First, in order to fully understand food photography, let’s ensure we’re all on the same page about the definition of photography, in general.
Photography is the art or practice of taking and processing photos.
Using this definition, almost everyone with a smartphone could be considered a photographer, which is why it’s so important to distinguish between those who practice photography as a hobby and those who practice it as a profession.
Professional photographers share a few key traits, which include but are not limited to:
Food photography is one of the niches/styles that an aspiring photographer can specialize in, meaning a food photographer will spend most of their time photographing images of food. Let’s explore the definition further.
Food photography is a style of still life photography that puts food at the center of the image.
The purpose of food photography is generally to make food look as appetizing as possible, and can include subjects that range from elaborate full meals and tasty beverages to simple ingredients and fresh produce.
Food photography can be utilized in cookbooks, restaurant menus, social media accounts and food blogs. As a result, food photography is generally classified as a style of commercial photography since images are most often used to sell food products and/or services; however, there are editorial styles of food photography, which we will discuss below.
If you want proof of the power of photos to make us feel, just take a look at some top-notch food photography portfolios. Whether it’s a juicy burger in a fast-food ad making your mouth water instantly, or a perfectly rustic table spread making your dream of a beautiful shared meal with friends, food images can make you forget about everything else for a moment.
From restaurants and food bloggers to recipe book designers and advertising houses, there are a lot of potential clients out there for the aspiring food photographer. Excellent food photos can make all the difference in how a product or business is perceived, so if you want to be able to put together your own amazing online portfolio and get into the biz, read on!
When starting your career as a photographer, you have no shortage of options for what you can photograph. Narrowing in on a specific subject or niche style of photography can help you build the career of your dreams, which is why we’re specifically going to look at food photography today.
If you’re a photographer with an interest in vibrant foods, mouth-watering meals, and fresh ingredients, read through this guide to discover if food photography might be the right path for you.
So what does it mean to become a food photographer? What, exactly, does your day entail and how should you expect to spend your time as a food photographer? Let’s talk more about what it means to be a photographer by reviewing some of the key qualities that a food photographer possesses.
As with most styles of photography, the photographer should have an eye for design. Having said that, with food photography, you will likely need to style and compose your shots to get the perfect image, which will require you to be even more diligent about utilizing design principles to compose the perfect scene.
This may mean using props (i.e. napkins, dishcloths, etc.), incorporating different colored dishware, and even on occasion, you may need to work with models if you want more of a lifestyle feel.
In other words, food photography is not candid and doesn’t rely on nature like wildlife photography, so some of your time as a food photographer will be spent composing and styling scenes.
We all have experience with food, of course, but if you want to excel as a food photographer you should have experience with food that goes beyond simply eating it.
Knowing what foods pair together, understanding how to capture food in such a way that it looks as appetizing as possible, and bringing in spices/herbs/produce that makes sense within the scene are all things you’ll want to have a good grip on when you start as a food photographer.
You don’t have to be a 5-star chef in order to become a food photographer, but if you’re not sure what ingredients and products would work when shooting Mexican cuisine, for example, you might struggle.
Unless you’re shooting images for your own food blog or restaurant, this style of commercial photography generally requires that you work with clients.
In this case, most clients will hire you in order to capture images of their food, meaning you need to have a strong ability to listen to client requests and capture images according to their vision.
We love food photography as a niche for aspiring photographers because it’s a style that virtually anyone can start practicing with limited barriers to entry. If you have access to food then you can become a food photographer.
Of course, having said that, as with most styles of photography, if you want to excel in your career there are a few key steps that you’ll want to take. Let’s review.
While you don’t technically need any formal education to become a food photographer, when you’re first looking to start your career in this field, we highly recommend spending time studying the work of other successful food photographers.
Not only can this give you insight into the style of photography you’ll be shooting, but it also provides you with creative ideas for how you can style your own food photography.
In addition, as with any style of photography, if you have the time and resources available, you will likely find that you benefit from some type of formal photography training, whether that be a full college program or a photography course that can provide you with more insight into proper photography techniques.
While it might seem early to start shooting at this stage in your career, we always recommend aspiring photographers start practicing their craft as early on in their career as possible. It will take you time to learn your style and develop photos that you feel are worthy of your portfolio (more on portfolios below), so the earlier you get started, the better.
