Food Photography Basics
Updated in 2019. 🙂
Photos are the bread and butter of my food blog. I like to think of them as the strategic “selling point” to my recipes. I can only say so much about a brownie being fudgy. I want to SHOW you how fudgy it is.
In addition to posting quality content, I’ve learned that awesome food photography draws in a crowd– and makes them stay! Bad food photos are a turn off and I write this knowing I have some poor shots on my website. (I cringe when I look at photos even as recent as 1 year ago!) I learn and try to improve with every single photo shoot. Sometimes I reshoot old recipes for fun if I make the goodie again, but I like to leave a few old photos up to remind myself that food photography is a learning journey.
After some practice, I learned that big, bright, CRISP, make-you-want-to-reach-through-the-screen photographs create the most visual appeal for my readers. We eat with our eyes, so my blog’s photography is an important aspect.
You can certainly have a successful blog without a professional DSLR, editing software, and a pricey lens. However, for me, I didn’t notice my blog taking off until I learned how to use my DSLR. From April 2012 – March 2013, I used my Canon EOS Rebel T2i and a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens. This is a very affordable and lightweight lens for its functionality. They range between $100-$120 or even cheaper if you find a good deal.
My Current Camera & Lenses (2019)
- Canon EOS 5D Mark iv – Absolutely love the touch screen feature.
- Canon 50mm f/1.2 L lens – Beautifully crisp images with smooth detail.
- Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L zoom lens – Zoom in without losing clarity.
- Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 L macro lens – Super up-close and dramatic shots of the finest detail.
I use Adobe Lightroom to edit my food photography. I think of editing photos as putting life back into the pictures. Lightroom is extremely user friendly and a lot of food photographers use it over Photoshop. Lightroom has been my saving grace and I HIGHLY recommend buying it for editing photos, even if you aren’t a food photographer. There are millions of Lightroom tutorials available online– that’s how I learned! This one is awesome for beginners.
Manual Mode & RAW Format
I shoot in manual mode (M) and in RAW format.
- Manual Mode: Shooting in manual mode, versus 1 of the many automatic modes, allows you to control the camera’s settings, such as shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. More on each camera setting below.
- RAW Image: RAW images are uncompressed files with the most digital information from the camera. Jpeg images are compressed. If shooting in RAW, get ready to use up a ton of space (or all) on your memory card!
Three Major DSLR Settings
Aperture controls how light will hit the camera sensor and is measured in F stops (“f/2.8” is the aperture). It is the size of the hole that the light goes through when passing through the lens. Photos taken with a low number/wide aperture will let in more light. Even though the number is small, f/2.8 is a large, wide aperture letting in a lot of lot. In contrast, f/8.0 is a narrower aperture. Expert Photography has an awesome in-depth article explaining aperture.
A lower number/wide aperture will also give you a more shallow depth of field. This is when one small object (or part of an object) is in focus when the rest of the photo is blurred. A blurred background is known as bokeh. When you take photos with a higher number/narrow aperture (meaning more of your photo is in focus), you need a lot of (natural or artificial) light because the hole that the light goes through is smaller.
The 2nd image, also taken with my macro lens), shows a lot more detail. I shot this with a smaller aperture (f/5.6), so more is in focus.
Below is a 2012 photo of my Cake Batter Chocolate Chip Cookies. I wanted the entire tower of cookies to be in focus (remember: higher number aperture = more of the photo is in focus). This means that I had to bump up my aperture to f/8.0. Because I set the aperture to a higher number (less light) to get more of the cookie tower in focus, I had to slow down my shutter speed to compensate for the loss of light. More on shutter speed next.
For fun, below is a photo taken of the same cookies in 2011. This was before I knew how to use a DSLR or what food styling and composition were. Ha! Taken with my iPhone 4 in natural light, no editing, poor composition, too tight, and no styling.
2) Shutter Speed
Shutter speed is the amount of time the camera’s shutter is open. Shutter speed and aperture are buddies. When you adjust one, you (most of the time) must adjust the other to compensate. While aperture depicts the size of the hole in which the lens allows light, the camera’s shutter is for exposing the sensor to light for a specific amount of time. Shutter speed is represented by seconds or fractions of a second. For example, if your shutter speed is “1/125 s″ that means your shutter is open for one one-hundred and twenty fifths of a second. A shutter speed of “1” is one full second.
The bigger the denominator in the fraction, the faster the speed (1/500 is much faster than 1/30).
To get a decent or perfect exposure, your aperture and shutter speed must be aligned. Even when aligned, I usually still have to brighten or darken the photo in my editing software.
How do I change the aperture and the shutter speed in manual mode? Take a look at your camera’s manual. On most DSLR cameras, you can change the aperture or shutter speed by turning the dials on top of the camera. Below you’ll see this user shooting in M mode (manual), 1/400 s shutter speed, and f/5.6 aperture. Do you see that dial in the red circle, in between the two 1s? That means the shutter speed and/or aperture have been adjusted to perfectly align for a decent exposure. I say decent because, for me, I still notice my photos too bright or too dark when the dial is in the center. Sometimes I move the dial to the left or to the right to get the exposure I am looking for.
ISO is an indication of how sensitive your camera is to light. 100 is low, 3200 is high. The lower the number, the less sensation to light and the crisper the photo. A higher ISO setting is used in dark settings to get quicker shutter speeds – but this means a noisier/grainy looking photo. White on Rice Couple explains ISO in detail here.
I remember when I first began using my DSLR. I had it set to 2400 (!!!) in the afternoon to take a photo of a cupcake in my dark apartment. This is before I discovered the magic of a tripod. More on using a tripod below. My husband, who took professional photography courses, picked up the camera the next day, saw the 2400 ISO, and asked me if I was shooting in the dark. I had to bump up my ISO very high to get a lighter photo. I could have just adjusted my shutter speed and aperture, but I had no idea what I was doing. The resulting photo (below) is very noisy with a lot of grain in the background. See how grainy this photo is?
