Seven Ways to Better Food Photography

by Ellie Betzen | from scratch, mostly

Before you go ahead and roll your eyes in sarcasm thinking, "yeah you can totally educate us because you're an expert at this, huh?" I'm pointing out that the title isn't implying a how-to but rather, how-I-personally-improved and still continue to learn and improve to this day.  Okay now you can roll your eyes.

Alright, so I know that there are prooobably a good gazillion posts on how to become a better photographer, but I would like to add my experience to the list because we all have different bits of wisdom, as well as what works and what doesn't. Even though I still have a long way to go to reach my photography goals, I hope that my experience will be helpful to you! Or perhaps my woes will at least be somewhat relevant...?

Seven Ways to Better Food Photography

1.  Study and understand camera's settings-  This is tricky because it all has to do with the purpose of the picture--whether your priority is to capture a motion shot or a dish from up close with a super blurry background!  Not to mention, aperture, shutter speed, and all those settings have to harmonize with each other.  It can take months, or even years of practice as it did for me, but if you're determined then you can do it.  Maybe in a matter of a few weeks?  It is very tricky to explain the ins and outs of a DSLR and I recommend lots of reading on your free time--with your camera on hand so you can go back and forth as you do trial and error.  I highly suggest this post on how to master your dslr camera on manual mode.  It is amazing and you will never struggle with your settings again!  Well, for the most part...unless you're in a haunted house from the 1800s with absolutely no light.

In summary:  By simply learning the methodology of setting the right aperture and shutter speed, you will take your photography skill to the next level. 

2.  Use different angles and direction of light- It makes perfect sense to always have the light shining directly on the food or subject matter, right?  But what I've come to realize is that it all depends on the mood I want depict, and this is actually something many pros recommend like Helene Dujardin of Plate to Pixel (I lost the book and only got to read a few pages, this one being one of them, boo!). 2.  Use different angles and direction of light- It makes perfect sense to always have the light shining directly on the food or subject matter, right?  But what I've come to realize is that it all depends on the mood I want depict, and this is actually something many pros recommend like Helene Dujardin of Plate to Pixel (I lost the book and only got to read a few pages, this one being one of them, boo!).  I personally don't like to have light beaming right at the dish because it gives the food a rather harsh quality; subsequently, it seems to wash out the small details that make the dish look pretty and enticing.  Now going back to the "mood" aspect...lately I really enjoy using side-light and back-light because both result in a somewhat somber yet happy mood.  In my opinion, this creates a pretty good medium between the two.  On the other hand, if we want to illustrate a dark and moody feel then it is ideal (or at least easier) to have the light shining from behind the dish.  Likewise, light coming in from the front or the side results in an uplifting and bright mood overall.


In summary:  I like to try different angles and don't confine myself to just one corner of the room.  Plus, different times of the day require different areas to get the right lighting so I move around quite a bit!

3.  Embrace the shadows-  We've all been there.  You know, that fear of having any shadows on your plate?  Lately I just love shadows that naturally occur in my pictures. In my opinion, allowing a good amount of shadow into the picture makes it a lot more interesting and dramatic.  Of course there are exceptions depending on whether you want your photo to look light or dark.  So once again, remember that it's all about the mood--or shall we say, experience--that you want to illustrate for the viewer.


In summary:  Make natural shadows by placing the dish or yourself in a strategic manner, so as to have light coming in from anywhere other than the front.   

4.  Do not over mix highly saturated tones- Again, it all depends on the purpose and feel of the shot.  If you are aiming to make your shot into something that exudes that "cutesy slash hipster" feel then you might be okay mixing a yellow background with big ol' pineapples.  However, it's also important to pair colors that complement each other.  Don't make the same mistake I made, like pairing these beautiful eclairs that just so happen to be green, with a perinwinkle/blue surface.  They look good on their own, but really?  Those specific tones do nothing but clash and make my eyes hurt.  In conclusion, I think that pairing colorful food with a neutral background makes the food look more pleasing to the viewer.


In summary:  Make yourself a collection of neutral colored surfaces, like tan, grey, and white color boards or napkins.  You can also use your table if it's neutral.  And vice versa, sometimes a neutral food display goes well with bright surfaces.

5. Invest in a good quality photo editor-  Since most photo editing programs cost an arm and a leg, you can easily use free programs like Picmonkey.  Nevertheless, I know that most people who are serious about photography prefer to invest in Photoshop or Lightroom.  I personally use Lightroom 4 and have had it for a couple of years, although I didn't use it very seriously until 2 years ago, as I felt overwhelmed with it for a long time.  I'm going to be honest and say that almost any professional photo editing program can seem daunting at first, but give it a few weeks of practice and you will surely get a better grasp of it.  Lightroom is much cheaper than Photoshop, but many great photographers say that they don't see any notable differences between the two, and in fact, they often prefer LR over PS due to its user friendly quality.  When I purchased LR I took advantage of their amazing student discount, so maybe there's something for you there. Those are my 2 cents on LR because I love it so much!  And no, I am not sponsored by them in case you were wondering. ;)


In summary:  Look for good offers on editing programs, but don't go with the most popular one just because.  Choose the one you'll be comfortable using after reading up on reviews.  Less expensive doesn't always mean it's bad quality.  The more you can do with what you have, the more you'll succeed.

6.  Search for props-  Props for food styling don't always have to be expensive.  You can actually pay next to nothing!  Whenever I go thrift shopping for clothes I always make sure to check out the kitchen section.  Most likely there is something you'll like, particularly if you fancy vintage items.  Normally one item costs me $0.75 or less.  Now, antique shops are a whole different story!  Their silverware, for example, can often range anywhere from $2 -$4 per piece!  For my color surfaces, I mostly use old wooden boards that I find lying around the house.  I clean them up, paint them with $1.00 acrylic, dry them out for 30 minutes, and I'm good to go.


In summary:  One man's trash is most definitely another man's treasure.  So head on over to your nearest thrift store or make your own color boards!

7.  Practice-  Though we can never perfect our skills we can certainly get better.  A lot better.  It's much like painting, actually!  There are days when I get so frustrated at the poor inanimate dish because everything seems off.  When that happens I take a deep breath and go on trying different setups, angles, and props.  Then voila!  Something magical happens and the outcome surprisingly exceeds my expectations.

In summary:  If I lose motivation then I keep on trying.  Sometimes I just let it be and come back to it another time. Practicing by looking at different photo styles and gathering inspiration for your next shoot also makes a huge difference!

These are really basic tips, but I find them to be extremely helpful and monumental in improving my photography!  Whatever you are passionate about, don't give up when you face bumps on the road.  Keep pursuing them and don't stop until you've reached your goals.

What are some simple or crazy photography tips you've learned along the way?  Whether it's people, food, or nature photos?