Food Photography 101: The Basics

food-photography-collage

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):

macaroni-and-cheese

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

chocolate-ice-cream-main

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.

Lighting

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:

before-after-risotto

before-after-scones


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!

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121 Responses to “Food Photography 101: The Basics”

  1. Maedi on November 12, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    Very helpful – thanks!

    Reply

  2. Michelle on November 12, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    TidyMom – As far as garnishes, I tend to try to garnish (to the extent possible) to give an idea of what is in the dish or what will provide great contrast.

    For example, if I make cupcakes that are lemon flavored, you may not know that just from the cake and icing, so I will put a lemon wedge on top. And then regarding contrast – to add some punch of color to something like chocolate cake, I will add raspberries or strawberries. Or if you have vanilla ice cream, berries or a sprig of mint will give a nice color contrast.

    Hope that helps!

    Reply

  3. Martica on November 12, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    Great info! Thankyou!

    Reply

  4. Ann on November 12, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    wow so its just a point and shoot camera! i used to own the older version of the panasonic lumix and it’s pretty good! love your photos! i hopped from your oldest site…to your second site and stumbled onto your official site here lols

    Reply

  5. bakingmomma on November 12, 2009 at 9:44 pm

    I have to say that I have photo envy. I always look at some things I make and then look at their photo and am so disappointed. But you have pointed out some things that I can now check into. My exposure says multi-pattern, center weight, center spot. Which makes no sense to me. lol Of course I am so bad I never read the manual for my camera and it has so many settings that I have no idea what they are for. But I guess if you are saying that I too can have beautiful photos if I read the manual. I guess that is enough motivation for me.

    Thanks for all you do!

    Reply

  6. Bibiana Bailey on November 12, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    That’s a great post. I have been struggling with my pictures pretty much everyday. I can’t wait to use some tips tomorrow.

    I don’t think I will be near what you are at, but anything would be an improvement from what it is now.

    Reply

  7. Nastassia Johnson on November 12, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    Great post! Reading through this was so helpful thanks for all the tips!!!

    Reply

  8. Jen @ My Kitchen Addiction on November 12, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    Wow – fantastic post! Thanks for all of the advice and sharing your photography journey with the rest of us!

    Reply

  9. Jenn on November 12, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    This is a great post — lots of great tips for an amateur wanting to learn more about taking great food photos. Thanks!

    Reply

  10. The Klutzy Cook on November 12, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    Thanks for some wonderful tips here, especially the white board backdrop. I often have trouble with my background – stuff everywhere, not to mention the mess:) I’ve been really trying to improve my photos and this has been a great help. Thanks again.

    Reply

  11. Brad on November 12, 2009 at 11:29 pm

    Thanks for all of the great info. I am a novice food photographer and found your article to very helpful.

    Reply

  12. Diane {createdbydiane.blogspot.com} on November 13, 2009 at 12:49 am

    Great advice, thanks

    Reply

  13. Ann Marie @ Household6Diva on November 13, 2009 at 1:20 am

    I’ve included this in my Friday Favorites post!

    Reply

  14. Miranda on November 13, 2009 at 7:11 am

    Thank you so much for the tips.

    Reply

  15. Carrie @ Deliciously Organic on November 13, 2009 at 7:40 am

    Thank you so much for this post! My husband just got me a new camera and I am trying to learn as much as I can about taking good food pics. I’ll definitely be using your advice! :)

    Reply

  16. Belinda @zomppa on November 13, 2009 at 7:44 am

    To add to the list of thank yous, THANK YOU! This is really helpful as I’m still learning my SLRs. I finally now have the option of taking some shots during the day…it was really hard to get any real good ones at night. I LOVE your photos.

    Reply

  17. TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on November 13, 2009 at 8:16 am

    Thanks for the advice. I know my photos aren’t the greatest but I take several and pick the best one of the group. I’ll have to see if I can turn off the flash for this digital camera, when I’m sure I have, it sometimes still flashes. Sigh.

    Reply

  18. Mardi @eatlivetravelwrite on November 13, 2009 at 10:34 am

    Thanks for this post – lots of great tips and it’s good to know that at least one other person out there does not have a DSLR! I use a Lumix TZ3 and love it. For sure it’s not professional but as I learn more about it, I am slowly improving…

    Reply

  19. Chris on November 13, 2009 at 10:51 am

    These photos look great.

    Reply

  20. Nurit - 1 family. friendly. food. on November 13, 2009 at 11:41 am

    Great to have found this post. I have a compile of links to posts with useful food photography links. I’ll add this one to it. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

  21. Julia on November 13, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    I’m so excited you posted this b/c on Nov 12 was my b-day, and my husband surprised me an got me my first DSLR. And after reading all of your tips, I feel so much more prepared to use it to it’s full potential. Thank you for the tips!

    Reply

  22. Lauryn on November 13, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    This is such helpful information!!! Thanks for sharing these tips!

    Reply

  23. TeenieCakes on November 14, 2009 at 2:18 am

    Excellent post! Thanks for sharing these tips.

    Reply

  24. cheah on November 14, 2009 at 4:34 am

    Congrats on being Top 9. Great post, very informative, good tips, but need to digest each and every step. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply

  25. Lauren on November 14, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Mucho commiseration from me on the woes of November! Taking food photos in the winter requires a great deal more planning than in the summer, particularly if you have to (gasp!) work during the day. There’s almost no chance something made mid-week will survive until a weekend photo shoot given our appetites around here!

