Food photography is arguably one of the more tricky types of photography, given that, after just minutes, your prepared food is subject to change colors, melt, fall flat or harden. Given this, it’s very important to plan ahead.
To help you, I’ve compiled a list of 21 tips you can use that will completely change your food photography for the better.
This list comes directly from my own research, learning and experiences — my trials and errors, my successes and failures.
Whether you’re simply interested in improving your own photography or you’re a food blogger looking to increase the chances of getting accepted on food sharing sites like dishfolio, these 21 tips will help you make the best of your food photography.
1. Use natural lighting.
Natural lighting is one of the most important aspects of food photography. Natural light enables the true color of the food to show through. Avoid direct sunlight because that will cause shadows. To make the direct lighting softer, try diffusing it with a thin curtain or blind. The best option is to shoot your photos near a large window and to shoot during daylight hours to get as much natural lighting as possible. For some great examples of using natural lighting, check out Béa, over at La Tartine Gourmande, who does an amazing job.
Especially with food photography, shooting from a lower angle will create more visual interest in the food. Shooting from above, or a “bird’s-eye perspective,” can flatten the food, while shooting from a lower angle enables you to see the thickness of the food, different layers and the sides of the food. This technique also mimics the perspective we all have when sitting at a table about to eat food, so it makes sense this would be an appealing angle. Shooting from an even lower angle and looking up to the food creates more of a grand presence as well. Check out Deb’s photos at Smitten Kitchen for great examples of shooting from a low angle.
3. Use a DSLR, not a Point And Shoot.
Though there are some amazing point-and-shoot cameras, they still can’t compete with the control you can get in a Digital SLR Camera
(Single Lens Reflex). DSLRs allow you to change the settings, most notably the aperture and focus, which are vital to getting the best shot possible. If you don’t already have a DSLR and plan to take your (food) photography to the next level (and beyond), I highly recommend investing in a DSLR.
It is very difficult to make food look appetizing or appealing when you use a flash. Using your camera’s built-in flash will not only flatten the food, but it will make it look oily and greasy. Use natural lighting during daylight hours as much as possible (see Tip #1). If you must use a flash, avoid using it directly on the food as it’s too harsh. Instead, use a Flash Diffuser or have the flash bounce off a ceiling or wall.
5. Learn a photo editing software.
Even the best photographers need to edit their photos. Get familiar with a photo editing software that allows you to crop, re-size, manipulate highlights, shadows, hues (temperature, tint, etc.), saturation, contrast and sharpness. There are tons of programs and software out there, both free and paid, including iPhoto
(if you own a Mac), Gimp, Picnik, Picasa and Photoshop Elements.
A bland, plain plate of food will look more elegant and interesting with the simplest of garnishes. Try using fresh herbs, like parsley, rosemary, basil or mint to make the food pop and to subtly remind the viewer what may be in the recipe. For example, use a sprig of mint to garnish some fresh mint lemonade. Garnishes are an inexpensive way to dramatically change your food photography and add visual interest to your plating. See Tip #10 for more prop ideas.
7. Play with colors, shapes and textures.
Just like with my advice on garnishes (see Tip #6), changing the shapes, colors and textures of a plated meal or food item will dramatically enhance the way the food is perceived. The human eye can get bored with seeing all the same shape or color. So, try to avoid using all round or similar-colored foods, for example, on the same plate. This goes for serving suggestions as well, as an overall meal will be more enticing and enjoyable with contrasting shapes, colors and textures. Toss in some peas, carrots or fresh basil to add color contrast, depending on what you’re serving. This is the beauty of garnishes. Similarly, use a contrasting color plate or utensil to help add interest to the picture. A white plate is typically a safe choice, as it will allow the food to shine. To illustrate this tip, you can count on Ree Drummond of The Pioneer Woman to share vibrant photos, full of beautiful colors, textures and shapes.
It’s possible to get so focused on the food you’re shooting that you can forget what’s going on in the background. Just like with plating and garnishes, pay attention to the background of your photo and be sure to use a background that will enhance (i.e. compliment, not distract or drown out) the food. Clear out any unwanted elements you don’t want in the final shot as well. Consider purchasing a Table-top Background Stand to easily manipulate and play with different background colors.
9. Play with framing.
Each element in the frame should have a purpose and a place. If it doesn’t, you probably should remove it. Your goal is to have the observer see your subject, not be distracted by competing elements in the shot. Generally speaking, simplicity is key. You don’t want to confuse the observer with too much to look at. With each shot, take a harder look. Does everything need to be there? Is each part important? Are there elements that can be eliminated or minimized? Is there anything that’s confusing or distracting to the eye?
Start collecting different plates (varying in shape, color, texture, depth, etc.), napkins, serving utensils, serving bowls, silverware, tablecloths, wood planks, etc. in order to add new dimensions to your photography. Anyone can take a simple photo of a meal, but using props in an artistic way will make the entire shot pop. Props add a dimension to the food and allow you to draw out subtle colors or textures from the food. During your shoot, play around with different props to see what works best. Sometimes, a simple tablecloth and white round plate will suffice and make the food stand out. Other times, the same plating and props will make the food look boring and uninteresting. Have fun with it. Remember to keep Tip #7 in mind as well when deciding what to use. You want to choose contrasting and complimenting colors and textures to help enhance the photo, not overpower or drown out the food. It’s a fine line, but it’s very important to remember. Check out Diane and Todd for some great examples of using props in their blog, White on Rice Couple.
