How to Photograph Food Like a Pro

How To Photograph Food Like A Pro

A great food photograph can do a lot of things! It can make a viewer hungry, it can convince a diner to order a dish and it can sell a hell of a lot of food and recipe books. Knowing how to photograph food to get great results requires a specific knowledge of what works best and what looks terrible. We have put together a few things you will need to think about when you photograph food if you want results like you see in glossy magazines and books.

food photography
Image by Louis Hansel

Prepare Food For Look, Not Taste – A Short Guide To Food Styling

There are entire books (and careers) devoted to the topic of how to style food for a photography shoot (I don't mean photography, I mean STYLE it for a photographer). The food industry is huge and they understand the importance of great photography in selling their wares. Now, if you're serious about getting great shots (and not so much about just eating the food after the shot) then you need to prepare the food to look its best, not taste its best.

So how do you do that?

Are You Shooting Full-Bodied Food?

In photographs, food usually looks best when it is full-bodied (as opposed to “big”). The problem is that often when you take something out of the oven, it usually loses its body in the cool air to a degree. Several photography tricks exist to account for this, but the simple ones are probably the best!

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  • Shoot the food while it's still very hot and fresh from being cooked.
  • Build the dish so it looks full-bodied (sometimes this requires putting things on the plate but under the food to make it look fuller. Sometimes it requires piling the food on other food.)
food photoshoot dark
Photo by Hans Vivek

Think About Colours In Your Dish

Colour is a massive part of good food photography. In a lot of cases you can add garnishes that contrast the colour of the dish which is very effective in adding an element of colour in your photographs. A knowledge of the colour wheel and which colours contrast well and which colours complement well can serve you very well in food photography. Notice the contrasting colours of green, red and white in the photo below and the complimentary colours of the photo below that.

food photoshoot
Image by Pixabay
photograph food
Image by Mae Mu

Styling food also often relies on what is surrounding the dish as what is in the dish itself. Setting up the table and props can be a massive help (or hinderance) to getting a fantastic photograph of the food you are shooting in its own context. Here are a few things to think about.

Your Table Setting Can Make Or Break Your Food Photographs

The surroundings that your food appears in are almost as important as the food itself. A well designed setting can give context and mood to your shot so think about it a little. What is in the background and foreground of the food? Do you want to exclude setting altogether and get an extreme close-up of only the food? Are your dishes matched to the colour of the food? Are the surroundings set up to give a balanced composition?

Elements that you would usually find in the context of a meal (condiment holders, cutlery, napkins etc) can be arranged by a stylist to help the composition. Usually you will want these elements to compliment rather than dominate the main subject – the food.

table setting food photograph
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

Think About Colours Outside Of Your Dish

This goes back to the styling of the scene, but it's very important to consider the colours of the dishes, cutlery, table, table-cloth etc that surround your main subject as they have such an important impact on the end result.

Colours are usually very deliberately set as either contrasting or complimentary. Both can work very effectively.

On the other hand, some colours just don't work with food (light green is very tough to use if you're trying to make the food dish look appetising).

Shareable Food Pins for Pinterest

‘’Surround’’ The Main Subject Properly

In food photography you should always try to get an engaging foreground and background to play with. You can even use empty spaces to tell a story if you’re into minimal photography. However, the best technique is usually to surround your main dish with ingredients and props that relate to it. This means that you can play with various ingredients, sauces, oils, and utensils. Make sure to show how the particular dish was made – this will grab your viewer’s attention!

You can also arrange various tins, jars, herbs, glasses and linens around the main dish. They are very decorative and they can also speak about the origin and history of the dish.

food photography props
Photo by Toa Heftiba

What You Need To Know About Lighting In Food Photography

Perhaps one of the biggest factors that affects the end result of a food photograph is the quality of light. The good news is that because your scene is usually portable you have a fair amount of control over the lighting situation.

  • Natural window lighting usually rules the roost in professional food photography. (If you can get natural window lighting on an overcast day, then you're even luckier). The soft, dispersed lighting usually given by natural window lighting that casts very soft shadows works beautifully with a lot of food photographs. Generally the best lighting is from the front side (ie coming over the shoulder of the photographer), but all angles of natural light can be made to work. Depending on how much light is available, you may need to consider a tripod.
  • Reflectors – If you want to disperse the light even more or tone down some of the shadows, then reflecting natural lighting is also high on the scale of desirability. This can be done with a purpose-built reflector or you can improvise with light coloured material (white sheets/cloths) or reflective material (foil).
  • Artificial Lighting – Sometimes, you're just not going to be able to get in a position to take advantage of natural lighting. Using strobes on food is a huge topic, but suffice to say that you will often need to soften and disperse the light as much as possible with the use of soft-boxes and reflectors.
  • Dark Food Photography – a growing trend in some food photography is to go the low light style and a dark setting. This is more about using the dark colours of the food and its background and surroundings in combination with natural window lighting such as in the example below. It is very effective in creating mood. You can see some more amazing examples on Pinterest here.
food images proper lighting
Photo by Humphrey Muleba

Modify The Natural Light

In case you choose to work with natural light only, don’t forget to modify it. Natural light is almost never perfect without some subtle (or more pronounced) modifications.

Acquiring a few basic tools will help you control the light. These tools will certainly bring your food photography to the next level! On the other hand, inadequate use of light will ruin your food photography so make sure to dedicate enough attention to lighting.

