How to Photograph Food Like a Professional (With Examples!)

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There's a tremendous interest in food photography right now, and not just from foodies. Many want to know how people create such eye-popping and mouth-watering images. This article highlights what the top photographers do to turn average ingredients into masterpieces of food photography art.

You don't need to spend thousands on camera kits to get started. There's no need to cover travel or model fees, and the topic has universal appeal.

Modern camera technology is amazing. Improved sensors, clever lenses, and digital processing have democratized the art. Even a modest smartphone can outperform a compact camera of just a few years ago. This means that many people are experimenting with food photography, and some are even thinking about turning professional.

In this guide, we explain what the human behind the camera needs to do to take great photographs of food. You'll discover that the best photographers have been working harder than you ever imagined.

Grab a snack. The subject is very tasty!

Credit for featured image: Rod Long on Unsplash

Posted in these interests:
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h/photography3 guides
Food
h/food29 guides
Individual salad bowl on a white background
Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

There are many reasons to shoot food, from blogging gastronomic exploits to making a living as a food photographer. Just snapping plates of food could mean that you are missing a key component of any art; the capacity to evoke emotion in your audience. Images have the power to recall feelings.

Carve out a niche and make it your own.

When shooting food in a restaurant, try to include visual clues that will spark a memory. Capture the people, the setting, and the atmosphere too.

Shooting in the studio is technically challenging for both the chef and the photographer. Attention to detail is essential. Research the best photographers in the field and try to develop your own style. Carve out a niche and make it your own.

Four duplicate images of a salad bowl arrangement showing different aspect ratios.
Graphic: Sandy Wood
Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Let's consider the shape of your image. How do you or your client plan to use the photograph? For example, as part of a website design, published on Instagram or within a YouTube video. Or perhaps all three.

In the image above, you can see that the aspect ratio dramatically affects the image's shape. The original is in the top-left and has an aspect ratio of 3x2. It is probably the view that Brooke saw in the camera viewfinder. You can imagine that she might have adjusted the composition if she had seen one of the other views. Even without this, her experience has led her to create a usable photograph in all formats.

Shape

The shape of the image sensor in your camera determines the shape of your image and the default aspect ratio. The most common aspect ratios are 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, and 1:1. Shoot at the same ratio as your camera's sensor to make the best use of the imaging area. If you want to change the aspect ratio later, use image-editing software to crop the photo. The image above shows how much image area is lost when a 3x2 aspect ratio image is cropped for different formats.

Bowl and banana
Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash

Orientation

If you're not shooting a square format, you need to decide the image's orientation. If the long side is along the top, then that's described as landscape format. If the short side is along the top, then it's portrait format. Gabrielle Henderson has cleverly composed the photograph above. It will work in just about any orientation or format.

If you are producing photographs for a specific purpose, decide the best orientation before pressing the button. If you are unsure, then shoot both a portrait and a landscape view and choose later. Part of the skill is knowing how the photograph will look when displayed.

A dish of egg and vegetables on a blue painted background
Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Now that you know your image's shape, you can think about how to compose the view in your viewfinder. Some like to pontificate about photographic composition and make rules for others to follow. Much of the composition already exists in food photography, on the plate, and by a conventional table-setting layout.

A problem-solving approach to composition

Below is a list of hints and observations. Each point is a problem for you to solve. For the first point, you may think about using the camera to frame different views; above, around, and below the subject's level. For the last, you may think about using a simple sketch of the article layout to help you compose the photograph.

Food photography: hints and observations

  • Moving the camera around offers more options for composition.
  • Accidentally including things that don't look good can make a photograph unusable.
  • It helps to decide on the principal subject for your image and consider how it relates to the rest of the composition.
  • There should be an obvious point of focus in any image, usually the principal subject.
  • A principal subject can get lost if it does not dominate the scene.
  • Making slight changes of composition in each of many shots will give you more choice when selecting a final image.
  • Photographs destined to illustrate articles can benefit from simple backgrounds with room to add text.
The setup in a food photography studio
Alex Simpson on Unsplash

Human vision adapts automatically to lighting conditions. We don't usually think about it unless it is too dark or too light. When photographing food, you need to train your gaze to see subtle shadows and highlights. Only when you are aware of the light on your plate of food can you make changes to improve the effect. The task becomes easier with practice, and the results can be very satisfying.

