Whether you want to be a professional food photographer, or simply present your images on Instagram to grow your following, there are certain tips and techniques you should use to improve your skills. We have put together a comprehensive guide on food photography to take your pictures to the next level.
If you want to know how to photograph food, a good tip, to begin with, is to look at examples of professional food photography. You can find these on packaging, on the websites of retailers or high-end restaurants, on menus, and in the online portfolios of food photographers who actually work in this field. Studying these images will help you to understand what is expected within the industry. See how polished they look: it’s not as simple as snapping a shot of your lunch with your iPhone.
There is a lot of work and thought that goes on behind the scenes to create even deceptively simple images. These food photography tips will help you to understand how the professionals do it.
Styling and Staging for Professional Food Photography
Food styling is so complex and involved that there are professionals whose time is dedicated to just that. At the top level, food photographers work with stylists so that they don’t need to do this part themselves. However, as you begin improving your skills, you will likely have to know how to set up and style a good shot yourself. This will make your shots look like professional food photography from the start, giving you a better chance of getting hired on the strength of your portfolio.
The best food to photograph is something that looks appetizing even when it is cold, has been sitting in a studio set-up for hours, and has either a sauce or a crumbling texture which can be used to make an appealing note of imperfection. This isn’t easy to come by, however, and you might not get the perfect item to work with every time. This means you need to learn to work quickly, as food can melt, wilt, crumble, or fall in on itself under studio conditions. Use a stand-in plate to plan the shot, so you’re ready to go. A small trail or smear of sauce, a few crumbs, a scattered olive or sprig of herbs – these are the little details that can make food shots really interesting to look at.
But note that when you look at professional examples, they aren’t dirty or messy. Everything is spotlessly clean, and the items or crumbs scattered around have been placed deliberately and artfully.
Spraying your food with water droplets or brushing it with oil, using natural light, and bouncing that light around to fill in shadows are key food photography tips. These create a more appetizing look, and the food should certainly be plumped up, propped up, pinned in place, and rearranged as necessary to give the appearance of fullness and richness.
Think about the comparison between fast food advertising and what the meal actually looks like in your hand – it can often be a massive difference!
Composing the frame for your food photography is just the same as it is with other genres of photography.
You should strive for balance, employing techniques like the rule of thirds to fill your frame – or disobeying them for deliberate effect. And leading lines – like a fork or knife placed in the frame – can also be very effective.
A food photography backdrop will come in very handy: you may want to invest in several to get some variety. These backdrops present a neutral yet suitable appearance, such as a wooden table, a cafÃ© setting, or so on. Interesting cutlery and crockery will also help with your staging, though they should never be more interesting than the food itself. The food is always the star in food photography!
Camera Angles for Food Photography
The most obvious shot to go for is directly above the food, pointing down at a perpendicular angle. However, this might not always be the most flattering way to take the picture – and if you are photographing something with height to it or different layers, none of that will be captured from above.
Instead, try putting your camera level with the food and shooting it from the front. Then go up to a 25-degree angle and a 75-degree angle. Compare all four shots against one another. Which is the most flattering for the dish you are capturing? Over time, you will begin to develop an instinctive feel for which of these common set-ups is right for each compositions. Make sure that you test everything before you are ready to start shooting for real because otherwise, you could waste a lot of time adjusting and re-styling – losing the best time to photograph the food.
You can use creative props such as wine glasses, cake stands, or just a plain cutting board to raise certain elements of the scene or create a more dynamic composition.
Make sure that there is something interesting across the frame – but remember, again,
the food has to be king.
If you do go in at a different angle, make sure that your food photography backdrop covers the whole space. You don’t want to set up a picture-perfect table only to have a messy background ruin it!
Create a Hero
How do you ensure that the food remains the hero in your shot? One way to do it is through the use of depth of field. If you focus in closely on the food that you want to feature, while letting the background fade out of focus into a comfortable blur, you will keep that food as the main area of interest for the viewer. They will see it, while the background adds to the overall image without distracting.
Macro techniques – and lenses – can be very useful in food photography. However, you don’t want to rest on this as the only idea in your wheelhouse.
