How to photograph food

Do you really know how to photograph food? To create images that make mouths water, eyes widen, and nostrils inhale imagined scents it takes real skills.

Food, the fact that it’s often at hand, have made it a much-captured subject in the world of photography. A growing scene where photographers, stylists, the advertising industry, gourmands, or instagramers are capturing the beauty of food, continually inventing new ways of displaying it as both art medium and edible constructs.

To create images that make mouths water, eyes widen, and nostrils inhale imagined scents it takes real skills. In this article we’re introducing you to the fundamentals of how to photograph food.

Food is the focus of everyday cooking, of still life images, or conceptual fine-art photography and, most times then not, is the product of the collaboration of food photographers, food stylists and prop stylists.

Like any art form, food photography has a long history that’s evolved over time. The earliest images we have of food photography started in the 1800s. This early representation were depicting food in a way similar to a painting. (In 1832, the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce – celebrated for taking the first known photograph – composed a still life with a bowl, a goblet and a piece of bread).

Today’s food photography scene seems to be a place where anyone with a smartphone and a good eye can take an enticing food image in any given place, at any given time, be it a restaurant, a market, or a private kitchen.

A side effect of the digital age in food photography, camera cuisine is any dish that was inspired by a picture or aspires to be one.” ~ Pete Wells

From basic sustenance preparation to a playground of decorations you can find images ranging from maps created of vegetables, geometry of jelly molded into kitsch dishes, pies with the most intricate lattice or colorful types of pasta. The items we purchase show how symbolic and ritualistic food can be, with the messages it convey about ethnicity, religion, status, health, mood, season.

Iconic are the images taken by Irving Penn for Vogue between 1977 and 2009. The graphic frozen foods for “Iced Soups: Flash Foods,”, 1977; the sensual mozzarella with a tomato and an olive on top for “Lusty Pleasures,” 1981; the creepy-n-voluptuous pair of frog legs, with an oyster and two snails for “Eat This!,” 1989; the essential of a piece of Parmigiano with a mice on it for “The Big Cheese,” 1997; the naturalness of a set of rotten apple for “Fine and Brandy,” 2007; or the pattern created by slices of bananas for “She’s Come Undone,” 2009.

Pictures of food can be also an instant passport to somewhere else: whether sun-drying tomatoes on a roof somewhere in Italy or colorful salads with goat cheese somewhere on a Greek island or a braising seafood hot pot in Vietnam.

When shooting pictures for your blog (sponsored content or not), it’s assumed that, as food blogger, you are doing everything from recipe development, to photography, to prop and food styling.

The key to the efficiency in a workflow is organization; a process that starts with snapping a photo all the way through:

  • shoot – you know what I’m talking about.
  • Import – from your camera to a computer.
  • Select – the image you like.
  • Editby retouching and fixing your images for color, contrast, sharpening, rotation, crop, saturation, straighten, blemish removal…(It’s a great idea to work with copies. Leave the originals in the archive, just in case).
  • Save – one at high resolution and its copy at 72 dpi (dots per inch), the web-friendly resolution.
  • Copy and store – to an external hard drive and, possibly, to an online storage to access them from wherever you are.
Red berries danish and a red beet - How to photograph Food by ockstyle

But what differentiate magazine-worthy pictures from others? Here are some tips that can come handy into achieving the art of photographing food.

1. Plating

Unlike in everyday cooking or restaurant plating, here you’re plating for a camera.

Cook separately, assemble later is the practice that allows you to arrange the various ingredients according to needs, timing and outline.

Start by preparing the items that will last the longest and finish with the most fragile ones. Prep the ingredients for each recipe on one or two trays lined with parchment paper. And please do not overcook it.

Plating your recipe by adding a little here and there, the food can be composed, while you fill in the empty spaces; add the sauces by brush or spoon, together with bits of herbs or crumbs, or hand place the little lettuce on top.

  • Choose simple crockery and tableware. Start by using small plates and white tablecloth, (impeccably clean), it allows the food to be the star. Remember that there are many shades of white, some are warm and some are cold.
  • Keep the plate border clear, don’t overload it, it’d appear more elegant.
  • Invest in props, it’s important. Buy a few nice things (plates, cutlery, tablecloth, parchment or baking paper, boards of every size and material).
  • Look for contrast. A pale colored food (or plate) gets a dark background. And, if something is brown, use colors (green herbs, red chillis, spring onions or lemon zest) to brighten up and adding glamour to the dish.

The visual medium is deeply satisfying to me and encompasses all the things I love: food, color, proportion, shape, storytelling, layout, and light. (Matt Armendariz)

Have you decided the camera angle? Where your light is coming from? Remember, you’d arrange the food while looking at it as the camera will see it.

  • An informal composition suggests comfort (asymmetrically casual).
  • Orderly scattering or randomly placing items versus grouping them get you a more graphic design feeling.
  • If food are tossed or mixed, they should look tossed, not too arranged. (The peas should be in the rice not on the top of it).
  • Two items alike going in the same direction (parallel lines) draw attention.
  • Height in arrangement often give foods a feeling of freshness (as seen in salads). Anything that is laying down tend to look tired.
  • Arranging sliced foods going toward or away from the camera produces two different look.
  • Consider the elegance of raw vegetables and fruits, or the curves and shapes of whole foods.