When you start shooting, here are some things will you’ll want to pay attention to:
If you simply place a plate of food on a table and take a picture, this won’t get you very far as a food photographer.
Food photography is all about being creative with your composition. Shoot from different angles, try different food pairings, play with different colors, and don’t be afraid to use different backdrops. The more you experiment with your composition, the more likely it is that you’ll come out with unique shots that help develop your style.
Don’t forget about the use of props when composing your photos.
If you’ve taken the time to study photography, you’ve likely noticed that props are often used. Food photography relies heavily on styling. By investing in small props in these early stages, over time, you’ll slowly build up a collection of props to help you in the future.
As with any style of photography, lighting is always one of the top considerations of a photographer.
As a food photographer, natural lighting is usually one of your best options, but you can also try experimenting with diffusers, reflectors, and softboxes.
If you want to learn more about lighting in food photography, you’ll find more information in this food photography guide.
Now that you’ve started shooting some photos, you’ll want to start gathering your best work to share in your portfolio.
Your portfolio is your digital resume that shows off your best work to potential clients, so it is absolutely key to put together a professional portfolio.
We recommend sharing your portfolio digitally on a website so that you’re always able to quickly and easily share with potential clients. In addition, digital copies of your work make it easy to incorporate branding, contact information, and even informative blog posts into one convenient hub.
If you’re looking for more information on building a professional portfolio that stands out and helps you get jobs, this guide on creating a food photography portfolio is here for you.
If you feel that this step should come earlier in your journey, we want to caution you against investing in equipment too early in your career.
While having all the top equipment might seem important now, it’s very easy to overspend when you’re just starting out.
Take some time to take pictures with the equipment you already have, and start investing as your style develops and it becomes clearer what you need as a food photographer.
When you’re just starting out as a food photographer, your only requirement is to take pictures and build your portfolio.
Your portfolio is so key because it is what will help you during this outreach phase. Your portfolio is what potential clients will look at in order to determine whether you are the right photographer for the job.
While jobs might seem slow in the beginning, start by reaching out to local restaurants, food bloggers, and even friends and family if that is available to you. Offer your services for free or at a discounted rate in order to get some professional experience under your belt.
The more outreach you do in the beginning, the more jobs you will likely obtain in the future. As you work at this, more high-paying, professional jobs will come your way. Just be sure you always provide the highest-quality work and top-notch customer service regardless of what you’re being paid. Reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations are essential at this early stage.
For more information on how to get started as a food photographer, check out this in-depth guide.
As we all know from experience, food can be powerfully tied to memories and emotions. A smell of a particular food might take you back to your childhood or to an amazing vacation. A picture of a tasty dish can immediately make you salivate, even if there is no actual food in sight.
Food is also culturally and socially important, since we associate specific foods with certain holidays or celebrations, and the best meals are typically shared socially rather than eaten alone.
Food photography taps into the connection we have with food and is a way to communicate a flavor, an experience, or a mood through just an image. This makes this type of photography important to all kinds of businesses and publications. The same dish can look forgettable and unappealing or totally enticing depending on how it’s shot, so the job of a food photographer is to make sure they tell the right story with their images.
Even if you’re new to shooting food, getting a good handle on the basics will take you from zero to a gorgeous food portfolio before you know it. There are some fundamentals to keep in mind that you’ll be able to apply whether you’re just shooting for yourself to build your portfolio or shooting for a client.
You can build a fantastic portfolio of food photos at home. These food photography tips can be applied from the comfort of your living room. All you need is a basic lighting set up or a large window, your choice of camera equipment, some low-cost backdrops, and, of course, a beautiful dish to capture.
You can easily use your smartphone or a professional DSLR camera to capture food photographs. Whether it’s an apple, coffee beans, or an array of different products, you can set them up in your home at start snapping. Take advantage of natural lighting if you don’t have your own lights, so you can get some great shadows on the food.
Once you’ve captured some great shots, you can edit the images using image editing software or apps to further bring out the products in your image.
We’ve already established that food photography generally fits into two categories: still life photography and commercial photography (i.e. photography that is used in order to help sell a product and/or service).
Beyond this, there are different types of food photography that all serve a different purpose.
