How to photograph flying food images

How to photograph flying food images

Levitating burgers, suspended salads and exploding tea — the craze of flying food images is taking over the food photography market. But how are these exciting images created?

Flying tea food shot
This flying tea food image required creativity, problem solving and knowledge to achieve.

Photographing floating images, whether it be food or any other product, can be difficult. There are a number of challenges you’ll need to overcome, including getting the composition and positioning of your items correct (not to mention lighting each different element). In our food photography class ‘Flying Tea Food Shot’, food photographer and stylist Anna Pustynnikova and I show you exactly how to shoot an exploding tea image, but I’ve also summarised some of the most important points for photographing floating items here so that you can bring your own explosive creations to life.

As with most studio shoots, the flying tea shoot can be divided into four distinct stages: pre-visualisation, preparation, lighting and shooting. Each of these stages is crucial if you’re to get the best result possible. Below I outline the stages for the flying tea shoot, though you’ll also see these steps replicated in shoots such as our ‘Floating Cosmetics Splash Shot’ product photography class.

Chanel product photograph
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1. Pre-visualisation

Portrait by Tom Oldham
Pre-visualisation is an important part of the photographic process.

Pre-visualisation is one of the most important stages of any shoot. This allows you to plan everything from composition to lighting, as well identify the challenges you can expect to face and determine how to overcome them.

For this particular shoot, we knew we wanted to have tea exploding out of the cup with a milk jug from above pouring milk. To achieve this, we had to think about how we were going to have the ‘exploding’ tea while at the same time the controlled milk pour. I knew it would be a composite shot (although I wanted to keep that to a maximum of just three shots), but I still needed to be able to get each element right. Creating a simple sketch often helps with the planning as it allows you to more clearly visualise the final shot and understand your composition and lighting.

2. Preparation

Portrait by Tom Oldham
Preparing the cup for shooting.
Portrait by Tom Oldham
Styling the shot for shooting.

There was a fair bit of preparation required for this shot. Having identified a number of challenges in the pre-visualisation stage, I knew we’d need different solutions for each of them if we were to get the final image. You can see all the preparation in the full class, including how we suspended some items while using pressurised air to levitate other items, and also how we modified our cup and base surface to allow us to capture the rising steam and flying tea.

Perhaps the most important thing when it comes to preparation is creative thinking and problem solving. More often than not, shoots require at least some degree of problem solving and, as photographers, it’s our job to find solutions to the challenges presented. Instead of feeling defeated and writing the idea off, think about ways to overcome each problem. Get creative and think outside the box. You’d be surprised at what you may come up with!

3. Lighting

Portrait by Tom Oldham
Food photography lighting setup.

The lighting setup for the flying tea was fairly straightforward — I used a three light setup, with two softboxes on either side and one light from above. We were going for a soft, yet three dimensional light, but it needed to work with every element of the shot — from the cup, to the milk jug to the flying tea itself. To find the best lighting, we fixed the cup and milk jug in position while Anna held the tea in position. From there I experimented with the distance and angle of each of the lights to make sure I got the best result.

4. The shoot

Portrait by Tom Oldham
Capturing the fast moving objects.

Once the lighting was finalised, the shoot itself had to take place in different stages. To start, we photographed the steam. To do this, we simply used a kettle and continued shooting until we felt we had some good options that could work.

Next, we photographed the milk pour. For this, Anna poured the milk into the jug and we captured it as it poured into the cup.

The tea explosion took slightly more time and we shot a number of images before getting the best results. With Anna controlling the levitation of the tea, I was in charge of getting the shot. To make sure there was no motion blur, I used a fast flash duration, and to maximise my chances of getting the timing right I used mirror lock-up.

Tips for photographing floating objects

This shoot incorporated many of the typical challenges associated with photographing floating objects, including how to suspend items, how to freeze motion and how to get the best lighting.

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A high-end advertising image of a bottle of Chanel moisturiser.

Suspending items

Depending on what you’re shooting, there are a number of different options for suspending items. Because I like to capture my images as naturally as possible, I generally don’t use wires or poles to suspend items. If I’m shooting flying liquid, I prefer to actually throw the liquid. If I’m photographing dramatic paint splashes with models, my models will undoubtedly have paint thrown on them. Yes it can get messy, but the realistic result you’re guaranteed to get is well worth it.

If I do have to fix items in position, acrylic rods are my tool of choice because their transparent material allows for light to get through them, and you’ll see me use these in a number of our classes. These are lightweight and fairly easy to retouch, which makes them easy to handle and suitable for anything from cosmetics to food items.

Acrylic rods are one of my top 10 studio accessories for photography. Read the full list here.

Freezing motion

If you’re suspending items, then you generally don’t have to worry about freezing motion because it’s already stationary. However, if, like me, you’re photographing fast moving liquids or flying foods, then a fast flash duration is essential. I use broncolor lights for this, but speedlites are a great option if you’re working with more budget kit. In many of our ‘Advertising, Product and Still Life’ classes you’ll see how I used a combination of studio lights and speedlites to photograph a number of paint splash images.

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Portrait by Tom Oldham
Photographing fast moving objects requires precise timing.

Lighting

When it comes to lighting floating objects, I’ve already mentioned that fast flash may come in handy. But the other thing to consider is the lighting on your product/subject. If you’re comping together a number of images, it’s imperative that your lighting remains the same. Make sure to have your lighting as fixed as possible once you’ve found a setup that works best for the overall shot.

At times, different items in your image may require separate lighting. That’s when it’s important to remember things like the direction of the light, the shadows and hardness or softness. Even the smallest inconsistencies can have a negative impact, so make sure to think about each part of the shot (this is why pre-visualisation and planning are so important).

Summary

Photographing flying objects, although tricky, can be great fun. Keep in mind the above points and you’ll be well prepared for your next shoot. Remember, you can see the start-to-finish flying tea shoot in our food photography course (or watch it here) to see each of the above points put into practice. There are also a number of other courses throughout our product photography section that you may find useful and inspiring. Now, the only problem left to solve — what idea will you try to bring to life?

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To learn more about the concepts covered in this article, make sure to take a look at some of our photography classes, where you'll learn everything from product photography styling, to freezing motion with fast flash.

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