In this article, I share my simple, step-by-step process for editing food photography in Lightroom.
I’ve been editing food for years, and my workflow includes plenty of unique techniques I’ve gained from hours behind the computer. I also demonstrate instructions via a hands-on example, so you can see the precise effects of each editing step as you go along.
Note that the goal of food photography editing is to keep the food looking as fresh and appetizing as possible. And although there is always room for style and artistry, the more real your subjects look, the better.
Also, while I do use Lightroom, you can follow the same workflow in pretty much any other program, be it Capture One, ON1 Photo RAW, or Luminar AI/Neo.
I’ll be editing this image of apple pie; it comes straight out of camera, hence the lack of contrast and pizazz:
Let’s dive right in, starting with the first step:
Step 1: Crop and straighten your food photo
Before you start making exposure and color adjustments to your food photo, do any necessary cropping or straightening.
(Pro tip: Shoot a bit wide so you can tweak your composition in post-production!)
First, make sure that your horizon line is straight. Simply click on the Crop tool icon (or tap R on your keyboard):
The crop gridlines will let you evaluate the horizon line. To subtly rotate the shot, drag the edge of the crop overlay until your image is perfectly straight.
Then check your overall composition. Are there any unnecessary spaces? Are there any croppable distractions? Do you need to emphasize the subject? Use the Crop tool to get the perfect result.
For my apple pie photo, I brought the crop in slightly on the left-hand side to cut off a little bit more of the pie:
Step 2: Enable lens corrections
Every lens produces some sort of consistent distortion, vignette, or aberration. Lightroom’s Lens Corrections panel is designed to automatically counteract these issues:
Generally, Lightroom recognizes your lens make and model, but you can always manually select the right profile if necessary. Then check the Remove Chromatic Aberration box, as well as the Enable Profile Corrections box; that way, Lightroom does its best to deal with optical problems.
Note that, if you don’t like the results, you can always uncheck either box – or you can manually adjust the distortion or vignetting correction via the sliders.
Step 3: Select the right white balance
When photographing food, it’s important to accurately display your subject – so whenever possible, I recommend you set your white balance in camera, or you capture a frame with a gray card placed in the scene. That way, you can effectively neutralize any unwanted color casts caused by your lighting setup.
If you’ve done in-camera white balancing, you can generally skip this step, but if you used a gray card, simply grab the Eyedropper tool:
Then click on the gray card in the scene. Lightroom will instantly white balance your shot and you’ll have a perfect base for additional color edits.
If you haven’t white balanced in camera or used a gray card, you can still apply white balancing in Lightroom. The process works the same as above, except after grabbing the Eyedropper tooll, you’ll need to click on an area in the image that appears neutral (i.e., gray or white):
Lightroom will adjust the color temperature of the image, and while the result won’t be as precise as a proper gray-card white balance, I’m generally pretty pleased. And if you’re not satisfied, you can always tweak the Temp and Tint sliders until you get an effect you like.
Also, something to bear in mind: White balance can be used creatively to evoke different emotions. An imperfect white balance might be better than a perfect white balance, depending on the look you’re after. I tend to favor a cooler temperature in my food photography because cool colors give a crisp and fresh feeling to the image, while other photographers prefer a warmer, airier look.
Of course, it’s important to keep the food looking realistic, so you don’t want the food to turn blue. Subtle adjustments are key (and I like to edit my surfaces and props on the cool side while working separately with the food).
Here is my image after white balancing:
Step 4: Adjust exposure and contrast
Now it’s time to adjust the tones of your image. Find the Exposure slider, which affects the brightness of your entire shot:
Then push the slider to either side, paying careful attention to your image. Ask yourself: What exposure adjustments offers the most tonal range? How can I maintain as much detail as possible in the shot? (Of course, don’t forget about any artistic goals; if you want to create a dark, moody shot, I’d recommend dropping the exposure, while a bright, airy shot generally requires the reverse.)
Next, find the more precise tonal sliders: the Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks. Push each slider up and down while observing your image. This type of editing is very subjective, but for my apple pie image, the highlights and shadows were too bright for the look I wanted. I brought the Highlights, Shadows, and Blacks sliders down – and then, to create a nice balance, I boosted the Whites. (Note that my style tends to be dark and moody but with bright food, so the Whites adjustment gave the food that extra bit of pop.)
Finally, boost the contrast with the Contrast slider (or make your contrast adjustments using the Tone Curve panel, as I explain in a moment). RAW photos are inherently flat, so contrast is almost always necessary!
Step 5: Adjust the Clarity, Vibrance, and Saturation
When editing food photos in Lightroom, Clarity is the most important slider.
Clarity adds contrast to the midtones, which looks amazing – though overdoing the clarity can make food look dry and unappetizing, so don’t crank the slider up too high. For my photo, I set the Clarity slider at +42:
Vibrance is also important; it lets you subtly boost the colors without creating a garish effect. I’d recommend boosting the Vibrance slightly, especially if you want your colors to pop. Feel free to play around with the Saturation slider, too, though it’s easy to quickly overdo the saturation and make your image look ugly.
