Basic Tips for Starting out in Food Photography

Food photography once considered a niche speciality, has become a crucial aspect of marketing for eateries, food trucks, and grocery stores. High-quality images not only entice potential customers by showcasing the establishment’s offerings in the most delicious way possible but also contribute to the establishment’s brand identity, setting the tone and expectations for the customer experience.

Capturing stunning food photographs doesn’t necessarily require professional photography skills or expensive equipment. With the advances in technology, particularly in smartphone camera capabilities, food photography has become more accessible than ever. Today, anyone with a smartphone can produce appealing and professional images. This democratisation of technology allows small business owners to take control of their visual marketing, enabling them to create compelling images that can compete in the bustling marketplace without significant investment.

Basic tips for food photography

The original 2014 article was updated to reflect newer trends and techniques for 2024.

 

Equipment for Beginners

Embarking on the journey of food photography requires understanding the essential equipment that can make or break the visual aspect of food images.

Camera Options

Smartphones:
Modern smartphones have advanced camera technologies, making them a great starting point for amateur food photographers. With features like adjustable focus, aperture settings, and high-resolution capabilities, smartphones offer a convenient and accessible option for capturing high-quality images. Many smartphones also have built-in editing software, allowing immediate adjustments and enhancements.

Point-and-Shoot Cameras:
These cameras are a step up from smartphones in terms of functionality and quality, providing more control over images without the complexity of professional cameras. They are compact, easy to use, and often include optical zoom and more precise manual controls for exposure and white balance. This makes them ideal for beginners who want to experiment more with their photography without a hefty investment.

DSLRs:
Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras are the choice for serious enthusiasts and professionals. They offer the highest control over every aspect of photography, including interchangeable lenses, extensive manual settings, and superior image quality. For food photography, DSLRs allow for an exquisite depth of field, enabling the focus on the food while artistically blurring the background. However, they require a steeper learning curve and represent a more significant initial investment.

Accessories

Tripods:
A sturdy tripod is invaluable for achieving sharp, clear images, particularly in low-light conditions or when precise composition is required. It stabilises the camera, eliminating the blur that can come from hand-held shooting, and is essential for techniques like long-exposure photography, where stability is key.

Reflectors:
Lighting is critical in food photography, and reflectors are simple tools that help manipulate natural or artificial light to brighten dark shadows, soften harsh lights, and highlight the texture of the food. They come in various sizes and surfaces, including white, silver, and gold, each providing different effects to enhance the food’s appeal.

Basic Food Styling Kits:
These kits typically include tweezers, brushes, and small spatulas, perfect for adjusting minute details in food placement and presentation. Tweaking the position of ingredients or correcting a smear on a plate can make a substantial difference in the final photograph.

 

Preparing Your Food for Photography

Food preparation is as critical as any photographic technique before it meets the camera. This stage is where the culinary arts and photography intersect, focusing on plating techniques and choosing surfaces and backgrounds to enhance the dish’s visual appeal.

Plating Techniques

The art of plating is fundamental in food photography, as it not only involves the aesthetic arrangement of food but also plays a significant role in how the taste of the food is perceived. Chefs and food stylists often employ plating to tell a story or to evoke a specific atmosphere around a dish. The layout, colour contrast, and space around the food can influence a viewer’s appetite and perception. For instance, neatly arranged food with vibrant colours and thoughtful composition is often perceived as more flavourful and of higher quality.

Key aspects of effective plating include:

Balance and Proportion:
Ensure a harmonious balance between the different components on the plate, considering sizes, shapes, and colours.

Focus:
Always highlight the main component of the dish. It should stand out as the star of the plate.

Texture and Contrast:
Use contrasting textures and complementary colours to create visual interest and depth.

Garnishing:
A little garnish can go a long way in adding that final touch that makes a dish look complete and more tempting.

Surfaces and Backgrounds

The choice of surfaces and backgrounds can dramatically affect the outcome of your food photography. These elements should complement the food, not distract from it. Here are some guidelines for selecting suitable plates, cutlery, and backdrops:

Colour and Texture:
Choose colours that contrast with the food to make the dish stand out. For example, a dark chocolate cake will pop against a pale pastel plate. Textured surfaces like wood or slate can add a rustic feel, perfect for hearty, homemade dishes.

