Food photography is a huge part of product photography. Everywhere you look, there’s food, drinks and snacks. Leafing through any cookbook and you find beautiful images of food.
Walk into any restaurant, anytime, anywhere and you will be presented with their stunning edibles. Instagram is flooded with the most attractive product shots of food imaginable.
Taking pictures of food is one area of photography that has boomed in recent years. People are starting to cook more and the world of social media has made it possible to show what we are cooking. Or eating.
There are more restaurants than ever, dishing out more kinds of food that you could conceive. All these need photographing. To show, share, and persuade. Designed to make your mouth water.
This is our complete guide to all things food photography. We will look at the best cameras to use, the lenses that accompany them and accessories you will need.
Styling food will be as easy as pie with all our tips and techniques (and sneaky tricks) to make your food pop.
And remember – There is no sincerer love than the love of food (Bernard Shaw).
Camera equipment is tricky. There will always be articles and people telling you to get a new camera with all these up-to-date features and settings.
If you have a DSLR, entry level or professional, it is enough. There is no specific camera to photograph food, you just need one that has a few basics.
High ISO, the ability to shoot in raw and multiple focal points are the most important features in this area of photography. Having an LCD screen with live view would be greatly beneficial too.
When it comes to the best cameras for ANY genre of photography, it is important to know what you are going to do with it.
Some cameras are built to photograph many images in a matter of seconds. Others are more specifically geared to be used in a studio. Neither of these things are important here.
So what do you need to look for to photograph food?
The first important thing is working with a full frame or crop sensor. Having a crop sensor will affect your lens’ focal length. This will help you get in closer for macro food photographs, but it does affect the quality of the images.
Next, a camera that can shoot in raw is always better. Raw images store more data from the scene, which allows more ‘play’ when post-processing.
Read our article here for other important things that will determine if your camera is suitable.
If you prefer to photograph using your phone, here is a great article on capturing those beautiful shots.
Using your smartphone has never been easier. They have competitive image quality, apps to help you post-process the images and a slew of social media outlets to share.
As the article suggests, taking control of natural light is the key. If you look after the light, then the shadows will look after themselves.
The background you photograph the food on is just as important as the food itself. Great for creating a mood or tone, rather than just a blank, white area.
A tripod will keep your camera still, reducing shake. It will also give you those aerial, top-down images you see so often.
It is also a secure place to keep your camera while you are spending hours arranging a scene. And it ensures the perspective doesn’t change.
Having a tripod allows you to use manual focus, to make sure you have the focal point where you want it. This is necessary for image stacking (see post-processing section).
Here is our article on why a tripod is important for taking good food pictures.
Food photography is all down to the details. This could mean a shallow depth of field of a larger dish and setting. It could also be those small elements that make up the image setting. Spices sprinkled around the dish, for example, can bring a wider impression of the food.
This is where colour comes in. Colour management is very important in food photography. They can either complement each other or cause an interesting juxtaposition.
To get these colours correct, we can set the camera’s white balance to the light temperature used. This becomes problematic if two different light temperatures are being used.
The white balance and colour can be corrected during post-processing. This is where a colour checker is important. It isn’t exactly cheap, but it helps you correct your colour to the specifics of the shoot.
It is a little box that shows you many colours, which you photograph first before any other images are taken. During post-processing, you correct the WB using the colour checker image. Voila! It corrects everything to the colours they should be.
Apart from your camera equipment, tripod and lenses, there are a few other things to consider. To help you move and style your images, you can really benefit from a few small tools.
Paper towels are a must, for cleaning dishes and polishing glasses. They also blot up spills.
Tweezers are also necessary to move small, fine items and soft foods for precise placements. Cotton buds are great for cleaning, wiping and collecting random drops of liquid. Brushes are also very important for oiling or adding water to an object.
Not all food you prepare to photograph is going to look its best. They will need a little livening up. Things like non-stick cooking oil spray can make it look like it has just been cooked. Even if it has been sitting there for hours.
Tea towels are a good thing to have around and use in the styling as it adds to that home-made feel.
Parchment paper is a great and simple background to place your food on. It can even double up as a diffuser.
Even something like a cardboard roll from paper towels has a purpose. It can act as a snoot if doubled up with a Speedlite.
All these things are there to bring the best out of your food photography.
The Best Choice of Lenses for Food Photography
If the camera is the cake then the lens is the icing. How you will photograph a food item comes down to the lens you use.
Achieving a shallow depth of field comes from a fast aperture, which will also let you work in low light. The lens also affects the quality of your images, so make sure you know about your lenses before you use them.
Here we will look at a few specific lenses that you might use for food photography, looking at the benefits and disadvantages of using each.
A wide-angle lens is a great addition to any photography kit. These lenses let you capture the most of the scene due to their ‘wide-angle’.
