There’s a popular saying among chefs claiming that “you eat with your eyes first.” Since our sight is the first sensory criteria we use when making decisions about the foods we eat, the visual appeal of the dish plays a huge role in whether want to eat it or not. This is why we tend to unconsciously gravitate towards colorful, carefully plated meals and why food photography is one of the most popular genres across social media.
Contrary to what it may seem, taking enticing food shots is far from an easy feat. Not only do you need a delicious-looking meal in front of you, but also the necessary skills to make said meal look as appetizing as it does in real life, on an odorless, two-dimensional format. From getting the food ready and plating up, to choosing the right lighting and editing your work, food photography is much more demanding than you may think.
Whether you’re a seasoned photographer or a budding newcomer looking to expand the horizons of your photography website, these food photography tips will make mastering this genre a piece of cake:
Consume beautiful imagery
Write a brief
Choose the right gear
Invest in a good tripod
Search for natural light
Keep it fresh
Work with a food stylist
Create an appealing composition
Experiment with angles
Pay attention to color
Tell a story
Include a human element
Strive for minimalism
Edit to perfection
01. Consume beautiful imagery
Feed your inspiration by dedicating a few minutes each day to looking at the work of other food photographers. One of the easiest ways to do so is simply following Instagram photography accounts that feature these types of pictures. If you’re not sure where to find these profiles, check out the most popular photography hashtags on social media.
02. Write a brief
If your goal is to become a professional photographer, you’ll need to get familiar with writing detailed briefs. While they’re most commonly used when working with clients, you can highly benefit from integrating them into your personal projects’ workflow. This document should include key details such as your target audience, goal of the project, tone of voice, and publishing platforms.
It’s also recommended to sketch out a few image ideas that capture your goals for the photoshoot. This will help you bring to life the images that you envisioned and make the most of your shooting time.
If you’re planning to reach out to brands for potential partnerships or sell stock photos, spend some time researching common traits in images used for this purpose, and write down some notes to base your sketches and on-set decisions on.
03. Choose the right gear
The first question that might come to mind when getting started on a new photography discipline, is the type of camera that you will need. If that’s something you were worrying about, you’ll be happy to hear that pretty much any device will do.
This is because you’ll be working with a still subject that you can easily manage at will, and most likely will be shooting in an environment with controlled lighting. All you need is to ensure that you master all camera settings in order to capture exactly what you had in mind.
If your device of choice allows for interchangeable lenses, get your hands on a good prime lens. This is one of the most valued types of camera lenses, as they tend to be much faster and produce higher-quality results. Plus, as mentioned above, you’ll be in full control of the scene and therefore won’t be needing zoom capabilities.
04. Invest in a good tripod
Of all camera accessories out there, a tripod might just be the most popular across nearly all photography genres. Not only do they help you avoid unwanted camera shake on your images, but also help you take a step back and revise your compositions before you press the shutter. Plus, they open the doors to accomplishing creative photography ideas that would be impossible to capture otherwise.
05. Search for natural light
When it comes to illuminating a food photography scene, natural light is generally the preferred choice. This doesn’t mean you should do all your photoshoots outdoors, but rather that you should always strive to get a natural, soft lighting. For best results, it’s recommended to place your composition near a large window and shoot during the photography golden hour or an overcast day in order to avoid harsh shadows.
Of course, with the right equipment and skills you can recreate this atmosphere in a studio using artificial light. If you choose to take this path, start with one main light and use reflectors to soften the shadows and illuminate the frame, mimicking the effect of sun shining through a window.
06. Keep it fresh
The meals you photograph should appear as if they were prepared just moments before you pressed the shutter. Therefore, always avoid soggy food or dishes that have been spoiled in any way. Even the smallest imperfection can put-off your viewers.
To avoid this, pay attention to the shelf life of your ingredients (especially produce) and buy them as close to the photoshoot as possible. When shooting fruits and vegetables, a common food photography tip is to store them in the fridge covered by a wet napkin, and wash them right before plating up. This way, they’ll be coated in water drops and will appear fresh.
As for cooked dishes or those with sauces, refrain from plating them until you’re ready to start taking pictures. It’s recommended to use props to create a composition that only needs to be minimally adjusted once the food is ready. Otherwise, your images might end up looking like that salad you ordered for lunch for which the restaurant ignored your “dressing on the side” request.
07. Work with a food stylist
They say that to be the best you must surround yourself with the best. When it comes to building a photography career, this means you should collaborate with talented professionals from other fields that will help you take each image to the next level. For example, if you were a fashion photographer, you’d try to find a professional stylist and make-up artist to work with, instead of attempting to juggle all roles at once.
