While today's technology makes it easy to
record formerly ephemeral arts like theatre and music for posterity,
there's really no way to preserve the flavor of a succulent Thanksgiving
turkey or a decadent chocolate cake. But while you can't capture the
taste of your food, you can certainly capture how it looks.
Professional food photographers have created an entire industry out of the practice, though as The Serious Eats Guide to Food Photography
points out, much of what goes into magazine spreads and food
advertising shots is pure (if artful) fakery. The juicy steaks, vibrant
salads, and crispy cereal you see on TV might not actually be
delicious-or even edible.
But while the pros use tricks to fake
deliciousness, the vast majority of food photographers are amateurs
trying their hardest to capture the essence of real food. And doing that well is another matter entirely. Here are our best tips for getting the most out of your food shots.
Presentation, Presentation, Presentation
Presentation is vitally important. To start with,
consider the colors and textures of the food, the plate, and even the
table, if it's in the shot. Certain colors complement each other and
bring out specific highlights in the food, so look for a combination
that works. Rustic backgrounds-like the rough-hewn wood of a tabletop-go
well with hand-glazed pottery bowls, for instance, while a gleaming
marble counter might pair better with minimalist white dishes.
When you're arranging the food, remember that it only needs to look
good through the viewfinder. In describing her food photography process,
Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes
shows how she uses this fact to her advantage, curating the camera's
selective gaze to give the illusion that her salad was shot on a
high-end table-not the cheap slate tile she actually used.
But positioning the food is just one side of the
equation. Remember that your camera can move, and try various angles to
see what works. Eye-level, table-level, and birds-eye shots can give
three very different impressions-you'd be smart to try them all.
Lighting Is Half The Battle
Unless you're barbecuing in broad daylight,
there's a good chance you'll be working in a kitchen or dining room
under less-than-optimal lighting. Sure, the conditions are fine for your
eyes, but they'll probably present a challenge to your camera. If you
do your food blogging during the day, like Elise, natural lighting is an
great option. You can diffuse sunlight from a nearby window with a
sheet of paper or fabric, yielding mouth-watering results.
But for those of us confined to an evening schedule, indirect
sunlight just isn't possible. Instead, position the food so that it's
illuminated by a bright spotlight, taking care that shadows and other
dark areas are avoided.
While flash photography can be tempting, it usually turns out uneven and unnatural unless you've mastered bounce flash
techniques. Instead of worrying about that, take the time to experiment
with your direct lighting, including playing with diffusers, until you
find something you like. Good light is the key to good photography, and
it's far easier to correct lighting mistakes before you get to the
editing stage than after.
For a more in-depth take on the subject, check out this fascinating guide to food photography lighting by Mark Petko at Your Kitchen Camera.
The Camera Isn't Everything
Is your camera good enough? Regardless of what you're shooting with-from a lowly point-and-shoot to a mighty Nikon D4**-the answer is almost certainly yes. (Though if you're just desperately looking for an excuse to upgrade, then no, of course your camera isn't good enough.)
It does help to have a camera with interchangeable lenses, control
over vital shooting parameters, and the ability to shoot in RAW, but
smartphones have been known to take some pretty delicious photos. Just
The point is, improving your technique is far more important than
improving your gear. That's a constant in all varieties of photography,
not just food.
But A Good Lens Can Make A Difference
Unless you're shooting whole roasted hog,
you're probably going to have to get close to fill the frame. For that
reason, it's important to have a lens that focuses close. Most
point-and-shoot cameras offer a fairly capable macro mode, but not all
DSLR lenses can get very close. This is where a macro lens can be a very
smart purchase. Even so, a normal 35mm or 50mm lens should be fine for
To get shots with a shallow depth of field-you know, those lovely
blurred backgrounds-you're going to want a lens with a large aperture,
signified by an f-stop of f/1.4, f/1.8, or f/2.
The other major advantage of these "fast" lenses is that the larger
lens opening provides the sensor with more light. That results in lower
image noise, and the ability to use faster shutter speeds.
Smartphone shooters, don't lose hope: You can still get some shallow
depth of field from your iPhone if you focus close, though the results
won't be as impressive as those from a "real" camera.
Push The Button. Push It Again.
The most important thing you can do is take a
lot of pictures. Unless you're shooting film, one photo costs the same
as 100, and when it comes to photography, practice most definitely makes
perfect. Cover your bases by capturing different angles, depths of
field, and exposures. Sometimes you won't know right away which angle is
best, and taking a few extra minutes to make sure you get it right is
totally worth it. Trust us, you won't want to set everything up twice.
If you're shooting something static-no steam rising, for
instance-longer exposures are fine. Just make sure you use a tripod to
prevent camera shake. While you can probably get away with shooting at
higher ISO levels-unless you're shooting for print-low ISOs and long exposures will result in the highest-quality images possible.
You Can Fix It In The Post
Even with good lighting, it's likely your
images won't be perfect out straight of the memory card. Here's where we
recommend shooting RAW, rather than JPEG. RAW files greatly enhance the
post-production editing options for any photograph, including powerful
adjustments to white balance, exposure, and image noise. With RAW, you
can adjust a few sliders in Photoshop and fix major errors, essentially
creating a whole new image post-capture. With JPEG, you're much more
Most advanced cameras these days offer RAW support, though the
cheapest point-and-shoots and most smartphones do not. On the software
side, if you've got $120 to spend, Photoshop Elements lets you play with color, exposure, and a whole lot more to get your images up to snuff. GIMP and Paint.NET are also excellent options for tech-savvy photographers on a tighter budget.
If You're In A Hurry...
You might not have the time or ability to set up a
shot properly. Some culinary moments happen without warning, and most
restaurants won't respond well to a request to turn up the lights. But
there are still some things you can do to ensure you get the best
One easy tip from The Kitchn
is to ask for a window seat at restaurants. If you're shooting at home
in a hurry, fear not: Most of the tips detailed above can still be
applied-it's just harder to get it all right without time to set up.
Even if you're scrambling to get the shot before serving a big family
dinner, you can take a few seconds to try different angles, different
framing, and different light. Release the shutter as many times as you
can and hope for the best. One of them might work out, and if not...
well, you can always cover up your mistakes with Instagram filters,
right? Everybody's doing it.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat
Like cooking, photography takes practice, and
picking up the camera as much as you can is the best way to learn and
improve. Try different things, seek different opinions, and most of all,
look at lots of food photos and learn from them.
Even those shots of fake food from glossy cooking magazines can teach you valuable things about lighting, and even Instagram shots
can prove instructive when it comes to composition and framing. See
what works and what doesn't, and port the good stuff over to your own