Food in motion: standout ways to take the still out of still life

To set themselves apart in a competitive industry, pros Hayley Sargent and David Loftus have devised unique ways to add movement to their food photography.
Cherry syrup and star anise captured mid-splatter against a black background.

Cherry syrup and star anise captured mid-splatter, the deep-red colour accentuated by the dark background. Incorporating movement into your food photography can take your work to the next level and open up new possibilities to get creative and help your images stand out. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/9 and ISO200. © David Loftus

Mouthwatering food photography is everywhere: on product and supermarket advertisements, in the social feeds of celebrity chefs and influencers, and in the pages of cookbooks, newspapers, magazines and more.

The best food photographs are beautifully styled and lit, and pay careful attention to colours, textures and arrangements to make the subjects look as appetising as possible. Inevitably, food photographs have traditionally been static, still-life images, but content creators on social media channels, such as TikTok, Instagram and Pinterest, are increasingly using motion to create more playful images that catch the eye. Inevitably, that is now feeding into the commercial world, where adding movement is now viewed as a key way to encourage engagement and drive product sales.

The popularity of food photography means there are many different outlets from which pros can get commissions, including imagery and content specifically for social media. Hayley Sargent is lead creative for Powerhouse, a content production studio based in Leeds in the UK. Specialising in food imagery, its clients include a range of high-profile supermarket and food manufacturers. David Loftus has been one of the UK's foremost food photographers for more than 20 years, as well as shooting portraits, fashion, lifestyle and travel. Here, they explain how and why they use motion in their work.

Hayley Sargent: shooting stop motion films

Hayley has been a professional photographer and videographer for four years and is increasingly asked to create short stop motion films, simulating movement with a sequence of still images, especially for clients' social media feeds. Having made stop motion films since she was a child, she loves the technique. "I think there's a magic to be had with stop motion," she says. "It's like asking the viewer to come along on a journey and demanding their imagination go with it. I think there's often a fun aspect to it that grabs people's attention, potentially more than with other mediums."

Hayley's commercial stop motions range from five-second clips to longer, more detailed, animations showing, for example, how to make homemade pasta or granola. Hayley believes stop motion has an appeal that is different to conventional video.

"You wouldn't necessarily watch a stop motion to find out how to make something, you're watching it because you want to be inspired to make it," she says. "When I'm storyboarding or creating ideas, I always think, how is it going to be fun? You can make food levitate into the frame, things that couldn't happen in real life, and exaggerate elements to make them more magical. That's what stop motion is really about."

The creative process usually begins with a rough brief asking for a stop motion showing a particular recipe or how to create a specific cocktail or smoothie. Hayley comes up with ideas and, if they're suitable, creates a storyboard and plans out each shot.

Do you own Canon kit?

Do you own Canon kit?

Register your kit to access free expert advice, equipment servicing, inspirational events and exclusive special offers with Canon Professional Services

Hayley uses a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, its predecessor, the EOS 5D Mark III and a Canon EOS 5DS, paired with either a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM) or a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens. "I prefer prime lenses because they're sharper," she explains. "Also, if the focus ring on a zoom lens drops or slackens even slightly, the focal point changes, which is really noticeable when the stop motion is stitched together. With a prime lens there is no risk of that, which means less chance of variations. Similarly, all my equipment has weights attached to it, to lock it down as much as possible and prevent any movement between frames."

To illuminate her stop motions, Hayley uses flash combined with tungsten lighting from a set of continuous studio lights. "Depending on the brief, I like to add a hint of sunshine and warmth to my work, so the viewer feels transported somewhere else," she says.

She uses editing software and processes her images as JPGs, as the smaller file size means the resulting video isn't too big for social media. Then, depending on the brief, the individual images are either stitched together in Adobe® Photoshop®, or with Adobe® Premiere® Pro if sound or post-production movement is required.

"Adobe Premiere Pro has tools to speed up the story or slow it down during certain parts of the recipe," Hayley continues. "Inconsistent lighting is one of the first things I look out for in editing, second only to checking if there has been any undesired movement of the set, although I also monitor this during shooting.

"Each flash can sometimes have a variation in exposure which, although minimal, is sometimes noticeable when played back in stop motion. Thankfully, editing programs enable you to match the exposure settings across the whole animation if needed."

