Getting Started in Food Photography - Digital Photography School

Getting Started in Food Photography

food-photography.jpgSteve Buchanan is a commercial photographer in Maryland and a contributor on Photocrati. His work can be seen at www.buchanan-studios.com

Food photography is one of those subsets of general photography that makes people stand up and take notice. Tell someone at a cocktail party you’re a food photographer and the response you’re likely to get is “wow!” The next question after that is generally, “How do you get into food photography.” I was lucky enough to have a formal education in commercial photography and then apprentice with some wonderful photographers. But don’t rely on others to teach you what you want to know. There is no substitute for doing.

It’s important to understand that all specialties of photography require a particular skill set and attitude that are individual to that specialty. If you’re a move fast, shoot from the hip, f/8 and be there kind of photographer, food’s probably not going to appeal to you. If you’re methodical, studious and like to study a scene and tweak it for hours at a time, you’ve got the right raw materials.

1. Understand how food works.

It helps to be a foodie. First, it just makes life easier to be around things that you like all the time. Also, it’s important to be able to converse with clients and others in the business about food. I’m not a chef by any stretch but I like to cook, I certainly like to eat, and I enjoy learning about new foods. It might be important to know the difference between ice cream, sorbet and gelato one day. Remember that to illustrate the essence of a food you must first know what makes it special.

2. Understand how light and composition work.

This of course applies to all photography, but more so in still life/food work. You don’t need a lot of expensive equipment to light food well (although certain types of shots, like splash and pour shots, do call for specialized gear.) But you need to know how to use the tools you have available. For most beginners, good window light, a sturdy tripod and some reflector cards are sufficient to get the images rolling.

3. Understand that food produced for consumption is not the same as food produced for photography.

You don’t need to be a food stylist, but you do need to understand the processes and methods that go into food styling. One of the best ways to learn this and to understand it better is to carry a camera with you and for one week. Shoot everything you eat just before you eat it. You’ll quickly understand how much work needs to go into manipulating and styling food for photography.

To learn about a recent food shoot and a quick description of our workflow view this video.

4. Understand what creates an emotional response in your audience.

Pay attention to how you and others around you react at a great meal. Find what set’s off their emotional and biological responses and incorporate those triggers into your work. This can be very challenging. When we’re at the table we eat with all of our senses. The aroma and feel of food in your mouth can be just as exciting as the flavor itself. Of course with photography you’ve only got a two dimensional visual representation so we’ve got to work extra hard to make those visual cues stand out. Get close to the food, use all of the visual tricks up your sleeve like selective focus, hard light, chiaroscuro and contrasting colors.

5. Understand what others have done before you and how you react to their work.

Look at the work of other photographers and artists who do the type of work you enjoy. Study their work and find out why you like it. Incorporate those aspects into your work.

Finally, understand that, like all lifelong pursuits, it’s a process. One great thing about food photography is that you can work on it at your own pace. You don’t have to arrange models and locations and wardrobe, just go to the store, buy food and shoot it. Remember Thomas Edison, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” So go shoot something.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

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  • http://foodientravelbug.blogspot.com MeiTeng

    Thanks for sharing these good tips. I love food and eating. And I shoot alot of food too. Recently, I helped a family photograph some food for a home-based food business. A challenge indeed especially for an amateur like me. But in the end, I got some pretty decent shots that were used on their food pricelist.

  • http://www.augusteo.com Victor Augusteo

    once i went to my favourite restaurant in melbourne. because i worked there before, i know the owner very well. apparently that day the invited a photographer to take photos for their new menus and website. I’ll just share a little bit of setting they used that day.

    they were using simple table with while table cloth. with 2 desk lamp on the left and right pointing 45 degree to the food, i think its to eliminate the shadows. he shot it with 5d mkII with 50mm lens. the result were amazing. i was blown away by how simple it was :)

    i hope we can try this sometime in the future.

    regards.

  • http://thephotographerblog.com Mandy

    Ok you’ve got me interested, what a great combination, food and photography my 2 favourite hobbies!