Personally, if I use the Saturation slider at all, I only nudge it up a tad (to around +5 or +6). For my apple pie image, I actually reduced the saturation to deemphasize the blues:
Step 5: Head to the tone curve
The tone curve is often challenging for new users, but it’s one of the most powerful tools that Lightroom has to offer. While I don’t want to go too deep into its capabilities, let’s look at the basics:
The tone curve maps out where the tones in your images lie. The horizontal axis starts with image shadows on the left-hand side, reaches the midtones in the middle, and ends with the highlights on the right-hand side.
By clicking and dragging different points on the curve, you adjust the corresponding tones in your photo. For instance, if you select the bottom left-hand portion of the curve and lift it up, you’ll brighten the darkest tones of the image. And if you select the top right-hand portion of the curve and drag it down, you’ll darken the lightest tones of the image.
Now, I recommend you start by assessing the midtones in your image. Are they bright already? If not, click on the middle of the tone curve and bring the point up. If the midtones are already bright or too bright, bring the curve down slightly.
Do the same with the highlights and shadows. Note that tone curve editing is very subjective, but photographers often do create curves that look like a soft S, which brightens up the highlights and darkens the shadows for a bit of extra contrast:
And here’s my image with the above tone curve adjustments:
Step 6: Do some color adjustments with the HSL panel
HSL stands for Hue, Saturation, and Luminance – and this is where you balance colors. Note that color adjustments are even more subjective than tonal adjustments, as color gives the photograph a sense of mood.
The Hue section is where you can target individual colors for subtle shifts. For example, I find that greens almost always look off, so I slide the Green slider slightly more toward the left or right to get them looking realistic. (I’d really recommend you just play around with these sliders; every image is differeent, and until you have a clear editing style, there are no set changes you should make.)
In my apple pie shot, I thought that the blues looked a bit too magenta, so I slid the Blue slider to the left:
The Saturation section lets you can saturate or desaturate individual colors. So if you find the blues are a bit too blue or the yellows are a bit too yellow, you can drop their respective Saturation sliders.
Finally, Luminance targets the brightness of specific colors. I often work with these sliders before I deal with the Saturation sliders, and again, experimentation is key!
Here is my image after applying HSL adjustments. The blues are more green, they’re a tad lighter, and they’re subtly desaturated:
Step 7: Reduce any noise
Noise is unwanted speckles of color and light that can appear throughout an image. And while it’s not often a problem when shooting well-exposed files at low ISOs, if you work with underexposed files or at high ISOs, then noise can become an issue.
Fortunately, Lightroom offers a Noise Reduction section that allows you to quickly improve image quality:
Simply increase the Luminance and Color sliders – though be sure to watch your image carefully (it can help to zoom in to 100%). If you push the sliders too high, you’ll create a plastic effect, which is not the goal!
I shot my pie image with a low ISO, so very little noise reduction was required (I set the Luminance value to 20).
Step 8: Add Post-Crop Vignetting and Dehaze
For darker, moodier food photos, Post-Crop Vignetting is a must, as it darkens the corners of the frame (plus it pushes the viewer’s eye toward your subject).
So find the Post-Crop Vignetting section of the Effects panel, then move the Amount slider to the left:
Note that the Midpoint slider controls how far the dark edges encroach on the center of your photo, while the Feather slider controls how soft or hard the vignette appears. For food shots, a softer vignette is the way to go, so I dropped the Amount slider and cranked up the Feather slider for this result:
Step 9: Do some sharpening
Sharpening should always be your last editing step.
Note that sharpening adds contrast between pixels and along edges for a more refined look – but it won’t take a blurry image and make it look sharp. For a sharp image, you’ll need to use proper shooting technique (such as a fast shutter speed and/or a tripod).
Lightroom has a dedicated Sharpening section, which lets you apply sharpening and fine tune the effect:
Now, in food photography, you don’t need to sharpen the props and the background. Instead, you should only sharpen the food (the focus is on the food, so that’s what you should emphasize!).
So start by boosting the Sharpening amount. Then, to target just the food, simply increase the Masking slider in the Sharpening section:
And to see exactly what you’re targeting, hold down the Alt/Opt key while boosting the slider; you’ll get a black and white overlay, like this:
The farther you push the Masking slider, the more targeted the sharpening adjust will become. And once you’ve added Masking, go back to the Sharpening Amount slider and make any necessary tweaks.
Editing food photos in Lightroom: final words
Here is the before and after of my food image:
As you can see, the differences are relatively subtle, but the shot is more refined and the colors are better balanced compared to the original.
At the end of the day, the best advice I can give is this: strive to make your subject look natural. While editing, ask yourself this question, “Looking at this image, do I want to eat that food?”
If the answer is “Yes!” then you’ve done a good job.
Now over to you:
Which of these editing steps will you implement in your own workflow? Do you have any other food photography editing tips or tricks? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES
- How to Edit Food Photography Images Using Lightroom