Each new holiday season comes with plenty of beauty: beautiful decorations, beautiful smiles, beautiful presents, and of course, beautiful food.
But while holiday food photography is tons of fun, it’s easy to end up with dark, blurry, and discolored images – the kind of shots that you won’t want to add to an Instagram or Facebook feed, let alone a website portfolio.
In this article, I share 10 key tips for capturing beautiful food photos this holiday season. I discuss all the essentials, including settings, backgrounds, lighting, and composition; that way, you can photograph all those delicious-looking cakes, pies, cookies, hot chocolates, and lattes in all their glory!
Let’s get started.
1. Carefully arrange your holiday food setup
Sometimes, you won’t have control over the placement of the food (if you’re in a restaurant, say, or you’re a guest at a friend’s home). However, if you’re making the food on your own, or you get an opportunity to adjust the food’s positioning, make sure you spend some time creating a pleasing composition.
After all, nobody wants to see a mess of cookies strewn about a plate. But a carefully ordered spread of cookies with little crumbs sprinkled artfully across the tray? That looks amazing, and the beautiful arrangement will dramatically enhance the resulting photo.
When arranging the food, pay careful attention to the broad shapes, the colors, and the relationship of each food item to its neighbors (and to the frame as a whole). Aim to create balance throughout the scene, and see if you can enhance interest through the use of color contrast. (If you’re doing Christmas food photography, green and red make for a great color combination!) Don’t let things get too messy, but don’t leave things looking static, either; try to create a natural setup that leads the eye around the frame.
It can also be helpful to choose a general color palette but add little color accents. For instance, the splash of red in the next photo breaks up the monotony of the warm whites and browns:
It can also help to remember various food photography composition guidelines. For instance, you can use the rule of odds to enhance the viewer’s sense of dynamism, and you can use the rule of thirds to position the main elements in the frame, as I did for this next shot:
2. Keep it simple
When it comes to holiday food photography, less is often more. I always recommend starting with a single, well-chosen item. Then, if you want to get more complex, the key is to build the scene gradually.
Begin with that one cookie. Then, perhaps introduce a rustic napkin or baking tray to add texture. Next, consider placing a second and third cookie slightly overlapping the first. Each element should be intentional, contributing to the overall narrative of your photograph. Every item in your frame should serve a purpose. If it doesn’t add to the story, it should probably be removed.
As you arrange and rearrange, pay attention to the details. How does the light fall on the crumbs? What shadows do the folds of the napkin create? These small elements can transform a simple photograph into a stunning visual feast. But when in doubt, simplify. Keep your scene uncluttered and focused. After all, a single, well-shot cookie can be far more evocative than a poorly composed image of a table overflowing with treats.
3. Use soft, flattering light
In my experience, light can make or break your food photos. By adjusting the direction of the light (overhead, front, back, or side) and by modifying the quality of the light (hard or soft), you can capture a great shot – or you can create a bland, boring, unflattering image.
So what kind of light is best for holiday food photos? First of all, make sure that you turn off your camera’s pop-up flash. This will only produce harsh shadows and bright highlights, and it won’t do the food any favors.
Instead, seek out soft light – such as light shining through translucent curtains or light coming through a north- or south-facing window. Soft light will help preserve detail and keep the food looking delicious, plus it’ll make it easier to capture well-exposed images.
Note the difference between the hard light (created by a pop-up flash) on the left and the soft light (created by a window) on the right:
As for lighting direction:
Many food photographers like to use side lighting that comes from slightly behind the food items. The side lighting helps sculpt the food and add texture, creating a sense of three-dimensionality.
Take a look at this next shot, which is lit by the large window in the background. The light skims across the cupcake from the side, bringing out depth through highlights and shadows:
I’d encourage you to experiment with variations of backlighting and side lighting. Direct backlight generally isn’t great – it’ll limit detail in your photos – but by adjusting the position of the food relative to the light, you can create different effects. Here, I’ve used soft side light to create a three-dimensional feel (notice how the cupcake is brighter on the right-hand side?).
But this next shot uses soft backlight for a moodier effect. Note that the higher position of the lighting ensured that some detail is still present on the front of the cupcake:
If you’re extremely serious about your holiday food photography (or food photography more generally), then consider purchasing some flashes or studio strobes. You can use these to mimic soft window light, and you won’t need to worry about repositioning the food in relation to the window, nor will you need to wait for good light; instead, you can shoot whenever – and wherever – you like!
4. Think about your angle
Once you’ve determined the right arrangement and lighting for your holiday food setup, you’ll want to think about your position in relation to the food – that is, your angle.
Food photographers use three broad approaches:
- Photographing from directly above
- Photographing from 45 degrees
- Photographing on a level with the food
And while any of these approaches can work, it’s important to consider how each angle will affect your final image. Shooting from directly overhead will highlight patterns and colors on top of the food, but it’ll also flatten the scene. Conversely, shooting on a level with the food will emphasize its height and potentially its depth, but it won’t let the viewer explore the broader patterns created by the food arrangement.
Note the difference between this holiday scene, shot from above:
And this holiday scene, shot from much lower:
Finally, we have a third scene, which was shot on a level with the holiday cookies:
Each angle works well, but the results are very different. The overhead view produced a flat shot, the 45-degree view added lots of depth and context, and the table-level view provided a sense of intimacy.
So before you start snapping away, take some time to think about the food you’re photographing. Ask yourself: What makes these subjects special? What do I want to highlight?
And pick an angle accordingly.
5. Photograph as soon as the food is ready
Timing is everything in food photography, and that goes for holiday food, too! Imagine capturing a steaming hot pie just as it comes out of the oven, its aroma almost wafting through the photo. Sounds good, right?
