Dessert photography, like most food photography, can be done in many styles – commercial, lifestyle, flat lay, and so on. But one thing all these approaches have in common? They try to make the viewer feel tempted by the featured dessert.
In this article, I share my top tips to improve your dessert images (regardless of your style). I discuss my favorite settings, how to handle dessert lighting, a simple way to make your images more appetizing, and much more.
Ready to become a dessert photoshoot master? Then let’s dive right in, starting with:
1. Choose the right settings
If you want to capture consistently gorgeous dessert photos, then you must take control of your camera settings.
I use Manual mode when doing dessert photoshoots, and I encourage you to do the same. However, if you’re not yet comfortable controlling all your exposure settings independently, you can start with a semi-automatic mode like Aperture Priority. (Over time, you can work up to Manual.)
What about your other settings?
As you probably know, there are three factors that determine the exposure of each image: shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. All three need to be in balance to capture the right amount of light. However, each of them also changes the final look of the image (i.e., shutter speed affects image sharpness, ISO affects image quality, and aperture affects depth of field).
Unless there’s a moving subject, start by choosing the aperture. It’ll influence your depth of field – how much of your image is in focus – which can make a dramatic difference in your photos. (Do keep in mind, however, that the aperture isn’t the only factor affecting depth of field; the focal length and the distance between you and the subject are additional variables.)
Once you’ve determined the aperture based on your depth of field considerations, you should move on to the ISO. I’d encourage you to keep this as low as possible. On most cameras, ISO 100 is ideal, and it’ll give you high-quality images with less noise and a greater dynamic range.
Finally, move on to the shutter speed, which you should select based on exposure considerations. The point here is to use the shutter speed to balance out the overall exposure. I’d also recommend following the reciprocal rule – so if your shutter speed value is lower than your focal length, you’ll want to bring a tripod. (For example, if you’re using a 60mm lens, then you’ll need a tripod if you plan to shoot below 1/60s.) That said, tripods are pretty useful regardless of shutter speed as they offer improved control over the composition and focus.
One caveat: If your dessert photos include motion, then start by selecting the shutter speed, not the aperture, as it’ll determine whether the subject is frozen or blurred. Then choose your aperture, and finally select the ISO to balance out the exposure.
2. Use lighting to your advantage
Some people say you should always do dessert photography with natural light, while others say it’s best with studio light. For me, it’s all about the light you have available and what you’re trying to achieve.
Check out the example displayed below. I dropped some macarons from above, and I used a flash to freeze them as they fell. However, I also used a slow shutter speed – letting in some natural light – because I wanted a touch of motion blur to make the image more dynamic.
In other words, don’t feel the need to only work with natural light or only work with studio light. Both can get you great results, and you can sometimes get the best results by combining the two! Experiment with different types of lighting, and test out different lighting directions, too.
And remember: You don’t need a big setup and expensive equipment to make mouthwatering dessert photography. What’s important is to understand how light works, and to have a few modifiers that can help you adjust the lighting quality and direction as needed.
3. Choose a color palette
Dessert photography can be very colorful (think about the vibrant hues on ice cream and birthday cakes!). However, it can also be quite muted and monotone – when photographing a rustic strudel, for example.
Before you start setting up your dessert scene, think about your color palette. And whether you decide to make things colorful or subtle, the most important thing is that you create a harmonious combination.
I’d recommend making use of a color wheel to establish a color combination from the beginning. You can then use it to help you find the right background and props. For the scene below, I chose to keep things monochromatic, which meant finding props featuring various shades of purple:
But you can also use complementary colors, such as orange and green, to add some eye-catching contrast.
A great free tool here is Adobe Color. You don’t need to have a paid membership or even an Adobe account to use it (unless you want to save your color palettes, in which case you do need a free account, and you’ll need a paid account to share your palettes across Adobe apps). And Adobe Color even lets you extract palettes from photos, plus it offers inspiration from concepts and trends.
Of course, you don’t have to use Adobe Color. Simply do what you can to learn about color theory and use the tools that work best for you!
4. Pay careful attention to the composition
Pretty much every great dessert photo features a great composition, and even if you only have a few elements in your frame, you can make use of compositional guidelines to make your dessert photos more interesting.
