Food photography was something I didn’t care that much about when I started this blog. As you see above, the pictures were less than appetizing but I figured it didn’t matter much because it was about what I told you, the recipes were good because I said so. Yeah … right.
As the blog spun back up again in March, I was taking photography a lot more seriously. According to one researcher, readers trust a food blog 37 percent more when it includes good photography. Notice the pictures below. It’s the same recipe, same cook, same photographer (me) but I think a lot more people are willing to try this recipe now. Do you agree?
Below are 15 tips for food photography and what I learned along the way.
Tell a story. This is true for any content. Is it breakfast or a fancy dinner party? Is it a casual family dinner or lunch at a restaurant? What kind of background elements can you use to help tell the story. Wooden slats say homey/country/casual, white linen napkins say formal/evening/fancy. Think about your props as well as the food.
Control light. A direct quote from a pro photographer at a class I took, “what separates professional photographers from everyone with a smartphone is the ability to control light.” If you don’t know how to bounce light around your set, then learn. Look for local hands-on classes or consider signing up for one online. I’m a big fan of FoodBloggerPro, which has a whole section dedicated to food photography. My pictures improved dramatically. The picture below will give you some ideas.
Keep the plates simple. Serving platters, bowls, and plates need to have simple designs or just be white. If you were selling china, then yes go crazy with the patterns, but photos for recipes need simple backdrops to let the food shine.
Shoot with a tripod. You’re going to be futzing with the set, moving spoons around, adjusting the background pieces, pivoting the plate. You’ll drive yourself nuts if you do it with a handheld camera, trying to keep your hands at the exact same spot each time is impossible. Cheap tripods are $20, decent ones in the $100 to $150 range; it’s worth it to invest.
Posterboard is cheap and awesome. I use thick posterboard and pony clamps to reflect light on set. You can get the pony clamps at your local hardware store (hint try not to buy orange, it can reflect color onto your set). Prop the board up where light needs to go, use the pony clamp to hold it there and start shooting.
Shoot sidelight or from behind. I almost always shoot with light coming in from behind the set. I occasionally shoot with side light. Light from behind adds a beautiful glow that I just love and turn to again and again. Sidelight adds a bit more contrast and has its uses too, particularly if you’re trying to shoot “dark and grungy.” It’s a matter of personal preference.
Brown food is hard to shoot. The beiges and browns of a lot of food can be difficult to showcase. Look for contrasting plates and linens and try to work texture into the food if you can. Maybe nuts to break up the surface of the food? Perhaps a dollop of whipped cream or jam? Think about how you can layer the picture to create a mood and help break up the brown.
Develop a kit. There are things you’ll use for almost every shoot. They are; a light reflector, cotton swabs, tweezers, quarters (yes the change in your pocket), poster board, dark pieces of paper to absorb light, and pony clamps. As you develop your style and look you’ll find your own tricks and develop your kit to your needs, but this will get your started.
A word about quarters (you can also use washers from the hardware store). I use them ALL the time. I slide them under plates to tip them slightly up to the camera. In the banana bread photo above I put them in between the slices of bread to help the sun hit each slice separately and give it more definition (a way to work with a lot of brown). I find them indispensable.
Use small dishes. The dishes all look “normal size” in photos. But you can cook less if you plate on small dishes. Look for 6″ and 9″ plates and small bowls. I am always on the hunt at yard sales, thrift markets, and Target/IKEA. It’ll make your life a lot easier when you’re styling. Get a wide array of colors so you can use them to complement or contrast the food you’re shooting.
Collect Linens. I am always looking for linens at antique shows, discount bins at Sur La Table, and fabric remnants at my local fabric stores. (If you live near Boston you MUST go to Zimman’s in Lynn, MA. Their basement stuff is awesome!) When you use linens, think about how they set the mood or help tell the story.
Buy this book. Food styling was driving me nuts, how do you get linen to puddle just right? How do you throw light on a stack of dishes, so it doesn’t look like a big blobby white thing? I researched every book I could, got them from the library, and after going through a dozen books went and bought this one Food Styling by Delores Custer [Amazon link]. It’s like taking a semester long class at a local college. She’s a pro with over 30 years of experience and will teach you everything you need to know.
Look at FoodGawker and other sites for inspiration. Regularly look at food porn sites for inspiration for your shoots. Pick something (like chocolate cake) and see how other people do it. What bugs you, what do you like? Analyze the photo for lighting, props, mood, textures, adapt the stuff you like into your next photoshoot and take a moment to acknowledge what you learned.
Shoot regularly. Use your smartphone to practice composition and play with light. But shoot at least every week, so you can continue to learn and grow as a photographer. It’s the adage about 10,000 hours. You’ll improve with practice.
Adobe’s Lightroom is a good starter editing program. I’m a bit of a snob, and a long-time Photoshop user (like 20 years), but if you’re just getting going Lightroom is a great place to start. Look at the Camera Raw Filter for adjustments. You can do a LOT there to improve a photo. (Hint: Learn “middle gray” and boost whites to add glow.)
Let your style develop on its own. At first you’ll be all over the place, you’ll copy other people’s stuff (try not to do that) and you’ll have epic ideas and epic failures. That’s OK, you’ll always learn something and improve for the next time. Eventually, a certain “look” will develop, and people will begin to recognize your work without even needing to look to see it’s you. This is a good thing. Photographers get hired for their look. If you have one, gigs will start coming your way outside of your blog. Paid gigs (woo hoo!).
I shoot almost exclusively in natural light but that’s not because I’m an avid believer, it’s because I can’t afford good quality lights! Although I love an early morning shoot when the sun kisses my dining room table, and everything looks beautiful.
In case you’re wondering, I’m a Canon girl and shoot with a 60D with dreams of upgrading soon. My camera is on it’s last legs, and I’m praying I save up the money before it dies on me. I love my 50mm lens and use it constantly, and less often I use a 100mm lens (I’ve got my eye on an 85mm lens, and I want an all purpose one too.) I’ve invested about $2,500 in the past four years. I could easily blow $20,000 without even blinking (medium format camera, upgraded dSLR, lenses, fancy lights, I could go on and on). But right now I just want one more lens and a better camera back.
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