Food Photography 101: The Basics


Thinking back to when I launched this site, I knew pretty much nothing about taking pictures of food. I made something, put it on a plate or in a bowl, put it on the counter or table, snapped a picture and ate it. It wasn’t until months later, when I was still blogging and photographing food on a very regular basis that I realized I had quite a bit to learn about how to make the food that I knew tasted fantastic look just as good. Let’s be clear – I am in no way an expert when it comes to food photography and still have countless things to learn, but I have received a number of emails asking about how I go about taking my pictures so I thought I would share that information with all of you.

So, how did I go from pictures like this (posted in March 2007, a month after launching the site):


To this (posted four months ago in July 2009)?


After the jump I will outline the tools and methods I use for taking my pictures, and how they go from food sitting on a table to the pictures you see on the site.

I will reiterate – I am not an expert and there are many resources available both on the web and in book form to give you even more information on specific photography techniques and food styling, which I encourage you to take a look at. I try to read as much as I can and pick up tips from a variety of sources. Now, let’s get started!

Part I: Lights, Camera, Action!

Two of the biggest factors in how pictures turn out is lighting and being familiar with the settings on your camera. I’ll talk about each of them separately.


By far, the absolute best results will come from using natural light, i.e. no camera flash. In order to do this, you’ll need to photograph during daylight hours, which becomes very difficult after the time changes in the fall. It’s virtually impossible to get pictures of dinner before the sun goes down when it gets dark around 5pm. I will touch on a couple of alternatives in a moment. In addition to using natural light, you’ll want to become acquainted with how light enters your house. I always find it best to photograph near a window, but one that does not generate direct sunlight, as that will typically wash out the photos. So typically a north or south facing window will allow generous light through a window without direct glaring sunlight. The color and intensity of the light will also change throughout the day, so on a free day when you have time to play around, try taking pictures of the same object in the same place at different times and see how the light changes affect the pictures.

Now, as to those alternatives for the nights when it’s pitch dark by the time you sit down to dinner. There are really two ways you can work around this. The first is to set aside enough leftovers in order to re-plate the dinner the next day and do your photo shoot then when it is light out. The second option (which I currently do not do) is to purchase some external lighting. I have heard rave reviews about Lowel EGO lights from other food bloggers, and plan on looking into them in the near future.

I will also note that if at all possible, refrain from taking pictures under fluorescent lights, as they almost always cast a yellow hue to pictures that is very difficult to remove, even when using photo editing software. If there is no way around you shooting your food at night and you don’t have any external lights to use, I would suggest replacing fluorescent bulbs with those that mimic natural daylight, if possible.

Your Camera

The more you understand about how your camera works and the different functions it has the more successful you will be with your food photography. Since different cameras can be vastly different I am going to go through some of the basics. First of all, you do not need a super expensive camera. Digital SLRs are all the rage and they sure are nice, but certainly not necessary. I do all of my photography with a great point and shoot camera, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ5 (thank you to my Chief Culinary Consultant for a wonderful gift!), which allows for a great number of manual settings. Some of the settings that you will want to familiarize yourself with on your camera:

♦  No Flash. Turn off the automatic flash on your camera, as it tends to either completely wash out a photo or cast a yellow hue to it. By turning the automatic flash off and adjusting the settings I will describe below, you will stand a much better chance at a great looking picture.

♦  White Balance. This setting can turn your pictures many shades of blue or yellow or a perfect white. Most cameras have several preset settings that you can cycle through to see what comes closest to the actual color based on your current lighting situation. My camera has an option to manually set the balance, where you take a sample shot of a pure white object so the camera has a frame of reference. This single feature is pure gold, so familiarize yourself with what your camera has in terms of white balance settings.

♦  Macro Setting. This is identified on most cameras with a flower. You will want to enable this setting when taking close-up pictures of food. It enables the resulting photograph to display much greater detail since it changes the focus on an object that is very close.

♦  Exposure. On my camera you can change this quickly right on the back of the camera, but you should check where yours is located. Basically, the exposure defaults to zero. If you move it down, the camera will allow in less light (I have done this a couple of times when the light coming in the window was exceptionally bright) and if you bump up the exposure it will allow in more light, which is quite helpful on days when it’s raining or overcast and there isn’t a lot of light to be had.

While there are some other settings that can be manually adjusted (such as ISO speed) I typically keep everything else on automatic and spend my time adjusting the white balance and exposure, and of course use my macro setting. More than anything, just become very familiar with your camera. Bust out the manual and play around with all of the settings so you know what they all do and how they affect the outcome of photographs.

