A lot of people run into food photography because they are dedicated to cooking or baking and want to show and share their work in social media with their friends. When you are reading this I’m pretty sure you are one of them.
The social media especially Instagram is full of zillion food imagery. So you maybe want to be part of that and start sharing your food photographs but you ask yourself how other food bloggers create these stunning images? If so, this post is for you. So stay put and follow the reading.
What you really need
The good thing when it comes to food photography is that you can start immediately right on the spot. The technical basis of it can be kept really simple at the beginning. To get started you only need some food, some camera or your mobile phone and a window at daylight. And that’s basically it.
Where you want to start is up to you. Do you just want to take some stunning snapshots of your food for sharing in the social media or with friends or do you want to start a business as a food photographer and make a living on the long run out of it?
Anyways. What I highly recommend at the beginning is, before investing crazy money in all this fancy and nerdy photography gear everyone thinks to be needed before to start, is to begin very simple and find out if food photography is something you really want to go for or if it’s just a temporary thing with no substance and interest in the long run.
But whatsoever. To get started you need to grow your skills so or so.
Your skill development can be divided into the following 4 easy steps:
- Technical requirements
- Basic daylight lighting setup
- Basic food styling skills
- Photographic composition
Let’s talk about all these steps in detail, but before that, I want to talk about the biggest mistake people make when it comes to food photography.
The right white balance draws the thin line between awesome and disgusting looking
If you stroll around Instagram looking for food-related photographs you often see well-made dishes and meals, but they are far away of looking yummy. And that’s only because the photographer missed to set the right balance right.
What is white balance in digital food photography about and why is it so important?
Setting the right white balance is crucial when it comes to food photography. Your camera needs a reference point which color in your image it should interpret as natural white. In relation to that, it interprets all the other colors of your image. In practice, it means if you shooting your food on a white plate, the plate should look really white and not yellowish, bluish or with any other color cast.
How to set the white balance right
Nowadays every digital camera and even the cameras of mobile phones have a bunch of presets to set the white balance. Usually, you have different presets for daylight, cloudy daylight, tungsten, fluorescent and on high-end digital cameras you often have the possibility to set your white balance manually. This process can be different. You should have a look at your manual for that.
But why is white so different? That’s easy to answer. Think of daylight: At sunset, the sunlight is much more orange than during the day. This has something to do with the angle of the sunlight falling to earth and how it’s reflected back to the sky. At noon the sun has the highest peak falling nearly direct in a 90-degree angle on the surface. That’s why the sunlight is bounced back from the oceans (80% of the earth’s surface is covered by them) and let the sky look blueish. And of course, it makes the light more blueish too.
And at dawn when the angle of the incoming sunlight becomes flatter the light gets more orange, but after sundown, it’s called the blue hour and before sunlight, it’s completely faded away the light has the most bluish share of the day.
The color shift is measured as color temperature in Kelvin. Daylight is averaged at 5200 Kelvin and tungsten light at 3200 Kelvin. Sometimes you find this numbers instead of daylight or tungsten preset at your cam’s menu.
If you set the white balance wrong you usually get a more blueish or a more yellowish tint at the end. Both tints are letting your food look very unusual and sometimes really disgusting.
To recap. Get your white balance right before shooting your food. For us humans, we have a very precious picture in mind when it comes to food. Setting how and choosing the right white balance is the first step to become more professional and yummy looking pictures.
Changing the white balance in post-production
If you are shooting in a RAW file format you can easily change a wrong set white balance in post-production by just a click. For those who don’t know what RAW is I recommend this article about “Why it’s so important to shoot RAW in food photography”.
But to give a short answer here as well: RAW is a file format which captures every information your picture sensor is able to fetch during your trigger release for the length of your shutter speed. This means you have a broad basis to manipulate your image with some image manipulation software like Lightroom or Photoshop, Gimp or Darktable (just to name two free ones too).
Never ever use one of these fancy Instagram filters for your food photography
Another good advice for food photography is that you should never (and never means never) use one of these fancy Instagram filters on your food. It usually makes it unappetizing looking.
But what to do after setting the white balance right?
1 The technical requirements
As said before keep it simple at the beginning. Just learn how to use your DSLR, mirrorless or mobile phone camera. For food photography, it is best to learn how to handle your cam in manual mode too. When shooting in daylight you probably have to shoot with long exposure times which makes the use of a tripod mandatory to get sharp results.
Make yourself a bunch of white, silver and black cards out of some cardboard. Use printing paper, kitchen foil and some black tape to create your cards. Get some A-clamps and use them as stands to block or bounce in some light into your food scene.
For recap. You need the following to get started with your food photography journey:
- some kind of camera (DSLR, mirrorless or mobile phone)
- a tripod
- white & silver bounce cards
- black cards
- a few A-clamps
2 The most basic lighting setup
I can’t tell you enough to keep it simple at the beginning. When you get started with your food photography journey just start with a daylight setup. You can create stunning pictures with daylight if you know how.
As a first rule take this: Try to avoid full frontal lighting. It makes the picture flat and let your food look not very yummy. Go for back or sidelight or a combination of both. That’s the key to good looking food photography.