These are great for large spreads of food, where you might show meals for many people, and the table settings too. They work well in low light and can come in prime or zoom forms.
The disadvantage with these lenses is the distortion. You will find the image becomes warped close to the edge of the frame. This aberration can be interesting, and best used for fun projects. They are tricky to use correctly, and best kept away from serious and professional shoots.
For help on removing distortion created by your wide angle lens, read our article here.
50 mm Standard Lens
The ‘nifty-fifty’ is a standard go-to lens. They offer great quality and still gives you a fairly decent wide view. The distortion here is minimal, which cuts down on post-processing time.
With a prime lens such as this, the quality and sharpness of the image are exceptional. They also tend to go to very shallow depths of fields.
The lens can have some trouble auto-focusing on items that lack contrast. This reduces the use of this lens in dreamy, flood-lit scenarios.
Also, there is a limit to how close you can get to an item and keep it in focus. Images with very minute details might not benefit 100% from this lens.
100 mm Macro Lens
A macro lens is almost indispensable for capturing minute details in food photography. A macro lens gets you as close as possible.
You can use these in combination with macro extenders, to get in even closer. If you have a crop sensor, using this 100 mm full frame lens will give you a focal length of 160 mm on a Canon DSLR (150 mm on Nikon).
These are not easy to use in cramped spaces unless you only use this lens for its macro capabilities. They will not work well for wide spreads of food from an aerial perspective unless only focusing on one or two details.
Read our article for further reasons why we recommend this lens for your food photography.
Tilt & Shift Lens
This is a strange concept to be used for food photography, but it creates interesting results. Tilt and shift lenses are very important in eliminating the parallax error found in architecture photography.
It works by allowing the photographer to change the parallel connection between the film/sensor plane and the lens plane. By manipulating this relationship, you create a focal point that works both horizontally AND vertically.
This is great for showing a slanted, diagonal focus or a focus spot rather than just a whole line.
These lenses are very expensive and tricky to use. We wouldn’t recommend buying one if you can’t use it elsewhere. If you have one, give it a try.
The lighting of product and food photography is very important. There are three main ideas behind lighting the dishes and foodstuffs you are photographing.
Natural light is free yet sometimes difficult to harness. Huge lighting set-ups can be organised how you wish but can be very expensive. A middle ground of using natural light and artificial light can be an option, yet a little trick for white balance.
For some really creative ways of lighting your food photography, look at our article here.
Using natural light might be the best way to start and practice with. It is abundant, free and everyone has a window they can use as their source. This is also available outside for shoots, for example, in a park or on-location.
Here, a diffuser sits between the window and the food to create an even light fall and to take away the intensity of the light source. Reflectors can be used to help bounce the light back towards the subject which softens harsh shadows.
Rather than using natural light, a softbox is a great option. Great for studios with no windows, or times when the sun just isn’t as strong as you want it to be. The softboxes are pretty inexpensive, easy to put up and pack away. It is a viable choice.
Using one light will leave you one set of shadows. Combining the light source with reflectors help to minimalise these harsh areas and pull out the detail.
These give a constant flow of light, which can be moved for different angles and the light can be muted or intensified.
How to Shoot Food Photography
How to take food photography at home? You will already have some ideas. You may have even prepared some food, now how do you photograph it?
It all depends on what you want to show and what the most important aspects are. Have you created a huge spread of food, showing multiple dishes?
If so, an aerial photograph might show off the food in the best possible way. Are you looking to focus on some minute details? Then a diagonal perspective might work best.
The great thing about food is that it doesn’t get tired, talk too much or need a lot of reassurance. To a certain point, foodstuffs are easy to work with. It tends to stay where you put it, letting you focus on other areas.
Nevertheless, here are a few ideas that will help get you started.
Do not use too much food. Think of Michelin restaurants, not American diner. You want to give a sense of the food and create a beautiful composition. Overloading plates might work for a few things, such as ice cream sundaes, but not everything.
Go through our extensive article for more styling ideas.
There are a lot of tips and techniques you can use to get the best out of your food photography. This list is by no means exhaustive.
Once you get into the flow of things, it will give you a good sense of what food items go with what props and accessories. Simple patterns work well as background, especially if the food is plain and simple.
One of the best ways to style your food is to play around with place settings. This also incorporates napkins, cutlery and drinks to help convey a mood.
Make more than one of the dish you are photographing, so any accidents can be replaced. You can also choose the one that turned out best.
These are the sneaky tricks that food photographers use rather than the REAL food itself. Ice cream, for example, will not last more than a few minutes without melting in front of a window or light source.
This is why ice cream is made from mash potato. It is pliable and resembles the alternative, especially combined with food colouring.
This is a great source of things you can do to really make your food pop. Even if it isn’t real food.
