Ask the Expert: 7 Top Food Photography Tips

When Georgette of Chocolate and Figs invited me to do a guest post on the importance of good food photography on food blogs, I wasn’t just honored, I was blown away! I’ve been an admirer of Chocolate and Figs for some time now and can’t get enough of Georgette’s wonderful photography and recipes.

I don’t have to tell you how important good food photography is these days on food blogs. We eat first with our eyes, and it’s much harder to get excited about a recipe if an unappetizing photo accompanies it. I know many bloggers complain that they don’t have the time or resources to accomplish beautiful food photographs, but I’m here to tell you that you can. Take a look at my porfolio

Over the summer I took a food photography class at the International Center of Photography in New York. One of the most valuable lessons that I have learned is how much you can do with minimal equipment. Yes, professional food photographers have expensive cameras, a selection of lenses, tons of lighting, and food and prop stylists at their fingertips. And it’s really easy to get caught up in wanting the most and the best. But the truth is you don’t need all of that! Here are a few basic tips that I hope will help anyone, from novice to pro.

Tip 1. Know Your Camera – This may seem obvious, but it’s maybe the most import tip I can give you (aside from lots of practice). Whether you have a point and shoot or a deluxe digital SLR, chances are you aren’t aware of all the capabilities of your camera. I found the manual that came with my camera (a Nikon D3000) to be useless. I recommend buying a book on your camera – you’d be surprised how many models have one. I have the Nikon D3000 Digital Field Guide, butDavid Busch’s guides and the “For Dummies” series are also excellent. Read it and see what your camera can really do.

Tip 2. Use a Tripod – If you don’t currently use a tripod when photographing food you will immediately notice sharper photos once you start. Yes, they can be annoying to set up and it may seem like there is enough light to shoot handheld, but it’s worth the extra three seconds it takes to pull out the tripod. And they don’t need to be a big investment. There are plenty out there for under $20, like this one.

Tip 3. Lighting – Everyone will tell you that daylight is preferable. If you are lucky enough to shoot during the day in a place with plenty of windows, you’re in luck. Don’t shoot directly in the sunlight as that will wash out the photos. Instead, manipulate the natural light with a few simple items like a white card to bounce light and a black card (plain black cardboard propped up works) to help block light (for example to help you get rid of pesky reflections).

But not everyone has great light in their house. Furthermore, as food bloggers many of us are shooting our dinner when it’s already dark out. Some folks create their own white boxes out of cardboard and a desk light, which can work wonders. I invested in a small tabletop light called a Lowell Ego Light that runs about $100. It can sit right on the table or attach to one of those cheapo tripods. It supplies a nice soft, daylight-like light and makes it possible to take great food shots any time of day. We used this when I worked at a professional food magazine.

Tip 4. The place of the lighting source. I guess you did not think about the importance of placing your light source strategically. Light is the one that will enhance the texture and shape of the food you are photographing. Will it be your window or a special lamp the source of your lighting, it makes a huge difference where is it coming from. I realize that you cannot move your window, but you can place your settings advantageously. Best photographs are achieved with lights that are coming from three directions: From the right, from the left and behind the item you are photographing. In other words, light at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock controls the light and the back light “scrapes” the surface of the food for enhanced texture and shape. Another important point: do not place the light too high from the food.

As you can see I use most of the place I was given here to discuss lighting, because light is everything in food or any other photography. I recommend that if you plan purchase only one book about photography, purchase the one that 80% of it is about lighting.

Tip 5. Food Styling and Props – This is probably where I get caught up most of the time. I was trained to just take photos of the food without a lot of stuff in the background, but I’ve found that a little bit of something else often makes for a more interesting shot. At the same time, you don’t want an explosion of props. Keep it simple. While stylists have tons of cool props on hand the food blogger really just needs a few that you can mix and match, and they are probably things you already have: a dish towel or two, a few different plates and bowls, kitchen utensils, a placemat. Other household items like candles and glasses can make their way in, but my favorite is to use herbs, or fruits or vegetables that are in the dish itself. White is always a safe choice for your serving dish. Play around with a few different set-ups. I’m not going to get deep into aperture, but if you want those items in the back to be a little fuzzy for a nice depth of field then use a lower f-stop.

Tip 6. Post-Production – This refers to the editing process. Most photos, even from professionals, require a bit of touching up and you don’t need to take a class in Photoshop to do the same. I use a free program called PhotoScape that, while not on the professional level of Photoshop is a) free and b) suits my needs. There are plenty of other great tools out there. Some of them have an auto-fix option, which can be a good start. Play around with the different options like white balance, contrast, and color temperature and see what results you get.

Tip 7. Practice and Observe – Honestly more than anything else – more than fancy equipment and quirky props – nothing beats practicing and observing. Sure it’s stressful to take photos while you’re trying to get dinner on the table. So try setting aside some time when you can just focus on the photography. It doesn’t have to be a finished dish; try photographing a bowl of fruit, a flower, anything. Play with the set-up, props, composition, light, and settings on your camera. The more you practice the better you will get, and the faster too so that even dinner shots will be great. Also start noticing food photography elsewhere in blogs and magazines – what do you like and not like? What works well? What styles do you notice? Try to think about this and incorporate it into your own photography. (For a list of some inspiring professional food photographers and some other tips check out my post here.)

I hope this brief overview has helped! What’s the most valuable photography lesson you’ve learned? Let us know in the comments section!