When your objective is to communicate that your subject is tasty and delicious, macro food photography might be just the technique you need. And sometimes, it’s not so much about the appeal to the palate as it is about capturing the interesting colors, textures, and patterns of a food subject. An extreme macro of food might not even clearly identify the subject – instead, it might simply be interesting as an abstract.
Whatever your intent, let’s explore the tools and techniques you can use for gorgeous macro food photos.
To begin: macro or close-up?
In the purest sense of the term, a “macro” photo renders the subject at a 1:1 ratio. That is to say, the actual size of the object is perfectly represented on the camera sensor. With a full-frame camera, that’s about 24mm x 36mm. A U.S. quarter will fill the frame from top to bottom at that size (or if we’re doing food photography, an average-sized grape).
But is that the size we want to represent the food we photograph? If we are shooting tiny food objects like peppercorns, we might want to be in much tighter. If our food subject is a cupcake, we might want to include the whole delicious item, which would not technically be a macro photo.
Does it matter? No. What you intend to communicate is what should dictate how closely you shoot food, what you include and crop out, and whether you are making macro or just close-up photos. For the purpose of this article, I may use the term “macro,” but I’m really referring to any close-up rendition of a food subject.
1. Get the right equipment
You can do macro food photography with almost any camera, and you can even do an admirable job with many phone cameras. If you want to get more serious, however, you should probably use a decent DSLR or mirrorless camera with interchangeable lens capabilities. A true macro lens, one allowing 1:1 representations, as discussed above, will also prove useful. Remember that most macro lenses will also let you shoot from farther distances if needed.
Want to do macro photography but don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a dedicated macro lens? Combining extension tubes with standard lenses can get you much closer to your subject; you might even try the reverse-lens macro technique.
Any kind of serious macro work requires a tripod. Camera movement is magnified when you are shooting very close to your subject, and so keeping your camera rock-steady is critical to getting sharp photos. Extreme detail is what will make your macro food photography stand out from the rest, and you should do everything in your power to achieve tack-sharp results, even if it means purchasing a solid, sturdy tripod for in-studio use.
Other equipment can be useful for macro photography, especially if you intend to get ultra close. Items such as focusing rails, bellows, and specialized lighting may be things you’ll add to your kit in time, but probably aren’t as necessary for most macro food photography (especially as a beginner).
2. Identify (and style) the “hero” object
Your first task will be to determine the food object you’ll be shooting. That will dictate many things: your lens choice, your lighting needs, your supporting elements, your background, etc. After you decide on the subject, you will want to pick out the very best representative as your “model.”
In the professional food photography world, this is called the hero. While the photographer may set the scene, position the lights, and get everything else ready, they will likely have a “stand-in” for the subject. Meanwhile, a food stylist prepares the “hero” object, much as hair stylists and make-up artists ready a fashion model.
Say you’re doing a shoot for a McDonald’s hamburger. The food stylist will pick just the right bun, condiments, tomato, lettuce, cheese, pickle, and whatever else goes on the burger. They might place each sesame seed on the bun individually with tweezers and brush the burger with oil to give it just the right glisten. They might take a blow torch to the cheese for just the right amount of meltiness. High-end food stylists are artists in their own right. The “hero,” when ready to be placed on the set, might not even be edible – but it’ll sure look good.
You probably don’t have a food stylist to do these kinds of things, but even so, do what you can to pick out the very best subjects for your shot. Your objective is the same as a professional stylist: to make the food look as delicious as possible. This is especially crucial with tight macro food photography. A blemish on an apple, an overripe berry, or a speck of anything that doesn’t belong there will force you to do significant retouching or might make the shot unusable altogether. Pick the best representative for your hero subject and learn some food styling tricks as you go along.
3. Set the scene to complement the “hero” object
A movie set director carefully chooses what props to include in a scene – and you, as a food photographer, will also need to decide what props and background items to add to your photos. With macro and close-up photography, you’ll be shooting tight and your depth of field will likely be limited. Keeping your set simple so that the “hero” food object is the main focus is usually the best option.
