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6 Tips to Better Food Photography

Texture created with skimming light.

This is a guest article by Sandy Weatherall:

Photography, as an art form is an emotional medium. It attracts our sense of sight and makes us feel – something. Food photography takes the emotional reaction to the next level. Food is emotional. It reminds us of family, comfort, and times and places. Even though the images are visual, you can sometimes hear the sizzle of cooking food. You often smell and taste what you see in your imagination. You can feel the familiar textures in your mouth. Food photography really does use all of your senses. Food is feeling.

This is perhaps why there are foodies everywhere now – and it seems everywhere there is a foodie, there is a foodie with a camera. However, your eye for photography has probably already figured out, that not all food photos make you want to dive in and eat. In this article you'll get six tips to help you do better food photography.

Here are some tips on how to make your food photos mouth watering.

Choose your food subject wisely
At least while you are teaching yourself. Not all delicious food looks delicious. Beef stew with potatoes, mushrooms and onions is a favourite. What colour is it though? Brown on brown on brown. Tomato soup is pretty great too, but it’s red and flat. A soufflé is always a challenge. It will collapse before you raise your camera to your eye. Give yourself success by photographing naturally beautiful food. Choose food with lots of texture and colour until you begin to develop tricks to improve photos of these more challenging types of foods.
Brown food made better with texture. The recipe didn’t have carrots to start with. It does now!
Brown food made better with texture. The recipe didn’t have carrots to start with. It does now!
Success with food with lots of texture and colour.
Success with food with lots of texture and colour.
It's all about the light
Why should food photography be any different than other genres of photography? The best way to make food look delicious is to give it texture. You get texture by skimming light across the surface of your subject. So always begin with a single main light source; the sun is good place to start. Window light is great!

Position your food so that the main source of light is behind, or to the side, of your subject.

Observe what is happening.

Is there contrast and texture showing up in your food? If not, maybe your light is too flat (cloudy or diffused by a curtain) or maybe the angle of the light is too high, and is lighting everything evenly instead of skimming the surface.

You could remedy this by either bringing your subject higher or blocking off the top half of your light source. Once you have your main light creating texture, you can fill in the shadows by using some sort of reflector,  aluminum foil or white cardboard can work, or a shiny knife for small shadows.

Use what you can find. Lots of things will do the job.

Texture created with skimming light.
Texture created with skimming light.
An example of when softer light can work. There is still shape to the food though.
An example of when softer light can work. There is still shape to the food though.
Colour
Food should be warm and inviting. Cold coloured food doesn’t look appetizing. Even if it’s actually cold food. A blue coloured salad doesn’t draw you in, nor does cold coloured steak. A vibrant green, red, and yellow salad is tasty and warm. Brown caramelized crusted stake is amazing. Make sure the white balance on your camera is set warm, or absolutely warm the colours up in post-processing.
Warmth of colour even tough the food is brown. Importance of editing.
Warmth of colour even though the food is brown. Importance of editing.
Camera angle
Have you ever seen a pizza shot from a really low angle? Or soup? How about a burger photographed from the top of the bun? There are pretty obvious reasons for this. The side of a bowl of soup or the top of a burger bun misses the mark. Play with angles. Move around your food. Try shooting from up high, then try down low. What angle shows the food off best? There are no rules, but some angles just seem to work better than others.
Choosing Angles. Soup from a high angle.
Choosing Angles. Soup from a high angle.
This food does not look good far away and from a high angle.
This food does not look good far away and from a high angle.
Looks better from a lower angle.
Looks better from a lower angle.
Intimacy
Food is an intimate thing. It just is. You bring it close to you. You eat it. I becomes part of you. It gives you life. Getting close to the food in a photograph has a bigger impact than a wider shot. Unless of course you are shooting a table-scape of a party scene. In those cases though, the food is more of a prop to the environment than the hero. To make the food the hero, get closer. Using a longer lens – something above 70mm works better than a wide angle lens.
Looks even better closer
Looks even better closer
Plate and props
More about feelings and food: Food usually has a story connected to it. Is it a homey family meal. Are you trying to eat healthy? Are you looking for easy, fast, kids meals? How you prop and plate your food tells the story. A home meal might look best on a rustic wood surface with some had crafted ceramic plates. A healthy meal might be portrayed best in the warm sunshine with a garden background, or even the choice of complimenting colours makes a difference. People subconsciously associate greens, blues and pinks with the colour of health. Fast easily meals might be portrayed with simple, easy propping to subconsciously portray simple, easy food. Think about the story you want to tell.

A side note on food styling: Food styling itself is an art form. That is why most professional food photographers work with professional food stylists. Your best success for great food photography is to work with really fresh food. While getting your light and angles and props together, use stand-in food items. Sometimes a bowl of dry cereal, or a dinner roll, will help you find textures and light. When you have everything ready, then bring in your freshest food. At this point, the final shooting will only take a few minutes. If it takes longer, watch that the food isn’t looking dry or flat. You may have to bring in a new hero (a word actually used in the food photography industry) if the food isn’t holding up.

Mostly, have fun taking food pictures and it’s okay to play with your food!


SandySandy Weatherall has worked in various areas of the photography industry since graduating from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology over 25 years ago. She enjoys photographing her favourite things in life, such as pets and sports, but her greatest passion is food photography. Sandy has been published in food magazines and has her work in over 30 cookbooks. She also shoots restaurant menus, product labeling, and marketing material for major food companies. You can see more of her work at: www.jinseiphoto.ca


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