The kitchenware aspect of things could have a flair to them. Vintage teacups are a good example. Most of the time, you want to keep things simple so they don’t clash with the food.
An item of cutlery that can dazzle is a good way to step out of the usual and create something interesting. Gold coloured spoons, for example, can add a lot to a simple image.
Minimalist white bowls and plates are plain but not boring. They let the colours of your food burst. They are very versatile as they work with anything. Even enamelware can give it a retro vibe. Old, but good.
Now that you are familiar with the food, the lighting possibilities and the settings, we need to work on the composition of the images. This is where we learn how to arrange the food and related items to be photographed.
One area to look at, is using the Fibonacci spiral. This allows you to place your food items along a curved line rather than a straight line creates flow and movement, gently guiding your viewer’s eye around the image.
This works particularly well for overhead shots when there are several elements that make up the image.
In the picture of the lentil stew below, the curved placement of the cilantro leads the eye to the bowl on the bottom. It then pushes your focus to the top bowl and, finally, to the focal point. This is the piece of carrot resting in the smallest part of the spiral.
There are so many camera angles to choose from, and using a tripod (see camera equipment) will help facilitate them all. First thing is to create a concept of what you want to make. Next is to see how that item works with the environment.
A certain item might work better with an aerial photograph rather than a head-on photograph. Food in bowls for example where a direct photograph would only show you the bowl.
The focal point is something that goes hand in hand with the different camera angles. Having a shallow depth of field comes down to your lens capabilities.
A small focal point can really dramatize your food photography. Although, you need to know when and where to use it.
This focus has the potential to remove distractions from the image, and add interest. The viewer will focus on the most focused part of the image, so you can use this to your advantage.
There will be times where a smaller, or slower aperture will work. For example, if you want to show multiple dishes that are just as important as each other. Practise and experiment with the information from this article.
Colour theory is a great system used across all things creative. Fashion photography, food composition, and graphic design are just a few examples. Food photography is no different. This system is a set of guidelines that look at items of colours to see what other colours they work with.
This is a great piece of advice for backgrounds, complementary foods and props you will use. Our eyes and brains are attracted to colours that compliment or juxtapose each other. These guidelines can be broken. Like a stick of cinnamon.
So far we have looked at lighting food with an abundance of light. What if your food calls for something a little darker with a sullen mood to it.
A meal prepared for the winter season could benefit from this. Or even spectacular dishes for Halloween for example.
Here, we swap out all of the light backgrounds and colours for greys, dark browns and blacks. The colour shifts, so the reflected light is less and bounces back with the darker colours.
You might find using flags (cardboard to stop light) useful in limiting the amount of light that hits the food. Read our article for a step by step guide.
We have talked about composition in the above section. But if you are looking for something a little more advanced, you came to the right area.
A great way to make your food photography stand out is to layer objects. Use a plate, with a smaller plate on top. This brings back a little 3-d into our 2-d image.
Using the power of triangles also helps to add interest. Two objects are too even and four is too many. Three is a powerful number, and it works well.
Also, don’t forget repetition. This works wonders for making the idea bigger than just the sum of the photographs. Give it a try.
Histograms and Tones
There are two crucial areas not to ignore when post-processing food photography. These are the histogram and tones.
The histogram has a place on your camera and in post-processing software on your computer. Its purpose is to show you the tonal range of your photograph and where the values lie.
They focus on blacks, shadows, mid-tones, highlights and whites. This clever little box also tells you if you have too much black or white in your image, which is over or underexposure.
Understanding tonal ranges helps you fix them, in camera and during post-processing.
Focus stacking is a relatively easy concept. The basic idea is that, while using a very shallow depth of field, you photograph one small part of the food item.
You keep the camera exactly where it is and then refocus on another part of the item. After a few photographs, you should have successfully photographed the entire item in focus.
These images are then ‘stacked’ together using post-processing software. After this process, you should have an image where the focus blankets the item but leaves the background blurred and out of focus.
This is a great way to keep a high-quality differential focus over a wider area. You are welcome!
Adobe Lightroom is a great software package for post-processing your food photography. It has a great library system, where you can organise hundreds and thousands of images., using keywords and tags.
It also lets you modify your images in a non-destructive way. This allows you to go back to the original image if you no longer like the edits you created.
Lightroom has a no-nonsense layout and is very user-friendly. You are able to adjust settings such as exposure and contrast very easily. This should be your go-to package.
For all those using Lightroom, but feel limited in more sophisticated levels of adjustments, Photoshop is a great program.
Photoshop is a software better designed for labour-intensive photographs, where text or layer masks might help you achieve what you want.
Most photographers find they benefit from Lightroom’s library system and simple adjustments. Then import the image into Photoshop for airbrushing and other complicated modifications before exporting the final result.
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