Additional objects you decide to include in the scene should enhance the “story” and support whatever it is you’re trying to communicate. Backgrounds can be simple: a plate for the food object, a board, or maybe some colored cloth or paper. Think about how the colors, textures, and patterns of background objects will help enhance your subject.
With any kind of photography, composition is king. How you position elements in the frame so the viewer’s eye moves to the main subject is critical. Therefore, compositional techniques like the rule of thirds, leading lines, symmetry and patterns, natural frames, and choice of aspect ratio are very important. Consider the rule of odds when making a photo with multiple objects.
Camera angle is also very important in food photography. Do you want to shoot from table level, perhaps to emphasize the size of the food, a 45-degree angle as a diner might view their plate, or do what is called a “flat lay,” a shot from directly above? Think about this, and if in doubt, make shots from various angles.
4. Carefully light your macro food subjects
Photographers doing studio portrait photography spend lots of time learning how to light their models. Think of your food subjects as models, too, and learn how to light them to highlight their best qualities. Here are some basics to think about:
- Lighting types. Will you use natural daylight or artificial lights? If you go the artificial route, will you use tungsten, fluorescent, LED, or flash? Remember that each of these lighting types will have different color temperatures and you will need to correctly white balance your shot to keep the food looking natural and appetizing.
- Start with daylight. Often the easiest and best lighting for food photography is natural light. Place your food subject near a window and then fill in shadow areas with reflectors.
- Consider the lighting angle. Do you want to use three-point lighting like you might do in portraiture? Side light? Backlight? Rarely will you want to light directly from the front, as this will usually make your subject look flat and uninteresting. Side light can help bring out the texture of your subject, and for some food subjects, especially food that is translucent, backlighting can be dramatic.
- Use lighting modifiers. You may want to soften the shadows in your shot with softboxes or lighting scrims. This can be useful when your food object is shiny and produces specular highlights. Fill cards can be used to reflect light back onto a subject, lighting “flags” can be placed to block light from select areas of your subject, and devices like snoots can be used to restrict light to very specific parts of your subject.
- Specialized lighting instruments. One real advantage of lighting in macro food photography is that you are dealing with a small area and not much light is usually required. Small-lighting instruments like LED flashlights can often work well. Sometimes, when the camera is in close proximity to the subject, your biggest challenge will be to stop the camera from blocking the light. Many macro photographers favor ring lights, which can help evenly distribute light around a small subject and soften shadows.
5. Use the right setup and settings
Here’s a list of things to consider when setting up your camera for macro food photography:
- Work on a tripod. This bears repeating. Thanks to the limited depth of field and magnified motion when doing macro work, keeping the camera rock-steady via a tripod is mandatory.
- Use Manual mode. Taking full control of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO will help you better control your exposure and depth of field. It is also a useful way to maintain shot-to-shot consistency. Once you determine the proper settings, you can then concentrate on subtle tweaks to your composition while knowing the exposure will remain consistent.
- Turn off image stabilization. Be sure lens and camera image stabilization is off. If you’re working on a tripod, this technology won’t help and might even hurt.
- Use Live View. Most newer cameras have the ability to display a live preview of an image on the LCD screen. This is a good way to shoot, especially if your camera has a flip-out LCD screen; you can visualize your composition, rather than needing to peek through the viewfinder. It will also help minimize the movement you’d create by touching the camera. Another option, if you can set it up, is tethering your camera to a computer. Viewing your composition live on a large monitor or even a laptop screen is a great way to visualize your shot.
- Use a remote release. Eliminating camera movement when you make the shot is important, so if you can trip the shutter without touching the camera, you’re bound to get sharper results. Another option is to use your camera’s two-second timer. The camera will wait two seconds to take the photo, enough time for any vibrations to die down.
