First things first. This article isn’t about styling. I admit that styling food for the best shot possible is like a childs game. The whole scene becomes your playground. There are tons of possibilities you can do to make it look beautiful. However, for tons of possibilities, you also need tons of props like dishes, linens, backgrounds etc.
For the purpose of this article, let’s assume that the only tool you have is your camera. I can write about that because that’s my style. I am a minimalist. Not only do I not use additional tools, but I took most of my food photos with a compact camera Sony RX100 IV, not a DSLR camera. In the beginning of creating Foodiesfeed I was using backgrounds and dishes because I was shooting mostly at home. That changed after a few weeks. I realized I’m into taking photos, not styling, even there is a fine line between these two in food photography.
I love exploring the food scene of Prague, the city I live in, and I also try to squeeze in as much traveling as I can afford. My favorite activity has become shooting food wherever I go. With that being said, being dependent on my camera as the only tool, I must adapt to all kinds of conditions. Sometimes it’s very difficult, indeed, but I feel that it improves my photography skills which is definitely positive. I constantly need new content for Foodiesfeed and I can’t complain about the conditions I want to shoot in.
Ok, and second, this isn’t food photography 101. There are PLENTY of great ebooks and online courses that would teach you everything you need to know (I highly recommend Food Photography School and CreativeLive which I took myself). This is rather my personal tips and take on shooting food photos that I’ve learned by experience over the last 4 years.
Now let’s finally get into my tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years.
Whenever I talk to someone about my photos, I always say that light is 50% of the win. To achieve a realistic look, you should be aiming to use as much natural lighting as possible. Yep, easier said than done, right? If you enter a restaurant and you already know that you are going to take some pictures, just sit where the most light is. Or ask to be seated near windows. That’s a rule number one. A rule number two, sit with your back or side to the windows so you are the person who needs to move in order to let more light shine on the table. You don’t want to keep asking your friends to move aside. I admit, there is not much you can do about the lighting but just try to fit in as much as you can. You can’t do magic editing when you capture a frame without sufficient light in it.
2. Choose Your Angle and Depth of Field
It’s usual to use a shallow depth of field to draw the eye to the main piece of food or a specific part of it. But you may want to close the aperture of your camera to capture a deeper depth of field. They both work. It’s more about your own style and also trying to figure out which one works the best for the scene you’re capturing. Generally, if the whole scene isn’t nice enough, focus on the detail. This one is also dependent on the camera you are using. You know those aerial food shots on Instagram, right? Everyone’s shooting from above now. That’s because smartphone do better job taking a picture with deep depth of field. Bokeh looks meh on smartphone pictures, don’t waste your time trying it.
3. Dish vs. Whole Scene
Just a small note that is related to the point above. There is no need to take a picture of the whole scene and not even the whole dish. Is there anything particularly nice, colorful, vibrant, or with great details on your plate? Focus only on that, if you have a DSLR camera and try to make it really pop in the picture.
4. Smaller Looks Nicer
However, if you decide to capture the whole scene, remember that smaller objects look nicer. It might seem counterintuitive to some that smaller objects are better when we view most of the pictures on social media in small resolution. But really, just go through some popular food blogger’s Instagram and look how many things they squeeze into the frame. Having only one dish without any surroundings exactly in the middle doesn’t look too good. I guess you’ve already seen people standing on their chairs, taking photos of their coffee and cake, right? Well, that’s what I’m talking about, they know this.
5. Clean and Simple Composition
Always think of “clean and simple” when shooting food. There shouldn’t be anything too distracting. The main object should still be the food or drink you’re trying to capture. It should attract the eye first.
6. Be Precise, Be Patient
The human eye is VERY sensitive to symmetry, details and geometry in general. That’s why golden ratio and other photography “rules” work. Don’t just shoot 20 almost identical pictures right away. I’m that type of a person who better has 3 quite different compositions but all of them look nice than having dozens of them that look the same. Always take your time and rather spend a minute or two just moving around with your camera, looking for the best composition possible. Always check corners and edges if there isn’t anything that interrupts the scene. And then, when you are ready, keep it completely steady! Especially when you press the touchscreen on your smartphone. Even a small blur can destroy otherwise pretty picture. Precision and patience pay off heavily when photographing food.
