A food blog about food blogging.

7 Beginner Tips for Improving Your Food Photography

One of the first terrible photos I ever took of food. We’ve all gotta start somewhere, right?

When we first started taking photos of the meals we cooked or were served in restaurants, we were very disappointed in the results. Taking photographs of food can be incredibly challenging, as anyone who has seen the large, picture-based menu at a Chinese restaurant can attest. Bad angles, harsh lighting, and unappealing compositions can all combine to make a delicious tasting dish look just terrible when photographed. But those inherent challenges can make food photography all the more rewarding. Learning to take appetizing photos of food is one of the biggest challenges a food blogger faces, and it’s surprising how often it’s overlooked.

While I’m still learning how to properly photograph food, and still have a long way to go, there are a few tricks and tips I’ve picked up so far that anyone can use to get better, more appealing food photos out of their point-and-shoot or DSLR cameras. The best part? When you’re first learning to photograph food, you don’t need to spend a dime. As you progress, you can start spending a few bucks, and your results will only get better. Here’s are some of the tips I’ve collected along the way, presented in order from least expensive to most expensive.

1. Stop using your flash. Shoot using natural light, whenever possible. The flash that’s built into your camera, unfortunately, is pretty crappy. Well, I shouldn’t say that. It’s great at producing a very brief, very bright flash of very directional light. Unfortunately, this kind of light doesn’t make food look very good. Let’s look at a quick comparison:

The tomato on the left was shot using a flash; on the right, using natural light.

In the photo on the left, the camera’s automatic settings (including flash) were used. Notice the dark, harsh shadow underneath the tomato. You can also see the reflected flash of the camera, which shows as a harsh glare. It makes the entire photo seem flat, two-dimensional, washed-out, and unappetizing. In the photo on the right, only natural light filtering through a curtain was used. Notice how much softer the shadow underneath the tomato is, as well as the reduction in glare.

The quality of your light is the single biggest factor in how your food photos turn out, and it is a theme we will be returning to again and again. Avoid shooting in direct sunlight, as this can cause the same harsh shadows that a flash can. In general, we’ve found it best to shoot during daylight hours, near a window, preferably with a gauzy curtain to help filter the light. You will immediately improve your food photos, without spending a dime, with this tip: Shoot in natural light, with the overhead light off, on an overcast day. The curtain and the clouds will create perfect filtered light. In fact, Ree Drummond (of Pioneer Woman fame) uses only natural light for her blog and in her cookbook, and she gets stunning results.

Tomato, meet macro.

2. If you are using a point-and-shoot camera, use your camera’s “macro” setting, and choose an interesting angle. Zooming in very close on your subject can help show detail and create interest, and most modern point-and-shoots have a decent “macro” mode, right out of the box. Try to create interesting angles, either by getting very close to your subject, in a three-quarter angle, or by shooting from the absolute top-down. Avoid shooting food from angles in which you “normally” see it. A picture of an Oreo cookie bitten in half is going to be much more interesting shot close up, with the bite filling the frame and showing texture, than alone and bereft on a plate, top-down. Why? Because your brain has already seen an Oreo from that angle 100 times.

3. Brace the camera on a counter, stack of books, or on a tripod. When shooting very close in macro mode, any movement of the camera (even your finger squeezing the shutter release) is going to result in a slight loss of “crispness” in the finished photo. Always try and brace your hand against something, and if possible, shoot using a tripod, using either a remote shutter release or, in a pinch, using the camera’s timer function. Set up your shot with the timer, push the shutter release button, and walk away. In a few seconds, your camera will fire, resulting in the crispest possible shot.

4. If you are using a point-and-shoot (where you can’t control white balance settings) and you must shoot at night, replace your overhead lights with full-spectrum “daylight” bulbs. That light that’s pouring out of your ceiling fixture, or the light in the vent hood over the stovetop? It’s not going to do your photography any favors. General lighting creates harsh shadows, and even worse, can create strange colors in your finished photographs. Fluorescent light, for example, can give your finished photos a strange blueish hue, and there aren’t many foods that look appealing in blue. Replace your overhead light bulbs with full-spectrum or “daylight” bulbs.

Tomato shot indoors using homemade “can” light.

Evening photographers on a budget? Meet your new best friend.

5. Increase your “natural” light with a quick-and-dirty homemade can light. If you find that you must shoot in the evenings or indoors (as is the case for many food bloggers, who hold down normal day jobs, and do the bulk of their cooking and photography at night), building a few quick and inexpensive lights that you can clamp anywhere and position around your kitchen is a must. Purchase an inexpensive aluminum painter’s clamp light and a high-wattage full-spectrum bulb from a building-supply store, such as Home Depot or Lowes. Cut a circle out of an old white dishtowel or bedsheet, and stretch over the front of the light, affixing with tape or a rubber band. Presto! For around ten bucks, you’ve got yourself some on-demand, full-spectrum, directional filtered light. Experiment with shining your light directly on your plate (watching for those harsh shadows), or, for best results, aim the light up to the ceiling, and allow the light to bounce back onto your dish. The photo above was taken using this type of lighting setup. Note the natural appearance and coloring of the food, as well as the slightly-diffused shadow (though as you can see, shadows are still slightly harder-edged than with natural light).

