In practice, Styling

Styling exercise: pancakes

Right after hitting Publish on the post about styling and shooting brownies, I started thinking about what I could take on next in the styling exercise series. I thought about doing salads, or maybe desserts in a cup, or soups, or drinks, or… So many ideas popped up. But then I veered back to lighting, and promptly forgot my train of thought. Then a few mornings ago I made pancakes, and it hit me: let’s do… pancakes!

What a perfect morning looks like at f/3.2 1/60sec 60mm ISO400

I made and shot my fair share of pancakes, and you can see proof on my instagram feed, if you follow me there. This one above is an oat pancake, a favourite at my house. There is diffused light (the light of a cloudy morning) coming in from 1 o’clock, creating a nice gleam on some of the fruit slices and the syrup on the plate. I used a blue napkin as a backdrop to contrast the yellows and oranges in the scene, and cutlery placed in a way to avoid reflections. Before taking the shot, I brushed the fruit slices with a clear glaze made of light agave syrup, water, and vanilla bean paste, to give them that look of freshness and to add interest, make the eyes linger a bit more on the image. I really like this photo, as it manages to capture the comfort and freshness of a weekend morning.

Another shot from the “archives,” this savoury kamut and spinach pancake was a delicious, and totally satisfying lunch. The light is soft, and coming from 1 o’clock, like the image above. The choice of plate is better here, as this plate with matte glaze is less reflective, and therefore less prone to highlights and unsightly reflections. The spoon holds the dressing, as I typically stay away from actually dressing a salad with a creamy dressing – it often ends up looking like a giant mess, instead of an appetizing dish. In hindsight, I wish I had brushed a little olive oil or spritzed water on the lettuce leaves, just to add the suggestion of freshness, of that crisp quality that we appreciate in a good salad leaf. But the minimal propping really allows the food on the plate to be the star. I’ll always be happy to look at a plate like this, and anticipate the blissful moment when I can attack it with gusto.

f/2.8 1/500sec 60mm ISO1250

The first shot has vertical, or portrait orientation, and the second has landscape orientation, but they are both flatlays, which means the image was shot from above the subject, to offer a top-down view of the dish. This particular angle is often favoured with pancakes because, just like brownies, they are fairly flat. The overhead angle works very well to highlight the garnishes on the pancakes, or the nice lacing pattern from the contact of the batter with the hot pan. Photographers and stylists get the opportunity to be really creative with the garnishes and/or props, and tell a compelling story with a well-composed flatlay.

While the most popular angle is to shoot pancakes from overhead, I wanted to try some other options as well. None of them is complicated, and can be achieved with a mobile device, if you feel like shaking up your pancake photo routine a bit. For mobile users, the overhead and the straight-on angle work best, as these angles allow for minimal distortion created by the wide-angle smartphone cameras.

 Shooting from a straight-on angle

I plan to dedicate more blog space to the issue of camera angles and how they inform composition choices, as well as how they are in turn influenced by the nature of the food we photograph. As I mentioned above, flat foods like bars/slices, pancakes, tarts, soup are particularly well-suited to the overhead angle. But pancakes also lend themselves well to the straight on angle – when they are stacked nice and tall in a tower of squishy deliciousness.

Pancakes photographed from a straight on angle

The light is coming from the right, you can even see my two window panes in the highlights on the topmost blueberry, as well as in the syrup glazing the pancakes. I couldn’t get the syrup to drip-drip from one pancake to the next, but I think it still adds an appetizing quality, since the pancakes alone can look a bit flat (i.e. just too brown and bland looking). Coming in at such a low angle, I felt I needed to bounce the light, so I used a white board to the left, but I placed it a bit farther to soften its effect. I shot this at an aperture of f/4.5 but in hindsight, I should have increased the f-stop, so that more of the pancakes would be in focus.  Also, it would have been great to add a fork coming in downwards from the top right corner, as if someone was just ready to dig in! And this brings me to… action shots!

Action shot

Another option I wanted to try was to create an action shot. This means that something is happening in the image while we are capturing it. These images are typically very compelling, as they manage to transcend the still nature of photography, creating the impression of movement and dynamism. Examples of action shots include: hands kneading bread dough or mixing a batter, a person adding ingredients to a dish, cracking an egg, someone dusting powdered sugar or sprinkling a topping on a dish, hands pouring a drink from a vessel into another, someone eating soup from a bowl – you get the idea. I am preparing a separate post on action shots, but in this post I’ve got two examples, which I’ve shown and explained below.

For the first example below, I chose a higher angle than the straight-on image above, and backed up a bit to give a better view into the scene. I wanted to include both the “before the action” and the “action” images, so that you can see what a dramatic difference it makes to have that point of interest in the photograph.

This is a nice image, but not as compelling as it could be

It is good to have some negative space (i.e. empty space) in images, and also the “before action” image above could possibly be suitable in a situation where I wanted to add text in the upper third of the picture. But how much more interesting is this next shot?

I like this image a lot: the action of pouring syrup on the pancakes adds movement and a dynamic quality

This second image is clearly my favourite. Which one is yours? (And it’s ok to say neither!) The lighting set-up is identical to the straight on image, but I raised my camera a bit. This allows for a better view of the berries on top, but on the other hand, this angle pushes out of focus the pancakes at the bottom of the stack.

Human touch

Adding a human (or a kitten) into the frame is almost always a good idea. The viewer connects instantly with the image and the scene just seems complete. The presence of a person injects life into an otherwise still, lifeless scene. I wanted to take an action shot with hands, and here is the result.

This shot seems too tight, too close to me. I wish I had given those hands a bit more room. The reality is that the marble board I used as a background is fairly small, and unfortunately it does not allow for wider table scenes. Sigh. Also, the pancake plate looks just messy, rather than a beautiful mess. I definitely need to practice shots like this more, to feel comfortable shooting something similar in the future – and a second set of hands would definitely come in handy too!

What are your thoughts after reading through? I’d love to hear in the comments!

Before I close, a tip about cooking pancakes: if you want pancakes with a lacy pattern, use some fat when frying them. If, on the other hand, you want a more uniform browning, use a non-stick pan and no oil in the pan. You decide!

The take-away for me is to keep practicing, it really is the secret weapon of getting better at food photography. I learn something every time I pick up the camera to shoot a dish. If you are looking for inspiration beyond instagram or the blogs you follow, remember to also check out pinterest. I have re-discovered it recently, and it is a fantastic source of ideas and inspiration for better images. Remember to hashtag your images #craftandmuse on instagram, so I can take a look at what you make and shoot. Have fun, and eat some pancakes!

Until next time!

4 thoughts on “Styling exercise: pancakes

    1. Thank you so much, Kris! I hesitated whether to add these tips, for fear the post would get tedious. But with food, the devil is in the details, an image can convey that much more if these little gestures are made. I like to think of them as the sprinkles on a cupcake – they just make things pop and add interest!
      And just wanted to add how happy it makes me that you, and the readers who pop by this space, find the information useful! Thank you for your support!

  1. Hi Diana! I have just discovered your blog and found myself completely immersed in it… Love your useful tips, beautiful shots and great writing style. Will be sure to bookmark your blog for future reading! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge – I’ve certainly taken away a lot for my own food photography. Kindest regards, Tania.

    1. Hi Tania! I love to share what I know, because I remember the times I struggled a lot to find answers to my own photography questions! So grateful that you found my posts useful, I’ll keep them coming hehe! 😉

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