Part II: Set the Scene

Now that we’ve covered the basics of lighting and camera settings, it’s time to whip up the dish and get it ready for its close up. Below are a number of variables that you’ll want to think about as you get ready for your photo shoot:

♦  Plates. You will typically want to stay away from very dark or very busy dinnerware, as it tends to take the focus away from the food. I am a big fan of using white plates, bowls, etc. or ones that have a very minimal design so that the beauty of the food really has an opportunity to shine through. I have, of course, used other pieces of dinnerware and as you start taking more pictures you will start to envision what you want the final photo to look like and will mix and match pieces to build that vision.

♦  More Props & Food Styling. This is an area I am still trying to improve upon and am continually looking for new ideas. Styling the food on the plate to maximize the drool factor will take some practice, as will setting the actual scene that you will photograph. Will you include silverware, a glass, a placemat, etc.? One thing that I have found helpful is to browse through the images on sites such as TasteSpotting and foodgawker to see how some of the better pictures have been set up and photographed and try to incorporate some of those ideas into my staging. If you are looking to pick up some different accessories, check out dollar stores and discount retail stores for some steals that you can use to build your prop inventory.

♦  Backgrounds. What you choose to have in the background of your photo may be greatly determined by how neat or messy your table or counter is. If I can get a clean background on my wood table, I will just shoot on that, which provides a nice contrast to white plates. However, if there is a lot of stuff in the background or I’m shooting at an angle that will get random furniture in the background, I will often times use a backdrop. The tool I use most often is a white foam core board (you can purchase these for a couple of bucks at craft stores) that I will prop up behind my plate. This is also a useful tool for reflecting incoming light from a window. You can also browse a craft store for material of different colors, patterns and textures that you can mix and match based on plates you use and the color of the food.

Part III: The After Party

No matter how great of a job you do at setting your white balance, exposure, judging the light and setting up the perfect picture, it won’t be perfect. It won’t look how you dreamed it would look. Don’t fret – that’s what post-processing software is for, and no, it doesn’t need to cost you an arm and a leg. While Adobe Photoshop is the defacto for those with design backgrounds, it’s expensive and you can do great work using free software such as Gimp, Picnik or Picassa.

Edited to add: Reader Amanda of Amanda’s Cookin’ shared in the comments section that she uses Adobe Elements for her photo editing software and that it is less than $100 and has just about everything that Photoshop has. I wanted to pull this up into the post to be sure everyone saw it – if you are pining for Photoshop but it’s out of your budget, you may want to look into this more affordable alternative. Thank you for the suggestion Amanda!

You want to find a balance between bringing out the best in your picture and over processing. In general, I will use a light touch to adjust the color balance, brightness and contrast, and then will add some sharpness to the photo. That’s usually all I do but it can make a big difference. Don’t be afraid to do some cropping as well – done correctly it can really transform a picture. Here are two recent example of before and after:



Part IV: Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse

Basically, take as many pictures as you can using as many different camera settings as you can from as many different angles as possible. The more you shoot and begin to get comfortable with your camera and understand how your lighting is affecting the photos, the better your photos will become. It certainly takes a lot of practice, and even then sometimes the stars just don’t seem to align. For any typical recipe you see on this site, I take anywhere from 15-60 pictures depending on what it is and how I want to display it. Sometimes there will be a couple dozen photos that I like of that bunch, and sometimes I struggle to find two that I can use. It’s a constant learning experience and I have enjoyed learning more about photography along the way.

I have really enjoyed putting together this tutorial and hope that it has been helpful and perhaps taken the mystique away from food photography. If you have any specific questions I would be more than happy to answer them for you to the best of my ability. Happy Baking, Cooking, and Shooting!


125 Responses to “Food Photography 101: The Basics”

Comment Pages 1 2 3
  1. Christi on November 11, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    Great advice – your photos are gorgeous!


  2. Pennies On a Platter on November 11, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    Thanks for the tips! Looks like we started blogging around the same time, but you’ve improved your photos much more quickly! :)


  3. Alicia on November 12, 2009 at 12:24 am

    Great post full of fantastic ideas – thanks for posting :)


  4. Jess on November 12, 2009 at 12:41 am

    Great advice! Thanks for sharing. I love reading tips like this.


  5. Sana on November 12, 2009 at 12:50 am

    Great stuff.. I am sooo bad at capturing food and these tips are really good.. will surely try them..


  6. Elizabeth on November 12, 2009 at 1:26 am

    Wow this was really helpful! I’ve also realized that taking pictures after 5-6pm is really hard… there’s always a shadow! Thanks!


  7. Jenny on November 12, 2009 at 1:28 am

    Michelle, this is an excellent post! I’m saving it to delicious so I can refer to it the next time I go camera shopping!


