Beginner’s Guide to Food Photography

Do you want to photograph your recipes but aren’t sure where to begin?  Food photography opens the door to so many possibilities, such as food blogging, Instagramming, writing e-books, product photography and more! It’s also a creative outlet and a fun way to play with colour and express your own style. As a food photographer, I’m often asked for tips about how to take great photos. Let’s get started with this introduction to food photography!

Camera

First up, you need a camera! If you are just starting out, you may want to begin with a point-and-shoot because of its low cost and its ease of use. You can learn the basic functions of a point-and-shoot in a few minutes. (Like the name says, you just point and shoot.)

A DSLR is steeper both in price and in learning curve. I won’t get too technical, but DSLR stands for ‘digital single lens reflex’. This means when you take a picture, the camera opens up its shutter, the image reflects on to the camera’s internal mirror, and then on to the sensor. I started out using a point-and-shoot, but switching to a DSLR made a world of difference in clarity and colour representation. DSLR also gives you much more control in different light situations. For me, the price difference was so worth it. If you have someone in your life who is really good at finding deals online, this may be a great way to find a lightly used DSLR.

However, whether you are using a point-and-shoot, DSLR, or a phone, the basic principles of composition are the same.

Creating Bright Images

Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are the three elements that affect the brightness of your images. Let’s talk about them in a little more detail.

Shutter Speed

The speed at which the shutter opens can be slowed down to allow more light to hit the sensor in low light situations. I do this on dark, gloomy days or in the fall when it gets dark early. However, with the shutter being open longer, there can be more blur and therefore you might need a tripod. As a rule of thumb, I shoot handheld at 1/125th of a second – you may have a steadier hand than I, but below 1/100th of a second, I use a tripod to avoid camera shake (this results in blurry images).

Aperture

Aperture refers to the width of the opening of your lens. Opening up the aperture lets in more light and also creates a shallow depth of field, resulting in more background blur. This effect allows you to draw the viewer’s eye to where the camera focus is. The lower the number, the wider the aperture. Thus, if you want a sharp focus in one area with a lot of background blur, you may choose a lower number such as 3.2 or 3.5. If you want background objects to be more in focus – a wider depth of field – you may choose a higher number, for example, 11 or 14 (remembering that this won’t let in as much light and you will need to adjust shutter speed or ISO).

Let’s take a look at photos examples.

Food Photography

The photo on the left displays a shallow depth of field. The aperture I used here was 2.8 – it focused in on the portion of the photo where the dip and the avocado are, while the herbs in the back and the surface that the bowl is sitting on are blurred.

Compare that to the photo on the right, the aperture I used was 10.0. As you can see, everything is in sharp focus, including everything in the bowl and the background surface.

More great info on using aperture here.

ISO

ISO refers to your camera’s sensitivity to light. It is the element I would adjust last, after shutter speed and aperture, because having a high ISO can affect the quality of your image, creating “noise” especially in the darker areas of the photo. I try to keep ISO below 500, but in a dark situation, if I don’t have a tripod and my aperture is already wide open, I will go higher.

Using Light in Food Photography

My preference is to use natural light whenever possible. Professional lights are available that can mimic natural light; however, I would recommend getting familiar with your camera and using natural light before making that investment.

The most important thing is to avoid, as far as lighting goes, indoor kitchen lighting as it casts a yellow glow on your food. If, however, you have food that you want to photograph and it’s 5 pm on a rainy day in November, and you have no choice but to use your indoor lighting, turn your white balance to the Tungsten setting. This will add more blue to your shot and neutralize the yellow a little bit. If you’d like to learn more about this, check out my free Low Light Food Photography E-Course that will help you make the most of light on dark days.

Another thing to consider is which direction you want the light to come from. Backlit lighting is the technique I use most. I usually prefer to stand facing my subject on a  table with a window on the other side of the table. I find the way the light hits the subject to be the most pleasing to my eye. But try letting the light hit from the front and the side and see what you prefer most! Depending on the weather and the type of dish I am photographing, my preference will sometimes change.

Let’s take a look at what I mean.

Backlighting:

Food Photography

This photo above uses backlighting. You can see the light coming in from behind the salad bowl.

Side Lighting:

Take a look at the images below. In the photo on the left, the light is coming in from the left side. In the photo on the right, the natural light is coming from the right side.

Food Photography

On a dark day, if using backlit lighting, you may need to bounce some light back at your subject to reduce shadows on your food. You can purchase reflectors designed for this purpose from photography stores. You could also use foam core, poster board, or anything on hand that is white. In a pinch, I have even used napkins and a roll of paper towel!