If you don’t have it yet, you should definitely purchase a diffusor and place it between the window and your table. When working with direct sunlight, a diffusor will improve the quality of light a lot by making it softer. Softening dark shadows will instantly make your food shots much more appealing!

Another inexpensive light modifier are cards – white and black cards! You can make them easily if you get a couple of foam core boards. Cut them to fit your needs and use white cards to bounce light into shadow areas or black cards to make shadows stronger when needed.

lighting food photos
Photo by Pu Far

Other Elements Of Good Food Photography

Use Depth Of Field Deliberately

Another key to effective food photography is knowing how to control your depth of field and doing so deliberately. As you can see with most of the examples in this article, photographers tends to use a shallow depth of field to draw the eye to a specific part of the photo (usually the main piece of food or part of it). Occasionally however, you might wish to close the aperture of your camera to capture a deeper depth of field. Both can work, but be aware of the trend towards narrow depth of field and make your decision on this to suit your own style.

If you are not sure about how to do that, download our free guide to depth of field here.

food images
Image by Joseph Gonzalez

Pick An Angle

In food photography, there are two common ways of composing basic shots. The first way involves photographing them from directly above the food. You can either get a closeup of the food (like the example below) or show the aerial map of the placement setting.

food photos
Image by Eaters Collective
food photography
Image by Brooke Lark

The second common angle is to shoot at an angle from the side so you can include either a foreground or background or both or the entire surrounds of the dish such as the example below. Obviously there are a thousand ways to skin that cat! The examples in this article should give you a few ideas of the common compositions of food photography.

food photoshoot
Image by Mariana Medvedeva

Think About Lines And Layers

Composition matters a lot in every genre of photography. Since you’re likely to use many props and ingredients in the frame, you should arrange them in a clever and visually appealing way. For instance, you can rely on composing with lines and layers. Feel free to use props or ingredients to create lines and layered effects – it will make your images truly eye-catching!

Utensils are great for forming lines – you can use them to direct the viewer straight to the dish!

photo by eiliv sonas aceron
Photo by Eiliv-Sonas Aceron

A Few Quick And Easy Tips For Better Food Photography

The following tips are for when you're in a bit of a rush and you just want to bash out a quick, but good food photograph. They are not set in stone by any means! There are plenty of times when you should in fact ignore them. If you don't have too much time, following these few ideas will usually get you a better food photograph than you would have had otherwise.

  1. Move the scene to take advantage of natural window lighting
  2. Limit the depth of field with a wide aperture setting (f/1.8 – f/5.6). Focus near the front edge of the food.
  3. Either zoom right in on the food or arrange your background to give context
  4. Look for contrasting coloured garnish and put it on the food (bright colours like green (chives), red (chilli) and white (parmesan) tend to work well
  5. Keep the portions smallish so you have a definite center of interest in the photograph
  6. Photograph the food while it is as fresh as possible
  7. Print your images! It's the ultimate test for photographers. See our article on the best photo printer to see how.
  8. Minimize clutter! Focus on what is really important in your image and feel free remove whatever detracts the viewer from the food.
tips food photography
Photo by Thought Catalog

Secret Food Styling Tricks

While there are a few photography tricks to getting great shots, there are also a few quick and easy food styling tricks to make sure the food looks as good as possible before you shoot it. Here are some to keep in mind.

  • Anything green (like lettuce leaves) will look greener and fresher by soaking it in ice-water for a few minutes before the shot. Shake them dry before you photograph them.
  • Brush some oil on hot food to make it look fresher for the photograph! Especially if it has been sitting around for a while
  • Don't put too much dressing on salad for photographs – it makes the salad look limp.
  • Fresh is best – for both taste and looks.
  • Undercook the food – it looks fresher and brighter for the photograph.
  • Make sure the plates and settings are really clean. Spots of errant food on the tablecloth or where it shouldn't be can ruin a photo.
styling food tricks
Photo by Dan Gold

Troubleshooting Food Photography Issues

Even if you have applied all our tips, you photos might not turn out the way you want them to be. Read on if you want to learn how to fix the most common issues in food photography!

Blurry Images

If your photos are a little bit blurry, don’t panic! You should hold your camera steadier, use a tripod with a remote so that your camera stays still while you’re shooting or use a faster shutter speed. One of these three strategies will certainly resolve the issue.

The Colors Don’t Look Right

If the colors look awkward, you have probably used an incorrect white balance. Luckily, it’s easy to fix this in Lightroom or Photoshop. Colors come alive when the white balance is set properly!  If you shoot in RAW format, it will be even easier for you to fix any color-related issues.

The Photos Simply Don’t “Pop”

Carefully observe professional food photos to find out what’s missing in your images. Maybe you didn’t use the depth of field correctly or your way to tweak the contrast, levels and sharpness in editing software isn’t skillful enough. Sometimes a few little edits can make photos much bolder!

food photo editing tips
Photo by Katherine Chase

Some Examples Of Wonderful Food Photography

Here are a few examples of the food photography strategies we have been talking about. In these particular examples, the notable elements are the narrow depth of field and the intentional use of colour and tone.

Notice that often, in the case of chocolate, the photographer chooses to complement the main product with warm colours and similar dark tones. This is quite intentional. Food styling presents the perfect opportunity to get creative with colours, tone and composition.

Great Sites And Resources On Food Photography

Hopefully we have given you a good start here! There are also some amazing resources online that you should check out. Below are a few of our favourites on food photography:

About the author

Rob Wood (Admin)

Rob is the founder of Light Stalking. His love for photography pushed him into building this fantastic place, and you can get to know him better here

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