I had a special request for a post about food photography from a fellow blogger, but I want to preface this post with the simple fact that I am a decent cook and terrible baker. It takes me a long time to perfect a recipe so I usually end up photographing successes right before devouring them for dinner. No real staging, just the nitty gritty end results and usually while my family looks at me while stuffing their faces. However, I do love food and photography, so I figured I’d give you a few basic food photography tips.
Every now and then I’ll stumble upon a food blog and they’ll talk about how bad their food photos are (despite having a DSLR) because they’re unable to take pictures during the “perfect” time of day or that there wasn’t enough natural light. Light is really what you make of it. I promise you that you can get amazing photos with absolutely zero natural light once you nail down some basics.
First things first, put your camera in manual mode and don’t look back.
I also wanted to let you know that I didn’t edit these photos except for converting them to JPEG, resizing, watermarking and adding text.
Natural vs. Artificial Light– Natural light is amazing. It does wonders for faces and food. I would always suggest using natural light when you can. North facing windows offer great diffused light and south facing windows offer more intense light. Our apartment only has south facing windows, but they’re frosted, which helps decrease the intensity. Sheer curtains work well for diffusing light as well.
Don’t let artificial light intimidate you. Flashes, strobes and other continuous light sources are great for cooks who only seem to have time for photography during the evening. The key is to diffuse the light. Can’t afford an external flash or strobes? Consider continuous light sources with the same color temperature as daylight. You can get fancy by using a stand and special umbrella, but using the bulb in a regular lamp that can handle that many watts with a simple diffuser works just as well if your budget isn’t very large. However, there is no going back after you start using an off camera flash…. just sayin.
Directional Lighting– If you flip through almost any food magazine you’ll notice something about the lighting. Almost all the images will be lit from behind or at an angle (45-60 degrees). Backlighting picks up the textures of the food and can help enhance the final images. The key to a back lit photo is the use of reflectors to fill shadows. Notice a difference between these two photos? My settings are identical (1/250sec | f/3.2 | ISO 1600), the only difference is what side of the table I was standing on. Which looks more appetizing?
Controlling Light Sources– Whether you’re working with natural or artificial light, you want to be in control of it. If you have both strong backlight and front (or side) light, closing the curtains or diffusing the light from your extra windows will make sure you get consistent results. Also, turn off your lamps and overhead lights near your setup. Most household bulbs are not even close to the same color temperature as daylight.
Reflectors and Diffusers– White foam board or simple card stock angled to the sides and slightly in front of your dish will bounce the light back onto the shadows created by backlighting. Black foam board will do the opposite and can help you achieve a “moodier” look. Each serve their own purpose. Diffusers help decrease the intensity of the light. Diffusers also help decrease the chances of blowing out highlights.
Now that we’ve covered light, do you still think that natural light is the only way to go? Left is shot in natural light around 5pm (WB is a tad too green) and the strawberries on the right are shot with a 5500K bulb and umbrella around 9pm. Both have the same settings, (1/200sec | f/2.8 | ISO 2000). The berries on the left look shinier and better because they were much fresher. They looked incredibly dull after sitting in the bowl for 4 hours. Oops! Anyways, my point is that you can get great results with artificial light.
2. White Balance
Proper white balance is beyond important in any type of photography. I cannot stress this enough. If the colors are off in your food photography, it simply will not look as appetizing as an image with proper white balance. I only shoot Kelvin indoors, but it took me a long time to memorize color temperatures. I would strongly advise you to use at least custom white balance. You can set this with a grey card, but I’ve had much better success using my neutral ExpoDisc (<–affiliate link). I have the largest size and simply hold it over whatever lens I’m using. It’s now also almost half the price I bought it at nearly two years ago.
Another way to make sure your white balance is on point is by having something white in your frame, especially if this whole white balance thing seems a little intimidating at first. If the bowl looks yellow, the colors are too warm. Blue? Too cool. Greyish? Adjust your exposure. Some of these are easy to fix in programs like Lightroom, but I suggest you get it as close as possible in camera first to save you time later.
3. Composition and Perspective.
The most basic rule of composition is the rule of thirds. If you break an image down into thirds (vertically and horizontally), you’ll be left with 9 rectangles and four guide lines with intersecting points. Placing your focus at any of the intersecting points will make your image more visually appealing than one centered in the middle. When staging your photo, consider where items will be using the rule of thirds. Placing items along any of those four guide lines will also make you photo much more appealing.
I’m also a huge fan of the bird’s eye ingredient shot. Changing the perspective of an image can do wonders for your food photography as well.
4. Story Telling
I follow a handful of food blogs specifically for the recipes and about 3 times as many blogs just for the photography. I find that the best food bloggers help tell a story with their images. It can be images from the market, ingredients or the cooking process. The story helps make the recipe more memorable. Your readers learn differently. Some do just fine with reading a recipe and visualizing the process, while others really need the images to draw them in. Use your images to help tell the story of the recipe.
Textures can really bring your food photography from mediocre to amazing. You can use props like napkins, plates, and flatware, but the absolute easiest way to pump texture into your photography is by using a macro lens. Forget all the expensive fussy props, invest in a macro lens instead.
There is nothing like showing the tiniest of details in the food to really pull your reader in. You can turn even the simplest ingredients into art and really back up your claims about baking the fluffiest scone (cupcake, bread, meringue, etc). There are affordable macro lenses for both Canon and Nikon cameras. I have a basic macro photography post if you need some help getting started.
If you’re not shooting in RAW and using Lightroom, you really should be. RAW files take up more room, BUT you can do so much more with your images. Fixing white balance, exposure and basically everything else is easier with a RAW file. That being said. I think food editing should be minimal, simply because food can be art in and of itself. A tiny bump here and little bump there should really be all your need. If you nail it in camera, then editing should really be a breeze.
- Avoid bright colored clothing that can cause a color cast on your food. White shirts will act like a reflector and black will do the opposite.
- Get a tripod if you work in a lot of low light. You’ll be able to keep your shutter open longer and get those crisp photos you love.
- Set up your “stage” and lighting before you start cooking.
Have any other food photography tips you’d like to share or questions about technical stuff for me?