The equivalent of that in food photography is having a photographer who cooks, serves, and takes the pictures. While that might work to some extent, it will make the job much harder and will rarely meet the standards of collaborative efforts.
Partnering with a food stylist will help you ensure that the composition of the dish is the absolute best to transmit your creative idea. This includes anything from textures and colors to props and tableware. Furthermore, stylists have the knowledge and skills necessary to make any meal (yes, even spinach) look delicious.
08. Use props
Props are friends, and not necessarily always food. Including accessories in your compositions can help you add a personal touch to the image, as well as strengthening its visual appeal.
The kind of props used in food photography tend to be related to the ingredients, origin, or cooking of each dish. However, integrating other accessories such as flowers, books, or fabrics can also strengthen the overall look of the image.
Regardless of the type of elements that you choose to add into the composition, make sure that they serve only to support the main subject. That is, they should not be more eye-catching than the dish you’re photographing, nor clutter the frame excessively.
09. Create an appealing composition
Your grandma might have told you a million times not to play with food, but this food photography tip asks for the complete opposite. Don’t be afraid to rearrange the pieces of food on your plate or mix in non-edible elements. Think of each meal as a canvas ready to be arranged, and use the different photography composition rules to guide the viewer's eyes across both the frame and the plate.
Ideally, you should take some time before the shoot to experiment with how the food you’ll be shooting reacts to different environments. For example, certain foods change color, expand or enlarge when in contact with heat or cold. Knowing this in advance will not only help you avoid mistakes but also give you the chance to come up with ideas to utilize the circumstances.
10. Experiment with angles
Unlike in portrait photography, where there are certain camera angles that you should always stick to in order to make your subject look their best, the perspective from which you photograph food will entirely depend on each dish. Some meals look amazing when shot from the front, while others benefit from a higher angle or even a bird’s eye. And just like people, they all have a good and a bad side.
Once the food is plated and you’ve got the composition ready, try out a few different angles to see what works best. The most common ones are table level (right in front of the food), 45° (standing eyesight), and 90° (bird’s eye). This will allow you to find what’s known as the “hero angle,” aka the most appealing position.
11. Pay attention to color
Color goes hand in hand with light in terms of importance in food photography. In fact, this might be the only type of photography where black and white images are unheard of. After all, can you imagine any dish looking delicious once you strip it of its color?
There are two main ways to make the colors of your meals pop: neutral tones and contrasting colors. Using neutral tones for props and backgrounds will dull the surroundings of your main subject, thus directing less attention to them, and more to the dish itself. On the other hand, using contrasting colors between the dish and its surroundings creates vibrant dynamics that stimulate the viewer’s sight and draw them into the scene. The right choice for your images will depend on the characteristics and goals of each photo.
12. Tell a story
Photography storytelling is one of the most important skills to master. While it may not have a direct impact on the outcome of your pictures, it’s a key factor in how your work is perceived. The message you want to get across should be defined in the early stages of the project, ideally during the creation of the brief.
Knowing the narrative you want to tell will also help you compose the image, choose the props, and define the type of lighting. Think of a steaming cup of coffee on an otherwise empty table, over a dark background. Now imagine the same cup, but next to an open window and an open book. While the subject remains the same, the feelings each image conveys are polar opposites.
13. Include a human element
Speaking of viewers perceiving your images as if they were part of the scene, including people in the shot will give them someone to identify with. This can be anything from a chef cooking, a hand reaching out to the food, a family sitting together at the table, or a kid holding an ice cream cone.
By featuring a person, or at least part of them, in your composition, you’ll be offering your audience a way to connect with the image. Including human elements can add a sense of depth, dynamism, and visual appeal to the photo, a practice that is also very common in landscape photography.
14. Strive for minimalism
At the end of the day, the star of your food photography work should always be the food. While that might sound obvious now, it’s quite easy to get sidetracked once you’re actually shooting, trying out new compositions and props. Keep in mind that all these elements are meant to support and elevate your main subject, rather than obscuring it.
Take a look at different fine art photography examples to see how most images use negative space to let the subject breathe and direct the viewers’ attention. Apply the same technique to your own compositions.
15. Edit to perfection
Just like you wouldn’t eat a raw potato, you shouldn’t publish your RAW photos. And yes, that includes unprocessed JPG files, too. The only two places where these images belong are either your photo library, as they wait to be edited, or your Instagram Stories, where you keep in touch with your audience with ephemeral or work-in-process content.
Use a premium or free photo editing software to bring your images to life and make them pop, all while keeping them as close to reality as possible. This includes fixing the white balance, adjusting brightness and contrast, increasing saturation, and any other edits your photography style requires.