I’m not going to spend time delving into different composition rules and how to use them for dessert photography – that could take up an entire article! – but I will offer a few suggestions:
- Consider using the rule of thirds to place your main dessert item
- Use the rule of odds to keep your dessert compositions more dynamic
- Use props as leading lines (to lead the viewer’s eye toward the main subject)
- Experiment with minimalistic compositions for striking results
- Don’t overfill the scene; make sure to include plenty of negative space to balance out the dessert
At the end of the day, whether you need to position a single macaroon or build a complex flat-lay setup, composition is key. So always keep it in mind as you capture each new dessert photo.
One more thing: It’s important to remember that you can always take the composition in several different directions. Don’t feel like you need to find a single applicable guideline for each situation – picking the right composition is all about your style and the message you want to send or the effect you want to create.
5. Include texture whenever you can
This tip is a quick one, but it’s incredibly effective:
Whenever possible, include texture in your dessert photos.
If you know how to cook (or you watch tons of cooking shows like me!), you know how important texture can be. That’s why we add croutons to a soup or chunks of goodies to a creamy dessert.
The crunchiness occupies more senses, and that’s also what texture does in a picture. By including texture, the viewer can imagine how the dessert feels – both in their hands and in their mouth. In other words, textures help the viewer engage with the photo.
Note that adding texture doesn’t have to be complex. A handy tactic is to add a dash of an ingredient or two. Another option is to include textured props.
Look at the example above. Instead of using a fully white background, I chose white paper doilies. I broke some cookies in the background and left the crumbs, and I added a teaspoon full of powdered cocoa (and I sprinkled some around the scene). All these elements add texture while maintaining the dessert’s overall color palette.
6. Adjust your angle
Different angles can create radically different effects, so I encourage you to think constantly about your camera’s position in relation to the dessert.
If you’re struggling to choose the perfect angle, it helps to consider the dessert’s features. How can you showcase the dessert’s best qualities? For example, cookies are quite flat but often have a nice topping, so it makes sense to capture them from directly overhead (flat-lay style) or at a 45-degree angle. But a layered cake? That can really benefit from a side view.
Of course, while you need to showcase your subject, you also need to consider your style. How much of the background do you want to include? How many props will you add?
The most traditional dessert photography angles are flat lay (directly from above), 45 degrees (as the viewer would see it while sitting at a table), and tabletop (from the side of the dessert at table height).
Once you’ve captured a standard shot or two, I do encourage you to experiment with other perspectives. You never know what amazing results you might get!
7. Include a person
Many beginner food photographers only include the dessert – plus a few props – in their compositions. But while you can certainly capture beautiful dessert images using such an approach, if you include a person, you can make the dessert much more relatable.
You don’t need to incorporate an entire person into the composition; just the hands can look good. Their inclusion should make sense and seem natural, though, so I recommend you spend time thinking about the story that you want to tell.
Is the person preparing the dessert? Is the person eating? Are they passing plates to other characters outside the frame? You can communicate all this with the person’s position and gestures, the styling, and even your technical choices.
For instance, you can freeze the action or allow some motion blur by changing your shutter speed. You can include clean hands (for eating) or have them covered in flour (for cooking). For this next image, the hands suggest someone enjoying the bread:
Do you see what I mean? Posing hands (or people) is a long decision-making process, and it often requires some trial and error. You’ll sometimes come up with ideas that don’t actually look good in the final image, and that’s okay. Just keep going, shoot a lot, and you’ll eventually get some great images.
8. Don’t forget to retouch your dessert photos
Pretty much every photo requires a bit of basic editing, such as exposure and color correction. But dessert photography also requires some extra retouching (especially if you’re not working with a food stylist).
For instance, the cookie might have a dent or the ice cream started to melt, in which case you can use Photoshop to get a radically improved result. (In my view, you can pretty much always improve the subject somehow!)
In the “Before” image above, there are many crumbs on the bread edges. And while texture is good (see my fifth tip!), they’re too bright against the darker brown. I should’ve wiped my knife between cuts, but I forgot, which led to a problem. Fortunately, as you can see from the “After” image, I was able to remove the crumbs using Photoshop’s Healing and Clone tools.
Dessert photography: final words
Well, there you have it:
Eight tips to enhance your dessert shots and capture mouthwatering images! I hope you found these tips useful; try them in your next shoot and see what you think!
Which of the tips do you plan to use first? Do you have any additional tips? Share your thoughts in the comments below!