Remember: less is more! An over crowded plate can look so unattractive.

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2. Light

There are plenty of small things that you can easily adjust, and lighting is key.

Light sources, being natural or artificial, can be warm or cold, smooth or sharp, (and everything in between). Can come from a candle, a desk lamp, a flashlight or the sun.

Start with natural light (daylight), in most cases than not it’s the best source. Whenever possible, shoot during the day near a good window. Look around to check in which room is the best morning or afternoon light.

The crispness of direct light it’s harsh and makes everything sharp in a very revealing way: the smallest defects are magnified and you don’t want that.

You can solve it by using a white foam board to bounce the light onto the plate or by hanging a sheer white fabric over the window to softer the source. You could also use your curtains only if white or light cream, any other shade will add a color tone that may be difficult to balance.

It doesn’t matter what I have in front of my camera; light can make the weirdest thing beautiful. (Zaira Zarotti)

Here a stand-in plate comes handy, it allows you to play with the lighting and food arrangement until you’re happy with the placement. Ask yourself:

  • where the food is to go;
  • which height the food should be, and
  • how the lighting is affecting the look of it.

Watch for strong contrast in dark and light foods or props.

  • A white item will look bigger and bolder;
  • a brownish background conveys warmth;
  • a blue or black adds drama.
  • Something on the green spectrum looks fresh.
  • A dark and rusty backdrop can give it a “vintage look”.

You’ll need to check the “white balance” to correct the color casts that result from certain lighting situations and obtain a neutral white. You can do it in-camera and/or in post-processing.

How to photograph Food: Fresh anchovies by ockstyle

In-camera – Depending on your knowledge of photography and the level of your gear, to balance warm or cold light, you can either measure it and decide how to proceed manually, or use the camera presets like:

  • AWB (auto white balance), it usually does a decent job; or
  • daylight/sunny; or
  • cloudy or shade;
  • fluorescent or tungsten.
  • None of the above if you’re using a mobile, they are pretty smart.

3. Camera Framing

When shooting, identifying a setting and choosing the best angle, can make or brake the pic. The location can provide the scenery for your story and the mood can establish a particular atmosphere for your image.

Walk around around your “food-subject” (like in a portrait), observe it and take photos at various angles so you can pick your favorite later.

For composition guideline I’d suggest you start with the rule of thirds. Imagine your picture with a grid made of nine equal zones (on a camera, and even on your phone, you can display the gridlines). It’s about placing your subject in the left or right third of the image, leaving the other two thirds more open… Don’t worry, you can always crop it later.

I try to incorporate food into an environment which also gives information to describe the place where the food may be from. (Joe Schmelzer)

Remember it’s a still life, place the camera on a tripod and you’ll avoid blurry photos. Do not clutter, minimize or maximize the composition on the set, and keep things simple so the food will shine.

Large exposed surface areas look bare. If you are seeing too much table cloth, add more props on it (cutlery, glassware or a napkin would do); or get closer with your camera. Generally a closeup produces a more visually appealing and mouthwatering image.

Here some of the camera angles you could use:

  1. Straight on: the camera is centered to the subject (at eye level), it gives a symmetric and clean contemporary look. You’ll need a base for it to sit on as well as a background. Think about a runny egg yolk atop your avocado, or a burger.
  2. From above (Overhead): the camera is positioned directly and perfectly centered above the subject, for a contemporary and graphic dynamic composition. You’ll need the least amount of props and backgrounds. (Like for a pizza or other patterns you can create).
  3. At 45° angle it should resemble at the point of view while eating at a table. Also good for drink and cocktails or a stacked juicy sandwich.
  4. Slightly tilt the camera right or left. The dish is welcoming you in or is pulling away from you.
  5. Close up and personal: Don’t be afraid to get close to your subject.

Remember to take shots during the preparation and cooking process. Backstage pics are always handy, and can also help you identify the narrative progression of your recipe.


4. Post Production

Are you shooting RAW or JPEG? If you shoot in RAW, which you should, the camera records all the data the sensor collects. Then you can access all that data to correct and improve many aspects of the image, including white balance. Colors come alive when it’s set properly.

There could be an initial review with software like Capture One, Adobe Lightroom or other proprietary programs (Canon, Nikon, or else), they give you a ton of editing power to make adjustments as you see fit.

There is also RawTherapee an open-source software designed to process your raw images across platforms; or GIMP, a longstanding popular and completely free image editing program, also relatively intuitive.

​Mobile Photo Editing Applications

Because so much of today’s photo publishing happens digitally for online publications, pictures don’t need super high resolutions.

You can achieve complex photo edits from your smartphone. Adobe released both a Photoshop and a Lightroom apps. You could try also Affinity Photo.
Great options for beginners, and free alternatives, are Snapseed, Polarr or Fotor. About learning how to use photo editing software try online tutorials, pic the one made for your skills.

The more you practice the more you learn. “Repetita iuvant” (repeating does good) = Repetition is king when it comes to improving fundamental skills.

For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” Aristotle

Try to bend the rule of thirds and everything you just learned, walk around your set, look for something that inspires you aesthetically, bring the camera to your eye (it’s more intimate) and start framing. Whenever you’re ready… just push the button.

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