Food Photography Basics

Our pal Alyssa from Runway Chef is going to give you some tips on food photography. We figured who better to give you the rundown on shooting than a blogger who takes the most beautiful pictures of her really yummy recipes?

food photography

Food photography. Oh gosh, where do I even start? As someone who began on a simple point-and-shoot, I can tell you– there is much more to food photography than simply food and a photo. As a self-taught photographer, who has had many growing pains along the way, I am by no means an expert. Here are a few simple things I’ve learned a long the way that can help you improve your food photos.

Spoiler alert: You’ll be seeing into the deep, dark past of my own blog, Runway Chef. It’s not pretty but I’m hoping it will be helpful, or, at the very least, provide a good laugh. Let’s get snapping shall we?

Light it up.

To me, the number one most important thing (no matter what equipment you are using or the food you are shooting), is lighting. You could have the best burger in the world, but if you have bad lighting, it’s probably going to look like one of the worst burgers in the world. Alternately, you may have some pretty messy food on your plate, but with right lighting, that mess might not look so bad. For optimal results, you want indirect, natural lighting.

food photography

Typically this means you’ll want to shoot by a window (but not right up against a window) or even outside. You’ll want to play around to find the best light and time where you live. In my current apartment, that means I shoot my food in our bedroom, ideally between the hours of 1 p.m. and 3 p.m..

A quick tip: if the light is too harsh or direct, simply cover your window with a sheer white curtain to diffuse the light.

Camera time.

Next up, is your camera and lens. As I mentioned previously, I started off shooting with a point-and-shoot. I soon upgraded to a DSLR (a Canon EOS Rebel T3), making things infinitely better. But the real game changer was the lens. Using a 50mm makes a world of difference on the crispness and clarity of food pictures. Camera equipment is certainly not cheap, but it is worth the investment.

food photography

Worthy extras.

Outside of the camera and lens, there are other items you’ll want to start accumulating such as, backgrounds, photo props, etc. I started out simply using two white boards I picked up at the craft store and just regular old silverware. I have since realized there are many ways to get cheap but fabulous looking photo props.

Thrift stores (like Goodwill) are gold mines for old silverware, plates, cups, etc. Fabric stores are great places to pick up fabric scraps that substitute as “napkins” or “tablecloths”. Ikea is another great place for cheap towels and serving ware. And of course, you can always raid the family attic for treasures. 🙂

food photography

When you’re just starting out, I recommend sticking to all-white serving ware, as it will make your food pop the best. A few other things to keep in mind:

  • Vintage silver ware/serving ware looks the best in photos and mismatched items pair well together to make a photo really pop.
  • Layering (of napkins, silverware, etc) can add depth, while the smaller items tend to look the best (think more food, less plate, so use mini forks instead of regular forks, saucers instead of serving plates, etc.).
  • If you’re just beginning, I recommend getting a few basic white towels, a long white dish, a few white saucers, a few small white bowls, and 2 sets of vintage silver ware.

Other equipment- white boards (to use as reflectors), a tripod (for shooting on manual), and photo backgrounds (I love these because you can easily wipe them clean and they roll up for easy storage, even in a small space).

Make it manual.

Once you’ve gotten a grasp on the basics of shooting with a DSLR, you’ll want to advance your skills and start shooting on manual. I know, it sounds scary, but I promise, it’s not as overwhelming as you may think. There are really only 3-4 settings you need to be concerned with: the aperture, the F stop, and the ISO (and there’s a handy cheat sheet to help you out here).

food photography

The aperture has to do with shutter speed. A lower speed (1/60) is good for quick snaps when lots of light is available. A speed (such as 1”) is good when less light is available, but the exposure is longer, meaning the chances of a blurry picture are high.

With the F stop, the lower the number, the blurrier the background. I.e., if you want to see just one cupcake with all the other cupcakes blurred behind it, you will want to shoot on a low F stop such as a 2.0, but if you’re trying to get all the cupcakes you’ll want to bump it up to a 4.0 or 5.0.

For ISO, I rarely shoot on anything other than 100. The darker it is or the less light you have to work with, the higher you’ll want the ISO to be. Just keep in mind, the higher the ISO, the grainier the picture can turn out.

One other thing you can play around with is the white balance. Typically I shoot on auto or shade. Usually, though, the only things I adjust are the F stop and the aperture to achieve the look I’m going for.

Be an editor.

Last but not least, a few simple edits to make your pictures the best they can be. I use a few tools in Photoshop Elements but you can also just use the ones that pop up with the photo preview tool.

When editing a photo, the first thing I do is check the white balance, either using the automatic tool in Photoshop or adding a little blue into the picture. I also up the contrast just a touch, brighten the picture (if need be), and I always sharpen the image (in Photoshop I use the Unsharp Mask tool with amount 170%, radius 2.0 and threshold 5).

food photography

I know this is a lot to take in, so ultimately, my number one tip is to just dive right in and start playing around with your camera. There is no better way to learn then to just go for it!

P.S. If you’re looking for more tips, I have a whole Pinterest board dedicated to photography. Check it out here!


Thank you so much for putting this amazing tutorial together, Alyssa! Go follow that Pinterest board, y’all, and keep up with her over at Runway Chef!


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