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Editor’s note: This article was updated in October 2020.
I originally wrote this article in 2009 when I was beginning to take pictures for my wife’s baking blog and various local magazines. Since then, I’ve had a lot of practice, and I’ve honed my food photography techniques.
I’m thrilled to update everyone with what I’ve learned, and I hope that you find the information here helpful when taking pictures of your food.
When you’re taking pictures of food, it’s critical that your subject looks as good as it hopefully tastes. If you don’t have the budget to hire a food stylist, it’s important to know some basic styling techniques that can make food look its best.
Make more food than you think you’ll need, and always photograph the examples that look the best. You cannot make a burnt waffle or soggy asparagus look appetizing.
Props can help you set the mood for your food photos. I have a basement full of plates, platters, chargers, cups, glassware, utensils, napkins, tablecloths, surfaces, and cutting boards at my disposal. With those, I can pull together what I need to set a table (or a portion of a table) for a picnic setting, a fine-dining scene, or something in between.
While you don’t need to have a ton of food photography props, I recommend that you at least have a few place settings and utensils, as well as a nice surface to photograph on.
Plating your dish properly can elevate it from mundane to extraordinary. If you aren’t working with a professional chef or food stylist, I recommend you read articles and watch video tutorials about plating as a starting point.
Here are a few plating tips to improve your food photography:
When taking pictures of food, you have the advantage of a subject that is stationary. This means you have complete control over the camera’s position and angle, and how close or far away the camera is from the scene.
To get the best composition, I recommend you start with a few food photography techniques:
While you don’t need the absolute best equipment to photograph food – I’m using camera equipment that’s a decade old! – you do need to think about how your choice of lighting, exposure, and even camera equipment affect your photo.
Placing your dish with natural light to the side and behind generally yields great results, but it’s also not consistent or reproducible; a passing cloud or thunderstorm can suddenly destroy all of your styling and composition efforts.
If you’re working on taking photos over the span of a few hours and you want them all to look similar, I highly recommend that you use artificial light of some sort. Most food photos I’ve taken indoors are photographed using flashes with diffusion from behind or off to the side of the food. I use reflectors to bounce some light back to the front of the dish, if needed.
If you’re working within a budget, consider getting inexpensive work lights and putting white linens between the lights and your food.
Learn how to use the exposure triangle whether you’re using natural or artificial lighting, and start setting everything on your camera manually. Aim to blur out your background while keeping the foreground nice and sharply focused. And, of course, make sure everything is lit just right.
To start off, I recommend a tripod, a camera body that supports detachable lenses, and a medium zoom lens. I encourage you to learn to shoot and edit RAW photos, as you can adjust far more in post-production with them than you can with JPEG images.
If you’re ready to move on from your basic camera setup, I recommend you buy color calibration equipment and lighting. And when you feel confident that you have a good understanding of all of the gear you have and you feel that your current gear is holding you back, finally commit to a full-frame camera system and professional lenses.
What food photography techniques have worked for you? What techniques have been problematic? Please let me know in the comments!