Waiting until the middle or end of your Christmas dinner to take photos can be a missed opportunity. Food declines rapidly. Ice melts, vegetables wilt, and fruits brown. These transformations, while natural, can rob your dishes of their photogenic qualities. Therefore, it’s crucial to capture them in their prime.
That said, it’s important to balance your photography with the festive atmosphere. Be respectful of those around you. If you’re at a gathering, ensure that your photography doesn’t disrupt the celebration. Sometimes, a quick snapshot taken discreetly can be as effective as a carefully staged shot. It’s all about capturing the essence of the moment without getting in the way of the enjoyment.
6. Choose a complementary background
Many beginner food photographers will spend time on the composition, they’ll choose the lighting, they’ll think carefully about the angle – but they’ll forget about the background.
Yet the background significantly affects the final results. A good background should look clean, it should look simple, and it should (ideally!) complement the subject. For this next photo, I snapped a quick shot without thinking, and the background was a mess:
But then I placed a clipboard behind the food, which dramatically simplified the background:
While I didn’t love the look of the photo above, it does have a nice simplicity to it, don’t you think?
Finally, I created a new setup, with the goal of complementing the cookies while adding a bit of holiday cheer:
While bokeh backgrounds – as featured in the photo above – can look amazing, you don’t have to get that sophisticated. It’s often enough to make sure the background is free of distractions; failing that, you can simply place a solid-colored poster behind the food!
7. Make sure you use the right indoor photography settings
If you’re photographing your holiday food indoors – and I’m guessing you will be! – it’s important to pay careful attention to your camera settings. Indoor scenes tend to have very little light, and if you’re not careful, you’ll end up with blurry and/or underexposed photos.
I’d encourage you to switch your camera mode to Aperture Priority, which will give you control over your aperture and (indirectly) over your shutter speed. (Manual mode is another option, though it can be a bit intimidating for beginners.)
Make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to produce sharp images (1/100s is a good starting point). And if you’re struggling to get a reasonably fast shutter speed while also capturing a well-exposed photo, it can help to boost the ISO. (If you plan to regularly photograph food, a tripod can be a big help, too; it’ll free you from the need to use a fast shutter speed.)
By the way, I’d also encourage you to use a lens with a wide maximum aperture. That way, you can shoot wide open, which will let in more light while also creating beautiful background blur effects!
8. Take some photos of the holiday food as it’s prepared
Photographing food isn’t just about the end product on the table. The preparation process can be equally photogenic! During the holidays, kitchens become centers of activity, filled with the warmth of cooking and the joy of family and friends.
Capturing these moments requires a slightly different approach than more standard holiday food photography. You’ll want to use a reasonably fast shutter speed to freeze the action. This is especially important in dynamic kitchen environments, where hands and utensils are constantly moving. A shutter speed of around 1/125s can be a good starting point, but feel free to adjust based on the lighting and the level of activity.
As you photograph, look for stories. Maybe it’s a grandparent instructing a child on a traditional recipe or grandchildren eagerly helping with simple tasks. These moments are laden with emotion and tradition, making them powerful subjects!
Be mindful of your presence in the kitchen. Move around quietly, and try not to interfere with the cooking process. With a respectful approach and a keen eye for detail, you can capture the essence of holiday cooking, which is as much about the people and the process as it is about the food itself.
9. Take some candid images of people with food
Capturing people in natural, joyous moments around holiday food adds a lively dimension to your photography. After all, it’s not just about the dishes; it’s about the experience and memories being made. Imagine catching your child’s gleeful anticipation as they reach for a Christmas cookie, or the warm smiles exchanged over a family dinner. These candid shots are priceless.
When attempting this kind of candid photography, it’s crucial to keep a low profile. You want to capture the essence of the moment without intruding. A slightly longer lens can be handy here, allowing you to photograph from a distance. And keep your camera settings ready for quick action; a faster shutter speed is essential for freezing quick movements and fleeting expressions.
But remember that respect and comfort are key. Not everyone enjoys being photographed while eating. Always ask for permission if you’re not sure, and be mindful of people’s privacy. With sensitivity and a bit of creativity, candid shots can truly encapsulate the spirit of holiday feasting!
10. Capture some close-ups
There’s a whole world of detail in holiday foods waiting to be explored. Close-up photography lets you showcase these intricate details – the glistening of sugar on a cookie, the delicate patterns on a pie crust, and the vibrant colors of fresh garnishes. Such shots can transform ordinary food items into extraordinary photographic subjects.
You don’t need a specialized macro lens for this. Any lens with a decent close-focusing capability will work. If possible, position your setup near a window for natural light that beautifully highlights these details. But watch out for camera shake and blurriness, especially at high magnifications.
A fast shutter speed can help, but for the ultimate sharpness, consider using a tripod. (Plus, though they may seem cumbersome, tripods encourage you to compose your shots more thoughtfully!)
Focus on the textures and colors, and experiment with different angles. Sometimes, an unusual perspective can reveal something fascinating about your subject. And as I mentioned above, pay attention to the background; a blurred backdrop can make your subject stand out even more.
Holiday food photography: final words
As we wrap up, remember that holiday food photography is about capturing the essence of the season. It’s about the joy, the colors, the textures, and the people. Whether it’s a simple shot of a holiday cookie or a candid moment of laughter at the dinner table, each photograph holds a story.
I encourage you to experiment with these tips and find what works best for you. Photography is a personal journey, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. The holidays offer a perfect opportunity to practice and refine your skills, so take advantage of this festive season.
So have plenty of fun! Enjoy the delicious food! And be sure to share your photos in the comments below.
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- How to Take Great Food Photos this Holiday Season
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES