We’ve all seen food photography that makes us drool…
The textures, flavors, and colors of the food meld together and give it that “YUM” factor. However, nothing turns you off faster than a flat, badly-colored, unappetizing food photograph!
Food photography is an art form and is much more complex than it seems.
A lot of factors contribute to the success of a food photograph. If just one thing goes wrong, it can ruin the appeal for the whole image. Just like other art forms, food photography takes practice and the more you shoot, the better your images will become.
From my experience photographing food, I’d like to share the following tips that will help you create better food photography…
- Understand white balance…
- The quality and direction of your lighting…
- Food styling…
- Props should enhance the food, not overwhelm it…
- Keep your food moist…
- Planning makes perfect…
- Steady the camera…
- Don’t be afraid to experiment…
Editor’s Note: Meet Melissa Skorpil in our recorded “Pick Our Brains” photographer interview webinar.
Food Photography Tip #1: Understand White Balance
Why am I listing this as my number one food photography tip, above food styling, lighting, or planning your shoot?
Because having an incorrect white balance can throw off the whole image and make food look unappetizing. Subconsciously our brains pick up on color casts (when an image looks too blue, or too yellow, for example).
The reaction is primordial: When a food’s color is “off”, it looks disgusting to us. Imagine gray bacon, orange lettuce, or blue celery.
There’s a reason the food industry uses all that food coloring after all!
It’s subtle and it takes practice to see color casts in images but, fortunately, digital imaging software has white balance tools. Use a gray card after you’ve lit and exposed your scene. This will provide a neutral target that you can use in post production to correct the white balance.
Also, try to avoid mixing color temperatures in your lighting scheme.
For example, if you’re using tungsten overhead light, make sure that fluorescent light coming from the kitchen isn’t spilling onto your scene. Mixing light sources makes white balancing in post-production a nightmare. Window light is great, just warm it up a little in post production. And for goodness’ sake, please don’t slap a retro filter on a food image. Yellow, purple, or green color casts are a huge turn off in food photography!
Food Photography Tip #2: Control the Quality and Direction of Your Lighting
The rule of thumb is to backlight food.
Make sure your main source of light is coming from behind the food and slightly above. You should see shadows under the front of the dish or plate. Sticking a plate in front of window light is a common way to photograph food on location.
It’s great to have a strong, direct light source which reveals the texture in food, but make sure that it’s not creating too much contrast. Use a white bounce card or reflector to ensure that the front of the food is getting enough light to describe its form and color.
Extra tip: Try using a mirror opposite your main light source to pop some light back into the food.
This technique works especially well on wet, oily, or sauce-laden dishes. It helps the food glisten. It also works well on dark foods like chocolate, which need a strong fill light to help lighten the tone from dark black.
Food Photography Tip #3: Use a Food Stylist
Food presentation is key, but it goes beyond garnishing and plating.
A food stylist knows how to style the food for the camera, taking into account the camera angle, background, props, longevity of the food, etc. If you can’t get a food stylist due to budgetary reasons, there are many books available to teach you more about the subject.
Some of my favorites are:
- Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera by Delores Custer
- Food Styling for Photographers: A Guide to Creating Your Own Appetizing Art by Linda Bellingham and JeanAnne Bybee
- More Food Styling for Photographers & Stylists by Linda Bellingham and JeanAnne Bybee
- Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling by Helene Dujardin
Food Photography Tip #4: Use Props to Enhance the Food, Not Overwhelm It
Remember, food photography is about the food, not the props.
Props are a double-edged sword. When used correctly, they complement the food and help tell its story. When used poorly, they detract from or overwhelm the image.
Think of props as being a supporting element in telling the story of your food, not the story itself. Props can act as pointers, directing the viewer’s eye towards the food. Just be careful they’re not drawing the eye out of the frame.
Straws, utensils, napkins, etc. can all be used as visual pointers. Remember that most Westerners read from left to right, so it makes sense to draw the viewer’s eye in that direction.
Props add the human element to an otherwise static image. Consider using someone’s hands as a prop, to serve or hold the food. You could position a fork or spoon holding some food bringing it towards the viewer, ready for a bite.
Stay away from busy patterns and overly vibrant colors. Resist the urge to use all the props in your arsenal. Try removing one item at a time from your set and keep removing items until you have just enough to tell the story, but not overwhelm the food.
As a beginner, keep it simple. Stick with white plates, and avoid square or rectangular dishes. Remember that people are hired just to be prop stylists. It’s a specialty and it takes a trained eye to select appropriate props and arrange them cohesively.
Save yourself some money and heartache by keeping it simple.
Food Photography Tip #5: Keep Your Food Moist
Food dries out quickly on set.
Try covering food with plastic wrap or dampened paper towels until you’re ready to assemble the product for the final shoot. You can revive many types of food by “glistening” them with their own juices, canola oil, or water.
On a psychological level, human beings are mostly made of water and can’t survive without it for very long. Do whatever you can to highlight the moist or liquid content of food, whether that’s catching drips forming, showing condensation, steam rising, or ice melting. Following this tip will also provide for a more dynamic image.
Food Photography Tip #6: Planning Makes Perfect
Take the time to plan your shot ahead of time and well before the food preparation begins.
Even if you’re not good at sketching (this is why we’re photographers, right?), take the time to sketch out your vision and make notes about the overall mood, lighting, and color scheme of the shot.
Then prepare your set with the lighting, background, props, and camera in place. Next, use a “stand-in” item similar in shape and size to your food, so you can make adjustments to your depth of field, exposure settings, and overall composition.
Remember, food deteriorates quickly, so have everything ready so you can quickly swap out the “stand-in” item for the fresh food when it’s time to shoot.
Food Photography Tip #7: Steady On!
Use a tripod and remote shutter release or shutter delay.
Using a tripod will allow you to select the lowest ISO setting available and not have to worry about camera shake. You’ll get the sharpest images this way.
Food Photography Tip #8: Experiment
Break the rules, so you can test for yourself what’s effective and what’s not.
The best way to learn is through making mistakes. For example, early on I tried shooting food with an on-camera flash and yes, it was a disaster. But why did it look so horrible? After experimenting, I learned that on-camera flash flattened out the image.
Don’t just take the experts’ advice.
Test the rules and understand for yourself why things do and don’t work. Also, you may stumble upon something new, like a different angle, lighting pattern, or technique that can make your work stand out from the crowd.
Thoughts and Questions?
A big thank-you to Melissa for this very helpful and tempting article on food photography, and I hope it’s given you some great tips and ideas.
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