- Pay attention to the plane of focus. When making tight macro shots, depth of field is minimal. Try to keep key objects at an equal distance from the camera; that way, everything stays as sharp as possible. Think of the camera sensor as one plane and the objects in the shot as another – then try to keep those planes parallel.
- Use your depth of field preview button. Most cameras have a button that, when pressed, will stop down the lens to its set aperture and will thus display what’ll be in focus when you shoot. This will greatly aid you in determining the perfect aperture for your desired depth of field.
- Learn how to position your focus point. By default, if you simply point and shoot, your camera will typically choose the center focus point. But what if the object you want in sharp focus is not in the center of your composition? (If you are using the rule of thirds, then it won’t be!) Learn how to reposition your focus points so the camera focuses where you want it to.
- Use manual focus. You can disregard the previous point if you turn off autofocus. It wasn’t so long ago that cameras didn’t have autofocus and photographers did just fine without it. Most macro food photography is done with static subjects in a controlled situation where fast focusing isn’t necessary. So take full control and set focus exactly where you want it to be.
- Use your base ISO. The lowest ISO setting on your camera is the one that will produce the least noise in your images. Typically, you will raise the ISO if there’s not enough light to get the aperture/shutter speed settings you’d like. But in macro food photography, you will usually control the light. If there doesn’t seem to be enough, add more. If this isn’t an option, then slow down your shutter and make a longer exposure. With a static subject (and your camera on a tripod), nothing should blur, even if your exposure time is a few seconds. Stick with ISO 100 (or whatever the lowest setting is for your camera) whenever you can.
- Work the triangle. I’m referring to the exposure triangle, a foundational photography concept that is crucial to understand if you are to become a skilled photographer. In macro food photography, of the three triangle settings – aperture, shutter speed, and ISO – you will usually be most concerned with aperture, which controls your depth of field. So start by determining what you’d like your aperture to be. We just said to try to leave your ISO at base level, usually ISO 100. What remains is the shutter speed, and with static subjects, that shouldn’t really matter. Leave your ISO at 100, set your aperture for the desired depth of field, and then adjust your shutter speed to whatever you need for a proper exposure. Simple, right?
6. Experiment with food in motion and special effects
I just said that shutter speed usually won’t matter with a static subject, and that is true. But what if your food subject isn’t static? What if you want to create some drama with a food object in motion?
The photos below might give you ideas of how you can create interesting food photography images with some creative camera and lighting work. Read the captions for insight into how these photos were taken.
7. Don’t forget to edit your macro food photography!
You’re no doubt familiar with photographers who preach the importance of “getting your image right in camera.” I wholeheartedly agree that getting the best exposure you can, composing so you don’t have to crop, working to get perfect white balance, and doing everything you can to produce an image that won’t need editing is a worthy goal.
But it’s a goal that you’ll rarely achieve, especially with macro food photography.
First, your RAW image (and you are shooting in RAW, I hope?) will need at least some processing. More importantly, there are the fine nuances of lighting, white balance, sharpness, and many other things you can control with editing but you simply can’t control with your initial shot.
Second, as careful as you might be, tiny details, like specks of dust, crumbs, blemishes on fruits and vegetables, stray hairs, and all kinds of other things will inevitably show up in your shot. You can remove these things with skilled editing.
Lastly, a good editor can help highlight areas where more attention is needed, darken or blur areas where less attention is needed, give more pop to an image with contrast, clarity, saturation, or sharpness adjustments, and perform all kinds of other enhancements.
An editing session should never be a rescue mission to save a poorly executed shot, but can and should take a good shot to the next level.
Macro food photography tips: final words
Maybe you are mostly a landscape photographer, or you do portraits, sports, action, travel, or some other genre of photography. Even so, learning other skills will help you grow as a photographer. Food subjects are as close as your pantry, garden, or refrigerator, your studio can be the kitchen counter, and your lighting can be what comes in the window.
If you don’t want to spring for a dedicated macro lens, buy some extension tubes or try the reverse lens technique. Macro food photography is a lot of fun, and – bonus! – you can often eat your subject when you’re done.