A complete guide to food photography for creative and delicious pictures
Check out our complete guide to food photography and learn how to create great photos and be featured in any gastronomic magazine. We will guide you step by step from gear and camera settings to secrets of composition and sources of inspiration.
Food photography is a challenging photographic genre from many points of view. First of all, you work with perishable subjects, many of them hot or extremely cold, that change color and shape fast. Then you have limited ways to display your subject and need good lighting conditions. Last but not least, food photography is a commercial genre, and most of the time you have to follow a strict brief and reflect the client’s perspective more than yours. As a bonus challenge, your photos have to look appetizing even when the food isn’t.
Because you have so many on your plate, metaphorically speaking, we’ve put together a complete guide to food photography to help you get started. Find the best camera for food photography, develop your photo session routine, and find inspiration anywhere you go. Check out our tips for food photography and don’t forget to have fun. Great photos happen when you have the right mindset. Here we go!
Food photography setup
As a photographer, you already know how important is to have the best gear. However, you don’t have to have the latest technology to take amazing photos. Some famous photographers use smartphone cameras or analog black and white cameras. So start with what you have and improve your gear over time. The following steps of our complete guide to food photography will help you understand what you need and why.
1. Use a professional camera for food photography and take photos in RAW format
Because food photography is a commercial genre you should be able to take high-quality photos. This means high resolution, color accuracy, and large pixel dimensions. Your photos should be prepared for post-processing and printing so having as much information as possible is a must. Use a professional camera that allows you to take photos in RAW format and don’t make compromises on image quality.
2. Work with lenses with different focal lengths
You can start with a single lens but it’s usually a good idea to have both wide and telephoto lenses. They give you more compositional freedom and allow you to manage in any condition. If you don’t afford to buy them new, try second-hand lenses or borrow different lenses to give them a try and then buy just what you need. You don’t want to fill your backpack with unused lenses but you don’t want to need something you don’t have either. Zoom lenses are a good start because they allow you to vary the focal length.
3. Gather a set of helpful filters
Photo filters aren’t expensive and can make a real difference in food photography. You may need a color intensifier filter to make the food more appetizing. Or you may need a polarizing filter to reduce reflections especially when you photograph glasses. Some photographers also use neutral density filters to reduce the amount of light and be able to create artistic long exposures.
4. Invest in a tripod that gets very low and has a 90-degree arm
A tripod is a must for food photography. It allows you to take sharp photos even when the lighting isn’t perfect. But you need a versatile tripod, one that allows you to place the camera near the food and rotate it as you wish. So don’t buy the cheapest tripod you can find. Choose a high-quality one from the beginning.
5. Learn to use the built-in flash in Manual mode and buy or make a diffuser
Flash also helps a lot when you don’t have enough light in the scene. But if you use it at full power you may wash out the colors of the food and create flat images and strange reflections. Set the built-in flash in Manual mode and adjust its intensity. You can also buy or make a diffuser, a white cap that goes over the flash and makes the light smoother and more natural-looking.
6. Invest in an external flash unit
An external flash unit gives you full control over the intensity and direction of the light. You can place it anywhere around your subject and create the lighting system you need. Instead of the frontal unidirectional beam of light from the built-in flash, you’ll have a uniform light that surrounds the subject. Don’t forget to adjust the white balance when you use flash.
7. Choose a photo editor that provides tethered shooting
Food photography requires editing, therefore, a good photo editor. Tethered shooting means you connect the camera to a laptop so you can see the pictures on a monitor immediately after taking them. This allows you to preview your photos on a large screen and adjust the scene if something isn’t right.
8. Gather a set of quality backgrounds for food photography
When you shoot at the client’s location it’s better to have some quality backgrounds with you. You don’t know what expects you there and you don’t want to work around a busy background all day long. A range of plain, neutral and colorful, backgrounds will save the day.
9. Set white balance according to lighting conditions
White balance is important because it can change the color of the food. You want bright clean whites because otherwise, the food will look stale, the plates will look dirty, and no one will like to eat that food. As a rule, you usually want a cooler color temperature so you don’t make the food look yellowish.
10. Manual focus may save a lot of pictures
When you want to have only a part of the frame (e.g. a strawberry on a cake) in focus, the manual focus mode may be your friend. Allowing the camera to decide for you has unpredictable results especially when you don’t have a tripod, use telephoto lenses, or want a shallow depth of field. The slightest movement can change the focal point and you’ll end up with a ruined picture.
11. Try creative focus lenses
Another way to play with focus and create more interesting compositions is to use creative focus lenses such as Lensbaby. They allow you to focus on a particular area and create an artistic contrast between sharp and blurred areas. They’re also helpful when you want to hide a busy background, a table full of crumbs, on an unappealing dressing.