    I didn’t know much about food photography before I read this post, and you’ve made it very interesting. I love the video seeing the whole process it gives a real insight into what’s involved.

    The hardest part for me would be not tasting the food – bad idea it would cause my waistline no end of trouble! Just looking at the shot makes me hungry how do you cope? LOL

  • http://acowboyswife.com Lori aka A Cowboy’s Wife

    I’m not that great yet, but I do find that the 50mm is a great lens to use. I just take them in my kitchen because it’s food that we actually eat but I’ve really improved over the year and have found that lighting is the key!

    A few of my favorite food photos.

  • http://www.ericsbinaryworld.com Eric Mesa

    dangit – I’m hungry now! Great article, though. Very well written and it’s clear to see what the next step would be.

  • Lander

    Hi Steve! Thanks for sharing with us your knoledge! In two days I have to go and take some pics of some dishes, and which lens would you use, the 17-85 (f4) or the 80-200 (f4) to shoot from a further distance? Thanks!

  • http://www.lenshare.com Jeffrey Byrnes

    This post comes just shy of a week after we photographed some cookies for an up and coming bakery. But very insightful post. Thank you.

  • http://mangiodasola.blogspot.com Memoria

    Great tips! As a humble owner of a low-quality digital camera, I agree that it isn’t just the camera that captures a beautiful image. It also depends on the photographer’s eye, the positioning of the subject (e.g., food/dish), and the understanding of what is appealing to yourself and others, etc. Thank you.

  • http://mangiodasola.blogspot.com Memoria

    OH! and image software (e.g., Photoshop or Picasa) helps a lot, too! haha How could I forget that? I depend it on it for my food blog.

  • http://simonfoodfavourites.blogspot.com Simon Food Favourites

    great tips and one of my passions in life at the moment. i can’t wait to eat the food so I just shoot food as it’s served with no extra styling. it can be a challenge to make it look good, especially when it’s very low lighting in a restaurant.
    Simon :-)

  • http://digitalartphotographyfordummies.blogspot.com Matt Bamberg

    Great tips. I like when you can step back from the food, shoot at wide apertures and create a small depth of field on a portion of the food. –Matt Bamberg, Author http://www.amazon.com/Quick-Secrets-Create-Winning-Photographs/dp/1598639021

  • http://annadimitrova.blogspot.com shamans

    10x very much for the tips! They were so useful for my last post and for my future shooting!

  • Jose Miguel Lontoc

    Thanks for the tips on food photography. I am very interested because I am a chef and like taking shots of the food I make. I have recently purchased a canon sx10is and am learning how to use it. I don’t think I’m ready yet for a dslr. Would anybody have more tips on how to maximize the use of it’s features to get better food shots?

  • Tim Grainger

    G’day Steve (and others),

    Thanks for a great article and helpful tips. I’ve become addicted to food photography since helping out a friend who bought a cafe last year – it can be tedious but tremendously rewarding!

    My 50mm lens is by far and away the best investment I’ve made, but a word of warning – while the shallow DOF is great, I do think you can easily overdo it. Of course, your food should be the ‘hero’, but don’t forget the context that it is presented it, which can often make or break the overall image.

    For those not lucky or cashed-up enough for a fast 50, you can also do what I did, and bum along with a fairly basic marco or mid-length telephoto, both which will help in throwing backgrounds out of focus (but remember, not too much!). For those interested, my food pics at:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/29047559@N06/sets/72157607978906035/

    (But go easy – I’m still learning too!)

  • http://www.annietaophotography.com Annie

    Thank you for including the YouTube video. That really helped me see a typical food photography set. I’ve taken a few food shots before for a commercial client who also served food (without knowing in advance that I had to take food shots; it was suppose to be of the facility only), so I had to wing it. I didn’t have great light, so I used a 30mm 1.4 lens, which worked great.