  8. Little Gray Pixel on November 12, 2009 at 1:51 am

    Great tutorial, lots of solid advice. I think the most important is to take advantage of the best thing about digital photography: if you fail, try and try again. It doesn’t cost a thing!


  9. marina mott on November 12, 2009 at 3:12 am

    Your photos are really great! Thanks for the good advices!


  10. Liz Brooks on November 12, 2009 at 7:24 am

    This is a great resource, thanks so much! My food photography has definitely changed since I started food writing. I still have a lot to learn!


  11. Christy on November 12, 2009 at 7:33 am

    Fantastic post filled with many great tips! Thank you for taking the time to walk us through your process.


  12. Amanda on November 12, 2009 at 7:59 am

    That’s a great post, going to look for a foam core board next time I’m at Michaels. Something I do for props is hit the thrift store about once every two weeks. It’s perfect because many of the dishes, cups and bowls are there because they are stragglers that people no longer want. I also get cloth napkins and placemats there. That has improved my photos quite a bit, just having the different colors to choose from to place under the plate. I also do what you do for dinnertime shots. I plate a portion as I serve dinner, then put it in the fridge. Then I take it out the next day, heat it in the micro a little bit to take off that cold look, heat of any gravy or sauce, add it and shoot. :) The only other thing I wanted to mention is that Photoshop Elements is available for less than $100 and does just about everything that Photoshop does, I love it and it’s a much more affordable alternative!

    Thanks for the great post, I have passed it on to the Food Bloggers Discussion List :)


  13. Pame on November 12, 2009 at 8:24 am

    Thank u so much for taking your time doing this tutorial.


  14. bridget {bake at 350} on November 12, 2009 at 8:31 am

    Very, very helpful! I use PhotoScape for my editing and like it. Someday, I’d love photoshop! :) I need to see if I can adjust the white balance on my camera…it’s just a point & shoot.

    Love how you included one of your old pictures. I cringe when I look at my old posts! :) 2 years from now, maybe I’ll cringe at my current ones!


  15. shelly (cookies and cups) on November 12, 2009 at 8:33 am

    really great post! It’s amazing the things you can learn when you just get out your camera and start playing around. Thanks for the tips on white balance, that’s one thing that I have not yet mastered!


  16. Christine on November 12, 2009 at 8:35 am

    Great tips and ideas! Thank you! I was feeling totally clueless, this post was really helpful =)


  17. Jenny on November 12, 2009 at 8:40 am

    Thanks for the tips! I just started blogging about a month ago and all my pics are yellowish – I’ll start playing around with my camera now.


  18. Michelle on November 12, 2009 at 8:40 am

    Hi Bridget – Your camera should be able to adjust white balance; mine is a point and shoot as well. I would suggest taking a look at the manual and see what it says.


  19. Stan Hansen - Brown Egg Marketing on November 12, 2009 at 8:48 am

    Great post on some of the basics of food photography. Thanks for pointing me in the direction of Lowel EGO lights. They look amazing.


  20. Christine on November 12, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Thank you so much for this! I also have the panasonic lumix – and I’ve been playing around with the settings to try to learn how to use it better. I want to start my own food blog – but I want to be able to take decent photos first. So I’m going to do exactly what you say! :) Thank you again! Keep up the great work. p.s. I hope I can email you if I have any questions


  21. Divina on November 12, 2009 at 9:28 am

    I always do what you did before on your first paragraph. Although it’s still the same today, I do make a little effort to do take a decent photograph. Thanks for the tips. It is much needed.


  22. Michele on November 12, 2009 at 9:39 am

    Great job! Your pictures are always beautiful. Sometimes by the time dinner is ready I’m rushing to take pictures so we can eat while the food is still hot. I’m not sure if i can adjust the light balance on my camera. I’ll have to look. I posted a link to this in the food bloggers section in the bakespace forums.


  23. Krystle on November 12, 2009 at 9:40 am

    Great advice! Your pictures always turn out beautiful! I am definitely taking your advice on this! Cant wait to test out your suggestions!


  24. Margaret on November 12, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Thanks so much for the tips. After two years of blogging my pics have improved but nowhere near what I want. These will help. You have great pics.


  25. Stephanie on November 12, 2009 at 9:50 am

    All great tips and advice! Thanks for posting!


  26. Cookin' Canuck on November 12, 2009 at 10:03 am

    Excellent information in this post. I have the same point & shoot camera and, while I am still learning to improve my pictures, I have been really happy with it.