A typical, amateur, very inexpensive setup for shooting in the evenings.

6. Adjust your photos using photo-manipulation software after shooting. Many professional photographers scoff at the notion of doing a lot of adjustment after-the-fact, making it a point of pride to get the best possible results directly out of the camera. This is great when it works out, but often doesn’t…particularly when you are first starting out. Though there’s enough to talk about here to warrant a totally seperate post, the easiest trick I used when I was first starting out, is one I call the “doubling trick.”

The “Doubling Trick” artificially bumps up exposure, increasing contrast and color saturation.

The Doubling Trick (Adobe Photoshop):
Open your photo in Adobe Photoshop. (I’m sure you can achieve similar results in other photo-manipulation software, but if you have Photoshop, use it.) Create a copy of your picture’s background layer by dragging it to the “Copy Layer” icon, or by going to Layer>Duplicate Layer. On the new layer that is created, change the blending mode to “Overlay,” and then dial down the opacity if the resulting image has too much contrast. In just two steps, you have made your photo more appealing, by increasing contrast and color saturation.

Using filtered light and foamboard reflector.

7. Take full control of your light and shadow. Want to shoot at any time of the day or night, without harsh shadows? For around $25 bucks each, you can buy freestanding lights with full-spectrum, color-corrected bulbs, and white, shoot-through umbrellas. You can either use these umbrellas to reflect the light from the bulb onto your food, or you can shine the light through the umbrellas themselves, diffusing the light very nicely. This is our favorite way to take soft, appealing photographs of the food we cook, and it’s all about controlling your light and shadow:

A sample diffused-light setup.

In the above setup, two things are happening: Light passes through the umbrella, filtering softly onto the subject. Then, a piece of inexpensive foamboard bounces that same light back in the other direction, softening further the already diffused shadow that is created on the tomato. This creates a soft light, which appears to come from one direction, while casting a soft shadow, and is a great way to create a “natural” looking photograph. You could also replace the foamboard with another filtered directional light coming from the opposite direction, which would minimize shadow, and create a very clean, sterilized look. As a general rule of thumb, remember that for every light source you create, you must fill it using either another light, or a reflector. Experiment!

About Malcolm Bedell

Malcolm is one-half of the blogging team at From Away, an Alexa-ranked top 100k most trafficked website about cooking, eating, and food culture in Maine. His writing and photography has been featured online on Serious Eats, the Huffington Post, BlogHer, and Foodista, as well as in print for Downeast, Indulge, and Cigar Snob magazines.

Comments

  1. nadia says:

    Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful tips! I particularly like the painter’s clamp light idea; it’s brilliant! Keep up the good work.

  2. Lynna says:

    Wonderful article! Thanks~

  3. Carol White says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article. I love the lighting tips. I have invested in a photo light that comes with a stand and a filter I find that it works well for me. I have Canon DSLR EOS camera. I just camera settings in auto. But I would really love to continue learning how to do my own settings.

    Thank again for sharing.

  4. These are spetacular tips, actually.
    I live in a top flat where the walls are sloped and the light is poor, so will give a go on your advice. I do have very good recipes on my blog, but was never able to take good pictures. Thanks a million.

  5. I am just setting up my food blog, and this is exactly the sort of information I need to get going. Thank you!

  6. endy daniel says:

    Great tips! im thinking to buy a white umbrella now :D

  7. nita says:

    Thank you so much for these tips! I have been very reluctant to post lately because my photos always look atrocious because I do most of my cooking and shooting in the evenings. So glad to see that it’s possible to take a decent pic even with a simple point and shoot!

  8. ian says:

    thanks for the tips! I am just starting out my blog and these are very helpful tips! =)
    ian of food for the blogs

  9. Adam Bryan says:

    I need to start implementing these tips quickly! I’ve tried using natural light instead of my camera’s flash and I have seen a huge difference. Plus, a white umbrella seems like a great investment. Great information!

  10. Jami says:

    Very helpful article. I’ve been struggling with food photography and this helps a ton. Thanks!

  11. This is exactly what I was looking for! I’ve just started a Greek food blog and learned about tastespotting and the like. We’re shooting with our iphone now (I know) and at night. It’s hard to get nice light pics. I’ll be heading to home dept today to try the cheaper method and see if it helps. Thanks!

  12. Lisa says:

    I’ve been using photoshop for years. Love your “doubling trick.” I just went back to some of my food shots and tried it – it add a lot of vibrancy and depth. Fun to have a new trick up my sleeve. Thank you for that.
    Lisa

  13. any tips on how to take good photos of food in restaurants – really can’t bring ones own lights etc. Often food blogging is about the food we’ve eaten, not just the food we have cooked. thanks

  14. Willie Robb says:

    Great tutorial Malcolm. I especially like the doubling trick.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] No matter what kind of camera you use, you’ll want to pay attention to basic lighting and composition, and make sure the background is clutter-free. It’s generally best to avoid using your camera’s flash (it gives off harsh shadows) and instead shoot photos in natural daylight (such as streaming in through a window). You can check out more food photo tips here. [...]

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