    Thanks for your tips… I liked how the guy had to use tweezers to carefully place the crumbs on the cake! :P

  • http://kuharicazadjecu.blog.hr Mare

    thank you for sharing this with us. althought i photograph for a number of years, i am a beginner to food photography. i love to cook and eat so i opened a blog ‘cooking for kids (small and big)’. after a while i started posting my own photographs…and try to make them better by reading the text like yours :). thank you!

  • Alley-Cat

    Ah this article is just what i’ve been looking for! I work in a cafe and have always wanted to have a go at photographing coffees in particular, but wasnt sure how to go about setting up a background and lighting. this will help a lot, Thanks!

  • http://atlphotographers.com Joshua Camp

    150watt 5600k CFL bulbs in cheap silver work lights are my new best friend since taking on food photography. No melting, no dryness. Also, ask for oil to be on hand for “moistening” the food once it does start to dry.

    See some recent work at Atlanta Photographers Cafe Circa Food Shoot

  • http://danferno.deviantart.com Danferno

    Very interesting post on photocritic about this subject: http://photocritic.org/food-photo-tricks/ .

  • Menk

    Great tips. Thanks for sharing.
    I think I gonna do some more food shooting and eating again.

  • http://blissfullydelicious.wordpress.com/ Yudith

    This is very helpful, I am trying to improve my food pictures for my blog.

  • http://www.jimmyslonina.com JimmySlo

    Well done! I’d still be interested in finding out about breaking into the business side of food photography.

  • http://facebook Bobbie-Roberta

    love shooting various foods and beverage and also presentations of food.

Some older comments

  • Bobbie-Roberta

    August 13, 2010 07:13 am

    love shooting various foods and beverage and also presentations of food.

  • JimmySlo

    August 7, 2010 05:56 pm

    Well done! I'd still be interested in finding out about breaking into the business side of food photography.

  • Yudith

    October 30, 2009 03:45 am

    This is very helpful, I am trying to improve my food pictures for my blog.

  • Menk

    July 11, 2009 03:28 am

    Great tips. Thanks for sharing.
    I think I gonna do some more food shooting and eating again.

  • Danferno

    May 10, 2009 05:07 am

    Very interesting post on photocritic about this subject: http://photocritic.org/food-photo-tricks/ .

  • Joshua Camp

    May 9, 2009 03:29 am

    150watt 5600k CFL bulbs in cheap silver work lights are my new best friend since taking on food photography. No melting, no dryness. Also, ask for oil to be on hand for "moistening" the food once it does start to dry.

    See some recent work at Atlanta Photographers Cafe Circa Food Shoot

  • Alley-Cat

    May 8, 2009 11:50 pm

    Ah this article is just what i've been looking for! I work in a cafe and have always wanted to have a go at photographing coffees in particular, but wasnt sure how to go about setting up a background and lighting. this will help a lot, Thanks!

  • Mare

    May 8, 2009 09:52 pm

    thank you for sharing this with us. althought i photograph for a number of years, i am a beginner to food photography. i love to cook and eat so i opened a blog 'cooking for kids (small and big)'. after a while i started posting my own photographs...and try to make them better by reading the text like yours :). thank you!

  • Annie

    May 8, 2009 12:08 pm

    Thank you for including the YouTube video. That really helped me see a typical food photography set. I've taken a few food shots before for a commercial client who also served food (without knowing in advance that I had to take food shots; it was suppose to be of the facility only), so I had to wing it. I didn't have great light, so I used a 30mm 1.4 lens, which worked great.

    Thanks for your tips... I liked how the guy had to use tweezers to carefully place the crumbs on the cake! :P

  • Tim Grainger

    May 8, 2009 12:03 pm

    G'day Steve (and others),

    Thanks for a great article and helpful tips. I've become addicted to food photography since helping out a friend who bought a cafe last year - it can be tedious but tremendously rewarding!

    My 50mm lens is by far and away the best investment I've made, but a word of warning - while the shallow DOF is great, I do think you can easily overdo it. Of course, your food should be the 'hero', but don't forget the context that it is presented it, which can often make or break the overall image.

