This holiday season your Instagram feed is going to be filled with photos of people’s food. Many of those photos can look terrible – dark, blurry, and discolored. In this tutorial, I’m going to show you how to take great food photos this holiday season. The principles are simple and apply to the food photos you take all year long.
The photo on the left is from a few years ago. I attempted to take a stunning food photo to post online, but the pop-up flash on my camera spoiled things. I knew nothing about light back then! The photo on the right is a combination of soft window light and the warm ambient light of the tree in the background.
You may have no control over how the food gets presented. Perhaps it gets placed in front of you, and you want to snap a quick picture. However, if you do have control over how the food gets presented, then you should give some thought to it.
Consider things like what color dishes or drink wear do you have available? You could use something neutral in tone, colors that represent the season, or something that accents the food.
The white plate allows the cookies to stand out from the wood table with similar tones, while the red mug hints at the holiday season.
This scene is more colorful, mixing the traditional red and green colors of the holiday. This time the table is white to make the colors pop.
Light can make or break your food photos. The direction of the light (overhead, front, back, side) and the quality of light (soft or harsh) dramatically changes how your photo looks.
This photo was taken with nothing but an overhead light. You can see by the crisp shadow that the light is very harsh. It’s good enough and is certainly better than dark and blurry, but I prefer a big soft window light.
The pop-up flash on my camera was used for this photo. Again, better than nothing. But certainly not as nice as the window light.
For the following photos, I used my daughter’s play food! You can practice with anything you’ve got. I wanted something with even more texture to illustrate the effect of side and backlight.
A large window lights the photos below. The light skims across the cupcake from the side or behind, bringing out texture through highlights and shadows.
The cookies are placed on the crate, with the window behind or to the side.
This cupcake is lit by a large window producing soft light. The window is to the right. Notice that the right side of the cupcake is brighter? The light coming from the side helps to bring out some texture and make the two-dimensional photo pop more.
This cupcake is backlit by the same window. Backlight helps bring out texture too but gives the photo a moodier look.
So you’ve found the perfect colored dishes and you’ve got your light source. Now consider the best angle from which to photograph your food. Generally, I recommend a higher angle, maybe even a bird’s eye view.
A bird’s eye view is great for food photography, especially if the food is in a deep dish. It allows you to look down from above.
This is a high angle, though not as high as the bird’s eye view. You are able to see what is on the plate. This photo is less about the food and more about the mood of the scene. I remember being a kid waiting for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner while the grown-ups bustled around. Everything is so dramatic with plumes of steam rising from the dishes! Steam should be photographed with backlight to help it stand out.
This face to face angle brings you into direct confrontation with the pile of cookies. They don’t stand a chance!
Finally, consider what’s in the background. Your background should be clean and simple or a little bit scenic.
I snapped a quick photo, only to realize afterward that the background is a mess. I never seem to pay enough attention to the background.
I grabbed a clipboard off the table and used it as a backdrop to block out the mess. It’s not fancy, but it will do for a quick snapshot.
This background is intentionally scenic, showing that it’s Christmas time. Bring together color, light, angle, and background to make your food photos look great!