Food Photography – My Tips and Process

Since beginning my blog, food photography has become a massive passion and creative outlet for me and I’m overjoyed that you all seem to like viewing the photos as much as I do taking them because recently I’ve received a lot of questions about my food photography and how I learned to take a #foodporn worthy shot. I must make a disclaimer that I am not a photography expert by any means and certainly there are people far more skilled in the business than me. I’ve had no formal training and everything I know has been through my own research and experimenting but perhaps that makes me an ideal person to share my knowledge because, just like many of you, photography started out primarily as a hobby, with me snapping away my everyday meals for a little Instagram I thought no one would see. I began shooting photos on my brother’s window-sill, the only place in my home that gets decent natural light – until he started sleeping with the door locked to avoid me waking him up at 7am each day by running back and forth with my bowls of porridge that is – using an old point-and-shoot Nikon Coolpix camera I’ve had since I was 13 (nope, not even an iPhone), and having absolutely no concept of presentation or styling. Now, a large portion of my work involves food and product imagery for various brands and platforms, so I like to think I’ve learnt a thing or two and gained a greater understanding of the whole process involved in food photography.

To give you an idea of my journey, I’ve shared some of my first shots below to demonstrate the appalling quality of my early work.

So often, I hear people feeling discouraged because their photos aren’t as good as others and they don’t think they can improve but remember that everyone has to start somewhere! I’ve been that person who felt all my work was terrible and that there was no point in posting because I was just no good at it. But I kept it up as I enjoyed it and over time my work did get better. My best piece of advice is practice, persistence and patience. If you love it and continue to try, you will inevitably improve. So, without further ado, here’s the process I go through to take the shots I have today.

food photography

CAMERA

My most asked question is what camera I use. For blog photos, I use a Canon 750D with a 50mm f/1.5 lens. Although the online consensus is that this lens is best for food photography, it is only really optimal if you have a (substantially more expensive) full-frame DSLR and not a cropped body like I do. However, given my cost constraints as a student these past three years, I decided to opt for this camera and lens as, for the price, they produce pretty stunning results. For Instagram, I also use my iPhone which I prefer for more on-the-go, lifestyle oriented food photography. Especially for birdseye shots, iPhones produce fantastic quality photos and shouldn’t be underestimated so, before you consider spending a lot on a premium grade camera, ask yourself what kind of photos you’re taking. If they’re generally top-down images of porridge, smoothie bowls and salads, a camera phone is all you really need. Hell, Symmetry Breakfast shot an entire book using an iPhone!

If you do decide to invest in a camera, do also spend some time researching and learning the mechanics of DSLR photography. I know so many people who purchase pretty pricey DSLRs and expect their shots to be sudden masterpieces but, sadly, it doesn’t quite work like that. Whilst a good camera will improve your photos, they’re only really worthwhile if you know how to use them. The beauty of DSLRs is the level of control and customisation you have over your photos. You can direct focus, adjust to your lighting conditions, work to the characteristics of your specific subject… But in order to take advantage of these benefits, you have to be brave enough to venture into the world of manual mode. If you don’t and just rely on auto to do the work, you’ve just spent £500+ on a camera with similar capabilities to any old £50 point-and-shoot. The great thing is that online and print resources are plentiful and so, if you’re willing to seek them out and study in your own time, you shouldn’t need to go on an expensive course or workshop.

food photography

food photography

PRE-PRODUCTION

Whilst I get asked all the time about what camera I use, I virtually never get asked about the pre-production process. This is hugely interesting for me as, in my opinion, it’s the most important part of food photography. You can have the greatest camera in the world and even know how to use it effectively, but if your food doesn’t look great, it isn’t going to appear very well on film.

Presentation and styling

Before I make anything, I always have an idea in my head of how I want the shot to look. I think about what plates or bowls the food would look good served up in, what backdrop and props capture the ambiance of the recipe, what garnishes would make a dish pop, what textures are complementary…

For my style of photography, I tend to focus on neutral backgrounds such as white and grey wooden boards and fabrics as that way the colours of the food become the most prominent subject of the shot. I also consider how best to present the food. This varies depending on what it is. If I’m shooting a bright salad with lots of different colours, I won’t need much to capture the eye but rather will just ensure there’s a good distribution of colours and shapes throughout the plate to give it dimension. But if I’m shooting a stack of pancakes or a tray of chocolate brownies then a scattering of berries or a drizzle of nut butter can go a long way. I prefer my food not to look overly neat as, for me, the joy of homemade food is the mess, simplicity and rustic essence. Cutting a slice of cake or taking a bite of cookie for instance creates this ‘real’ effect. Of course, you also don’t want to be too careless and leave the food looking sloppy, unappetising and unappealing, so I try to find that balance of composed realism. I get a tonne of inspiration from Pinterest to help imagine how a certain dish may best appear.