Consider what the biggest strength of the food you are shooting is. Is it the shape, color, texture, or presentation? Does it feature fresh ingredients which look vibrant and full? Does it give an impression of being comfort food, or luxury, or a simple yet effective meal? When you understand why someone would want to buy the food, you can shoot in a way that emphasizes that strength. Maybe you will adjust your lighting to show the texture better, change your props, or utilize a different depth of field to show what you need to show.
You should also think about the way that you use color in your images. Your background and props should usually be neutral or dark in order to remain in the background, while the rich colors of the food come through stronger.
The best food to photograph against a dark-colored background would be one that
contrasts and pops against it, standing out and making an impact.
Presenting Your Food Shots
How do you present your food shots after you have taken them? This can be just as important as the skills in taking them in the first place.
You should think about the intended usage of your photographs when selecting your food photography backdrop and plates, and setting up the lighting. You may need to cut out the food from its background, which is easiest done on white. It’s a useful skill to have, and doing it with precision takes time and practice. Using Photoshop, you will need to select all white areas with the magic wand tool and delete them. If you have an item which is separated well enough from the background, this may be enough to do the job.
With more complex items, you may need to use path or other selection tools to be more precise. Working on a transparent background layer, you will need to work in .jpg unless specifically otherwise requested by your clients – in order to preserve the transparency when you save the finished image.
If you are able to leave some negative space in your shots – areas which are not taken up by subjects or noise – then this is a good technique to use. It means your photographs will be more useful, as text can be added to these spaces. Think of them sitting in a magazine layout, or on the packaging with space for barcodes and other information.
Displaying your images in a portfolio is also important if you want to be a professional food photographer. You should be able to put together a consistent collection of images with a clear style so that potential customers will know what to expect from your work. Make sure that the photography website builder you choose offers the flexibility, features, and ease-of-use you need to put together professional photography portfolio websites without requiring any coding knowledge. That's where a bit of inspiration comes in handy.
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Even if you haven’t been hired yet, it’s a good idea to give yourself a brief – such as photographing a plate for a new restaurant’s launch advertisements, or a specific item for the purpose of packaging – and work to it. You can even make mock-ups of how the image would be used, in order to add these to your portfolio and demonstrate that you understand the needs of your clients.
If you are ready to take your food photography to the next level, there are a few things you can look at which are suited to professionals rather than beginners.
One of these is to start shooting tethered, with your camera on a tripod. If you are able to control the shutter from your screen, so much the better. This eliminates almost all camera shake and allows you to see the image in real-time on a much larger viewing platform than the LCD on your DSLR. This means you’re able to really spot any potential problems and create an image which is as perfect as possible.
Steam rising from a hot dish can make it look more appetizing. Of course, this isn’t always easy to capture, especially if you miss those first few seconds before it starts to cool. The solution? Microwave some cotton balls which were previously soaked in water, then hide them behind the plate. Et voila! Home-made steam.
Make sure that you use a color calibration palette to match up your colors perfectly with real life. You can calibrate your screen as well to see exactly how the image really looks, and then calibrate it again to the output settings of the printer that will be used to check that the colors still ring true. This may seem like an overly-complex and detailed process, but it’s essential for true-to-life colors guaranteed.
Shoot next to natural light, but diffuse it. Hanging a white sheet over a window is a really good way to do this. It gives you beautiful light which spreads across the frame, rather than creating harsh shadows, and will flatter almost any plate. You can also achieve this by using a large lightbox to encompass your whole set-up. White tissue paper is the perfect filter – you can create your own by cutting out all of the sides and top from a cardboard box, leaving just the barest framework behind, and sticking tissue paper in its place. The light is diffused beautifully across the whole layout.
If you are photographing anything shiny – like a silver pan, a glass, or a liquid – then you may have noticed that you often show up in the reflections. This can give you a headache and many hours of unneeded post-production, so cut out this issue by creating a frame of white foam board or cardboard. Cut out a circle the exact size of your lens and poke it just through. The reflection will only show the circle of your lens – everything else will be smooth white.
These tips will give you the knowledge of how to photograph food from beginner level right up to becoming a professional. The most important tip of all, however, is to keep practicing. Theory can only take you so far: it’s only when you actually start to do things that you will really get the hang of them for yourself.
Take as many food pictures as you can to get yourself up to that expert level, with your own tips and tricks added to those above.