    Reply

  26. Laura on November 14, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    From one brown eyed baker to another, you are a photo genius! I had no clue what I was doing when I started a few months ago, and still struggle with how to compose a photo in my teeny tiny kitchen with minimal counterspace and poor lighting. Thank you so much for putting your process down on paper, or online for all of us to learn from :)

    Reply

  27. Sheskis on November 14, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    I’m very novice to food photography and have a pretty crappy old camera as well. Thanks a bunch for the tips!

    Reply

  28. Joanne on November 14, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    Thanks so much for the terrific information. I hope to be able to put your tips to good use and get a few decent photos. Great post!

    Reply

  29. Marillyn @ just-making-noise on November 14, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    Excellent post! I’m glad to know that I am right along the same boat with you. I just love seeing how my pictures have improved over the short period of time since I first started my blog. There’s always something more you can learn and improve on. I love photography and never thought I would actually enjoy doing food photography!

    Reply

  30. Liz Marr, MS, RD on November 14, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    Very practical, step-by-step advice. Thanks for sharing with your fellow bloggers!

    Reply

  31. Ben on November 15, 2009 at 9:36 am

    Your pictures are fantastic. I have created a lighting rig for my pictures because I only have one window in my apartment and it only gets light in the morning.

    Reply

  32. Chaya on November 15, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    I have just printed this so I can read it, when I can really concentrate. Thank you for doing this.

    Reply

  33. Julie @savvyeats on November 16, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    Thank you for this post! I thought I would have to get a fancy camera in order to post such beautiful pictures; glad to hear that I don’t!

    Reply

  34. Taryn on November 17, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    OH my gosh thank you for this. Just the fact that you pointed out what the H that flower setting was for has changed my life. I have been taking close-up photos of things all day and it has been fantastic…my food photos look EXACTLY like the first one you showed. In fact, they’re so bad, I don’t even take them anymore…

    Reply

  35. Dhale on November 19, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    Thanks SO much for sharing these tips! I just started with food photography two months ago and this is such a useful post. I love it!

    Reply

  36. Jeannie on November 20, 2009 at 9:39 am

    Great article. I read every single word! Thanks!

    Reply

  37. Courtney on November 22, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    Thanks, great post! :)

    Reply

  38. potato ricer madness on November 23, 2009 at 10:22 am

    These do look absolutely amazing. Back to the kitchen for me.

    Reply

  39. ubot coupon code on February 26, 2010 at 6:08 am

    I am very pleasedto see that you are putting so much of effort for encouraging the visitors with valueable seo posts like this, I have sent this post to my myspaceaccount.

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  40. jamie on March 1, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    Thanks so much for taking the time to do this….I just got a new camera for Christmas and have been overwhelmed with it. I noticed the quality of your pictures as soon as I first found your website and wondered instantly what kind of camera you use/how you get the pictures to look so great. I’m definitely going to play with those settings on my camera, even though I may not be shooting food all of the time – the tips were very useful, and hey – maybe food can be a start for me & my camera!

    Reply

  41. Pallavi on April 27, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    Thanks so much for the tips. I’m focusing on videos, but was getting a bit stressed about the stills. I’m going to give my existing cameras a try based on your advice, rather than spending $$$ on a DSLR (although, I still want one)!

    Reply

  42. Mittie Nicka on May 13, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Those are some wonderful images, wish mine were that good quality!

    Reply

  43. berkshire wedding photographer on May 13, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    Brilliant! I’m very envious of those photographs, I wish I could do as well.Those images took a lot of aptitude to produce, well done. I’ve bookmarked this site.

    Reply

  44. Julie @SavvyEats on July 7, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Thank you for the advice on cheaper photo editing programs. I would LOVE to get Photoshop, but that is not in my budget right now.

    Also, my husband (that still feels weird to say!) teases me because we chose the dishes on our registry based on what would photograph best. ;)

    Reply

  45. Pingback: Brown Eyed Baker, Through the Years… | Brown Eyed Baker

  46. Terri T on July 22, 2010 at 10:55 am

    Great tips! I have Microsoft’s PictureIt! Platinum (2001), and it is just outstanding as photo editing goes. I had purchased Adobe Photoshop Limited Edition some years back, and discovered that PictureIt! would do all I wanted & needed, and is so much easier to use! Anyone who may have PictureIt! installed, that has never tried to work with it, may find themselves surprised at the capabilities. Mind you, I bought my software – it did NOT come pre-installed on the computer.

    Reply

  47. Magic of Spice on July 22, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    Great post…I need this:)

    Reply

  48. foodlvr on August 13, 2010 at 11:19 am

    Some great tips. Thanks. I will play more with my manual setting. I have already started to do that. I also turn off the flash when completely necessary. Most shots came out terrible with it on.

    Reply

  49. Sarah Commerford on October 3, 2010 at 8:58 am

    Thank you for all this information! I love your blog and was admiring your pictures while drooling over the pumpkin scone recipe. I followed the link to this page and presto! I have a Canon Powershot X10 which has been great, but I really want to up-grade to something with more close up possibilities – until I can afford that, I’ll use all the great ideas you listed. Beautiful site!

    Reply

  50. Rhonda on November 2, 2010 at 9:16 am

    Thanks for sharing, I really appreciate the tips.

    Reply

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