    For those not lucky or cashed-up enough for a fast 50, you can also do what I did, and bum along with a fairly basic marco or mid-length telephoto, both which will help in throwing backgrounds out of focus (but remember, not too much!). For those interested, my food pics at:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/29047559@N06/sets/72157607978906035/

    (But go easy - I'm still learning too!)

  • Jose Miguel Lontoc

    May 8, 2009 12:03 pm

    Thanks for the tips on food photography. I am very interested because I am a chef and like taking shots of the food I make. I have recently purchased a canon sx10is and am learning how to use it. I don't think I'm ready yet for a dslr. Would anybody have more tips on how to maximize the use of it's features to get better food shots?

  • shamans

    May 8, 2009 08:36 am

    10x very much for the tips! They were so useful for my last post and for my future shooting!

  • Matt Bamberg

    May 8, 2009 07:15 am

    Great tips. I like when you can step back from the food, shoot at wide apertures and create a small depth of field on a portion of the food. --Matt Bamberg, Author http://www.amazon.com/Quick-Secrets-Create-Winning-Photographs/dp/1598639021

  • Simon Food Favourites

    May 7, 2009 10:46 am

    great tips and one of my passions in life at the moment. i can't wait to eat the food so I just shoot food as it's served with no extra styling. it can be a challenge to make it look good, especially when it's very low lighting in a restaurant.
    Simon :-)

  • Memoria

    May 7, 2009 07:02 am

    OH! and image software (e.g., Photoshop or Picasa) helps a lot, too! haha How could I forget that? I depend it on it for my food blog.

  • Memoria

    May 7, 2009 07:01 am

    Great tips! As a humble owner of a low-quality digital camera, I agree that it isn't just the camera that captures a beautiful image. It also depends on the photographer's eye, the positioning of the subject (e.g., food/dish), and the understanding of what is appealing to yourself and others, etc. Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Byrnes

    May 7, 2009 05:24 am

    This post comes just shy of a week after we photographed some cookies for an up and coming bakery. But very insightful post. Thank you.

  • Lander

    May 7, 2009 01:11 am

    Hi Steve! Thanks for sharing with us your knoledge! In two days I have to go and take some pics of some dishes, and which lens would you use, the 17-85 (f4) or the 80-200 (f4) to shoot from a further distance? Thanks!

  • Eric Mesa

    May 6, 2009 11:47 pm

    dangit - I'm hungry now! Great article, though. Very well written and it's clear to see what the next step would be.

  • Lori aka A Cowboy's Wife

    May 6, 2009 11:18 pm

    I'm not that great yet, but I do find that the 50mm is a great lens to use. I just take them in my kitchen because it's food that we actually eat but I've really improved over the year and have found that lighting is the key!

    A few of my favorite food photos.

  • Mandy

    May 6, 2009 11:18 pm

    Ok you've got me interested, what a great combination, food and photography my 2 favourite hobbies!

    I didn't know much about food photography before I read this post, and you've made it very interesting. I love the video seeing the whole process it gives a real insight into what's involved.

    The hardest part for me would be not tasting the food - bad idea it would cause my waistline no end of trouble! Just looking at the shot makes me hungry how do you cope? LOL

  • Victor Augusteo

    May 6, 2009 11:14 pm

    once i went to my favourite restaurant in melbourne. because i worked there before, i know the owner very well. apparently that day the invited a photographer to take photos for their new menus and website. I'll just share a little bit of setting they used that day.

    they were using simple table with while table cloth. with 2 desk lamp on the left and right pointing 45 degree to the food, i think its to eliminate the shadows. he shot it with 5d mkII with 50mm lens. the result were amazing. i was blown away by how simple it was :)

    i hope we can try this sometime in the future.

    regards.

  • MeiTeng

    May 6, 2009 05:48 pm

    Thanks for sharing these good tips. I love food and eating. And I shoot alot of food too. Recently, I helped a family photograph some food for a home-based food business. A challenge indeed especially for an amateur like me. But in the end, I got some pretty decent shots that were used on their food pricelist.

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