7. Ask your Co-Eater to Participate
A human element can make your picture much more interesting. I’m talking about hands of someone else eating a food, holding a piece of fruit or cup of coffee. If you’re not alone, ask your friend to participate on the photoshoot. Viewers can relate to the story in the picture much easier when there are someone else’s hands.
Post-processing is an essential part of a beautiful food photo
If light was 50% of the win, then post-processing is the other 50%. From my own experience, however natural looking photo result I want to achieve, it’s not possible without at least some tweaks here and there in my favorite photo editor Adobe Lightroom. I’m not talking about any professional retouches, but rather about simple playing with basic stuff such as colors, highlights and shadows balance or details enhancement.
When I say playing, I mean it. Editing photos should be fun, not a daunting task you keep avoiding. For beginners, it might be time consuming and also a bit too rigid in the sense of following certain “rules” too much. But with time, it becomes a second nature and you literally start playing with the photos.
All pro photographers I know, begin with finding the most suitable preset or filter from their arsenal to apply. The preset must match with the photo’s light and colors. Most amateurs think that applying a preset is where the work ends. But it’s completely the opposite, it’s where the fun begins. If you are interested I invite you to try my own presets that I’ve developed and been using since I started Foodiesfeed.
If you use Photoshop, you can also try out our free food Photoshop Actions!
1. What’s the Mood? Brightness, contrast, white balance and saturation
I know this might seem to simple but these are basically the only settings you’ll need to fiddle with. Of course, there are many more advanced options but the photo won’t look good without the basics being set up well. Always ask yourself, what mood do you want to express with the photo and ultimately, how do you want the viewer to feel? That’s how you choose whether the photo should be very bright or rather dark, vibrant and saturated or rather a bit sad and with washed out colors. I’ve noticed that stronger contrast is almost in all cases the better option. White balance is also very important for the mood – do you want the photo to feel more warm or cold? For example cakes with coffee look really great when the tones are a bit to the warm side while fruit or vegetables look more natural when the white balance is balanced correctly.
2. Structure, Details, Sharpness
As I have already said, human eye is very sensitive to details. When I import my photos in Lightroom, I let the software automatically increase sharpness and contrast. When lines and objects are more defined, the photo looks better. Think of a photo as a tool to show all the little details of food that can’t be noticed in real without deeper examination. Increasing sharpness and clarity (that’s how they call it in Adobe) help the viewer imagine touching the structure, smelling the food or eating it. It outsmarts our brain to think that it’s real.
3. Experiment and Don’t Be Afraid to Go Extreme
When editing a photo, try to step outside the box. Don’t try to rationalize every single option and rather “feel it”. Don’t be like “this is too bright/contrasty/sharp/dark” only because the settings button is too much on the right side or too much on the left side. Forget about the UI and just look at the picture. Does it look good to your eye? Perfect, leave it like that without thinking too much. This is a skill that needs to be learned but you can get there only with experimenting a lot without being scared to use extreme settings because it’s not “normal”. Think of post-processing as an art, same as the photography itself. Try black&white, too dark, too bright, washed out shadows, overshoot highlights etc.
4. Take a Step Back
When you keep staring at a picture for a long time, it’s difficult to recognize the little nuances between certain levels of all kinds of settings. Exposure +0.25 starts to seem the same as +1 and you are not sure which one looks and feels better. When I edit a photo for a few minutes and I’m still not sure, I put away the mobile phone or step away from my computer only to return back in a minute or two to finish it with a fresh view. Doing this help you keep things in perspective. Even shutting the screen of your phone off and on back again while staring away for a few seconds help.
5. Software I Recommend
Before I wrap this up, let me remind you of one last thing. Editing is a skill of art, you must develop an eye for it and the closer to perfection you want to get, the more photos you need to edit. Don’t get intimidated by professionals on Instagram who’ve been honing their craft for years. Keep trying, keep playing, keep creating your own style. Eventually, you’ll start seeing on the screen the results that you previously were seeing only in your mind.
Jakub, Founder of Foodiesfeed