Consistency of Style:
The overall style of the plate and background should match the theme of the food. A sleek, modern dessert might look best on clean, white porcelain with minimal background, while a traditional roast might suit a more ornate plate with a warm, textured wooden table.

Reflectivity:
Avoid overly reflective surfaces that might cause unwanted glare in your photos. Matte finishes generally work best as they absorb light, reduce glare and keep the focus on the food.

Props:
While the food is the focus, props like vintage cutlery, antique bowls, or napkins can enhance your story. Be mindful not to overcrowd the scene; each element should have a purpose and add to the dish’s aesthetic.

 

Mastering Lighting

Proper lighting is arguably the most crucial element in food photography. It can highlight textures, enhance colours, and create mood and atmosphere. Understanding the differences between natural and artificial light and manipulating light settings is essential for capturing the best food photographs.

Natural vs. Artificial Light

Natural Light:
Natural light is often preferred in food photography for its ability to render colours accurately and beautifully. It provides a soft, diffused light that enhances the freshness and appeal of food. To make the most of natural light:

  • Shoot during the golden hours—early morning or late afternoon—when the light is softer and warmer.
  • Position your setup near a window where indirect natural light flows in. Direct sunlight can be harsh and create unwanted shadows.
  • If the natural light is too bright, use diffusers (like sheer curtains or a white sheet) to soften the intensity. This helps avoid blown-out highlights and sharp shadows on the food.

Artificial Light:
Artificial light offers the advantage of consistency and control. It is indispensable when natural light is insufficient or too variable.

  • Continuous lights can be easier to work with than flash as you can see the effect on the subject in real-time. LED panels are a popular choice.
  • Softboxes and reflectors mimic natural light, soften shadows, and reduce glare, which is especially important when photographing shiny or reflective foods.

Lighting Setup

Side Lighting:
Side lighting is particularly effective for food photography because it enhances the texture and depth of the food. By lighting the food from the side:

  • It casts shadows that define the edges of ingredients, making textures pop—ideal for emphasising the crispness of vegetables or the gloss on sauces.
  • Positioning a reflector on the opposite side of the light source can fill in shadows, balancing the light across the dish.

Ideal Exposure

To control the exposure and capture the food in its best light, understanding the basic settings of your camera—shutter speed, aperture, and ISO—is vital.

Shutter Speed:
This controls how long the camera’s sensor is exposed to light. A faster shutter speed for food photography will ensure sharp images unless you capture motion (like pouring sauce).

Aperture:
This controls the depth of field or how much of your shot is in focus. A wider aperture (lower f-number) blurs the background, focusing attention on the food. A smaller aperture (higher f-number) keeps more of the scene in focus, which is useful for shots where you want to show all elements clearly, like a table spread.

ISO:
This affects the sensor’s sensitivity to light. Lower ISOs produce the sharpest and least grainy images, ideal for brightly lit or outdoor setups. Increase ISO cautiously in low-light situations to avoid noise.

 

Framing and Composition

Framing and composition are key aspects that give structure and focus to your food photography. Effective use of these elements makes your photos more aesthetically pleasing and helps convey the dish’s story. Here’s how you can use composition rules, depth of field, and various angles to enhance your food images.

Basic Composition Rules

Rule of Thirds:
One of the most fundamental principles in photography, the rule of thirds, involves dividing the image into nine equal segments by two vertical and two horizontal lines. Placing the main subject of your photo along these lines or at their intersections provides a more balanced and naturally engaging scene. For food photography, this could mean positioning the main dish off-centre to allow room for context, like cutlery or ingredients, which adds depth to the story.

Choosing the Right Angle:
The angle from which you shoot can greatly affect the perception and appeal of the dish:

Top-Down View:
This angle is perfect for dishes served in bowls, pizzas, or table spreads. It highlights the shape, colours, and arrangement without distracting depth.

Side View:
It is ideal for showing the height and layers of a dish, like burgers or layered cakes.