  27. katie on November 12, 2009 at 10:16 am

    Great tips! I am slowly learning how to take half decent photos (or what I think are half decent photos!) I’m crossing my fingers that Santa brings me a new camera this year!


  28. TidyMom on November 12, 2009 at 10:17 am

    Great post!! …..glad to see I’m not the only one who shops for random dishes and puts food away to shoot later! LOL My family still rolls their eyes everytime I say “wait! you can’t eat that until I shoot it!” LOL

    I have a Nikon D40, when I try to use the macro setting it always makes the flash pop up!- so I don’t use it.

    I’m hoping to get a prime lens for christmas, hoping that will make for better foodie pics


  29. TidyMom on November 12, 2009 at 10:22 am

    ooooh, I know what I forgot to ask….something I always need help with is garnishing my food – I never know what to garnish with to make my foodie pics look better – any ideas on that? what to have on hand for garnishing?


  30. N on November 12, 2009 at 10:44 am

    Thanks for your tips! I’m glad I’m not the only one trying to take lovely food photos with a point and shoot camera instead of digital SLR and I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who takes 20-30 photos of one meal, playing with settings, and hoping just one photo turns out!


  31. Doreen on November 12, 2009 at 10:46 am

    GREAT tips! I need to pay more attention to these sorts of details when photographing my cakes.


  32. Baking is my Zen on November 12, 2009 at 10:47 am

    This is your best post yet. Thank you for sharing such valuable information!


  33. Jeanne on November 12, 2009 at 10:51 am

    Thank you for all the advice! This gives me hope that I’m not a completely lost cause when it comes to food photography. I have a simple point and shoot camera, so I will definitely try out your tips.


  34. Johanna Inman on November 12, 2009 at 10:57 am

    Hi! This was inspiring. Thank you for sharing! I feel like maybe I’m at the stage you were at in the beginning. Always fretting over my food photos. You have done a wonderful job. Maybe I can make it work like you have. :)


  35. Dolce on November 12, 2009 at 11:02 am

    Thank you for all your ideas. I also use a point & shoot and twick the white balance on my pics. For beginners (like me, ahem) in food photography I would consider as a photo editor – it’s free and very user friendly.


  36. Kare on November 12, 2009 at 11:53 am

    This is a great article, thank you! I’m new at food blogging, and that mac and cheese pic up top looks awfully familiar…


  37. Veronika Rojas on November 12, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing how you take your pictures. I am always trying to improve but lighting was always my biggest challenge. Its always dark out by the time I am ready to take a picture. Now I know that I need to save some food and rework it in the morning.

    Thanks again as your tutorial was very helpful!


  38. Stephanie on November 12, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    THANK YOU! I am really trying to improve my photography and I plan to study this tutorial (any my camera) in an effort to really make it better.


  39. Ally on November 12, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Thank you very much – I just started a food blog and I have been trying to improve my photographs – I really appreciate you taking the time to share your knowledge.


  40. Stephanie on November 12, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    Great tips!!! Thanks for sharing them! Very helpful!


  41. Iris on November 12, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    Thanks for the tips! Like you, I’ve improved a lot from my first (pretty bad) shots, but I still have far to go. Hope I’m as good as you someday!


  42. Maria on November 12, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    Clearly…I need this. Thanks!!!


  43. Rachel J on November 12, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Love this post because it confirmed what I am doing right and what I am doing wrong! LOL the tips are so handy too. Thank yoU!!!


  44. Joy on November 12, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing these tips with us, they really are helpful. I use to take horrible pictures before I started reading more food magazines and studying their photographs — when my fiance got me a light box for my photos it really made all the difference in the world. Now I dont have to worry about rushing to shoot during the day. This is such an informative post, Ive saved it on my comp :) Thanks for your help!


  45. Mathea on November 12, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    Great post! I’ve also dealt with lots of these issues… like Amanda, I’ve started picking up props at the thrift store, or using unexpected items for scenes. I’m pretty sure I’m going to build my own lightbox soon based on what I found in this post
    , too, so I don’t have to shoot in daylight anymore!


  46. Lori @ RecipeGirl on November 12, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    Great tips! I shoot w/ a Canon 40D and use Picnik for all of my editing. Have been happy so far, but I have a lot to learn. I know nothing about my Canon 40D and just got a tutorial DVD that Kalyn (kalynskitchen) recommended.


  47. Laura on November 12, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    Never knew about white balance, just found it, made amazing difference (I have a very well lit kitchen)-THANK YOU!!!!


  48. Linda on November 12, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    Thank you! This is so helpful!


  49. Otto Haring on November 12, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    thanks for sharing! :)


  50. Otto Haring on November 12, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    Thanks!!!! :) I am already hungry!


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