Ah food photography, how much I love thee, let me count the ways…
One of the first things that made me want to start a food blog was seeing all the delicious recipes online, bowls overflowing with bubbly cheese, soup dribbling down the side of a cup, stacks of pancakes with maple syrup running down the side, a simple bowl of the reddest, most beautiful cherries you’ve ever seen…
Setting out to recreate those photos has been a challenge. Let me be VERY clear about one thing: I am obviously in no way a professional. I’m not even close to where I want to be. There is still SO much left to learn! However, these tips are things that I’ve learned during the past 10 months that have exponentially improved my photography, and I WISH someone had told me these from the very, very beginning!
The very first recipe on this site was my Seafood Pasta, waaaaay back in November 2014 (oooh so long ago – it certainly seems like it, some days!)
… the lighting is soooo baaaad… and there’s random specks all over the plate that I obviously didn’t bother to clean up…
And this is the first photo that ever got accepted to FoodGawker, the “Just One More” Sweet Rolls from April 2015:
You can already tell there’s a HUGE difference in the quality, even in the span of 5 months. The lighting is better, the angle is better, you can feel the bread. I just want to dig my fingers in there and rip it apart. The flour in the top right adds a rustic feel and balances the photo so it doesn’t seem empty up there, and even the potholder adds a touch of character and colour. It’s not perfect by any means, but a vast improvement.
Food photography has a steep learning curve, and can definitely be overwhelming once people start tossing around words like ‘DSLR’, and ‘ISO’ and ‘aperture’, but those are for another day! Today we’re going to talk about the very basics, the 5 things beginner food photographers should know.
1. Shoot in Natural Light. This is probably the one that made the most difference. My Sweet Potato Gnocchi were the first photos I took in natural light, and the difference in quality blew. Me. Away. It seems obvious in hindsight, but at the time I just couldn’t believe the difference!
See, interesting shadows, beautiful contrast, gorgeous colours… and thennnnn it was dark by the time we actually got them cooked and….
Wah wahhhh… These were taken on the same day, with the same camera, of the same food. You can definitely see the difference that natural light makes!
This one can be a struggle if you’re working during the day and take pictures just before dinner, so I suggest setting aside some time on the weekends to do your photo shoots. My favourite tutorial about light in food photography is by Foodess, AND if you are completely unable to get your natural light from outside, I highly recommend The Secret to Food Photography When Your Lighting Sucks from Happy Food Healthy Life.
2. White balance. I always try to have something truly white in my picture, whether it’s the plate, or a napkin, or just a scrap of printer paper I sneak into the corner. Sometimes you don’t even see them because while editing the picture I’ve cropped them out. It just helps bring more accurate, real colour into your photos.
You can even set the white balance on your camera if you have a DSLR, but I don’t really fiddle around with that too much. How to set it will depend on your camera, but it’s just a quick google search away.
With this picture of Guinness Cottage Pie, I didn’t have a ‘true’ white in the photo (the cauliflower was a little yellow), so the picture is kind of… weirdly pink? Definitely not accurate, as opposed to this Zabaglione (thank you, white plate):
3. Invest in some sort of photo editing software. iPhoto, for example, is a pretty user-friendly program and should come free if you have a Mac. It does a lot of the things you need it to (white balance, cropping, basic colour levels, etc.), but eventually I knew I needed to get comfortable with a more robust piece of software. Most photo editing software will let you have a free month, so it’s worth playing around and seeing which one is the best fit for you.
The ‘big name’ is of course, Adobe Photoshop, which is a huge and incredibly powerful program. Buuuut it was a little too expensive and intimidating for me, honestly, although now you can just get a subscription for $19.99/mo (anyone else find subscription to programs weird?). Many photographers use Adobe Lightroom, which is a lighter, more organized software without all the bells and whistles (and is only $9.99/mo).
After a quick tutorial with my Mr. Nomato (the photography expert in our house!), and a couple videos online, I embraced Lightroom and it has made a HUGE difference. I can make the reds redder, while making the greens greener in the same picture, and I can even get rid of any stray crumbs!
Let’s take this photo for example, the original BLC Bagel photo that I took with the camera:
Not bad, but it looks washed out, and the details on the plate and in the chicken are very hard to see. And that bacon just does NOT look as juicy as I remember it tasting! All I did was brighten it, set the white balance, turn down the highlights, and voila!
Now THAT’S the bagel I remember eating! And all of those things you can find in your most basic photo editing program.
If you do have Lightroom, I recommend this set of Lightroom tutorials for getting a handle on the basics.
4. Invest in a tripod. When I say invest, I mean at least get the cheapest tripod you can find. Mine was around 20$, and while it’s not perfect, it’s good enough for what I need it for: holding the camera steady in low light situations. (Because apparently I am constantly shaking like a leaf, and we apparently have a penchant for living in places with no light to speak of.)
This Banana Bread photo was taken with no tripod (just look at that slice of bread. So blurry. Also, how did I never crop this picture, holy background, Batman):
Tripod (SO CRISP! – well, the focus is off in the front but that’s an issue for another day):
My tripod is a Polaroid 42″ Travel Tripod. She’s a little spindly and I sometimes have to fight with her to keep the camera from falling face-first into my food because she’s top-heavy, but she does what she’s supposed to.
5. Take a lot of photos. This one sounds silly and obvious, but it’s totally true. When I first started, I was taking maybe 20 photos per recipe. This wasn’t good, because when it came time to edit them, I’d notice something was slightly out of focus but I’d have no other photo to use in its place.
Now I take at least 100 photos per shoot, constantly adjusting and playing around with the food and the settings on my camera, trying lots of different things. It is way more time consuming, of course, but I’m so much happier with the final product.
When I finally get the photos on my computer there is just so much more choice! And I know that the better I get, the more photos I will end up taking. I’m only starting to add some food styling and more complicated props, and each of those adds a whole other challenge.
But my biggest piece of advice:
BE FEARLESS AND HAVE FUN. Don’t be afraid to play! Play with lights, colours, the food, the props, the backdrops, camera settings, everything. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work! Try something else! We all seek perfection but I kind of love that some of my favourite food photos have an element of mess: crumbs, a dirty spoon, sauce dribbling off the plate… those are the photos that really speak to me.
If you want to learn more about food photography, I’ve set up a whole Pinterest board full of my inspiration photos and random tutorials, from lighting to how to make your own backdrops, to what to look for in a camera or lens! I will be updating it as I find more.
Want to learn more?
Click here to be taken to 5 MORE Things Beginner Food Photographers Should Know!
Gourmande in the Kitchen’s The Language of Food Photography is a 6-part series of guest posts by different photographers. It’s my absolute go-to, and this one on How to Shoot Moody Images is basically my bible right now. I’ll get there one day…
Sally’s Baking Addiction Food Photography Basics is a great overview of how important photography is to food blogging. She also goes over aperture, ISO, etc. that I didn’t cover here. I find she explains things very clearly.
The Bojon Gourmet’s 12 Things That Have Helped My Food Photography is a wonderful basic tips list! Her pictures are very bright and cheery.
Tasty Food Photography by Lindsay Ostrum at Pinch of Yum (29$) is an excellent ebook, she shares her process and it even has videos so you can watch Lightroom tutorials on your computer!
I hope this has been helpful! What are some of your favourite tutorials or inspirations? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll add them to the board!
*Please note that I’m not being sponsored for any of the products or blogs listed above, and would never recommend them unless they were highly reviewed or used by me! They are affiliate links. This means that if you purchase any through this site, I Say Nomato gets a small commission. Thank you for supporting the site!*