Lighting

It’s almost a given now that, in food photography, natural lighting is always best. I take all my photos on a table raised up to window-ledge height and aim to photograph only when there is a light overcast. Too dark and your camera will struggle to detect the crisp details of your food. Too light and you’ll find distracting harsh shadows across your dish. Whatever you do, don’t use a flash.

I also use a bounce card – a white surface positioned opposite the light source to reflect light back onto the food – in order to minimise shadows and help illuminate my food from all angles. It’s a fairly basic set up but represents my minimalistic and real approach to photography.

PRODUCTION

Angles

We all love a good top-down shot on Instagram (especially if it’s avocado on toast) but food photography becomes far more interesting when you start exploring other angles and consider food’s ‘best side.’ A flat dish will probably be best captured from above, but if your food is more three-dimensional, shooting front on or at a slight upwards or downwards angle can showcase more of the foods most appetising attributes. Whenever you shoot, play with lots of different angles and see what comes out best.

Framing

Another compositional aspect of production to consider is framing – how much of the shot is occupied by the dish. Although you want your food to be the main subject of the photograph, it can be quite striking when a dish sits slightly off-centre. This allows room in the frame to create a story around the food with props and garnishes. Distance is also a noteworthy component. Sometimes, getting up close and personal with the details of your food gives that utterly drool-worthy effect whilst, other times, taking a step back and capturing a dish in context helps to establish the setting and give observers an idea of how the meal might look if it were set down right in front of them. Take a few shots using both approaches and see what you feel works best.

food photography

Take your time

Time can be a tricky balance to strike. When you’ve slaved over a meal, the last thing you probably want is to spend ages shooting and for it to go cold before you have a chance to dig in. Additionally, you want your food to retain its freshness and not look as though it’s been sitting out on the counter for too long. But, (if you’re quite clumsy like I am) when you rush, things tend to go wrong. Dishes get spilled, crumbs and spatters on plates go unnoticed. There have been so many times I’ve had to remake recipes because none of my photos came out well.

For everyday bowls of porridge or salads that are just going up on Instagram, I tend only to take a quick snap and demolish right away as it usually doesn’t matter much how the photo turns out. But, when shooting for the blog, I’m a lot more careful about the process. I’ll generally set up the shot before the dish is ready to be photographed, then add any accessories, garnishes or drizzles seconds before shooting to ensure everything looks fresh and appetising, topping up as I go if necessary. Overall, shooting a single dish can take anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour and I accumulate somewhere between 60-100 photos per shoot, although typically no more than 6 or 7 will actually make the cut. When shooting for a recipe, I’m not planning to eat the dish immediately so I’ll just pop the food in a box to be warmed up and eaten later.

It really pays to take your time when photographing food. Study your photographs as you go and decide if you’re satisfied before digging to make sure you have a good and varied selection to choose from. By being a little patient, the whole process becomes a lot more stress free and enjoyable.

POST-PRODUCTION

Editing

Finally, a little post-production editing can make all the difference. I tend not to do anything too dramatic– for blog photos I use the free editing software that came with my camera (Digital Photo Professional 4) to adjust the white balance, brightness and contrast. I know others are fans of using Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom as well. On Instagram, I usually always play with the brightness and sharpness tools to help the food appear clean, crisp and appetising. Occasionally, I may also add a light filter from VSCOcam to create a specific atmosphere in the image, but try not to go too overboard with these as they can often make food look dull and washed out.

I hope this post has given you a little insight into my tips and process for food photography. At times it can feel all a bit over-the-top and not every shot I take comes out as beautiful as I’d imagined, but for me the shooting part of recipe development can be almost as fun as eating the food itself! Capturing that deliciousness is such an amazing celebration of the nourishment it brings so I don’t mind getting a little snap happy every now and then, even though people waiting to eat may not appreciate it quite as much! If you have any other questions or a particular topic you’d like me to go into more detail over, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment! Happy shooting!

Too see more of my photography or to get in touch about working together, head on over to my photography page!

food photography

Maxine Ali

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