Product photography for food generally consists of packaging shots. It’s what you might see on the box of cereal you eat every morning or the product image you see when ordering your groceries online.
In addition, you could be hired to shoot product photos for a website if you’re working for a brand that sells their food product online. This might include the actual product image itself for those interested in buying, but it can also include general product photos used in the design of the website.
Advertisements are everywhere and it comes as no shock that food companies need photographers who can shoot pictures of their food in an appealing way.
These advertisements can include everything from images used for individual Facebook ads to restaurant images that you might see on social media.
Food photography can also take more of an editorial spin. In this case, the type of food photography is more lifestyle-based, meaning the image isn’t necessarily selling one particular product and/or service. Instead, the purpose of the image is to help instill a certain mood or feeling.
Once a cookbook has been purchased, the images found within the book aren’t necessarily being used to sell the book. Instead, the images are used to entice people to create the recipe.
In addition, cookbooks will often include some lifestyle imagery, showing the recipe developer creating one of the dishes or perhaps even a family sitting down to enjoy a meal.
Together, these images work to develop an aesthetic or feeling for the book.
In food photography, you’ll often find lifestyle images used on social media by food “influencers.” The purpose here is to show the food product in everyday life (i.e. a food influencer snacking on their favorite granola bar, or a new ice cream flavor being enjoyed by a group of friends).
In this case, the food product might not be the center of the image, but it is still clearly present.
This is one of the few cases where food photography is not staged or styled, and instead, it takes on a more candid approach. Documentary food photography tells a story and can help the viewer understand things like how the food is made, where it comes from, and what it is made out of.
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When you’re looking at a gorgeous food photograph in a magazine or cookbook, remember that there was likely a team involved beyond just the person behind the camera. Food photographers on a big-budget shoot may be working alongside an art director who oversees the visual direction of the shoot, a prop stylist who creates the set that the food photographs are shot in and sources the appropriate props for the scene, and a food stylist who sources the most photogenic ingredients and styles the food to look as attractive as possible.
You certainly don’t need all of these people on set to capture an amazing food photo, but knowing these roles can help you think of everything else that is involved when getting started in this field. Expect to spend some time planning the visual direction of the shoot, creating a beautiful set or background, gathering props, and fussing with the food until it looks perfect.
Light is probably the most important element of great food photography to master. Lighting can truly make all the difference in a food photo, making your subject look mouthwateringly irresistible.
While professional food photographers typically shoot with artificial light, since natural sources can be unreliable, you can capture some great food shots using window light. If you’re working with natural light, the key elements to keep in mind are:
Direct sunlight outside will give you much higher contrast, stronger shadows and a more dramatic final shot than, say, cloud diffused light coming in through a window, which will give you a soft image. Backlighting is great for shooting liquids, as it emphasizes the texture of the subject. Lighting from the side will give your image some depth, texture, and shadow, and is most commonly used for shooting food. Placing your subject by a bright window will help you achieve this.
When dealing with mother nature, we don’t have control over how much light will be available on a given day. However, what you can do is adjust your distance from the window. Even moving a foot away will impact your shot, so play around to figure out which placement gives you the perfect final image.
You can also manipulate the amount of light available by varying the time of day of your shoot. Shooting at high noon will give you a brighter, more high contrast image with harder shadows than shooting in the relatively low light of later afternoon.
Depending on the final look you’re going for in your food pictures, you may want to soften or minimize shadows. If you’re going for a more dramatic and moody look, you may leave the dark shadows cast by your light source.
Most of the time, however, food photos look most appealing when they’re well lit and bright. To do this when shooting in natural light, photographers use reflectors or white cards to bounce brightness back onto the scene. A piece of white foam core can do the trick. This is a great, affordable and beginner-friendly way to make sure your main subject is beautifully illuminated and that there aren’t any distracting shadows.
Keep in mind that when you photograph food in the morning, the color temperature will be different than if you choose to photograph food in the evening instead.
The hour before sunset is famous for its golden hour light, which is warm and will give a reddish hue to your pictures. Morning typically has a bluer color temperature. Whenever you choose to shoot, try to keep all of the images for a single project consistent by shooting them at the same time of day.
