The world of food photography is quite a broad one. On one end of the spectrum, you have your friends on Instagram snapping a quick pic of their dinner before scarfing it down. On the other end of the spectrum, you have a multi-billion dollar industry of advertising, cook books, magazines, and food fanatics all crazy for the fruits of food photography. No matter where you fall on this spectrum, I’ve compiled some tips to hopefully get the most from your food photos.

Because there is such a massive interest in food photography largely driven by commercial interests, it is a subject of the photo lens given much more scrutiny than many others. In this article, I am literally only scratching the surface of the tip of the iceberg. If food photography interests you, try these tips out, but don’t stop here! There is an ocean of knowledge on the subject waiting to be consumed.

1. Prepping your Subject

Depending on the situation you are in, you will probably have and need a different level of preparation for your food photo shoot.

If your goal is specifically to photograph the food, you might go through every exhausting measure to make sure the dish itself looks immaculate. If you’re just snapping a photo of an already completed meal before you sit down to dinner, you may not be able to take all of the same preparatory measures to get the best shot. But food doesn’t have to be prepared to beauty pageant standards to make a good photo subject, so here is a bit of advice which is practical no matter the situation.

For certain dishes, adding a bit of oil can give the photo a desirable sheen which comes off great in the final images. If you know you’re going to be taking pictures before you’ve finished cooking the dish, consider taking some shots of the preparation and the food cooking. These can be great action shots which provide a unique chance to capture the food in different stages.

Also consider taking your pictures before the food is completely done cooking. Your steak might look especially plump and juicy medium rare, even if you prefer to eat it well done. Similarly, vegetables and other items can lose some of their volume and overall visual appeal when they are fully cooked. You can always finish cooking it after you’ve got some good photos, so don’t hesitate to take it off the grill and take some photos before you finish cooking it.

2. Lighting is Everything

The single biggest factor in food photography is lighting (isn’t it always?). Since most food photos are taken in-doors, it is absolutely essential to provide quality lighting to get a good photograph of your dish. If the light is coming from the front (like straight ahead or to the right or left of the camera,) the food will probably look rather dull and flat, with few shadows and no apparent depth.

Good food photography is achieved with high quality back lighting, precisely angled to create shadows across the plate, accentuate the colours of the ingredients, and create an image with depth and character, which creates a much more visually appealing (not to mention appetising) image. Experimenting with shadows and lighting effects can often be as simple as a well-placed lamp and maybe even a shade or two if you are feeling particularly experimental.

Experiment both with the angle at which the light is coming from and the angle at which you take the picture from. You may find the angle of the camera to be just as important as the lighting, as a dish that looks quite drab at one angle might be given a new life and look far more appetising if properly highlighted.

3. Setting the Scene

Sometimes you want nothing more in your photo than the food itself. But many of the best food photographs also have something of a scene set around the main subject. The modern kitchen lends itself brilliantly to this, giving photographers the opportunity to create all sorts of unique compositional ideas utilising different items found around the kitchen.

Food Photography

There is little shortage of great backgrounds in the kitchen:

  • beautiful hardwoods on counters and cutting boards,
  • intricate tile counters,
  • granite counter-tops,
  • or polished chrome stoves

Just about every kitchen has some location that is visually interesting. If so, great, your elegant counter top might be backdrop enough for the photo shoot. If not, don’t fret, there is actually quite a bit you can do with props and simple ways to create a beautiful back drop.

Fresh ingredients are a great visual prop in food photography, and can be used in clever ways to create colour contrasts and drive focus towards the subject of the dish. Similarly, kitchenware items like ladles, pots and pans, spatulas and other items can make great additions to the photo, providing a sense of change and action. You can even use different coloured napkins, table cloths, or tea towels to create your own unique col or composition and provide any sort of back drop you like.

Aside from kitchenware, ingredients, and other inanimate props, adding a human touch by including the chef’s hand stirring the pot, or elegantly presenting their dish, or something similar can be a great way to make a food photo truly unique.

5. Golden Rule of Food Photography

My golden rule of food photography is simple: does it look delicious? If not, something is wrong. Ideally your subject should look both beautiful and unbelievably appetising – that is the magic of food photography!

I’ve sort of taken for granted in this article that the subject of your food photography will be beautiful, so that we can focus on some of the details a photographer might be worried about when making a composition. But really, no camera can make disgusting slop look appetising! Using fresh ingredients with careful and proper preparation is the most vital step in food photography. A beautiful dish makes a beautiful photo!

Hit the Kitchen

Your food awaits! Experiment with the possibilities in your own kitchen, and before you know it you might have an in-home food photography studio. Good luck!