These days food photography is ever-present in Instagram feeds and Pinterest pins. Food is a great connector. Whether you’re a lifestyle influencer, a die-hard foodie, or a baking pro, here’re 25 food photography tips and tricks to take your food shoot to the next level – from prepping to editing your pictures.
25 tips and tricks to improve your food photography
How to prepare for a food shoot
Perfection is in the details. Just like cooking, it pays to take some time to prep. Professional photographers call it pre-production.
- Look for inspiration
Be inspired by the pros and their mastery of photography. Don't hesitate to turn to your favorite food blogs, Pinterest food pins, or take a look at the Canva pool of food photographs. Put your creative hat on to explore different ways to approach your shoot.
- Tell a story
What’s your story? Do you need to create a set of pics for a restaurant’s website or photography for a cooking book? What do you want to communicate? Always turn to this question to plan all the aspects of the shoot.
A grid of 20 flavors of ice cream in little saucers displayed in one shot might work for a gelateria to demonstrate its menu, whereas a single ice cream cone with triple-stacked, melting scoops will make someone long for summer and the beach.
- Pick a look: messy, staged, minimal
There are so many ways to give life to an idea. Are you after a realistic, “work in progress” type of look with flour spread by a rolling pin, or shaves of dark chocolate by a mocha bundt cake? Picture a cheeseburger with a big bite, a half-eaten plate of pasta with the utensils askew, a top shot with lipstick-smudged napkins. It’s all about giving your photos an edge — in this case, a beautiful mess with people making an appearance.
Or are you after a more slick and polished aesthetic, with glistening ingredients and dramatic shadows, like you see in cookbooks? A single plate of food shot from above will emphasize the dish and usually have a more premium, produce-focused feel. Whereas a spread out a bunch of dishes in a festive table set up might have a homelier vibe, creating a mood of togetherness.
Another option is going minimalistic. Bringing everything down to an elemental level. The simplicity of the shot elevates the importance of the dish. In this case, less is definitely more.
Whatever you want to shoot, make it yours, and add a pinch of your creativity and edge.
- Pick a color palette
Consider how a combination of colors will play out in the final composition, the ingredients in a plate, against the background, and some props. Do you want a muted palette or clashing colors? Either way, you want to create a harmonious picture.
Maybe you can add a touch of Classic Blue, 2020 color of the year by Pantone.
- Draft the shot
Making a drawing of all the elements in the photograph will help you preview how it might look and experiment with the combination of elements and how you want to frame the scene.
How to compose a food shot
The composition is the essence of good design and any artistic expression.
- Frame it
Use the rule of thirds if you’re not sure where to place your dish in a frame. Divide the frame into nine imaginary squares. Then put the food where the lines of those squares intersect. Thankfully, most cameras have a grid line or cropping function which you can turn on if you’re having trouble visualizing those lines. Once the gridlines appear on the screen, you’ll have an easier time composing your image.
- Allow for negative space
Compose with some negative space around the main focus of the picture. It will breathe better and is easier on the eyes.
- Is it vertical or horizontal?
The beauty of a vertical framing is that it appears larger on some website templates and on Pinterest. Vertical shots are also easier to crop down.
- Best angles for food pics
Mastering the art of the flat lay – the top shot popularized by Instagram –, is a valuable skill to portray food such as pizza, salad bowls, and open-faced sandwiches. Different types of food are best seen from other angles. Food with layers, such as burgers and cakes are best shot from the side to show all the details that would otherwise be out of view in a top shot.
Shooting from a 45-degree angle is a good compromise and works for most types of food.
How to manage the food and plating
Here are some tricks to make your food look delicious.
10. Pick your produce
Choose your produce wisely. Fruit and vegetables don’t need to be perfect, and often, a knobbly bump or a leaf will enhance rather than detract from your scene. Instead of making your dish perfect, think about humanizing it by including scattered ingredients or crumbs on the side of the shot. This way, you don’t have to spend as much on props and can introduce the produce in its natural state before it goes into the dish.
11. Glaze hot food
Food can dry out extremely quickly, especially when it’s hot. This is true with anything that has been fried or baked, which can look tough and shriveled on camera. To fix this, brush hot food with oil over the top. Use a basting brush and get your garlic glistening, so it has a tasty sheen for the camera.
12. Include drinks when styling
Often, you’ll want to shoot a nice cold, refreshing drink alongside your perfectly-plated dish, especially in summer. Reinvigorate a tired glass of bubbles using a fork, or for a really flat beverage, by adding a pinch of salt, which will get the bubbles rising. For icy cold drinks, real ice cubes are great for quick shots, especially with a range of ice trays now available in every imaginable size and shape. Otherwise, For all-day shoots where you want plenty of time to style and frame your shot or for when you want to be able to reuse the drinks for the next pic, specialist acrylic cubes are now available online.
13. Create the illusion of heat
Use your creativity to manipulate the scene and make the food appear hot. For example, to get perfect grill marks, you need to get your grill nice and hot and press down the food with just the right pressure, but instead of going through all the trouble, you can use a hair curler or even a brown eyeliner or eye shadow to create them.