Unlike the complicated lighting setups that are sometimes needed in portraiture, you can take high quality pro food photographs with just one light. Sure, more involved lighting setups can be used if you’re going for a very commercial look, but using a single source provides a more natural and flattering look that appeals to the eye. It creates a single set of shadows in the photo, and a good food image is usually one that makes us want to jump in and take a bite, not necessarily one that looks highly manipulated in the studio.
The first step will be to choose your studio lights. You can either opt for constant light or a strobe. While a strobe is more expensive, it’s also more powerful. It can also be used to achieve the look for sunlight on a clear, bright day, if that’s what you’re going for because a strobe will typically produce harder shadows than a constant light.
However, constant lights have their benefits, too! If you’re just starting out, they are more affordable, and a great way to build your skills. They also enable you to see exactly how your scene will be lit, taking out the guesswork. Another benefit is that you can use them to shoot short video clips as well as photos. With video becoming more and more popular on Instagram, being able to offer short clips in addition to photos could be a major selling point.
Now that you’ve chosen your light source, it’s time to think about your modifiers. Just like when using natural light, modifiers can help you manipulate the available light in a scene to make your main subject look clear, defined, textured, and most importantly appetizing. They also help you soften distracting shadows, if needed, and throw extra light on parts of the scene you want to emphasize. The most common modifiers are:
A softbox to diffuse the light for a softer overall look
A reflector to concentrate light if you want a harder, more dramatic overall look
A diffuser that can be used instead of or in addition to a softbox
Fill cards in black or white (white cards are also card bounce cards) to either bounce more brightness into a scene or absorb light, depending on what look you’re going for
Once you have your lighting equipment, you can start to play around with your setup. The most common one-light setups are:
Sidelight, with the source, typically coming from the left and a reflector or white card placed on the right of the subject
Backlight, with the source placed behind the subject and reflectors placed in front of the subject at both 45-degree positions, so that the front of the image isn’t too dark
45-degree backlight, with the source placed behind the subject at a 45-degree angle, and a reflector or white card placed across from it in front of the subject
You can also light directly from the front or from the top, but these are not typically used because they can flatten your image, making the food look less appetizing.
While lighting is perhaps the trickiest and most important aspect of taking food photos, great background can also transform a food photograph from good to great.
If you’re not into DIY, there are some amazing backgrounds available on Etsy or on specialty sites like Backdrop Express. However, if you want to save your money, you really don’t have to be a crafty person to make some great food photo backdrops yourself. Try these backdrops on your next shoot:
Contact paper, available in a huge range of patterns
Painted plywood, try chalkboard paint with either some custom lettering or even some leftover chalk dust for a surprisingly elegant rustic look
Burlap cloth, linens, or another scrap of fabric depending on the look you’re going for
Wooden cutting board
Tiled surface, or large loose tiles
As you can see, there’s a lot that you might already have lying around that you can use as a backdrop. Keep your eyes open the next time you’re at a hardware store, thrift store, or even dollar store, and before you know it you’ll have a great little collection of backdrops for all kinds of different food photos.
There are people who make an entire career out of food styling, so if you want to get really into this subject, there is a lot to learn! We’ll cover a few basics here that you can apply to most situations.
Food styling starts with the ingredients. If you’re shooting a dish that has visible ingredients, you’ll want those ingredients to be clearly defined and have a nice shape. For example, consider a picture of a mushroom pasta. It would look best if it had a few nice colored and shaped pieces of mushroom visible, rather than just a brown mushy sauce that may taste delicious but not photograph that well. Choose ingredients that are nicely shaped, and make them a little more visible and identifiable than they may normally be.
In the case of pasta, you might have a few pieces of mushroom that you add to the dish after it is cooked to emphasize the ingredients.
You can also scatter some of the component ingredients around the dish. For example, a berry pie would be beautifully presented with some fresh berries scattered next to it, and a chocolate chip cookie would look that much more mouthwatering surrounded by some chocolate chips.
When it comes to plating the food, a couple of good tips for next level photos are that less is more, and that imperfect is best.
A bowl overflowing with food might look amazing to the naked eye, but through the camera, it can result in photos that are messy and cluttered. Leave more empty space around your subject than you might initially expect to be necessary, and your photo will likely come out better. You can play around with this and see for yourself what you like best. Remember, you can always add more, but it can get tricky to remove food from an already plated scene if it’s a messier dish.