45-Degree Angle:
This angle works well for various dishes and effectively shows both the top and side of the food, providing a natural view as if you were sitting at the table.

Depth of Field

Depth of field refers to the extent of the scene in focus, and manipulating it allows you to draw attention to specific parts of your dish. A shallow depth of field (achieved by using a larger aperture or f-stop like f/2.8) blurs the background and focuses sharply on the subject, making it stand out. This technique is instrumental in minimising busy backgrounds and highlighting the textures and details of the food.

Experimenting with Angles

Different dishes benefit from different angles, and experimenting with these can reveal the most delicious aspects of the food:

Overhead Shots:
It is excellent for showcasing surface details and arrangements, such as the organisation of a charcuterie board or the toppings on a pizza.

45-Degree Shots:
These provide a more dynamic perspective, combining side and top views, offering a glimpse into the dish’s experience.

Straight-On Shots:
Ideal for emphasising the height and layers of a dish, these shots are powerful for items like stacked sandwiches, burgers, or a slice of layered cake.

 

Editing Your Photos

After capturing your images, editing is a crucial step that can transform a good photo into a great one. Proper editing enhances the dish’s visual appeal, ensuring that the colours pop and the finer details are accentuated.

Basic Editing Techniques

Sharpness:
Increasing the sharpness of your image can help define the edges of your subject, making each element of the dish more distinct and visually appealing. Be cautious not to over-sharpen, as this can create unnatural outlines and excessive noise, especially in areas of uniform colour.

Contrast:
Adjusting contrast can help make your images pop by deepening the shadows and brightening the highlights. This adds depth and dimension to the food, making it look more inviting. However, it’s important to find a balance to avoid losing detail in the darkest and lightest parts of the picture.

Colour Balance:
Colour accuracy is critical in food photography since you want the food to appear as appetising as possible. Adjusting the colour balance can help correct tones that are too warm or too cool, ensuring the food looks natural and appealing. Sometimes, changing the saturation to enhance the colours gently can make the dish look more delicious without seeming unrealistic.

Editing Software

Free Options:

GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program):
This powerful open-source photo editing software offers many features similar to Photoshop. It’s suitable for detailed editing tasks like colour correction, retouching, and more.

Adobe Photoshop Express:
A simplified version of Photoshop, this free tool provides essential adjustments such as cropping, straightening, rotating, and flipping photos, along with advanced features like blemish removal and dust spotting.

Canva:
While primarily a design tool, Canva offers basic photo editing capabilities, which are ideal for quick tweaks such as brightness, contrast, and saturation adjustments.

Paid Options:

Adobe Lightroom:
Preferred by many professional photographers, Lightroom provides extensive controls over adjustments, batch editing, and preset applications, making it ideal for consistently editing large numbers of images.

Capture One:
Known for its colour accuracy and raw processing capabilities, this software offers powerful editing tools tailored for professional use. It is particularly good for tethered shooting, which is helpful during food photography shoots to make real-time adjustments.

Affinity Photo:
A one-time purchase alternative to Adobe’s subscription model, offering a comprehensive set of editing tools that cater to beginners and professionals.

 

Creative Techniques

While technical skills and traditional rules provide a strong foundation for good food photography, creativity is crucial in setting your images apart. Experimenting with different techniques and elements can bring a unique style to your photos, making them more engaging and memorable.

Photography rules are essential for beginners, but once you understand them, knowing when and how to break them can lead to remarkably creative results. Here are a few ways to experiment:

Focus on the Unusual:
Instead of focusing on the main dish, highlight interesting side elements like a sauce drip or a sprinkle of spices. This can add an unexpected focal point that draws the viewer’s eye.

Play with Shadows:
Conventional wisdom often advises against harsh shadows, but when used creatively, shadows can add mood, contrast, and dramatic effect to your compositions. Experiment with the direction and hardness of light to create striking patterns and depth.

Alter Perspectives:
Instead of the usual angles, try shooting from very low down or high above, beyond the typical overhead or side shots. Capturing images from an uncommon angle can make even the most straightforward dish look intriguing.