Food photography techniques for composition
How can you photograph food on a plate artistically and interestingly? The key, as always, is composition. Our complete guide to food photography leads you from the well-known rules of composition to the best reasons to break them and find your unique voice as a photographer. Even if commercial photography comes with many restrictions, you should find a way to express your creativity and deliver artistic photographs.
12. Don’t take all your photos from your eye level
Yes, the client may ask for landscape photos with a deep depth of field and bright colors. However, you’re free to find new perspectives and shooting angles and present the food in a unique light. It also means that you should place the camera relative to the subject and not yourself. Sometimes you can adjust the décor; sometimes you’ll have to climb a table or kneel. But a diversified portfolio will help your career.
13. Use a shallow depth of field to make your subject stand out
If the brief doesn’t say otherwise, try to use both a shallow and a deep depth of field. A shallow depth of field helps you hide the background, create contrast between subject and background, and make the subject stand out. To achieve it, you can use large apertures (small f-numbers), telephoto lenses, or a small camera-subject distance.
14. Use contrast to make your subject stand out
Another way to make the subject the star of your photos is to use contrast. It may be color contrast (e.g. placing a yellow lemon on a blue background), texture contrast (e.g. arranging the asparagus perpendicular to the lines of a striped tablecloth), saturation contrast (e.g. red strawberries on a gray plate), or sharpness contrast (e.g. a shallow depth of field). Contrast catches the viewer’s attention and leads it through the frame.
15. Fill the frame with a subject
When you don’t want to place the subject in context, you can get really close to it and allow it to fill the frame. It’s useful when you have food on a plate and you don’t want the table or even too much of the plate in the frame. It’s also useful when the product looks very good and you want to capture all the details (e.g. the freshness of fruits).
16. Negative space is your friend
Negative space refers to the space around the subject and it usually represents empty space. It’s used to balance a composition, create an airy feeling, and make the subject stand out. You can use as negative space a plain background, a white plate or tablecloth, or anything that doesn’t distract from the main subject.
17. Not everything has to be in the center of the frame
The rules of composition apply to food photography as well. Although you’ll see many examples of food positioned in the center of the frame you don’t always have to use this pattern. Use the rule of thirds and place the subject at one-third of the frame. Or use the golden triangle rule and place the subject across the diagonals. Avoid creating samey compositions over and over again.
18. Explore the geometry
Food is a natural subject matter that comes in endless shapes. You can work with food’s geometry and create symmetries, patterns, and abstract models. Use leading lines to guide the viewer’s eye throughout the frame and slowly reveal the focal points. You can use the natural lines provided by the subject (e.g. the stripes of a melon, the length of a cucumber, the shape of fries) or improvise with cutlery and kitchen items. Choose the photo orientation that emphasizes your leading lines.
19. Texture, texture, texture
The texture of a dish is important not only for the taste and flavor but also for how it looks in photos. Try to capture the texture of different ingredients and make the viewer feel the crunchiness or creaminess of the food. Position the camera parallel to your subject to photograph all its layers and enhance contrast. It’s also a good idea to get close to your subject for this.
20. Play with colors
Successful food photos have accurate colors that reflect the freshness and flavor of the ingredients. Color makes food appealing and gives a visual clue about taste. If the product you photograph comes in multiple flavors and colors, don’t photograph just one of them. Take close-ups and environmental shots, mix colors, and show your playfulness and creativity.
21. Create a complete and diversified set of compositions
Some products look better in groups while others look better as individual subjects. You may prefer a particular perspective such as close-ups or photos taken from above. Nevertheless, at the end of a photo session, you should have a complete set of compositions including environmental shots, details, top and front perspectives, photos taken at 75-degrees and 25-degrees, and so on. After the photo session is over you can’t go back and take other photos. So you have to make sure you have everything you might need.
22. Experiment with lighting
Move the source of light around your subject and see how it influences the scene. Side lighting enhances shadows and adds a sense of depth, which makes the photo more realistic. Backlighting enhances the edges and creates a powerful contrast between background and foreground. Front lighting can ruin colors and create flat photos especially if you use a powerful flash. The most common lighting for food photography is a system with multiple sources of light that evenly surround the subject with light.
23. Take advantage of natural light
Although many food photographers prefer to use artificial sources of light, natural light can work very well. Moreover, natural light enhances natural colors and makes the food look appetizing. Experiment with natural light coming through a window or move your photo session outdoor and benefit from the warm glaze of the golden hour. Natural light complements your visual story by adding a temporal dimension. You can smell the freshly baked bread in the morning light.
24. Not everything has to have a neutral background
Don’t focus on the subject so much that you forget about the background. Aesthetic photos are good but photos with a story are better. Use natural backgrounds such as gardens, fields, and trees and invite the viewer to follow your narrative. Don’t forget that food comes from nature and its story is bigger than a plate.