When controlled, daylight is the perfect light source for photographing food. Results often show the best color rendition and natural quality. Choose studio lights carefully if daylight shooting is not practical, as not all types of lamps produce good results. A single light combined with a selection of reflectors, baffles, and filters can create a wide range of lighting effects.

Subject eggs

Acquire a few eggs to experiment with different food photography lighting setups. Eggs are textured, subtle in color, and just the right shape for seeing the effects of light and shadow.

Eggs and a spoon
Enrico Mantegazza on Unsplash

Experimenting with light design

In the photograph by Enrico Mantegazza above, there is a big clue to the lighting setup. The reflection in the bowl of the spoon shows three flat light sources or light reflectors. The effect created is a very diffuse canopy of light over the subject. If this was natural light, we could guess that the sun was high in the sky and the light softened by dense cloud cover.

The highlight under the bowl of the egg cup is produced by light bounced from its white foot. The darker wood in the foreground is created by placing lights so that their coverage begins to fall off in that area. With this setup, you can get a usable photograph of practically anything, although it lacks vibrancy and impact.

Eggs in a bowl
Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis on Unsplash

Louis Hansel's photograph above relies on a single light source from the edge of the table. Shadows are filled by incidental reflection from surrounding surfaces.

The dark background gives good visual contrast, which affects how we perceive the color tone of the eggs themselves. These are not significantly darker eggs than those in Enrico's photograph, but they look quite different.

Ice falling into a glass
Should you use "Flash" in food photography?

Most food photography is low on action. If you want to freeze fast movement, then you will need to use electronic flash. Photographs like this one by Lanju Fotografie are difficult to achieve with continuous lighting.

Colorful fruit
Luke Michael on Unsplash

It's difficult to imagine how Luke could have made a better photograph of the fruity subjects in the image above. It's no surprise that it has been viewed many millions of times on Unsplash.

The color palette of a photograph of citrus fruit
Sandy Wood

Extracting the color palette from a food photograph

Few have an innate ability to create stylish arrangements and harmonize color. The rest of us need some tools to get it right. We used TinEye to extract the color palette. The idea is to work backward to find the color palette of an existing image. We can see in the result shown above that there is an obvious connection between the colors.

Color Wheel

Working forwards, we now know what a successful palette looks like. What's needed is a tool that can generate a harmonious palette for the subjects we want to photograph.

Automatically create a food photography palette

Such a tool is Canva's Color Wheel. Entering the dominant color (#9e4f5f) from Luke's fruit photograph generates an analogous palette. We see that it is not very different from the original, confirming that the colors are harmonious.

The most practical way to use this tool is to enter your subject's dominant color and then adjust the wheel points and color rule settings to generate a palette. It's an approach that takes the guesswork out of harmonizing color while still allowing a huge range of possibilities.

Pancakes and oranges
Joseph Gonzalez on Unsplash

The benefit of being both a chef and a photographer is that you can take full credit for the photograph, including the copyright! If you are working with a chef, they need to know that style comes before taste in food photography.

Aim to introduce unique elements to your food styling.

Making good food takes skill. Shooting good food takes research, planning, timing, and skill.

Style is much more difficult to define. Orson Welles said, "Create your own visual style... let it be unique for yourself and yet identifiable for others". Aim to introduce unique elements to your food styling, but remain aware of what your market audience expects to see.

Styling hacks are techniques that help your photographs stand out. They are the dark secrets of food photography. Fortunately, few secrets escape Google. Check out the resources at the end of this guide too.

A woman holding a plate of sushi
Louis Hansel on Unsplash

Here's another great photograph by Louis Hansel. It makes you feel that you are about to be served a wonderful plate of sushi in a genuine, no-frills restaurant. Not the sort of place where diners reject food because the plate is chipped.

