You enjoy taking food photos but you are disappointed that they never turn out as good as the ones in Pinterest and Instagram? You are not alone! It takes efforts to improve your photography skills but most importantly you need to start understanding your own mistakes. In this post I have summarised my best Food Photography Tips and Basics and I hope they will help you and lead you to the right direction.
I have been receiving lots of questions regarding my photography techniques which made me think of creating this post. It took me few months to write it because food photography is really extensive and I wanted to make sure I have included as much as possible of information.
The purpose of this post is to save you some mistakes and to help you improve faster in your food photography journey. If you follow the below tips and if you practice at least 1-2 times weekly, I guarantee you that you would improve significantly your photos in the next three months.
People often ask which camera is good for food photography. The answer is: you can take nice food photos with almost every camera or even with your phone! A very expensive full frame camera doesn’t guarantee automatically that you will start taking fantastic photos. The most important for you at the beginning is to learn the basics of lighting, composition and styling which would allow you to create good photos with even the cheapest camera.
The smartphones nowadays have amazing features so their capabilities shouldn’t be underestimated. When I started my blog back in 2012, I was taking photos with an iPhone 4S. At the time most of my photos were a total disaster, however I also noticed that some of them were turning out almost great. You might also observe that your photography is inconsistent: this is most probably because you haven’t learned yet how to light and style your photos so every time they turn out different.
One think I would like to clarify: it is not really the camera that makes the photo the way it looks. The lenses, in fact, have more influence on the way the image would turn out. That’s why when you decide that it is time to buy a “real” camera, you should go for one that has interchangeable lenses and supports RAW format. My advice for starters is to buy a DSLR at a price that you can afford at the moment and to learn how to take photos with it. It is not worth spending too much money for an expensive camera as you will not be using majority of its features at the beginning.
My first DSLR was very basic, Canon EOS 1100D, one of the cheapest at the time. Several years later I bought a full frame camera Canon 6D and I thought of selling out my first one. Well, I kept it because it had a very high sentimental value for me. Believe it or not, I still take photos with it on a weekly basis. I actually use it more often than my full frame camera because it is light and easy to carry!
Many of the DSLR cameras come with a starter kit lenses. Normally they are zoom lenses, 18-55 mm. They are very good for learners because at this range of focal lenght you can shoot any type of photos, including food photography. But very likely at some stage you will want to see more bokeh in your photos and also better colour quality and sharpness: then it will be probably time for you to buy new lenses.
The first main thing you need to consider in lenses is the focal length. It means how big is the area you will capture in the images. The smaller is the focal length, the larger area you will photograph.
There are two types of lenses: prime lenses, which have a fixed focal length (e.g. 50 mm), and zoom lenses, which have a range of focal length (e.g. 18 to 55 mm).
The focal length for food photography should be somewhere between 35 and 100 mm. In my view lenses between 50 and 85 are the best option. 100 mm macro could be also good on full frame cameras, if you want to take close up photos, but not ideal if these are your only lenses. On the other hand 35-40 mm are particularly good for overhead shots but they are not ideal if you want to present one main object in the photo. Lenses below 35 mm are not really suitable for food photography as you will see too much of the surroundings in the photo.
If you are looking to buy your first lenses to use for food photos, I would recommend a 50 mm, as they represent more or less the focal area of the human eyes.
Lighting is very important for food photography. And in many cases it has to be different than in other kinds of photos in order to represent the food in the most pleasing way. A good rule of thumb for beginners is to have always one light source: for example one window. That will help you to create shadows, which will make the photo interesting and the food more appealing. If the room is too dark on the opposite side of the window and you don’t want to have too dramatic shadows in your image, you can place a reflector: anything that is white. I use large white foam boards that I bought from a hardware shop and they do even better job than the special photography reflectors.
Another important point is that the light from your window shouldn’t be too harsh and direct. You don’t want your objects to be “burned” or to have unpleasant light spots. If the sun is shining, diffuse the light with a transparent curtain or with a piece of white fabric placed (or taped) on the window. You can also use white baking paper if this is the only white semi-transparent material you have.
Ideally try to find a window that does not have the sun shining directly on it. Or choose the time of the day when the sun is not shining at this side of the house.
The best and the easiest lighting conditions for food photography are side lighting and back lighting.
When it comes to composition, it is preferable to follow some basic rules, at least at the beginning. Like for example the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Triangle are really helpful classic composition rules to give you guidance, especially when you are not very experienced. With the time your eyes will get trained and you will understand intuitively what is good composition and what is not.
Below are my most favourite composition rules which I also consider the easiest to follow:
Rule of Thirds: This is probably the most basic of all composition rules. It means that if you divide your photo vertically and horizontally into three parts, you need to have your main object placed where the lines are crossing. This creates a nice symmetry, pleasing for the eyes.
