5 Tips to Seriously Improve Your Food Photography Techniques

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5 Tips to Seriously Improve Your Food Photography Techniques

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11 Tip05 Neutral BG

Food photography is arguably one of the most challenging types of photography out there. Like painting, you start with a blank canvas and build. Layer upon layer, you construct the photo until you reach the perfect balance of reality and art.

Everything in the photo is a decision. Every piece is perfectly placed by the photographer.

Starting out is frustrating, I know. You’re the chef, stylist, and the photographer. Once you reach technical proficiency with the camera, what’s next? I have been, and in a lot of ways still am, in that position. So, how do you improve your food photography beyond the basics? You work on the story.

Whether it is an after-party from the perfect cocktail, or the homemade roasted chicken recipe on the farm, like all photography, you’re telling stories.

Some shoots are more complicated stories than others, and it may sound like a lot of work, but it’s really not. Here are five quick tips you can use to seriously improve your food photography and tell better stories.

#1 – CHOOSE YOUR ANGLE

There are really only a few camera angles in food photography that you see again and again, but you need to make the one you choose, a conscious decision. Where you place the camera will affect the type of story you’re trying to tell.

Think of the food beforehand. Its size, shape, height and what is unique about it. Then place the camera where you think best highlights these qualities. Some dishes look great when you shoot from right in front of the food, and others are best suited when the you are looking down from directly above the table. Take a look at the cupcakes below; their spiralled and delicate toppings really stand out when shot from in front, yet the viewer doesn’t even see the size or shape when photographed from above.

01 Tip01 45 vs 90 Cupcakes

On the other hand, it’s difficult to see all the ingredients and beautiful shape of these salmon tacos when shot from the front, so the shot from above was definitely the way to tell this story.

02 Tip01 45 vs 90 Tacos

#2 – SURROUND YOUR HERO

When shooting from the front of the food try to keep a great foreground and background to play with. Use these empty spaces to tell more of a story. Surround your main dish with ingredients and props that relate to the food. Ingredients, sauces, oils, and cooking utensils could indicate how the dish was made.

Tins, jars, herbs, glasses, fabrics and linens could speak about the origin of the dish or the season in which it is served. Placing a few of these in the foreground and background will definitely elevate your story and give it depth.

03 Tip02 Props

The props in this image of baklava bring more to the story. The viewer has a sense of place that describes the Arabic origins of this delicious sweet.

#3 – NATURAL IS BEST MODIFIED

Light is king, and acquiring a few tools to help you control it will bring your food photography up to the next level. Poor use of light will ruin your story and immediately turn off your audience. So making sure light doesn’t distract will help out your food photos big time.

04 Tip03 Natural vs Diffused

Direct natural light can give really hard and defined shadows like beneath the lemon cake on the left. Where those shadows are softened in the image to the right, with a little help from a cheap diffusor.

Placing a diffusor between the window and your table is first on the list. When working with direct sunlight, a diffusor (or even a thin white bed sheet) will greatly improve the quality of light. Softening those hard, dark shadows and bright highlights caused by direct sun light.

05 Tip03 White vs BlackCard

Using white and black cards really gives you control over the shadow areas. A white card was used to brighten up that lemon frosting on the left, but if you prefer more contrast than grab a black card and you’ll get an image like the one on the right.

Next up are white and black cards. You can make these yourself using foam core boards, bought at any craft store. Size them to fit your needs, using white cards to bounce light into shadow areas, revealing important details, or black cards to make shadows stronger for more contrast.

06 Tip03 BG Blocked vs Unblocked

Nothing really changes between these two images except for a black card that was used to stop light from hitting the background, making sure the cake was the brightest area of the photograph.

Here is a little secret, when working with natural light. I call it, blocking (sometimes also called “gobos”). Sometimes that pesky natural light will fall on your background or props, causing them to be as bright or even brighter than your subject.

Since the viewer will always look at the brightest spot in your photo first, if it’s not your subject, it can harm your story. You can use your black cards to block light from hitting areas that will compete with your subject. This is also a very important technique for creating darker, low-key styled images.

