumers and entice them into trying their foods."

That said, it doesn't work in every situation. Sid gives the example of a campaign he shot for Maggi, which showed an array of spices scattered on a surface. "Each ingredient had to be visible, and I feel a human element would have detracted from the intricacy," he explains.

Trend 2: Using motion to bring food to life

"The biggest appeal of stop motions and cinemagraphs is that they're perfect for social media," says Sid, who has found both appear increasingly often in clients' shot lists. He creates cinemagraphs by blending a small section of moving image into a still image, giving the impression the viewer is watching an animation, while he makes a stop motion by shooting a series of sometimes hundreds of still images on his Canon EOS 5DS R, with small, incremental changes between them, before combining them into a sequence.

"Cinemagraphs can be a little restrictive as you have to rely on a few seconds of footage, ideally with the same start and end point – a pour or a wisp of smoke disappearing – so they can be seamlessly looped. They also require a constant source of light, which can be tricky if you shoot with flash."

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Stop motion, by contrast, is an "incredibly flexible" format that can work well for almost any dish. "You can make it as complicated or simple as you like," says Sid. "But always storyboard an idea and really consider the narrative." Working with these formats has given him a taste for moving images: "I'd love to start shooting video and, in fact, it has been in the pipeline for a while now. I have my eye on the Canon EOS R5, as it is incredibly responsive, with the ability to capture stunning videos."

A close-up image of a pavlova, showing meringue, chopped nectarines, blackberries and figs, covered in a red fruit sauce.

When shooting food close-ups such as this pavlova, "the last thing you want is camera shake," says Sid. "This can destroy a macro image." He recommends using a studio quality tripod and ensuring you can remotely trigger your shot using a self-timer or remote trigger. Sid tethers his camera to a laptop, which has the added benefit of blowing up images on a large screen for review. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/6.3 and ISO100. © Sid Ali

Trend 3: Revealing mouthwatering detail with macro

The art of selling a dish visually is to make it look so good you can almost taste it. Sid's secret weapon is his Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, which "lives on my camera", he says. "Its brilliant compression really makes your food pop and makes it an ideal choice for 45-degree and frontal shots."

Macro food photography brings out the minutiae of a dish to set the viewer's tastebuds tingling, tapping into taste, touch and smell, not just vision. "A macro shot focuses on elements such as colour, fine detail or textures that may otherwise be undervalued. The key is to draw the audience's eye to the quality of the product."

Fruit is a great place to start, Sid advises. "Cut a kiwi in half and you'll see lots of beautiful seeds and inner fibres. But I've also been known to shoot macro with a chicken burger. I just love the texture of the chicken complemented by the vibrant colour pop of the salad."

Hear more of the conversation in this episode of Canon's Shutter Stories podcast:

Trend 4: Embracing artful imperfection

Gone are the days when food photography was all about unattainable, polished perfection. Now, imagery often gives the impression that the food is fresh from the kitchen, with ingredients arranged in a delightfully rustic presentation, stray crumbs on the counter top or cream being drizzled over a hot dessert. As more consumers see food as part of their identities, taking pride in cooking for family and friends, this lends the image an air of authenticity.

"It reminds people of the taste, smell and texture of homemade food," says Sid. "This draws us into these images and makes us want to incorporate them into our own lives."

Mandarins arranged on a chopping board and tray on a dark wood table, one peeled with its segments spread out.

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Sid normally works with a food stylist who does the scattering or pouring, while he shoots. The "imperfection" of these shots is an illusion; they're meticulously planned and produced – as in the case of the chocolate stack image below. Stylists have a flair for this, as well as a bunch of helpful tricks up their sleeve to make sure food looks its best. "It's about understanding how a food behaves in front of the camera," says Sid. "For instance, ice cream does not last long before melting, so you must shoot fast, especially on a warm day or if you're working with hot lights. Other food such as meat can be more forgiving, and can be revived to look fresh and juicy again by brushing it with oil."

A cooked octopus in shades of pink, purple and orange sits on a black background, covered with segments of blood orange and bright green leaves.

Sid's fine art food images, such as this deconstructed octopus with blood orange salad, look playful but they are the result of meticulous preparation. "Planning is really important to me, but once I have the shot I want, I allow myself to get lost in the moment and start looking for ways I can take the image one step further to enhance the shot," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 38mm, 1/200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100. © Sid Ali

A stack of broken up bars of chocolate dripping with melted ganache set against a black background.

This decadent chocolate stack is a composite of multiple images, combined in post-production so that the dripping ganache is perfectly aligned. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/299 sec, f/8 and ISO100. © Sid Ali

Trend 5: Making food photography a work of art

Sid, like many food photographers today, is always looking to push the boundaries of his visual practice. He creates striking and original compositions – a shot of apples plunging into water or colourful, elegantly deconstructed salads against muted backgrounds – some of which he sells as fine art prints. He regularly does one-off test shoots and personal series, sometimes prompted by gaps in his portfolio. And wherever you're getting experimental like this, reliable kit is a must, says Sid.

"A high-resolution camera and high-speed flash lighting covers me for most scenarios. My wondrous Canon EOS 5DS R camera shoots to huge 50MP resolution. I like to think of it as the resolution of a medium format camera with the flexibilities of a DSLR – the best of both worlds," he says. "Most cameras come with a low pass filter, which while reducing moire, allows fine sharpness to be lost, but with the Canon EOS 5DS R that's been removed, which increases its sharpness and ability to capture fine detail."

The 45MP mirrorless Canon EOS R5, which Sid is considering buying, also offers extensive creative opportunities for food photographers, with advanced AF and in-body image stabilisation that works in conjunction with compatible lenses to provide up to 8-stops of protection against camera shake.

Ideas can come from anywhere so be open to creative influences, suggests Sid. "I research food images daily," he says. "Pinterest and Instagram are incredible for visual brainstorming but my inspiration also comes from books, films, paintings and everyday life."

Sid believes more food photographers are adopting an artistic style to expand the range of emotions their work can stimulate – which has a commercial value as well as a creative one. "It helps to keep the product within the audience's memories. In addition to this, it encourages and inspires different ways of looking at food photography that is often thought provoking."

Rachel Segal Hamilton

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