These days, if you have a nicer model camera, shooting with a higher ISO won’t leave too much grain on your photo. In darker lighting situations, I’m able to boost up the ISO to 1200 on my current camera. Photo still looks crisp and clean! Quality camera equipment certainly makes a difference!
I used a tripod for most of my food photography in the beginning. I had dull lighting in my home and very shaky hands, which led to blurry photos and lots of frustration. A tripod keeps your camera steady, so you can set it at a low shutter speed and still get a clear, focused image. I highly suggest a tripod (that shoots both vertically and horizontally) if you are having trouble with lighting or focus. I also recommend setting your camera to a self 2 second timer. After you hit the “click” button, the camera may shake for a millisecond as you remove your finger from it. This would give you a blurry photo. If the camera pauses for 2 seconds before self-clicking, the photo will be crisp.
When I need it, I use and recommend the Sunpak 620-080 model.
Food photography is all about light. Think about the 3 camera settings we just walked through: aperture, shutterspeed, and ISO. Each applies to light, right? Lighting is the most important component in food photography. If you have the most beautifully styled photo, the pretties food props, and the most perfect chocolate chip cookie– if you don’t have any light, how can you shoot it?
Most food photographers prefer natural light, myself included. I’ve never been a fan of artificial light on my food, but that’s a personal preference. I shoot right next to our floor-to-ceiling glass patio door. This is harsh direct sunlight, so I soften it with contractor’s paper that you can find at home improvement stores. I revolve my shoot days around the weather. Depending on the subject, I can still shoot on bright cloudy days– in fact this makes for beautiful lighting as the sunlight is already softened.
There is so much to say about lighting, so I’ll leave it to some food photography pros:
- 4 Must Haves for Beautiful Natural Food Photography on Two Loves Studio
- Lighting and Compositional Basics by New York Times photographer Andrew Scrivani
- Artificial Lighting: One Light Set-Ups from Expert Photography
Food Styling and Composition
I write this section fully knowing that I am not an expert on either! Food styling and composition are challenging for me because I usually just like to put the food in frame and quickly take the photo. If I have more time, I try to thoughtfully style my photos.
Every photographer has their own style. A wedding photographer with soft-lit, glowing photos. A food photographer with moody, sultry photos. It really just depends what you like and are comfortable shooting. It took me years to find my style and it’s constantly evolving! Some tips:
- Movement: Create movement in your photos– make the reader’s eyes move from one corner of the photo to another. Try to always use the rule of thirds.
- Natural: Style your frame with natural aesthetic. A few sprinkles here, a few cake crumbs pieces there. Natural crumbs on the plate, nothing forced. A spoon, a patterned linen– all of these create dimension and a sense of place.
- Action: Create movement with action shots. Actions shots are fun, but only possible if you have a friend or tripod. It kind of makes the reader feel like he/she is right there with you and makes for a very interesting photo!
- Props: Pretty dishes, colorful textiles, vintage silverware, distressed wood pieces, white plates and bowls, or granite counter tops. For purchasing, try local antique shops, second hand stores, Anthropologie, Home Goods, and Pier 1 for props. I use photography backgrounds made by Erickson Woodworks. I love their backdrops! Food can also be a prop in your photo. What is in your recipe? Chocolate chips? Herbs? Lemon? Add some extras to your frame for very little cost by using relevant food.
There are 3 main angles for food photography. Three quarters view, overhead, and straight-on. Three quarters view is beautiful– the subject is slightly above eye level, but not overhead. I throw more of the food into the background when shooting in this view – I do not need to worry about my couch, my window, or a chair being in the background. This angle is perfect if you have limited space. Overhead shots show an entire scene or display. Straight-on images show the subject right at eye level. Using a mix of angles in your food photography allows the viewer to see the food in many different ways.
I like to shoot vertical photos as opposed to horizontal photos.
- Vertical photos are larger on my website. I like big and bold photos!
- Vertical photos are larger on Pinterest, which grabs the attention of users.
- Vertical photos are much easier to crop down if needed. Sometimes my photos aren’t perfectly framed or appear lopsided when I upload them to my computer. I swear my floors are crooked. Cropping down a vertical shot is much easier than horizontal because you have more photo to work with.
Practice and determine which styles and angles you are most comfortable with.
There are millions of resources for learning how to improve your food photography and this is just one of them, but I hope you’re leaving with a few extra pieces of food photography knowledge! Food photography is a lot more fun and a lot less scary if you just keep practicing. Take hundreds of photos. Thousands. Keep working at it. You’ll never get the perfect shot unless you take it.
- Canon EOS Rebel T2i (my 1st DSLR camera)
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens (my 1st and very affordable lens)
- Canon 5D Mark iii (my 2nd DSLR camera)
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 lens
- Canon EF 24-70mm f/4.0 zoom lens
- Canon EOS 5D Mark iv (my current camera)
- Canon 50mm f/1.2 L lens (current lens)
- Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L zoom lens (current lens)
- Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 L macro lens (current lens)
- Adobe Lightroom
- Sunpak 620-080 Tripod
More Food Photography Resources
- Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling by Helene Dujardin of Tartelette
- Tasty Food Photography eBook by Lindsay Ostrom of Pinch of Yum
- Foodtography School by Sarah Fennel of Broma Bakery
- 4 Must Haves for Beautiful Natural Food Photography on Two Loves Studio
- 99 Food Photography Tips from Photographers
- 12 Food Styling Secrets from the Pros