Better Food Photography Tips for the Non-Professional Photographer

What is the Best Way to Take Food Pictures?

What is the best way to take food pictures that look like the ones in magazines? If hiring a professional is out of the question, you can still create superior food images with a little work, some advanced planning, and some common household items. Although quality equipment makes the shooting process easier and may improve your pictures, it also costs money. There are several substitutes for pro lighting equipment that work quite well.


Items you will Need

Camera:

Ideal: SLR camera w/ Image Stabilization lens.

Alternative: Anything you are comfortable with. 1st choice, any digital point and shoot.

And: A tripod, even a mini one.

Reflectors:

Ideal: Photo quality collapsible reflectors with stands (or an assistant to hold them.)

Improvise: White foam board, aluminum foil, mirrors, reflective gold wrapping paper. (At least a white foam board.)

And: Stiff cardboard pieces to wrap foil, etc. around.

*Note: If available, go to an art store for your foam boards, they usually have a selection. Buy a smaller poster size, about 20x30, and a larger 40x60 piece.

Main/Key Light:

Ideal: Natural light, large soft box or hot lamp with reflector and umbrella.

Improvise: An adjustable desk lamp, an outdoor work light, or common desk lamps.


Source

Preparation

This is the step where you will set up the ‘stage’ for your shot. This may be as simple as placing the prepared food on the desired plate in front of nice window lighting. Or it could involve creating an entire mood that transports the onlooker to another place and time. The point is, set everything up just the way you want it before making a single image.

Depending on the food being photographed, preparation may include cooking/baking backups if something spoils, or preparing an ice bath for desserts, etc.


Evolution of my cupcake shot

Taken with on-camera flash pointed straight ahead. Not very appetizing.
Taken with on-camera flash pointed straight ahead. Not very appetizing. | Source
Better. No flash, natural light from window blinds bounced off ceiling, a white sheet backdrop, and a high, low powered spot 45 degrees to the right. Still, it seems a little boring.
Better. No flash, natural light from window blinds bounced off ceiling, a white sheet backdrop, and a high, low powered spot 45 degrees to the right. Still, it seems a little boring. | Source
I almost settled on this as my favorite. The addition of dried apples lends context, (small colorful candies might have been better?) The angle gives the impression of 3 dimensions, but it's not the best.
I almost settled on this as my favorite. The addition of dried apples lends context, (small colorful candies might have been better?) The angle gives the impression of 3 dimensions, but it's not the best. | Source
This I like. The angle is cleaner. There is no background confusion, and the lovely texture of the frosting is emphasized.
This I like. The angle is cleaner. There is no background confusion, and the lovely texture of the frosting is emphasized. | Source

A Note on Food Preparation and Selection

Many pro photographers want their dishes undercooked. A lot of foods photograph better this way, including pastas, vegetables, and poultry. Overcooking saps vibrant colors from vegetables in particular. Use contrasting cooking methods as well as contrasting shapes and textures.

For example, grill chicken with boiled corn or steamed veggies. Or, grilled corn in the cob with bright vegetables sauteed in olive oil, this time roasting or broiling the chicken.

In addition, have a brush and cooking oil or melted butter on hand to make meats glisten. For pastries or desserts topped with frosting or whipped cream, you can keep the temperature low by sitting them in an ice bath. For extended periods of time, lightly cover and store in a freezer or refrigerator. If possible, lower the temperature in your shooting space as well.


The textures and colors work well in this photo. But the shadows are a bit heavy.
The textures and colors work well in this photo. But the shadows are a bit heavy. | Source
Same arrangement, but by adjusting the main light (opening the blinds a little here,) and placing the foam board behind and to the left of the frame, the picture comes alive.
Same arrangement, but by adjusting the main light (opening the blinds a little here,) and placing the foam board behind and to the left of the frame, the picture comes alive. | Source

Lighting

Lighting can be tricky and for the amateur may seem time-consuming and difficult. This is why I use natural light and reflectors whenever possible. Unfortunately, this limits when I can shoot and what I can control, so reliable light sources are necessary.

Without professional equipment, you will need to choose a lamp to use as your main key light; the main lighting source. Photo retailers sell inexpensive hot light and reflector sets, but any lamp will suffice.

