12 Important Tips for Excellent Food Photography

I have a lot of respect for food photographers. Until you have attempted to photograph food you have no idea how difficult it is to make food look edible. Making food appear savory is even more difficult. Because the camera fails to see the range of light which our eyes can see, we need to work overtime to to set up a food photo shoot using advanced lighting techniques and propping.

Food photography fit for a menu or a magazine is difficult work. But knowing how to set up our lights, and learning a bit about food styling, will allow you to greatly improve your food photography. Today we bring you our 12 most important tips for creating excellent food photos.

1. Light from behind. Place your most powerful light source so it comes in from a slight angle behind the food subject. The light source can be a window, or it can be a strobe. But the bottom line is you don’t want the main light to come in from the front, as it will mask the texture of the food item and make it appear flat.

2. Use Small Lights. Large light sources create a nice, even light and are generally more forgiving. However small light sources allow us to emphasize texture and moisture to a much higher degree. A small light is easier to control and direct.

3. Move in Close. Moving in close to your food subject invariably makes it look more savory. A wider shot is good when emphasizing the food subject’s role in a larger meal (for instance the turkey on a Thanksgiving Day table). But a close shot gets the viewer close and personal with the texture of the food.

4. Use Props to Combine Colors. Often times a so-so food photo can become a striking, vibrant food photo just by adding a splash of color. For instance aqua blue glasses in a blurred background can cause red meat in the foreground to pop with color. Professional food photographers spend a lot of time placing plants, colored glasses or plates, and other colorful items in the shot to emphasize the main subject. You should too. And don’t forget you can use the environment as your propping, cominining the soft blues of the sky and the ocean, and the natural greens of plant life, as compliments to your food item.

5. Use a Shallow Depth of Field. The more shallow, the better. The main focal point on your food subject should look nice and crisp, but otherwise you will be better off with the majority of the image out of focus. Not only does this help create emphasis for the main portion of our food item, it also creates wonderful blurs of color, light, and bokeh in the background.

6. Target Harsh Shadows. Soft shadows are great for emphasizing food texture and making a plate of food look tasty. But strong, harsh shadows completely destroy the image and are a nasty distraction. Use reflectors or additional light sources to fill in the shadows.

7. Collect Small Mirrors. Stop by a craft store and buy a bunch of small mirrors. The smaller, the better. Use the mirrors to reflect small light sources back at the food item, especially toward moist areas to create specular highlights. For instance, the glaze on a turkey or the filling inside a slice of pie. You can also use the mirrors to fill in the inevitable shadows.

8. Brush on Some Vegetable Oil. A little splash of oil brushed onto a food item can make a huge difference. The added moist look is great for making the subject appear more juicy and savory. One caveat. It is easy to go too far with this tip. Just brush a little oil onto the food, compose your shot, and evaluate.

9. Employ a Food Stylist. A food stylist knows how to present food in a way which makes it look as savory as possible. Small changes such as building up the vertical structure of the food, or adding a splash of color from sauce or garnishment, can make all the difference. If you don’t feel you have the skills to style food properly, contract someone who can bring out the best in your food subjects.

10. Lower the Light Source. This is another trick which will help you bring out the texture in your food sources. Lowering the light can make a big difference in emphasizing moisture and glazing. However it also creates more shadow. Soft shadows will add interest to your food and make for better quality food photos, so the more the better. However be on the lookout for strong, harsh shadows created by low light sources, and fill them in.

11. Lower the Camera Angle. I like to keep the camera between 15 and 40 degrees above the table for my initial shots. I will go higher or lower depending on what a client is interested in for the final product. But somewhere between 15 and 40 degrees is a nice place to start. I almost never consider an overhead shot. Doing so makes the food appear two dimensional by hiding its vertical structure. How low is too low? When you start to lose the top of the food, you are going too far. Otherwise, emphasize the height and three dimensionality of the food as much as possible.

12. Scrape the Light. If you are familiar with lighting, then you already know about scraping. Scraping the light in food photography is when we position the light source so that it just barely scrapes the front of the food surface. This lighting technique preserves the texture of the food, and it is my secret weapon for bringing out the best qualities of the food item.

Conclusion

Food photography is not a beginner’s photography or lighting topic. It is an advanced skill.

Employing these 12 tips will get you up and running immediately, and will make a big difference in the quality of your food photography. But like any advanced skill, you will need to be patient as you slowly perfect your craft.

Good luck, and enjoy the very rewarding topic of food photography. And don’t forget to eat your subjects!

Daniel Padavona is the founder of Warmpicture Royalty Free Images, and is an avid food photographer. He lives with his wife Terri, and their children Joey and Julia in upstate New York. When he isn’t taking his own photos, you can find him online helping others learn how to improve their photography skills.

Image Credits:

Photos provided courtesy of Warmpicture.com Royalty Free Images.

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