Food PhotographyThe Essential Ingredients to Great Shots
What will you learn in this guide?
- How to arrange your food
- The best type of lighting
- The all-important camera settings
- Accessories you will need for food photography
- How to frame your shot
- Editing tips for food photography
How to Arrange your Food
Some professional culinary photographers imagine their photograph before they even go near the camera using a simple pen and paper.
To get the idea in mind, try drawing your set up first and consider where you’d place all your food.
You don’t need to be Rembrandt in this instance, it’s just a guide for yourself to understand which shapes and colours work well next to each other.
Over time you could end up with a mini-reference book to help you out every time you take photographs of food.
Circles and Lines
There are so many ways to ‘pose’ your chosen food that it may seem impossible to get it right every time. There are a few simple tips and processes to keep in mind though, which will make easier each time you set up your shot.
- Consider your subject. Think about its size, shape, height and what makes it unique as a food. Then position your subject in the direction where it best highlights these qualities.
- Some foods or dishes can look lovely shooting straight on – think about rounded objects – it’s important to describe their shape so being able to tweak camera angles slightly gives you a great advantage with fixed lighting.
- Other dishes may need a flat lay approach – that’s shooting from overhead. Think about foods that have straight lines – spaghetti pasta, carrots, cucumbers etc. You don’t have many curves to show off so instead use the natural lines to further the composition.
Create a Scene
It’s important to make your shot interesting, without being cluttered. So first position your dish in the middle of the frame and create an accompanying foreground and background. It may be adding a peak of the ingredients used to make a cake for example.
This is all in aid of creating a story; anyone can take a picture of a cake, but what makes it creative is to give further detail of how it was made. Show the strawberries before they were blended; the flour in its packet, or spare bits of pastry.
Alternatively, it could be some props that you used to create the dish, which we’ll come on to shortly.
The more depth you can create in your food photography the more your audience will be drawn into the story.
You can create depth through layers of props. Adding in foreground features, which may be blurred once you set your camera up correctly still add ‘flavour’ to the shot through complementing colours. The same goes for the background too.
But like we said build your shot smartly. Too many items in one frame and it’ll be hard to understand what it’s all about. Make your subject clear first and then add in extras, step by step.
Add in Complementing Colours
If you want to add a little more colour and pop to your food photography, then look for a complementing colour to your main subject.
If you were shooting a basket of green vegetables, then bring in some reds and oranges to add depth and interest.
These colours could appear as a background, a base, another food in the basket or even coloured lighting.
Subduing other colours can also be used cleverly to emphasise your main subject alternative.
If you just want one tone to stand out above others then ensure you’re only using neutral colours otherwise – white, grey and black – so that your main colour pops.
Other Arrangement Tips
- Choose your finest or most suitable plate, bowl or dish in which to present your food.
- Try unusual bases such as wooden boards, marble tiles, or stone bowls and see if they contrast nicely against your food.
- Don’t forget about cutlery either, it’s all part of the serving suggestion!
Be brave and make your base look messy. If you’re shooting a cake, scatter some flour on a board.
If you’ve got a roast beef dinner in front of you then pipette some meat juices on to your base to offer a succulent visual.
Napkins are a simple way of adding colour.
Don’t forget a garnish for big dishes – some thyme or parsley will make it look professional.
Best Lighting for Food Photography
Unless it’s deliberate, we wouldn’t recommend using a direct flash in food photography. We said ‘direct’ on purpose because bouncing a flash off a wall or ceiling can be advantageous as a secondary light source to fill in shadows.
Ideally, though, you need to use natural light or a large, soft, artificial light source. Set up your dish in the path of window light and use a sheet of white card on the opposite side to reflect light back into the shot – helping eliminate shadows.
Alternatively, if you’re getting reflected light from a near-surface that you don’t want, switch that white card for a black one to stop any reflection.
The same goes for your base. If you want to remove the light from an image, either to create a dark or rustic effect then find a blackboard to absorb excess light. This could be slate or tile to make the shot look modern.
If you’ve not got the right angle of sunlight when you’re shooting you may need to create your own.
Investing in a freestanding continuous light with a softbox attachment is a simple and cost-effective way of making a large soft ray of light, similar (but not exactly the same) to daylight.
You may need to tweak the colour balance in-camera (or in editing) to warm up artificial light. If you like to make custom adjustments to your white balance, then remember to lower your Kelvin temperature to make the shot appear warmer and more inviting.
Camera Settings for Food Photography
You can only work with the camera you’ve got, but it’s really going to come down to the camera settings to maximise the effect on your food photography. So, let’s keep it simple:
- Shoot at your widest possible aperture (F/5.6 or wider).
- Use a small spot focus method and focus on your main subject.
- Use a wide/zonal light metering mode (depending upon the effect you want) to get an even exposure, mimicking soft natural daylight.
- Keep the ISO low, unless you want grainy photos to add further texture.
- Shutter speed doesn’t need to exceed 1/200th unless you’re shooting action images with your food!
- Aim to shoot around 50mm where possible. Super wide and heavily zoomed-in shots won’t give a natural perspective and could distort the overall effect.
Camera Accessories you will NEED
Reflectors & Diffusers
As we mentioned earlier white foam boards and card are a cheap and effective way to bounce light back onto your dish and reduce shadows. If you need to soften harsh daylight, then consider placing a net curtain or sheer white fabric over the window. This will diffuse and spread the light evenly.
Without a tripod, you may succumb to rushing your shot, especially if you’re leaning or bending to get the right angle. Take the stress of your mind and back and use a tripod.
It’ll not only fix your camera in one place, allowing you to concentrate on your set up framing and it improves overall sharpness of the photo.
If you don’t feel that your kitchen is aesthetically pleasing, then create your own mini photo studio with a simple background replacement for your dish. You can find offcuts of fabric or coloured card and stage it behind your subject concealing your real location.
Push your setup close to a wall and attach your backdrop to it, keeping your hands free for the camera.
How to Frame your Shot
Use techniques such as the Rule of Thirds to divide up your frame making the shot feel balanced and contemporary.
Features such as the 4 power points are perfect places to position your perfect pasta presentation (say that 5 times quickly!), but don’t go crazy and try to fill all the power points with objects – 2 is enough.
If you want to use a different compositional technique to draw in your audience think about using spoons or knives at the bottom of your frame and point them towards your main subject. The straight lines will act as strong leading lines.
With all this said, don’t be scared about making decisive and creative crops.
Think of cake but only framing half of it, or bunching groups of fruit into one corner and leaving lots of negative space.
How to Edit your Food Photography
When it comes to editing there are only a few little changes you may need to make, depending upon how good your original shot is, and how happy you are with it.
Firstly, consider your crop and all the edges of the frame – are there objects left in by mistake? If so crop them out or use a removal tool if you’re otherwise happy with the composition.
Secondly, if you want to make whites appear brighter and bolder then cool the colour temperature slider.
Lastly, you may just need to bump up the exposure, add in some extra sharpening or clarity, increase the contrast to make shadows more dramatic. You can do this in Lightroom, Photoshop, Luminar or even iPhotography’s built-in editor, Pixlr.
If you’ve been inspired to try to fancy food photography then share it with us in the iPhotography gallery.
What Others Are Reading
iPhotography Course not only teaches you all the standard technical expertise, settings, skills, and special effects with your camera – but we also show you how to use these skills to develop your own individual style as a photographer.