 

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Composition

If you were to draw two vertical lines and two horizontal lines evenly across your image, dividing it into nine squares, then having the point of focus at one of the intersections adds compositional interest to the photo. This is known as the rule of thirds and is why you may see this on your camera or photo editing software.

One possibility would be to place your main subject near the front and have other blurred out subjects behind, to lead the viewer’s eye through the photo.

Vertical or Horizontal Photos?

Try getting one good shot of each. Vertical works well for Instagram and Pinterest, while horizontal is ideal for blogs, banners and Facebook.

Angles

There are a few common angles you can use to successfully photograph food:

  • A 45 degree angle shows food as if you were sitting down to eat it. This is one of my favorite angles, as it shows so much beautiful texture. There will usually be more focus towards the front of the dish.
  • Shooting from top down (directly overhead) can show the entire dish in even focus (if everything is the same height), but you lose some of the texture.
  • A straight on angle can be used to show height if, for example, you are showing a stacked sandwich or a drink.

Let’s look at some examples.

Food Photography

The photo above was taken at a 45 degree angle.

 

Food Photography

The photo above is an overhead shot.

Food Photography

This is a straight-on, straight-ahead shot.

 

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Styling

A crucial point to food photography is to have your food looking its best. I like to add some raw vegetables or herbs alongside cooked foods to add more freshness to the dish, especially if the meal is brown, such as chili. I soak herbs and microgreens in cold water for about 30 minutes before using and remove any wilted ones. I add garnishes for colour and interest, preferably ones that show something that went into the dish – such as a basil leaf in a pesto.

Take a look at this example, which features basil leaves, a slice of lemon and some chopped nuts as a garnish:

Food photography

These are simple additions, but they add pops of colour, interest and excitement to the photo compared to the plain pasta salad in the bowl on its own.

Plating

Choose your hero – the best looking part of whatever you are shooting. If you are making tempeh steaks and one is perfectly browned and looks better than the others, put that one in front or on top and make it your camera focus.

In food photography, full bowls are desirable. Even if your normal serving of soup only fills up half the bowl, fill it up for the photo! I stop before it reaches the point of overflowing, although you may want to experiment with drips – many people make that part of their style. It can be helpful to use smaller plates, bowls and other serving pieces in food photography, as large ones can overwhelm the food and make it more difficult to make those full bowls.

Because sauces can soak into the food while you are setting up your shot, reserve some sauce to add once you figure out your perfect angle. I always take a few shots before adding dressing to a salad because the leaves can start to wilt quickly from the oil and acid.

Best Food Photography Props

Use neutral props that keep the focus on the food. Avoid busy, distracting patterns on plates as the food can become lost in the photo. My favorite dishes are grey or white and matte, so there is no glare shining back at the camera and the food is what stands out.

Take a look at the photo on the left that is simply taken against a background, no other elements added. Compare that to the image on the right where I added in a napkin to complement the purple hues of the cauliflower:

Food Photography

It’s a simple addition, but adds a lovely layer to the photo – but doesn’t detract from the platter as a whole.

Another thing I highly recommend using is a wooden background board, which you can purchase from Etsy, make using online tutorials, or have someone make one for you. My favorite board was made from an old barn door! With wooden boards, I again look for a matte finish to reduce glare, as well as interesting textures.

I prefer to use clean backgrounds so the focus is entirely on my dish. However, you may want to display some of the ingredients around the food to show part of the cooking process. Other options for adding interest include colourful napkins, flowers or unique serving utensils. Check out secondhand shops for some great vintage finds.

Also try using a hand model to show interaction with the food!

5 Suggested Props for Beginners
  1. Wood background board or large cutting board
  2. Monotone plate and bowl (bonus points for matte!)
  3. Vintage cutlery (check out thrift shops)
  4. Cloth napkin or a dish towel
  5. Stemless wine glass or Mason jars for smoothies or parfaits

Do not let a lack of props or a hand-me-down camera stop you from creating. You can create amazing art on a plate just by having fresh and colourful food displayed in your own unique style. Remember that good food photography takes time to evolve and it’s OK if you don’t love your photos right away. Practice as much as you can and enjoy the process!

Further Reading

 

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Food Photography

All photos by: Anna Pelzer

Anna Pelzer is a freelance photographer and stop motion animator in North Vancouver, BC. In 2018, she was selected by Canon Canada as #One2Watch. Her work has been featured in Thrive Magazine and in the books Vegan Bowls for Vegan Souls and The Main Street Vegan Academy Cookbook. Meet this expert

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