If your lamp isn’t giving off enough light, you can buy stronger bulbs. Keep in mind, these higher wattage bulbs can get hot quickly. Turn them off when not in use, and keep them a safe distance from perishable foods. It is also a good idea to use only metal shaded lamps when you choose a 150 watt or 200 watt bulb.

No matter what you use, a bare bulb shone directly on your subject will create harsh shadows and unmanageable highlights. This can be moderated by adjusting the distance of the light from the subject; you can also diffuse the light through a sheet, translucent white cloth or even wax paper or artist's vellum. Using soft white light bulbs is also helpful.

A very basic lighting setup involves placing the key light (or arranging the food in front of the key light) at the desired angle, and using a reflector on the opposite side to fill in the shadows. This is an easy setup to play with and can be adjusted with little effort. Small squares or rectangles of foil-wrapped cardboard will create textural highlights that bring the food to life. Start with one, experiment, and use more if you need to. It is common to see a professional food shoot using half a dozen mirrors or aluminum reflectors for this purpose.

***By small rectangles or squares I mean about half the size of a sheet of paper. This is functional for most dish-sized food photo shoots.

****When I say ‘arranging the food in front of the key light’ I don’t mean directly in front. A good rule is to start with the key light 45 degrees to the left of the food.

A single lighting source, in this case a large window, with the light controlled by blinds. Note how the fruit looks a little flat and two dimensional.
A single lighting source, in this case a large window, with the light controlled by blinds. Note how the fruit looks a little flat and two dimensional. | Source
The addition of a flexible white board under and behind the fruit adds dimension, cleans up the background, and fills in some shadows.
The addition of a flexible white board under and behind the fruit adds dimension, cleans up the background, and fills in some shadows. | Source
A single aluminum reflector adds a couple of highlights, while a closer angle emphasizes the fruit detail.
A single aluminum reflector adds a couple of highlights, while a closer angle emphasizes the fruit detail. | Source

More on Preparation and Composition

Preparing for and composing the shot is a dynamic process. It is not unusual to try a dozen different arrangements, angles and compositions before you find one that works. This experimentation can be mitigated using sketches, rearranging the set before the shoot, and using stand-in items to test the lighting (anything of similar size and texture will do.)

When thinking about the shot, be sure to make a list of what you will do.

For example:

1.) Small depth of field leaving only part of food in focus.

2.) Focus on main food item in foreground and allow other items on table into out-of-focus background.

Get the idea? Make this list as a general guideline, and watch the wheels start turning.

On a final note, do not bring the food out until the set is 100 percent ready to go. Once the food is prepared, clean the plates, garnish, baste if necessary, and start shooting!

Don’t be afraid to try unusual ideas. Experiment with your lighting setup, your ‘stage set’ and your props. Try different angles, adjust and try again. Just be sure to follow a general roadmap or all of the preparation may go to waste.


More Food Photography Examples

All of the following photographs were made with a digital point and shoot and adjustable window light (i.e. blinds!) A small white reflecting card was the only additional equipment.

Grilled hot dog sandwich on pan de sal roll with melted cheddar and gouda, salsa and sriracha aioli.
Grilled hot dog sandwich on pan de sal roll with melted cheddar and gouda, salsa and sriracha aioli. | Source
Home fried tacos with scrambled eggs, roasted poblano chiles, caramelized onions and melting brie.
Home fried tacos with scrambled eggs, roasted poblano chiles, caramelized onions and melting brie. | Source

More by this Author


Comments 27 comments

Dexter Yarbrough profile image

Dexter Yarbrough 4 years ago from United States

Mos! I love it! I love it! You have provided some great tips even for those of us that have done it for awhile. I love the photos.

Voted up, up and away!


rob_allen profile image

rob_allen 4 years ago from MNL, PH

Cupcakes! Nuts! Nice :)


modgirlok profile image

modgirlok 4 years ago from Oklahoma

Great and informative hub! I'm voting it up.


MosLadder profile image

MosLadder 4 years ago from Irvine, CA Author

Dexter, thanks! Always good to get the approval of a pro, i appreciate it. Thanks for your votes, cheers!


MosLadder profile image

MosLadder 4 years ago from Irvine, CA Author

Yeah, the salami sandwich just didn't seem as interesting.;-) Thanks for commenting!