07 Tip03 Final Image

Here is the final image, with a diffusor softening the window light, a white card to fill in the shadow on the lemon frosting and a black card to block the light on the background.

#4 – OUR OLD FRIENDS LINES AND LAYERS

With all these props and ingredients in the frame, how will we ever get the audience to look at our subject? Well, bring on the trusty techniques of composing with lines and layers. You can use props or ingredients to create lines and layered effects in your images. This is a compositional technique used by photographers to lead their audience’s eyes to the main subject.

You can use various props to create lines. Like this spoon, which forms a nice line, directing the viewer straight to the bowl of baked peaches and ice cream.

08 Tip04 Lines

Since shooting from above always gets you more graphic images, there are plenty of chances to create some great lines here as well. Some could be quite literal like this cutlery leading to the round of Brie – or more abstract, like how the knife and pomegranate seeds create lines, framing our subject.

09 Tip04 LeadingLines vs FramingLines

Composing images with layers is always a winner. This Brie, shot from the front, is set in the middle of various props and two large out of focus areas. This creates a layered effect, sending your eyes straight to the star.

10 Tip04 Layers

#5 – HOLD THE COLOR

11 Tip05 Neutral BG

This is my personal favorite. I love hunting for props, backgrounds and tableware to put in my images. This little tip was also the first big mistake I was making when I was starting out. It’s great to have props that are colorful, but if you’re not careful that colorful prop can easily upstage your food, and grab all the attention.

When placing items into your food images, try selecting neutral tones, something that makes the food really pop against it. Selecting a neutral background like this black metal tray and baking paper, amplifies the bright red strawberries and rhubarb inside these Crostatas, making them really steal the show.

Do you photograph food? Do you have any additional tips to share with us? Please add your comments below.

For more food photography tips, try these articles:

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Skyler Burt is a freelance editorial photographer and educator with a deep love of anything food or travel. He is one half of the educational food photography blog: We eat together and the other half of We explore together In his free time, he is the Head of the Department of Applied Photography at the Higher College of Technology Muscat, where he gladly divulges all his photographic secrets to his eager students.

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Absolutely stunning imagery & a well written article.

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    absolutely very useful piece of info.. thanks very much

  • Skyler

    Thank you I’m glad you liked it

  • Skyler

    Thank you Sarah!

  • Dan_H

    Excellent article. Great tips and lovely images. Keep it up!

  • Skyler

    Thanks Dan!

  • great article!!

  • Bryan Kraak

    Love this article!! My wife has a small restaurant and I’ve been learning how to take pictures of her food for the website. Reading article like this really improves my ability to take better pictures. Thanks and keep up the great work.

  • Skyler

    Thanks Bryan, I really hope the article helps. Learning how to control natural light is key for small restaurant type shoots. Use a large window with a diffusor and you’ll be set to make some good shots. Cheers and good luck!

  • BettyD

    Wow Skyler! This is an amazingly helpful article. Your food photography is wonderful. I love how you staged the different lighting conditions to show the differences! Thank you.

  • ina juta

    Great work …..keep it up . Thank you .

  • Kathy Baena

    Thank you! It definitely helps!

  • Kimber

    I really needed this, thank you! For a beginner the only plus could be to see a photo of how you hold the white or black cards. Thanks for the beautiful photographs and wonderful advice!

  • Thank you very much! It has been a great help.

  • Michael Owens

    Thank you, always had problems shooting food at home, and these ideas are superb. Thank you!

  • Cosine99

    What I don’t understand is why anyone would want to take pictures of food.

  • Skyler

    Hi Betty, I’m glad you liked it, working with natural light can be a little intimidating at first, but once you get it, boy how your photos improve.

  • Skyler

    I love shooting at home, keeps me close to the kitchen

  • Skyler

    Hi Kimber, I’m glad you liked the article. Holding the black or white cards can be a balancing act, if you don’t clamp them to stands. I like to cut foam core boards into “V” shapes and the then can stand on their own. Similarly you can rest them up against a box, or another lens or whatever you got close by. If you set your camera on the timer (which you should do to remove shake) you can simply hold the cards in your hands.

  • Skyler

    Well for the most part it’s the only subject a photographer can eat after photographing it… 😉

  • Adri

    Very helpful post and amazing images. Thank you!