A bit of artful mess, or imperfection, can also make for a better photo. You don’t need to clean up every spill, because those are precisely what makes a photo feel like an authentic representation of the dish.
All of the usual composition rules you may have already learned when you started out as a photographer can be applied to food photography too!
Remember that in the West, where we read from left to right, our eyes tend to naturally “read” a photo from left to right as well. Consider this when composing your shot, arranging your elements so the most important parts are seen first.
The rule of thirds is another good food styling trick to keep in mind. The rule of thirds suggests that you can divide your composition into thirds both horizontally and vertically, and place the thing you’re shooting either at one of the intersections of the lines or along one of the lines for a visually appealing photo.
Leading lines can be used when shooting food as well. Consider a fork placed strategically to draw the eye to the main subject, or the long drip of syrup landing on a stack of pancakes.
Make sure your props don’t overpower your subject by being brighter or more visually stimulating and choose props that support the story you’re telling. For example, a pat of butter is a great prop for an image of a stack of pancakes, while a very brightly colored syrup label might not be.
You don’t need a huge collection of equipment, but a few quality pieces can help you capture the perfect photo every time.
A quality 50mm lens, such as the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM, $125.00, is a good go-to that will work for you in most situations. You’ll likely reach for this again and again, and capture some beautiful tablescapes using it.
While a prime lens will typically give you a sharper image, a zoom can come in super handy when shooting food because you want to be able to capture detailed shots as well. If you have the budget to invest in a high quality zoom, something like the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 24-70 f2.8, $1596, is very sharp and will let you easily capture your subject from afar or up close without moving around too much.
Whatever you choose, consider including a lens with built-in macro functionality, for those mouth-watering detail shots. Keep an eye out for lenses with lower apertures, which will enable you to play with the depth of field to get a nice blurred background.
While still life photographers don’t necessarily need the most high performance camera bodies on the market, some features to consider when choosing yours include
The size of the sensor. Cropped sensor cameras have become very high quality, but they will affect the focal length of your lenses, so keep that in mind when choosing
Maximum file size. If you’re shooting for the web this won’t be a major consideration, but if you plan on blowing up images for posters, billboards, or even books, you’ll need a camera that has a large file size. Ideally, it should shoot RAW as well
The ISO range. Higher ISO will degrade image quality, but may be useful if shooting in lower light situations, so a camera that can produce high quality images at high ISO is handy
The Sony a7 III, $1698.00, is a great full sensor mirrorless option. If you want to go for a pro-level DSLR, you can’t go wrong with Canon 5D Mark IV, $2,299.00.
It’s a good idea to use a tripod when shooting food, to avoid camera shake and to be able to shoot at a slower shutter speed of the lighting conditions require it.
A tether can also be extremely handy, since shooting tethered gives you much more control over your scene and lets you make adjustments while you’re still shooting, rather than spotting things you wish you had done differently when it’s too late.
Now that you have all the tools and info you need to take gorgeous food photos, let’s talk about getting paid!
While the median annual income for a food photographer in the US is about $40,000, this number will vary depending on where you are in the world, your skill level, and the types of clients you work with. When setting your price, make sure you consider these points
All of the hours spent on a project, from conception to delivery, including editing. Even if you charge per photo rather than per hour, make sure your per photo price covers all of the hours you invest.
The value of your equipment, which can be added as an equipment rental line item on your invoice
Any licensing the client may require
Larger commercial clients will have bigger budgets than a small mom and pop restaurant, so you may want to take this into consideration when deciding what to charge.
The key to getting those first clients is building a killer portfolio that demonstrates how you can elevate their business through imagery. You can take food photos at home to build your portfolio, or you can ask local businesses if you can take some photos for them free of charge to build your portfolio. At the start of your career, offering some free gigs is a great way to fill out that portfolio.
Once you have a selection of photos you love, it’s time to put them together online. If you don’t have a portfolio website yet, don’t worry. With a website builder, it’s easier than ever to get one up and running in minutes. Just make sure to look for one that includes lots of beautiful templates you can use to create your dream website.
Another feature to consider is client proofing galleries since it gives your clients a chance to approve images before you move forward with editing them or delivering them.
In order to provide you with a deeper understanding of what it means to be a food photographer, let’s take a closer look at some of our favorite examples of food photographers.