Golden triangle: This composition style is similar to the one above. Some people say it is even more enjoyable for the eyes.
In this case one imaginary line divides diagonally the picture from one corner to another, and then two additional lines are drawn from the other two corners, making right angles with the first line. Ideally you will have one of your focal points on one of this right angles and another object on the other. The lines divide the frame into different areas.
When I was studying my photos to find examples, I realised that I use this composition method more often than the rule of thirds. In fact the Golden Triangle is a more dynamic rule, often implies movement as the imaginary lines naturally guide the eyes through the objects.
Framing: I really love that composition style. It represents one main object (usually in the middle of the photo), surrounded by props or objects, which complement the main one. The reason I like it, is because it allows you to have one “hero” object of food which you can highlight through its surroundings. I find this style very good for storytelling.
Negative space: It is almost always a good idea to leave some “empty” space in the photo. This puts the accent on the main object and at the same time balances the picture in a nice way and doesn’t allow it to become too busy. On the other hand the negative space doesn’t need to be really empty: it can be filled by patterns or colours. The bigger is the negative space, the more contrast it brings to the photo. In my experience, a composition with more negative space is particularly nice when the colours of the photo are not too contrasting.
Before you style your photos, you need to ask yourself one question: what environment, mood and feeling you want your images to project? Do you want it to have a rustic mood? Or you prefer a clean minimalist feeling? What season you have in mind? Do you want to show particular time of the day or specific event? According to the answers, you will select your props and style the shooting session.
You need to select objects that complement each other. Mixing very different styles is not a good idea, unless you have experience and know exactly what you want to accomplish.
The below three photos are examples of styling:
- Summer, sunshine, colourful mood, peaches. Composition: framing
- In this photo the styling tells a story: two pieces of raspberry cheesecake on a table, as if expecting two people to come and eat them. A little part of the whole cheesecake is visible as well: the table looks like served for guests. Raspberries and basil leaves are spread around. The table is rustic but the plates are made of porcelain and have vintage style: it is like we are in a rustic house, ready to have some cake in the pleasant summer day.
- The blossom in a vase implies that it is spring. There is a handmade lace on the table, on top of which is placed the bundt cake. This cake is just waiting to be cut: there is a colourful plate behind. The lace is vintage, so looks the table as well. It could be the house of a grandmother who made the cake.
Every tiny little object in the photo must have a purpose. Even when the picture represents a literal mess, it should be purposely made to create a pleasing image. Don’t just “throw” objects on the table, hoping that they will look good.
Taking photos with a smartphone or with a very basic camera is easy. So is taking photos with DSLR on automatic mode. It is perfectly fine to use your phone with its automatic settings while you are learning lighting, composition, styling and editing, but once you have DSLR you MUST learn to shoot in manual mode.
The really interesting part comes when you start adjusting ISO, shutter speed and aperture in order to achieve the desired results for your images.
Shooting tip number one: master the settings of your camera! You need to learn how to take photos so that they are perfectly exposed, sharp and without too much noise. You need to learn the ISO – Shutter Speed – Aperture triangle. There is a lot of information available in Internet about it and if you are interested I can also write a separate post.
I won’t go into details here as it is really a lot of information, my point is that you have to understand how your camera works in order to accomplish good results in any conditions.
Shooting tip number two: get a tripod, which is often absolutely necessary for good quality food photos. Why tripod? Because you don’t photograph moving objects. The tripod will help you to take sharp and perfectly exposed photos even in low light conditions (which will be usually the case inside the house in the winter).
In fact one of the reasons why you don’t need expensive camera for food photography is because you don’t photograph moving objects. With a tripod you can keep always the ISO very low and that way you are avoiding grainy effect in the photos. High ISO = more grain = low quality image.
You absolutely need to edit your images, or at least 90% of them. There is no such thing like a perfect photo – you can always improve something, even if it is just adding more contrast and colour saturation. Your editing will also define your style as every person will enhance a photo in a different way, following his own taste.
However you need to be aware that a very bad picture can’t be fixed really: like blurred, unfocused objects or too much noise. And of course, you can’t fix also bad composition and styling. So you need to aim to improve your shooting techniques and use editing software just to enhance your photos.
You can read in this post how I edit my photos.
Below are my best tips about photo editing:
- Shoot in RAW format: I can’t stress more the importance of this format! It carries much more information than the JPEG, which means you can fix a lot of things post production: from white balance to light and dark areas.
- Use Lightroom or other similar software that can enable you to edit quickly your photography.
- Experiment without overdoing edits. The photo should look natural, not over-polished.
I hope this post is useful for you. Please let me know in the comments if you would like to read more similar posts and what exactly part of food photography you would like to learn more about!