Food photography isn’t as easy as you might think. A big white bowl of fettuccine alfredo might look pretty tasty while steaming in front of you – but it would make a very boring flat photo, unless there were extra color elements added.
TV commercials use all kinds of tricks to make food look extra mouth-wateringly appealing. Tricks ranging from using glue as milk or shoe polish on uncooked steak (they don’t usually cook steak or large beef cuts used in commercials because they look shrunken and dried out on camera – so they use blowtorches and shoe polish for a “grilled” look!).
While you don’t necessarily have to use motor oil on your pancakes instead of syrup (syrup soaks in too quickly), there are techniques in food photography that make the difference between a flat, dull uninteresting photo, and a photo that immediately evokes a snap decision to eat what’s in the photo ASAP. Keep reading for five essential food photography tips.
1. Keep a Water Spritzer or an Atomizer Handy
Veggies and cut fruits – especially any kind of greens or herbs – start to wilt as soon as they’re exposed to air. Add hot bulbs to the mix, and you can have very sad spinach leaves pretty fast. Not only does spritzing water or an atomizer on your produce help them look shiny and fresh as though just plucked from a garden after a spring rain, but it helps reduce the wilt while you snap away for twenty minutes.
2. Play with Angles, Perspectives and Surfaces to Create Interesting Shots
Shooting straight down on a plate of food all the time is the most common angle for a food shot. So why use that angle? Experiment with different angles and perspectives – keep the rule of thirds in mind. You can also play with focus to bring the foreground into focus while blurring the background or even vice versa. Use props and unique surfaces to create an artistically appealing photograph as well as an appetizing one.
3. Use Bright, Contrasting Colors and be Aware of White Balance
The photo below demonstrates color contrast a little bit – but typically, the brighter and bolder the colors and contrasts in a food photo, the more appetizing it will be. Be sure to pick the reddest tomatoes, the fullest, fluffiest muffin and the pinkest, thickest cut of salmon for photos – in other words, always select cuts, produce, bunches, filets, stalks etc. that are as close to flawless as possible, and have great color. Use editing tools if necessary to adjust white balance if your colors are dulled, look too blue, yellow or green, because proper white balance is what makes colors pop and food look appetizing.
4. Pay Attention to Light Type and Source, and Avoid Using Flash
These aspects of food photography are the accents that set the photo off. Sometimes natural light is best, particularly for photos of summer and picnic foods. Backlighting is best for showing hot steam, while bright indoor light from above is great for reflecting liquids – it’s up to you to determine what’s best.
5. Explore and Learn from Other Creative Food Photographers
If you get frustrated trying to get a particular food photo, don’t be reluctant to get ideas from other photographers. Instagram is filled with some awesome food photography, and many Instagrammers focus on food photography alone. Artists borrow material from the world around them and even other artists, so don’t be afraid to draw upon the creative inspiration that some of the best food photographers can offer you.
It helps to approach your composition like any artist: that is, create a story and depict it with compositional elements. Don’t be afraid to go beyond a single still shot and explore food landscapes. Conflict, tension, emotion, movement background – these elements can be illustrated in a food landscape photo containing multiple elements. A tipped wine glass, strategically placed crumbs, a single rose or a stack of books –these can all add depth to the story behind your photograph. The more depth you add, the more you’ll develop your own artistic touch and storytelling in your food photography.
6. Set the Exposure Level on your iPhone for the Best Lighting
Many foodie photographers today use their smartphones to take still shots of food. You might be dining at a restaurant and wish to review a dish, or you might simply prefer the feel of your phone. Did you know you can adjust the exposure on your iPhone? Simply hold your finger over the object you wish to base the exposure on, such as the lightest color on the plate. Once the yellow box locks on the object, slide your finger up or down on the screen to turn the brightness up or down on the image. Experts suggest setting for the highlights in your photo rather than the lowlights.
7. Add Props to Take Your Photos to the Next Level
If you’ve studied food bloggers and other examples of food photography, you likely noticed props which set those photos apart. The pictures aren’t just of a lone plate of food sitting by itself on a table. Instead, a scene is set. Try to tell a story with the layout of your photo. Did the family just sit down to a holiday meal? Perhaps a baker left a few artfully arranged ingredients on the table with the dessert. Think about what you want the image to convey and add elements which tell the story. Some ideas for props include rustic cutting boards, vintage dinnerware and backdrops with natural elements such as wood.
8. Take Plating to the Next Level and Create a Gourmet Look
Have you ever noticed how beautifully food is plated at nicer restaurants? They add embellishments such as lettuce, parsley and pretty slices of oranges and strawberries. Plating food is a bit of an art form in itself and isn’t an easy thing to learn. However, with a bit of practice, your dishes will look just as good as anything put out by a gourmet restaurant. This will add a higher degree of professionalism to your food photos.
Many restaurants offer photos of their food along with menus on their websites. Spend time studying these photos and the way the chefs plate the food. What embellishments enhance the overall look of the dish? Do the colors contrast between the ingredients and garnishes? For some food photography tasks, you’ll be adding sides along with the main dish to complete the image of a meal. Choose these wisely so your plate has some balance of color.
10. Increase the Saturation of Your Photos and Learn Editing Tips
A big part of any type of photography is figuring out how best to edit your photos and show them off to best advantage. Upping the saturation just a little keeps your photos looking natural while increasing the depth of color for a richer photograph. For food photography, think about warmer colors. These are the hues seen in nature, so beautiful red beef and bright slices of orange really make the photo look edible.
Saturation is just one way you can edit your photos after taking them. You can also improve brightness, adjust shadows and blur out imperfections. Bokeh lens software even lets you fade the background of an image after taking the shot.
11. Set Up a Tripod — Yes, Even for an iPhone — and Reduce Shake
A tripod is a must-have for food photography. A tripod stabilizes whatever camera you’re using and reduces shake, resulting in crisper images. For a traditional DSLR camera, you’ll want a tripod that collapses to the height of your table. For an iPhone, a tabletop tripod may be all you need, but keep in mind there will be times you’ll want to take an image from up higher to get the full scope of the dish. A tripod also offers the advantage of setting up the shot and then adjusting the focus manually to ensure the image is as crisp as you’d like.
12. Use a Color Checker to Get the Perfect Balance of Colors
Colors are a vital part of food photography. We’ve already talked about using colors to draw the eye and using contrasting colors, but there is also a tool which tells you the correct white balance to use. A color checker works post-processing to create the exact colors you want. The tool considers the different colors used, even those on the outskirts of the photo — such as ice cream sprinkles scattered about — and comes up with the perfect settings for the perfect photo.
Before you take the image, you’ll take a photo that shows the colors in the image. This is used to balance the finished photos during the editing phase of your project. You will have to purchase color checking software or a program with it built in, but it’s well worth the investment.
13. Spray Your Food with Cooking Oil to Add Some Shine
Are you finding that your images seem flat and lifeless? We’ve discussed using a water spritzer, but there’s another easy way to put some life into your food. Adding a small sheen by praying on some cooking oil can make the difference in a boring photo and one that looks mouth-watering fresh. If you prepare several dishes and then shoot them, the food can dry out a bit between takes. Spritzing the food down adds some moisture and sheen to give the food a freshly prepared look.