Use a window and sunlight at the beginning
What you need to get started is a big and broad window where daylight is floating in. Take a table and put it in front of the window. Now put your food onto the table. Get yourself a piece of parchment paper and tape it to the window. This will make your light more diffused and it will soften the shadows. In the end, you will get a very smooth light.
Go for back- or side-lighting
Next thing to do is to decide if your main light (the sunlight through the window) should be used as a backlight, means put your cam and your tripod on the opposite side of our window. As an alternative, you could use the sunlight as sidelight as well. If ask put your cam on a tripod in a 45-degree angle to your window.
Next thing to do for you is to look at your shot and decide if there are spots which you want to darken a bit. Use your black cards to block some light. Use it with an A-clamp which can be used as stands for the cards.
Bounce some extra light onto your food
Then have a look at your composition. Use a white or a silver card to bounce some light directly on your main subject. This extra light will separate your food from the rest of your composition. This will guide the viewer’s eye directly to the point of interest. It’s an easy, but very effective trick to do.
Practice, practice, practice
Be aware: there is no such thing like wrong or right. It’s just about you and what you like most. Start to experiment with this setup and put your cam here and there. Use a low and a high angle and look what’s happening. This will grow your basic understanding of light and composition over time. Key is here – as always – practice, practice, practice. And believe me, if you really want to give food photography a try it’s really fun.
3 You need to grow some basic food styling skills
Now that you mastered the basic technical and lighting setup it’s time to talk about basic food styling. It’s part of the game too. You can have the best technical skills, but your images will look shabby if you don’t learn how to present your food/dish at it’s best.
To be honest, I’m not the best food stylist myself. So I developed my own approach to it over time. What is a really good thing to do is to think about your dish. Is it flat like pizza or is it high like a cake? It’s always a good thing to layer your food. If you are interested in that layering technique go read this article about “Food Styling Basics”.
Don’t overdo it
It maybe annoys you, but try to keep it simple here too. Don’t overdo your food styling. Often less is more and looks more exclusive than overdoing it. Don’t fill your plate with loads of food. Think about these crazy expensive restaurants. They only put a bite on a plate. Think about an interesting garnish for your dish. Go experiment with different shapes etc. Try to make your plate interesting looking. Try different cutting methods.
As a first guideline goes for this:
- Only process hyper-fresh food
- Keep your food styling simple at the beginning
- Take care of the different proportions of your ingredients
- Watch out for the fiendish details
Use some props, but watch out that they don’t shine too bright in your composition to steal your food the show
4 Learn some basic photographic composition methods
Now that you already mastered to handle your cam, your light and your food styling it’s time to talk about composition a bit.
There are a lot of different theoretical approaches to photographic composition. Go and learn a few of them. I’m sure you heard already of the rule of thirds. It’s the most common approach to photography at all and most of the cameras are able to put it by preset over your image to make it easier for you to compose your shot. Just go through your cam’s menu and look for an overlay grid.
The rule of thirds
You have to divide your image into equal thirds by using two vertical and two horizontal lines. This will get you nine equal rectangles and create a grid with four intersection points. These intersection points are an important part of your image. Try to put your main subject here and you will create something which looks good at the end. It’s that easy and the end of the story.
Use negative space
Another effective and easy method is to use so-called “negative space” in your photographs. That’s really easy to execute because it means that you leave most of your frame empty. It’s so effective because the lack of information will force the viewer’s eye directly to your food because it’s the only thing to look at. And of course combine the rule of thirds with some negative space and you will create a stunning picture at the end.
Use centred symmetry
Another really simple technique is to put your food symmetric into the centre of your frame. Easy, but very effective. Nothing else to say.
The concept of leading lines is a strong and effective way to guide the viewer’s eye through your picture. In food photography, this means that you can easily do that by putting some cutlery or some wooden spoons etc. into your frame and create some guiding lines to draw attention to your main subject which will be your food itself.
Rule of odds
Another very popular approach for photography in common is the so-called rule of odds. The rule of odds assumes that a picture is more visually appealing if you have an odd number of subjects in the frame. In theory, an odd number of subjects seems to be more natural for us as humans. Believe it or not. To be honest, I’m not really sure about that rule, but with an odd number of plates, bowls etc. you can draw imaginary triangles around your picture which creates some leading lines and guide the viewer’s eye through your picture. Just experiment with it and decide fifths is something for you.
There are a ton of compositional rules and concepts you could go for. If you want to dive deeper into that go find yourself a good book about photographic composition or find it out yourself by try and error.
Now you are prepared for your first food photography shoot. Just try the described techniques above ad have fun. And don’t get too frustrated at the beginning. Everything comes with a learning curve. And Rome wasn’t built in a day as well.
I ‘m really curious about what you will create. I would like to see your finished pictures. Share them on Instagram and tag them #easyfoodphotography so that I can easily find them.
If you found that article helpful feel free to share it this would help me, too.
HOW TO GET STARTED WITH FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY was written by EasyFoodPhotography founder and editor Alex Fuchs. Alex loves photography and good heavy stoner rock music. His food styling skills are restricted, but he is working on that. When people approach him saying “You can’t do that” his maxim is always: I’ll do it in a minute. He loves to be challenged. Follow his Instagram feed. You read “How to get started with food photography”.