10 common food photography mistakes and how to learn from them to improve your work

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Food photography is a great skill to learn as the food industry is bigger than ever, with new restaurants and products launching regularly. Even without a specific client in mind, you can use your skills to help fill the demand for food stock photography.

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Photo by Brooke Larke

Whether you’re shooting for a client, working on a portfolio of stock photos, or simply looking to develop your skills, here are 10 common mistakes you can learn from in food photography.

01. Not optimizing your light source

Most people start working with natural light as it produces a great effect, but not all natural light is conducive for food photography. For instance, harsh direct sunlight can wash out food, especially if it’s light in color such as white bread or mashed potatoes. Find a shade or set up your shot near a window so that the light bounces off the food instead.

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Photo by Adam Jaime

For a more controlled environment, use artificial lighting with a reflector or bounce card. Start by working with a white tabletop, backdrop, and plates to familiarize yourself with your camera’s settings and limitations. Work your way towards incorporating more colors and patterns.

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Photo by Brenda Godinez

Traditionally, you’ll want to bounce the light off the food, but there is a returning trend that throws out that rule. You may have noticed some editorial publications and food brands using hard direct flash and high color saturation. This style packs a punch and looks very current given the right execution for the right audience.

02. Shooting from only one angle

Mastering the art of the flatlay is a valuable skill in the time of the Instagram aesthetic, but there’s more to food photography than top shots. The best way to learn is to study what you’re shooting. To the flatlay’s credit, food such as pizza, smoothie bowls, and open-faced sandwiches do look great in top shots since the most dynamic details can be seen from above.

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Photo by Brenda Godinez

However, food with layers such as burgers and cakes is best shot from the side to show all the details that would otherwise be out of view in a top shot.

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Photo by Deryn Macey

Shooting from a 45-degree angle is a good compromise and works for most types of food.

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Photo by Taylor Kiser

03. Using substandard ingredients

Before shooting, examine each ingredient from the main dish to the garnish. It’s always better to work with quality ingredients than to spend hours trying to fix your photos. After all, there’s only so much that post-processing can do.

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Photo by Brooke Larke

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Photo by Alexandra Gornago

04. Shooting only when the food is cooked through

Sometimes, raw ingredients can make for a striking photo as much as—or even more than—the finished product. This is particularly useful when shooting “ugly delicious” food like stews and soups. Capture several steps of the cooking process and figure out what works best for the food you’re photographing.

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Photo by Heather Schwartz

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Photo by Jez Timms

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Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel

05. Avoiding movement

Capturing movement is a great way to make your photo pop, so any form of drizzling, sprinkling, or pouring is your ally. You can achieve this by adjusting the shutter speed of your camera: the faster the shutter, the more “frozen in time” it looks. Play around with the settings depending on what kind of food you’re working with. Using a tripod and a remote shutter will make things easier, unless you have someone to style the food while you stay behind the camera.

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Photo by Helena Yankovska

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Photo by Jennifer Pallian

06. Not giving enough thought to the props

While food should be the focus, using props will take your photos to the next level. This includes everything from tableware and linen to herbs and raw ingredients. Think about adding color and texture to bring out the best in the food you’re shooting. More importantly, think about why you’re using the props. Were the spices used in the recipe? Do the herbs complement the flavors of the dish? Is this the right knife for this type of meat? Remember that each prop has to have a purpose.

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Photo by Yakynina Anastacia

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Photo by Jen P.

Like food photography, there’s a whole industry in food and prop styling, so don’t beat yourself up if it takes you a while to figure things out. You can practice by using a dummy object in place of the food as you set up the props, so that the food is at its peak once you’re ready to shoot.

07. Over-styling the shot

There is such a thing as too many props—overusing them can make a photo look cluttered. Use negative space to let your photo breathe.

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Photo by Cayla1

When doing top shots, you can try purposely leaving the middle or the side empty, as some clients like ad agencies and editorial publications use this space to add text.

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Photo by Brooke Larke

08. Sticking to the tried-and-tested

Let’s say you’re working on a portfolio of food stock photography. With so many food stock photos out there, how can you make yours stand out? Come up with creative ways to present food, like this tin can containing fish-shaped candy instead of actual fish. In a sea of food stock photography, this one goes against the current.

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Photo by Roseanna Smith

Hard pressed for ideas? You can start small and focus on a certain demographic. For instance, this photo uses ombre pink to add a touch of whimsy to good ol’ toast, appealing to the millennial pink-smitten generation.

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Photo by Amy Shamblen

09. Over-saturating photos

It can be tempting to bump up the saturation to make the food look more enticing. Too much, however, makes it look unnatural and not the least bit appetizing. There’s nothing wrong with enhancing colors, but always keep in mind what the food looks like in person.

You can go bold with your color choice in a different way by painting the food. This appeals, for instance, to clients looking for unconventional stock photos for a brand campaign or an editorial piece. Sometimes, their vision doesn’t even necessarily have anything to do with food. This way, you can expand your reach while using the food photography skills you already have.

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Photo by Cody Davis

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Photo by Cody Davis

10. Aiming for the “perfect” shot

While there is a big market for very clean, spotless food photography, there is also a growing demand for photos with a messy, undone vibe. Picture a cheeseburger with a big bite, a half-eaten plate of pasta with the utensils askew, a flatlay with lipstick-smudged napkins. It’s less about being sloppy and more about giving your photos an edge—a bite, so to speak. With this type of look, you’re going for a beautiful mess.

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Photo by Jennifer Pallian

You can also dial it down and add just a touch of mess using small bites and specks of crumbs.

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Photo by Brooke Larke

If you’re just getting into food photography, it’s understandable to make mistakes—this is part of the learning process. It takes careful planning and practice to consistently create quality shots, as with other types of photography.