25. Add a temporal dimension to your visual story
Add context to your photo and create a complete story. The viewer will spend more time with your photo when it has a temporal dimension. For example, you can document the making of a dish or the journey of ingredients or give a clue about the time of the day or the season. Any additional element enriches the story and makes the viewer more curious.
26. Add abstract meaning to your compositions
You can also enrich the story by adding elements with abstract meaning. The viewer will know more about the food and its purpose if you include in the frame hands, people, signs of poverty or luxury, traditional elements, and so on. For example, the hands of an Italian Nona making pasta speak about the long history and rich tradition behind this meal.
27. Create movement
There can be action and movement in a food photo. Think about melting ice cream, splashes, spoons stirring the pot, ingredients falling into the bowl, hands following a recipe, and so on. Use fast shutter speeds to freeze motion and deliver sharp images.
28. The landscape of portrait format?
If the client doesn’t impose a specific photo format, you’re free to choose between a vertical and horizontal orientation. The decision depends on the geometry of your subject (vertical subjects look better in portrait format; wide subjects look better in landscape format); how much of the context you want to frame (landscape format includes more space around the subject; portrait format is all about the subject); where you’re going to publish the photo (vertical shots look better on Pinterest; horizontal shots look better in magazines and blogs).
Find inspiration anywhere you go
You have by now all the technical and compositional skills you need. You are ready to create food photos worthy of any culinary magazine or blog. Well, not quite. Like you, there are many food photographers out there who fill social media with amazing photos. What makes you different from the crown? The answer is your personal style, your inner voice as a photographer.
It may seem strange that we’ve placed inspirational tips so far in our complete guide to food photography but we have a reason for doing so. Without technical skills, you can’t get the most of your inspiration and artistic vision. So first master the camera and rules of composition and then explore your creativity.
29. Stock on props for food photography
You can change the dull aspect of a table or even of a meal by using props. Your set should include plates, cups, glasses, a sifter, a vintage espresso maker, potted flowers (succulent plants may look amazing), cloth napkins, fancy tablecloths, etc. As with gear, don’t buy everything from the beginning and don’t buy in large quantities. You’ll hardly need a complete dinner set service for 12. Look for special pieces instead, the kind you find in flea markets, yard sales, or handmade shops.
30. Design thematic photo sessions
Add character to your photos by using a theme for each photo session. Incorporate the client’s preferences as well. It may be a color theme, an event, a seasonal theme, or just a particular mood. Research and gather the props and backgrounds you need before the photo session. It makes a good impression to come prepared and saves you a lot of time.
31. Explore local culture and traditions
Each cuisine has a long and rich history which should be reflected in your photos. The way we prepare the food, serve and share it is the true star of the photo. And you can find subtle elements that speak about the culture of the food you photograph. It may be a local ingredient, a specific way of cooking, a piece of jewelry on the hands that make the food, or an element in the background. Always look around the subject and create context.
32. Study the masters of food photography but develop your personal style
You have a long learning path in front of you and studying the masters of food photography can help you a lot. They teach you where to find the best subject, how to frame them, and how to add character and authenticity to your photos. You don’t have to do exactly how they do but to develop a taste for aesthetics and a personal style.
33. Embrace nature, it’s the source of food
All our food comes from nature and in nature, you should look for inspiration. Go to the source of ingredients and watch them grow. Be grateful for each of them and share your gratitude through your pictures. Photography reveals the feelings of the photographer. You can’t be a great food photographer without caring and understanding your subject matter.
34. A pretty photo is good; a visual story is what you remember
Aim to create memorable pictures. To do that, you should focus on storytelling as well as aesthetics. Why do you photograph a specific subject? What do you want to say to your viewer? And, most of all, why should anyone care about a photo? Explore the reasons behind each photo and put something of yourself in each composition.
35. Find a deeper meaning than a commercial product
Commercial food photography is in fact advertising. Its only purpose is to show the best features of a product and convince the viewer to buy it. However, if you want to do more than that, you should find a deeper meaning for your photos. Include cultural elements, document a specific cuisine, or raise awareness on a particular social issue. Give your photographs a voice and a purpose. You can try fine art or moody food photography and create artworks.
36. Train your senses
Food isn’t just about taste. It’s a multisensory experience and you won’t be able to convey it if you don’t try it first. Taste, smell and touch the food, experience the ambiance of the restaurant, or even try to cook the food yourself. Your senses will give you an idea about what you want to say and which is the best perspective over a subject.
37. A great photo starts with a plan
So far you have context, background, and food culture to consider. Add location, the brief from the client, lighting, and your technical possibilities. Write a plan for the photo session including how long you want it to take, how many photos should result, and a list of possible compositions. You can practice in advance the techniques and décor you might need.