From her professional experience, Hayley believes shorter stop motion videos are more likely to capture people's attention. "If it doesn't grab the viewer in the first three seconds, they'll probably scroll away. So, it's all about finding a way to hook the viewer to keep them watching until the end."

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

Yasmin Albatoul: The unseen realities of professional food photography

Food photographer Yasmin Albatoul explains the painstaking process behind her unique shots and shares a few tricks of her trade.
Chunks of dark, milk and white chocolate suspended in the air.

Work for a recent ad campaign required food photographer David Loftus to photograph an assortment of ingredients, including chunks of dark, milk and white chocolate, flying through the air. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/9 and ISO100. © David Loftus

Melted chocolate captured mid-splatter against a black background.

David also used a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens for some shots, making the most of its fast autofocusing capability to ensure this melted chocolate was captured in incredible sharpness. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS at 1/125 sec, f/9 and ISO200. © David Loftus

David Loftus: shooting flying food

David's imagery has brought to life more than 100 books by chefs and cookery writers, including bestsellers by Jamie Oliver and Rachel Khoo. He has also directed TV food commercials and works with a range of high-profile brands.

His food images are usually meticulously arranged and lit with natural light and reflectors. However, for a recent commercial shoot he was asked to work in a very different way: photographing food flying through the air, lit with flash.

The shoot was for Kenwood, a British kitchen appliance manufacturer, and involved portraits of six young models posing as chefs. "The idea was that the ingredients would be shown flying around the chefs' heads, as if in a food mixer," says David. "I decided to shoot it with a shallow depth of field, which is my signature in a way, so what was directly in front of their eyes was pin-sharp, but any ingredients in the foreground and background would be soft."

First, the models were shot in a studio as if they were preparing food in the kitchen, against a black background. Then came the rather messier stage of photographing the flying food, for which everyone in the team wore hazmat suits.

A Kenwood advert featuring a model posing as a chef making chocolate brownies, while chunks of chocolate appear to swirl around her head.

The final advert featuring David's images of chocolate chunks apparently swirling around the young chef's head. © Kenwood

The studio was blacked out and the shoot took place in complete darkness, with David's team and his client watching the results as they popped up on a display. His assistants would throw food or squirt liquids into the frame, synchronised with firing two large flash units, for a duration of 1/8000 second, plus a backlight to give sparkles in the highlights.

The client wanted 50MP files so David used his Canon EOS 5DS body paired mostly with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens manually focused at a fixed point. This lens gave him the narrow depth of field he needed, while allowing him, and perhaps more importantly his kit, to keep some distance from the flying subject-matter. "The EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM was used to match perspective in all the shots and to give depth between us and the background," he says. "It really came into its own on this shoot," he says. "It was amazing."

Results were unpredictable, but often a pleasant surprise. "Different foods and liquids flying through the air suddenly looked extraordinary," says David. "Milk looked amazing and icing sugar behaved so beautifully – it was like watching a murmuration of starlings. The most difficult thing was getting part of the subject in sharp focus while having enough softness to give depth."

The entire shoot took place over three days, during which time more than 100 combinations of food were tried. David aimed to produce zero waste by catching the ingredients as they fell, but the things that couldn't be saved slid down some plastic sheeting into a children's paddling pool.

Finally, the images were stacked in post-production to produce spectacular shots incorporating a number of ingredients and liquids, apparently swirling around the young chefs.

The client was delighted with the results and, although it was completely different from his normal work, David enjoyed the shoot too. "Of all the jobs I've ever done, this was the most satisfying," he says.

David Clark

• Adobe® Photoshop® are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

Related Articles


    10 rapid-fire questions with Eberhard Schuy

    Product photographer Eberhard Schuy shares his tips for taking standout product shots, from how he uses tilt-shift lenses to what questions he asks his clients.


    Frame by frame: bringing stop motion to life

    Three DoPs on the magic behind their stop motion masterpieces and the benefits of the Stop Motion Animation firmware for the Canon EOS R.


    Focus stacking to increase depth of field

    Three Canon photographers, shooting images from macro to landscape, explain how focus stacking helps get more in focus throughout an image.


    Behind the scenes of Wes Anderson's film Isle of Dogs

    Director of Photography Tristan Oliver reveals how this stop motion feature film was made, and why it took 80 powerful Canon DSLRs to shoot it.

  • Get the newsletter

    Click here to get inspiring stories and exciting news from Canon Europe Pro