Vibrant, minimalist, and all about food, taking a look at Joel Goldberg’s portfolio will provide you with excellent insight into what it means to be a food photographer.
As you can likely see from his portfolio, food photography is about more than simply capturing images of food and hoping for the best. Each image is carefully styled and shot in such a way to make the food look as appetizing as possible.
In addition, you’ll note that with a clean white backdrop and minimal distractions, the food images displayed are able to be the center of attention, which is key for aspiring food photographers.
To achieve this style of portfolio, Goldberg uses the Order theme from Format.
Making your photography style immediately identifiable is important for food photography, and Shelby Moore absolutely does this with her impressive portfolio.
Utilizing both branding principles and making her images large as the main fixture on her website all help to establish her as a food photographer.
In addition, you’ll also note that the website is well organized and easy to navigate, with clear menu labels located conveniently at the top of the website for easy viewing.
To achieve this style of portfolio, Moore uses the Amazon theme from Format.
As much as having a strong niche can help you in your photography career, this example from Nico Schino demonstrates how you can combine your love for food photography with other genres. In this case, Schinco’s portfolio shows off the relationship between food, people, and travel.
Elements of this example to take note of include the clean layout with minimal distractions, the easy-to-navigate sidebar menu, and the clear menu headings to help you easily find what you’re looking for.
To achieve this style of portfolio, Schinco uses the Peak theme from Format.
If you’re interested in checking out more examples of food photographers, you’ll find an extensive list here.
No matter what style of photography you specialize in, pricing is always something that aspiring photographers struggle with. You don’t want to price too high or you might deter potential clients, but you also need to make money in order to grow your business.
The median income for a food photographer is about $40,000/year, but keep in mind, this can vary greatly depending on where you are in the world, how much time you’re putting into your business, and what type of food photography you specialize in (i.e. editorial lifestyle images vs. commercial advertising product photos).
In general, if you’re working with a large corporation that requires product photos, you’ll be able to charge more versus working with that up-and-coming food blogger who is looking for fresh images for her website.
However, keep in mind these smaller clients may provide you with more creative freedom than the big corporations. At the same time, they also might require more of your time since they are not as accustomed to working with someone. Figuring out what type of clients you want to work with can be a big factor in not only how you price your services, but also the day-to-day work you engage in.
Most importantly, you need to consider the amount of time you’re going to spend on a project when pricing your services. If you’re shooting one image the amount of time involved is a lot less than if you’re shooting a whole package of shots (i.e. social media images, advertisements, products shots, etc.). In some instances where you’re not sure exactly how long a project will take you, an hourly rate might be appropriate.
Also consider the kind of equipment you’re going to need to complete the product. If you just need a camera, your investment into the project is a lot less than if you need a camera, lighting, props, and models.
Lastly, don’t forget to consider licensing when pricing your services. This includes understanding the licensing agreement you sign with the client, how long the image will be used for, does the client want exclusive use, and will the client be running paid advertisements with your image.
This is all about preference, but it’s a question that we get a lot, so we’ll give you our take.
When you’re just starting out as a food photographer, there is absolutely nothing wrong with working for free; however, you should have your limits and you should have a clear understanding with yourself when you will start charging for your services.
It helps you build your portfolio with professional clients
It gives you more freedom to experiment with different styles of food photography
It gets your foot in the door with reputable clients who might otherwise be unable to afford your services
It helps you understand the amount of work involved in a project so you can more fairly charge for your services when you’re ready
It gives you more experience with client relations (more experience will help you become more proficient with customer service, which is key for growing any successful business)
Bottom line: How much you charge for your services is totally up to you, but as with any service-based business, you will likely be able to increase your rates as your business grows, your reputation increases, and you have more experience under your belt.
As you can probably see, your path as a food photographer will likely not be linear. You will have to do some trial and error in order to discover what type of food photography you prefer, as well as the style that you tend to gravitate to.
However, if you take the time to understand yourself as a food photographer, you’ll likely have a much easier time coming up with a professional portfolio that stands out to clients, which is key for growing your business.
If you need help putting together a website as an up-and-coming food photographer, don’t forget that Format offers a variety of professionally designed templates that can help you have your food photography website up and running ASAP.
Let’s get your food photography career started off on the right foot, shall we?
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