38. Find the right mindset
If you’re upset, in a hurry, or just hungry, things won’t go in the right direction. A photo session may have its challenges and put you in unexpected situations. The food may be uglier than you thought it will be, a storm may affect your natural light, the client may not have the right props, and so on. Be calm, prepared, and mindful. Follow your plan as much as possible and allow yourself to improvise from time to time. And don’t forget to have fun, be adventurous, and stay true to yourself.
Tips for food photography and successful photo sessions
A photographer needs good management and communication skills. You have to respect strict deadlines, work with different types of people, and adapt to unpredictable situations. Your artistic concept may change as well as lighting conditions, location, and subject. To be successful in food photography you have to develop a workflow that works for you and be professional about every aspect of the job.
39. Create a routine and stick to it
Plan your photo sessions and communicate to the client how much time and help you’ll need. Approach the photo session step by step, leaving space for improvisation and new ideas. For example, start by arranging the décor, sorting props, and setting the light. Then take photos of each scene using multiple perspectives and angles of shooting, different lenses, and several artistic styles. In the end, allow yourself to be creative and explore new styles, unusual angles, and everything that inspires you.
40. Leave time for the unpredictable
Your time management should include time for dealing with things that go wrong. The food may not be ready in time, the light may be bad, or the tablecloth may have stains. Don’t panic; take some time to observe the scene and see what you can do to make it work. Maybe a close-up will hide the tablecloth or using a longer exposure will help with the light.
41. Protect your gear from grease, steam, and splashes
In the search for the perfect shot, you may be tempted to risk your gear. Some photographers want to capture steaming food or splashes of liquids for artistic purposes. However, if your lens gets foggy or greasy in the process it may not be worth the trouble. You’ll need a lot of time to clean it before taking the next shot and it might affect your time schedule. So make sure you protect the gear before trying adventurous shots.
42. Take as many pictures as you can. Cull them later.
A cold dish doesn’t look like a hot one. A fresh salad taken from the fridge doesn’t look the same after an hour at room temperature. Work fast and take as many pictures as you can while you can. Don’t waste time looking at your pictures during the photo session. You’ll have plenty of time to cull them later. Focus on taking amazing photos in the camera and don’t rely on post-processing.
43. Write the screenplay on paper before the photo session
It helps to have some notes. A photo session is like public speaking: you need good notes to make sure you address every angle and say all you have to say. Write down your approach for each photo session, including what mood you want to convey, composition tips, a list of equipment to take with you, and everything else that can help you stick to your routine and take all the photos that you need.
Engaging with your subject matter means tasting in this case. When you photograph complete dishes, desserts, or drinks it helps to have an idea about their flavors. It’s even better when you like the food. Many features aren’t visible but you can include them in the story through the composition. For example, it’s possible to convey sweetness, acidity, spice, freshness, and food temperature even if they aren’t visible features.
45. Set up your environment
Take some time to set up your work environment, arrange your gear, and put everything in order. It will increase your efficiency and speed up the workflow. Test with a few props and see what goes best with the location. Something the plan you make doesn’t fit local conditions.
46. Commercial food photography: Discuss with your client and make sure you respect the brief
As artistic as you may want to be, often you get a strict brief and have to follow it. Discuss with your client and show them your portfolio. Listen to them and be open to ideas. At the same time, make sure they agree with your personal style and allow you to be creative and spontaneous.
47. Stock up on batteries and memory cards
You’ll be taking a lot of pictures and you don’t want to be short on batteries and memory cards. It’s a beginner’s error but it happens. Make sure you check your photo gear!
48. Learn to collaborate
When you are just the photographer and not the cook, a different opinion can make your photos better. Learn to listen to everyone involved and filter good ideas as you go. A chef, barista, or bartender can have a fresh perspective on the product and help you understand it better.
49. Come prepared: practice in advance the techniques you might need
If a challenging photo session is expecting you, go prepared. Practice new techniques, experiment with your food photography lighting equipment, and learn to use the camera in manual mode. Go through different types of composition, try unusual angles, and see what works for this particular series.
50. Don’t exaggerate with editing: food has to look natural
While it’s amazing to see colorful food, don’t overdo it. Editing is fine as long as you don’t transform a common soup into a science fiction item. Food is natural and it should look natural. Furthermore, you don’t want to fool the viewer and provide an unrealistic image of the product. A disappointed customer will not visit the restaurant again just because the food on the menu looked great.
We hope our complete guide for food photography will help you find more food photography jobs, be more creative, and find your personal style. You can choose from a wide range of subgenres such as editorial, rustic, still life, or fine-art food photography. Regardless of your approach, engaging with your subject matter and learning to create a visual story are the secrets to amazing food photos.