Selective Focus:
While a shallow depth of field is typical, focusing on something unexpected, like the texture of a tablecloth or a fork tine with crumbs, while keeping the main dish slightly blurred, can add an artistic touch.

Props and accessories should enhance the story of your food without stealing the show. The key is subtlety and relevance. Here are some tips on selecting and using props effectively:

Choose Complementary Props:
Select props that complement the food in colour and style. For example, rustic dishes might look best with wooden utensils and earthy ceramics, whereas a modern dessert may be suited to sleek, metallic surfaces.

Keep It Simple:
A common mistake is overloading the scene with props. Use just enough to create context and add interest. For instance, a simple linen napkin or a few herbs can imply freshness without overwhelming the dish.

Reflect the Season:
Use props to suggest the season (like autumn leaves around a pumpkin pie) or the cuisine’s cultural background (like chopsticks for an Asian dish). This adds depth to the photo and tells a story about the food’s origin.

Interactive Elements:
Sometimes, showing interaction with the food can be more powerful than a static shot. A hand holding a burger or a spoon scooping into a creamy dessert can bring dynamism and a human element to your photos.

 

Shoot Where the Pros Shoot

As you gain confidence and skill in food photography, it may be time to consider elevating your craft by shooting professionally. Kitchen studios, designed specifically for photography and filming, offer myriad benefits that can significantly enhance the quality and creativity of your work.

Dock

location: London SE18

Dock London is a bespoke kitchen studio housed in a corner of a warehouse with a rustic design tailored for film and photography. It spans 800 sq ft and features:

DOCK SE18, SHOOTFACTORY-LONDON-PHOTOGRAPHIC-STUDIOS

DOCK
LONDON, SE18

  • Three large windows provide abundant natural light, perfect for capturing the golden hour glow.
  • Complete blackout blinds and rustic curtains for diffusing sunlight, offering flexibility in lighting.
  • 3-phase power and various props, kitchen, and dining sets.
  • An expansive production area opposite the kitchen.

The option to shoot in exterior warehouse areas, although this needs prior coordination due to shared space usage.

Method

Location: London SE10

Method Studio is nestled in the heart of London’s Design District and spans 1,500 sq ft. It is purpose-built for photography and film production, equipped with:

METHOD LONDON, SE10 - SHOOTFACTORY - PHOTOGRAPHIC STUDIOS

METHOD
LONDON, SE10

  • A fully integrated bespoke kitchen featuring Oak Veneer Joinery and a Fenix NTM Solid Worktop.
  • A moveable Fluted Oak Island that can be used in various project types.
  • A single-wall infinity cove ideal for fashion portraiture and interviews.

Designed by industry professionals, ensuring functionality and modernity in their amenities.

Taste Studio

Location: London N1

Taste Studio combines the functionality of a full working kitchen with the aesthetics of a location apartment. It offers:

TASTE STUDIO LONDON N1 - SHOOTFACTORY - PHOTOGRAPHIC STUDIOS

TASTE STUDIO
LONDON N1

  • A spacious area of 3,237 sq ft, including a photo studio, kitchen studio, and additional spaces like a mezzanine snug and basement lounge.
  • Features like a wood-burning stove, phase 3 power, and full blackout options.
  • Modern appliances include air conditioning, a large refrigerator, and a gas range with an electric oven.

It is situated in an open-plan Victorian warehouse in East London, which has exposed brick and natural lighting.

Sachet

Location: London N17

Sachet is a 1,300 sq ft kitchen film studio, ideal for small to medium-sized food projects. It features:

SACHET LONDON, N17 - SHOOTFACTORY - PHOTOGRAPHIC STUDIOS

SACHET
LONDON, N17

  • A fully customisable kitchen set and commercial-grade prep facilities.
  • Dedicated shooting and prep kitchens, client areas and hot desk space.

It is designed to support various production needs with its comprehensive facilities.

Shooting in these professional kitchen studios provides a controlled environment. Every aspect of the space is designed with photography and film production in mind, ensuring high-quality outputs and allowing you to experiment creatively under optimal conditions. Whether you’re looking to conduct a small-scale food shoot or a large commercial project, these photography studios offer the resources and setting necessary to produce exceptional work.

 

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