How to work backward to see how photographs were shot

Basic image data gives us some clues about how the image was shot. The camera is a popular entry-level DSLR from Canon, probably fitted with the 18-55mm kit lens. It has an APS-C size sensor that can capture 5148 x 3456 pixels. We can tell that the image has been cropped after it was shot because it is smaller.

Camera settings

The 50mm focal length used gives an angle of view of around 30 degrees, which indicates that the subject was some distance from the camera.

The main strength of this photograph lies in the use of depth of field (DOF). This refers to the point in the image where the subject is in crisp focus and the extent (or field) of that focus.

If this shot were completely in sharp focus, then the unwanted detail would detract from the subject.

Light your subject and take many photographs using a wide combination of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings.

DOF is controlled by the aperture chosen and the focal length of the lens. The wider the aperture, the more light comes into the camera and the smaller the area of sharp focus.

In this shot the aperture was set at f/1.8, which is probably the maximum for the lens. This created a concise depth of field and allowed the maximum available light into the camera.

The shutter opened for 1/400 second, which is fast enough to avoid any blurring image caused by the subject or the camera moving.

The ISO was set to 800, a high level of sensitivity without losing too much image quality.

In short, everything worked as it should produce the desired result. Take another look at the image, and you'll see that the area of sharp focus is well chosen.

If all of this makes your brain hurt, then the shortcut is to read your camera manual and learn by trial and error. Light your subject and take many photographs using a wide combination of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings.

View the images on your computer using a photo editing package that can show you the exposure data. Choose the best images and start with those settings next time. Photographers call this bracketing. It's considered as good insurance against ending up without a usable shot. Many cameras can do this automatically, particularly those with HDR capability.

An iPhone showing the camera screen in front of berries and coffee
Nika Benedictova on Unsplash

You can shoot fantastic photographs with a smartphone, but can you reach the standard of a professional camera kit when shooting food? Let's consider a few factors.

Optics :(

In Nika's photograph above, you'll see that the iPhone's view of the subject is a distorted wide-angle lens image. Moving the phone further away from the subject can reduce the effect, at the cost of losing image quality. More recent models contain multiple lenses within lens bumps, offering more options. Even with these innovations, the optics are still much less capable than a budget DSLR.

Image Processing :)

Smartphone designers have sought to overcome the limitations of small lenses and small sensors. The need to accurately control DOF, explained in Step 7, is partially solved through software depth control. The iPhone's image processing capabilities can produce very good results in challenging conditions, such as low light and fast-moving subjects.

Ease of use :)

Nothing matches the convenience of a smartphone camera. If you plan to photograph food out of the studio, the portability and speed of use can make the difference between a great shot and no shot. And they do have a built-in HDR function, which can help make up for some shortfalls.

The definitive answer to this question should be found by Googling shots of food taken with smartphone cameras. Unfortunately, many websites use DSLR images to illustrate their guides for using smartphone cameras. One notable exception is iPhone Photography School.

When you've done your research, let us know what you think in the comments below!

Two photographs of breakfast, one with more light.
Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash

In this short guide, we don't have the room to explain everything. There is more to know, but don't let this fact stop you from getting started. There are lots of tools and resources available online to help you develop your food photography skills. Here is our shortlist... have fun!

Post Production

It's not cheating to make post-camera changes to your images. Which of the two breakfasts in the image above looks more appealing? We think the original image (on the left) is rather too chilly. Using Gimp, the free, open-source image editing tool, we created a virtual light source in the same position as the original light source. The effect is subtle. It doesn't change the entire image, but it does make it look like a sunnier day outside.

Color

Styling

  • A dozen styling tips from Gusto
  • Inspiration from British food stylist Jennifer Joyce
  • The Tools Every Food Stylist Should Have from Rishon

Lighting

  • How to do lighting in Restaurants from Will Engelmann
  • Emart's starter lighting kit at Amazon
  • Neewer multi-disc reflector kit at Amazon

Shooting