11. Adjust your white balance.
Adjust the white balance on your camera according to what you’re shooting. Depending on the subject (food), you may want to have warmer or cooler tones. Changing your white balance is extremely easy to do on your DSLR menu and is an important component to getting the best shot possible. Even within the same shot, the lighting may change from sunny to overcast, all of which will look best with a different white balance settings. See your camera’s instruction manual for how to adjust your camera’s white balance and see Tip #13 for more suggestions on how to improve the overall lighting of your shot.
To significantly reduce the amount of blur in your photos, use a Tripod. Don’t have a tripod? Buy one! Especially with food photography, a tripod should be used on every shot. A tripod eliminates the natural hand shaking we all do without even knowing it. Especially with low lighting, a tripod enables you to lengthen your shutter speed without blurring your photo. Tripods aren’t very expensive and are definitely worth the money. Using a tripod is possibly the best way to improve your focus so you can start making the best of every shot.
13. Use exposition composition.
Get to know your exposure composition button on your DSLR camera (look at your camera’s user manual for where this feature is on your particular camera model). Exposure Composition allows you to increase or decrease the amount of light being shown (exposed) in the shot. This is a feature that can and should be played with for every shot, depending on the lighting, time of day, shadows, orientation, etc. This handy little button will make a huge difference in your photographs.
14. Get up close.
Don’t be afraid to get up close to the food. A large component of food photography is, essentially, macro photography. We want to see the details of the food, just like it was plated right in front of us on the table. Getting in close to the food allows you to simplify the shot and makes it easier to see the details of the food. The tighter the cropping, the less empty space or props to distract from the food. Just like Tip #2, getting in close to the food allows you to see more of the details of the shot and creates more visual interest. Just be careful not to get so close to the food that we can’t understand what we’re looking at. As a general rule, food photography shouldn’t be abstract. Ideally, we should be able to know exactly what we are looking at and not be confused. This is a technique Ashley from Not Without Salt does masterfully, as you can see in this post.
Some of the best food photography tells a story. Whether it’s through the placement of props, the use of ingredients in the shot or some other method, telling a story helps the observer connect with a deeper meaning of what he or she sees. Helene, over at Tartlette, consistently does an absolutely stunning job of telling a story in her photos.
16. Show the process.
This tip is similar to Tip #15, but more specific. Highlight the ingredients of a dish even with the final product shot. Using an orange rind, a slice of lime, raw nutmeg or a sprig of mint can not only help highlight that flavor in the recipe, but can create a more finished and well-rounded look for the image. While you’re cooking, think about the ingredients you’re using and what might make the dish pop when it’s done.
17. Create a scene.
While, sometimes, a simple white dish is all you’ll need for your final photo, other times you’ll need to create a scene within the frame. Think about the plating, the linens, the flatware, the napkins, the ingredients — even the amount of food to use on the plate. All these different elements will help you create a scene for the final shot. What will be in the foreground? the background? on the plate? What angle(s) will you use? What type of lighting will there be? Thinking about all this ahead of time will not only make you better prepared to take a great shot, but will save you time while your food is cooling down or even melting. Visualization is key. Check out Dara’s post at Cookin’ Canuck to see how well she creates a scene by deliberately choosing what will go in the frame to enhance the photo.
Food is a dynamic creature. The beauty about food photography is it’s really all in your hands. You can essentially make it do whatever you want it to do. So, why have it be flat and boring? Create movement and interest by building the food up. This not only provides an almost majestic quality to the food, it gives the eye with more to see which, in turn, makes it more visually appealing.
19. Reduce blur.
You could have the best camera in the world, the most beautiful place setting, a plate of the most gorgeously seductive food and amazing natural lighting…but it won’t matter a bit if you can’t focus your camera. No one likes a blurry photo. I mentioned the importance of using a tripod in Tip #12 and I’ll say it again: Use a tripod with food photography. Check out more useful tips for how to take clearer photos here.
The Rule of Thirds can change a boring, ordinary image into an eye-popping, interesting photo. Using this technique enhances the visual interest of your shot and allows you to show off your artistic abilities. Simply stated, the Rule of Thirds is placing the subject off to the side in the frame. When composing a scene for a photo, imagine drawing 4 lines — 2 horizontal and 2 vertical — over your photo, similar to a tic-tac-toe game. Where the lines intersect are called “sweet spots” and are the areas that will create the best visual interest for a subject. Avoid placing your subject directly in the center of the shot.
21. Look at other people’s photography.
Take some time and start looking at other people’s photography. Consider it research. While looking, think about what you like or don’t like about their work. What is it you don’t or do like? Try recreating photos you like to learn new techniques. As with anything, we can get caught in a pattern of doing the same thing (i.e. angle of shot, plating technique, props, etc.) over and over. Taking a step back can help you improve immensely as a photographer. For starters, take a look at the several food blogs I’ve mentioned in this post. You can’t go wrong learning from these wonderful photographers (and food bloggers).
I wish you the best of luck in improving your food photography. It’s a fun and exciting challenge and I find I learn more (and have more to learn!) every day. Please let me know what you think of this post and, if there is interest, I can go further into camera settings and the more technical side of photography in future posts.