  • parth

    Just love the tips
    Thx for this !!

  • restaurants need photos of their food, anyone that sells food – so there is a need for food photography.

  • You have me at “lemon frosting” Skyler! LOL

  • Skyler

    Thanks, it was a good lemon frosting, too.

  • Really fantastic article, but I do find myself with the same question as Kimber. I don’t think the question is literally how you hold the cards, but to zoom out to show us your set-up–where the cards are placed in relation to the food and props. I have a fairly good understanding of using white cards to bounce light into darker areas, but I’m much less clear on using the black cards.

    Aside from that one big question, I appreciate the advice and can use all that I can get as I work to improve my storytelling through photographs. Thank you!

  • Skyler

    Hi onlinepastrychef, got what you mean, I don’t exactly have a setup shot of my natural window light studio, but here is my home studio where I shot some of the shots you see in the article. (funny I still had it setup). You can see here that I’m using the black card to block the light from hitting my white walls and bouncing back onto my table. Without the black card any shot taken here would be flat or shadowless.(I will use this until I paint my walls grey) But black cards can be used just like white cards only with the opposite effect of making the shadows stronger. And as I said above in the article, they can also be used as a gobo to block the light source from hitting your background allowing your dish to stand out. Hope this helps.

  • Skyler

    The set up

  • It helps a lot! Thanks so much for taking the time, Skyler. Much appreciated!

  • Tony C

    Great article and photos!

  • Santosh

    Hi Skyler, Thanks a lot for these pointers. These have been really helpful, as I am just starting out with food photography.

    Could you please take a look at these photos and comment on them in terms of what may be lacking or what improvements can be made.

    https://www.dropbox.com/sh/93viys4lmi4ludx/AACJmZcXr7KYR_jD4krBZOnaa

    I will be soon doing a proper photo shoot for this Gujrati (an Indian variant) snack house. I am planning to use 1K tungsten softbox’s , two of them may be and 1 hard source like a baby (1K- Tungsten) to light up the food (I am not well versed with photography strobe lights, I work in the cinematography dept in films). Of course I will use white and black boards as and when needed! Do let me know if you have any comments on this.

    Also, can you enlighten me on any efficient way to share the photos with the client on location, I am planing to connect my Canon 6D camera to my Laptop (Windows 7, 64 bit) and use the EOS utility to download the pics. Is there a way to transfer images wireless? I am aware of eye-if SD cards, but they are not within my budget. Can you suggest me a more efficient way to go about it?

    Thanks and Regards,
    Santosh

  • aatz

    I can’t photograph live things because of my religion, but love of photography is still there. So I love food and Nature photography.

  • Helen Curtis

    I love food photography; I’ve not tried much of it, but give me a recipe mag and I’ll spend more time looking at the pictures than making the recipes! Although if the pics are great, then I am inspired to try the recipes; it’s all about engaging the senses! Hmm, think I might go make me some tarts and get my camera out! 🙂

  • wri7913

    Santosh,

    I like your images that you linked. I think you really need to work on your lighting. It is the first thing I notice about your images. If not for the use of your depth of field, the images would be really flat. Adding light in some areas and taking away in others would really pop those images more with another layer of interest and movement.

    As Skylar points out in his article, you really want to use these things to tell the story. I come from a graphic design background before I got into photography. Graphic Design is all about shapes, lines and movement and you use similiar tools in Photography. Light, Depth of Field, Shapes etc all help to create these layers and sense of movement in the images.

    Even if you have already moved on with these images, going back and doing some over with more pop would give you some great portfolio images.

  • wri7913

    Restaurants, lifestyle magazines, editorial magazines and more all pay for images to use on their covers or inside articles. Its good money for Stock Photographers to do food.

  • Srinandan Karthikeyan

    Thank you for this article Skyler. Have been following DPS, and possibly this might be one of the only one on food photography. Loved it. Thank you for the white card and black card touch.

  • Sara

    May I ask what kind of lens you are using?

  • tommy5677

    What?

  • tommy5677

    Like any specialty, it’s not that easy to break into. It requires education and knowing the right people.

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