MosLadder profile image

MosLadder 4 years ago from Irvine, CA Author

modgirlok! Thanks, I appreciate the votes and comments. Cheers.


LoriSoard profile image

LoriSoard 4 years ago from Henryville, Indiana

Excellent hub. I like how you showed us with a bad picture and a good picture and explained how to correct. Very useful.


jonmcclusk profile image

jonmcclusk 4 years ago from Cinnaminson, New Jersey

I never do photography but I do have a camera (it's around here somewhere). However, I still found this hub interesting and actually motivated me to grab my camera and start taking pictures. Good hub, good information, and a good writer.


MosLadder profile image

MosLadder 4 years ago from Irvine, CA Author

Lori, thank you for your comment. It's nice to know my approach was well received. Cheers!


MosLadder profile image

MosLadder 4 years ago from Irvine, CA Author

Yes! I motivated someone to action! What more can a writer ask for? Thanks for your comments jonmcclusk!


Hollie Thomas profile image

Hollie Thomas 4 years ago from United Kingdom

This is really helpful for me, Mosladder, thanks. I have recently bought a new camera and know absolutely nothing about photograph, so this hub will be my new resource for information. Very detailed, informative and easy to understand.


Shelly McRae profile image

Shelly McRae 4 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

Enjoyed reading this hub. The tips are excellent. Thanks for posting this.


DonnaCosmato profile image

DonnaCosmato 4 years ago from USA

Absolutely brillant! Take appealing photos is the hardest part of writing a good recipe hub in my opinion. Thanks for tips that are user-friendly, inexpensive and require little or no specialized expertise. Voted up.


MosLadder profile image

MosLadder 4 years ago from Irvine, CA Author

So glad to hear that Hollie. Enjoy the new camera, I'm sure you will be making spectacular photos in time. Cheers!


MosLadder profile image

MosLadder 4 years ago from Irvine, CA Author

Thank you for your compliment Shelly! Glad you enjoyed it. Cheers!


MosLadder profile image

MosLadder 4 years ago from Irvine, CA Author

thank you Donna! I have to say cooking the recipe is the hardest part for me, lol! A good photo really draws your interest though. Good to know the context of this article is understood. Cheers!


AnnaCia profile image

AnnaCia 4 years ago

Very appealing photos. Texture and angles are very important; huge difference. Thanks.


MosLadder profile image

MosLadder 4 years ago from Irvine, CA Author

Thanks for commenting AnnaCia, I'm glad you stopped by. Cheers!


Movie Master profile image

Movie Master 4 years ago from United Kingdom

I love this hub! some excellent tips I am looking forward to trying them out, the cupcakes looked yummy!

Voting up!


MosLadder profile image

MosLadder 4 years ago from Irvine, CA Author

Movie Master, they were red velvet, and they were good :=) Thanks for your comments and stopping by. Cheers!


homesteadbound profile image

homesteadbound 4 years ago from Texas

Lots of great ideas here to incorporate into picture taking for my next recipe. Sounds like I need to make a trip to the store and get a science project board/stand up foam core board. Thanks so much!


MosLadder profile image

MosLadder 4 years ago from Irvine, CA Author

Hey there Cindy! It's funny, I never take stills without some version of this setup now. Find a nice big window with natural light and a giant white foam board and you can take some great shots! Thanks for your comment!


PlantFreak profile image

PlantFreak 4 years ago

I'm new to food photography and the lighting is what I struggle with the most. I really like the idea of using a white board; that should be easy enough to do. I'll try that soon and see if it helps!


MosLadder profile image

MosLadder 4 years ago from Irvine, CA Author

Hi PlantFreak! Don't worry, once you start playing with it the process becomes demystified. Natrual light and bounce cards (white boards, etc.) are definitely your friends :-)


rebeccamealey profile image

rebeccamealey 3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

I love taking food photos. I think my problem is, I need a better camera. Thanks for the tips!


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

I particularly appreciated how you stepped the reader through the process using less-than-ideal shots as examples. Very useful hub!


MosLadder profile image

MosLadder 2 years ago from Irvine, CA Author

Thanks! I had plenty of 'less-than-ideal' shots for that hub, let me tell you! Lol.

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working