Another trick is to undercook dishes like roast chicken or carrots, so they don’t turn too brown or shriveled. This is a nice way to keep your shots fresh and bright. Don’t forget, food often shoots best without too much interference, so consider your image and recipe beforehand.
14. Use long-handled tweezers
Many chef long-handled tweezers available on the market are perfect for food styling. These will be your saving grace when it comes to fussy clients or when you want to get your sesame seed placement just right. The ones with the pointy tips are excellent for getting into tight spots without disturbing the rest of the dish.
15. Show human interaction
Following the success on Instagram of the minimal, flat lay look, one of the classic styles in food photography is making a come – a variation of the movement trend now is showing human interaction and enjoyment of the food. Behind-the-scenes shots also work well on social media.
How to style a food shot
What else do you need besides the food?
Consider different surfaces. For instance, dark, smooth, shiny wood might convey a premium restaurant. While, light, rustic wood will provide more of a country vibe. Make sure your surface is as flat as possible and if you plan to shoot on location, make sure you can lift it.
Hardware stores, timber yards, garage sales, and antique stores can be great places to rummage for unique pieces.
You can also look online for specialist backdrop creators who make one-off surfaces for photographers.
Cooking props, serving props, silverware, china, a tablecloth… the possibilities are endless, but always remember to add whatever contributes to your food story, and avoid cluttering the shot. Consider sticking to a neutral color palette that you can use over and over without the pieces becoming too memorable, so the food stays the hero.
Garnish adds a dash of reality, freshness, and textures to the shot. Consider cooking ingredients like herbs, pomegranate shiny seeds, pepitas, chocolate shaves, and spread them gracefully.
How to master the light in a food shoot
Light can turn a good photo into an awesome one.
19. Set the mood
This is perhaps the simplest and cheapest trick of them all. One of the greatest tools you have available to you in food photography is light and the ability to control it. The tiniest gleam reflected off a juicy orange can create a highlight that makes you want to lick the fruit. Similarly, background darkness might have a more serious feel, and cleverly created patterns or shapes from shadows can create a designer look.
20. Natural vs artificial light
Some photographers love natural light, while others swear by artificial spotlights. But remember, harsh direct sunlight can wash out food, especially if it’s a light color such as white bread or mashed potatoes. Find shade or set up your shot near a window so that the light bounces off the food instead.
For a more controlled environment – so you don't have to rely on the weather – 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. Always light the scene from top, side, and back, to add shadows and depth.
21. Use reflectors
Matte black cardboard folded in half and carefully placed around your shot can create dark shadows or absorb excess light, where white cardboard reflected back onto a dark area will reduce unwanted shadowing and help to create highlights.
For more extreme highlights, reflective and shiny surfaces, such as aluminum, can create great effects similar to flash photography without creating unexpected shadows and flattening of your image.
How to control the exposure in a food shot
This is the trick to give a crisp or soft look.
22. The balance between aperture and shutter speed
Like any type of photography what we want to achieve is the correct balance between the aperture of the lens (the amount of light you let in) and the shutter speed (how long you let that amount of light in). That will affect the final image, for a crisp or soft look.
A wide aperture produces a more shallow depth of field, meaning that objects in the foreground are in focus and the rest of the photo is blurred. If you take photos with a narrow aperture to have all the aspects in focus, you’ll need enough light. You can achieve that by playing with the shutter speed to let more light in the camera. So, aperture and shutter speed go hand in hand. When you tweak one, you should adjust the other.
A tripod will allow you to shoot with a slower shutter speed, which you may need for lower lights conditions.
How to select a camera for food photography
Your camera is at the center stage now.
There are so many brands and options in the market. First thing is to determine your budget and decide if you want interchangeable lenses. Mirrorless cameras also tend to be smaller and lighter in weight. When choosing a camera to consider the file size you want to work with, as larger image size is needed if you need to print your pics, and with a high ISO in case you don't use a tripod, and with multiple focusing options –the more the better–, and able to shoot raw files, because they are easier to edit.
Here’s a quick cheat-sheet of different lenses and their benefits.
- 50mm is a good all-round lens, especially if you don’t have a zoom, good for shooting food from top-down and tablescapes.
- 24-70mm zoom lens is a favorite of many food photographers for its versatility.
- 60mm macro, to avoid distortion.
- 100/110mm macro, good for portrait-style, vertical framing
- 80mm prime works for wider setups.
How to choose photography editing software
The final touches can make or break a picture.
25. Editing software
Editing can bring your photo to life. It’s your opportunity to reframe it and play with the exposure, contrast, highlights, and shadows. The Adobe Lightroom app is extremely user friendly and a go-to for many food and non-food photographers.
Now that you’re armed with a toolkit of tips and tricks, let’s get snapping. And remember, like everything, it takes time to come up with the perfect shot. And it takes practice. The same way that baking practice makes a perfect souffle, it will take a while until you achieve the stage where everything you shoot is a feast for the eyes.