Within the last couple of months, I’ve gotten more than a handful of emails asking for food photography tips, and about my upcoming workshops. I have to say this is very flattering, especially considering where my photo skills were just a couple of years ago (see heinous examples below). And since I really enjoy teaching this stuff, I thought, why not put together a quick cheat sheet with my top pointers? Although I don’t have a professional photography background, I love talking about this topic since I just overcame these obstacles pretty recently myself, and remember what it was like to learn as a beginner.
Often in my workshops, students come up to me after class to show me their camera albums/Instagram feeds, and below are the most common 6 tips I dole out:
1. Use natural daylight near a window.
The most sure-fire way to screw up a food image is to shoot it in overhead lighting. Whether your light bulbs are cool (blue-toned) or warm (yellow-toned), overhead lighting obliterates food’s natural colors, highlights and shadows (which our eyes are able to take for granted), thus making the subject look one-dimensional and unappetizing. Natural light near a window is optimal because it helps colors appear true to what they are. Furthermore, window light produces side light (meaning the light source is to the side of the subject), which typically creates the most balanced, natural-looking light situation.
When shooting in natural light, be sure to turn off all the other lights in the room! This may be imperceptible to your eyes, but the camera will capture reflections of the other lights and screw up your image’s color balance.
2. Opt for straightforward angles.
Sometimes when beginner food photographers try to get creative, they tilt their cameras/smartphones to get angled photos. This is not a good idea since we almost never see food that way in real life. Thus, using straightforward angles – whether shooting overhead, three-quarter or straight-in – can help the viewer feel like they can be in that scene eating that food.
3. The Rule of Thirds.
This rule can be applied to any type of two-dimensional visual art – like painting or film – not just photography. The Rule of Thirds involves mentally dividing your image with two horizontal and two vertical lines (like tic-tac-toe), then placing your main focal points at the lines’ intersections and along the lines themselves. Placing your subject off-center creates a more balanced composition and helps the viewer’s eye move around the image, instead of only focusing on one area.
Most of the action is taking place in the bottom right, with complementary action along the top and left planes.
4. Use neutral props and surfaces.
Be mindful of what your food is actually served in and on. Shooting food in overly ornate dishes and on bright/decorative surfaces can create a really busy composition and distract from the food itself. It’s always safe to shoot on white or earth-toned plates, and plain unassuming surfaces (like a slab of marble, a wooden board, or a white tablecloth). Just keep in mind that your props and surfaces should enhance the appearance of the food, not distract from it.
And let’s talk about silverware for a second: new store-bought silverware, or the stuff most of us use at home, is smooth and shiny. Although this may be desirable in real life, this type of silverware can quickly ruin a food photograph thanks to its reflective surface that can create harsh, undesirable highlights. Using vintage/thrifted tarnished silverware is best since it is most often not reflective. It’s also usually a little more interesting than whatever you can buy at Bed, Bath & Beyond, so it can be a subtle way to add a little personality to your photos.
5. Make a mess.
Don’t worry about styling the ideal plate – aim for realism, not perfectionism. Too-perfect plates can look fake and unappetizing. Slightly messed up compositions look more real and inviting, so slice in, take a bite, wrinkle that napkin, and leave some crumbs behind.
6. Do not use raw ingredients as props in cooked food photos.
We’ve all seen those photos of chickpea stew or spaghetti Bolognese with dried chickpeas casually strewn about or a stack of uncooked pasta in the background, respectively, amiright? Apart from looking awfully tacky, the number one reason this doesn’t work is that it’s unlikely to happen in real life. Think about it: if you’ve been simmering a chickpea stew for an hour and were finally getting ready to dig in, wouldn’t you have put the dried chickpeas away already? Same goes for the pasta. If you’re not sure what additional props to use, don’t use anything at all. Minimal is always better than tacky.
And now for my favorite segment… Common Beginner Mistakes:
1. Getting too close.
Is this banana bread or the Grand Canyon? If you’re close to make out what the food even is, zoom out!
(Answer: This is banana bread, and one of the first photos I ever posted on my blog).
2. Shooting in overhead kitchen light.
Yuck. Do you see how yellow and flat everything looks? With this photo you’d never know that these Russian doughnut holes known as ‘ponchiki‘ have a delicious fried crust.
3. Shooting from weird angles.
As I always show in my workshops, this is my most favorite example of a bad food photo because there in just so much wrong with it. First, it’s not a straightforward angle so the food appears to be falling off to the bottom right. Second, this was a really weird food styling decision – like, who would actually serve rustic chicken salad in a ring mold? And third, the colors in this plate are so bright that they’re completely distracting from what the food actually is (not that you’d want to eat this in the first place).
So there you have it, folks. I hope you learned something new from this article. If you have any specific questions on the topic, feel free to email me!