The Only Food Photography Guide You'll Ever Need

What is Food Photography?

Food photography is a type of still-life photography in which the photographer captures food, beverages, spices, and ingredients, making them look delicious and appealing.

seasoning food

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!

What is Food Photography, Exactly?

As the name suggests, it is a type of still life photography capturing food, beverages, and ingredients. It puts food center-stage, making sure that the subject, whether it's a single ingredient or an elaborate meal, looks as appealing as possible.

There are a lot of different styles within food photography, but the food is typically shot in a way that reflects the particular aesthetic of the client. This means that apart from just looking appetizing and mouth-watering, professional food photography should also tell a story that is aligned with the client.

For example, a dim, romantic restaurant will likely want their food photography to evoke sensual flavors and a moody ambiance. A family food blog may want their images to tell a story of bright, happy shared moments with loved ones.

cellphone taking food photogrpahy

Why is Food Photography Important?

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.

How to Get Started with Food Photography

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.

Can I Do Food Photography at Home?

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.

plate of salad

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How to Light Food Photography

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.

Natural Light

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:

1. The source and direction relative to your subject.

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.

2. The amount of light available.

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.

3. The shadows in your composition

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.

4. The color temperature or white balance of your photos.

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.

Artificial Lighting

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:

  1. Sidelight, with the source, typically coming from the left and a reflector or white card placed on the right of the subject

  2. 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

  3. 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.

How to Make Food Photography Backdrops

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:

  1. Contact paper, available in a huge range of patterns

  2. Painted plywood, try chalkboard paint with either some custom lettering or even some leftover chalk dust for a surprisingly elegant rustic look

  3. Burlap cloth, linens, or another scrap of fabric depending on the look you're going for

  4. Butchers paper

  5. Wooden cutting board

  6. Tiled surface, or large loose tiles

  7. Reclaimed wood

  8. Table cloth

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.

close up on fruit

How to Style Food for Photography

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.

Ingredients

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.

Plating

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.

Composition

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.

Props

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.

What is the Best Equipment for Food Photography?

You don't need a huge collection of equipment, but a few quality pieces can help you capture the perfect photo every time.

Lenses

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.

Cameras

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.

Other equipment

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.

vegetables in a bowl

How Can I Make Money with Food Photography?

Now that you have all the tools and info you need to take gorgeous food photos, let's talk about getting paid!

Deciding how much to charge

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

  1. 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.

  2. The value of your equipment, which can be added as an equipment rental line item on your invoice

  3. 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.

Landing clients

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.

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