Introduction to Food Photography

Food photography may not be as popular as landscape photography or portraiture, but it’s a genre which holds many advantages over others. We all buy, prepare and consume food, so we don't need go to too much extra trouble in sourcing our subjects. It’s something that can be done in the convenience of our own homes (regardless of the weather), and by working with the seasons you have a continuously changing variety of subjects to work with. 

The photographs you see in magazines and books will almost certainly have had some input from a stylist, one who is experienced with working with different foods and props in order to make everything look presentable. Perhaps most of us don’t have a natural aptitude for food styling, but simple garnishes for most dishes shouldn’t be beyond anyone’s creative capabilities. So what else does the budding novice need to know? 

What to buy

Shooting food in its natural state requires that it be fresh and ripe, and free from blemishes, bruises and marks. Just like people, putting food items in front of a camera can reveal flaws that might be completely unnoticeable when viewed less critically...

While post-processing can easily deal with small hairs or other imperfections, you should ensure that whatever it is you’re buying looks as good as possible to begin with.

It sounds obvious, but it really pays to spend an extra few moments looking for the best quality food available; it will translate to a more appealing image and you won’t need to spend as much time processing. 

Supermarkets generally stock the more cosmetically appealing foods, as opposed to local markets whose produce may vary more in appearance. Nevertheless, each has its advantages; while you may be able to find what you want easier in a larger store, a market is likely to sell more exotic foods. You may even find citrus fruits with a leaf or two still attached, or zuchinni complete with their flowers - things you may not ordinarily find in pre-packed supermarket produce. 

Equipment

Although many professional food photographers use medium format systems for their work, both for the highest level of image quality and also for shallow depth of field, many opt for the flexibility of DSLR instead. A short to medium telephoto lens of between 60-105mm (equivalent) is ideal, allowing the photographer to quickly alternate between close-up macro images with restricted depth of field, and those further away where a number of peripheral details may be used to contextualize the main subject. Tilt-and-shift lenses can also be useful when capturing a whole table's worth of food, although these lenses are considerably more expensive than conventional optics. 

Whether it's natural or artificial light you’re using, diffusers and reflectors can be incredibly helpful when working with food. You may not need to buy specific equipment if you don’t already have it; a sheet of fabric can be pinned to a window to help diffuse its light, while walls and ceilings can successfully be used as reflectors. Reflectors are particularly useful if you have a simple daylight-based setup where light is only coming from one side, such as a window or skylight.

DSLRs with live view and a self-timer can be useful for checking focus and maintaining sharpness  A macro lens with focal length between 60-105mm is ideal for capturing most foods
Reflectors can be used to fill in shadowy areas of dishes, particularly outdoors where you may have strong light and high contrast. If you don't have a reflector, a sheet of white card, or a nearby wall or ceiling might do the job Small spray bottles are inexpensive but useful - a fine mist of water droplets can make a huge difference to the appearance of fruit, for example, making it appear fresher and more appetizing

The old advice of using a gardening spray can is often mentioned when shooting flowers, but it applies equally to fresh foods. For a single shoot and smaller foods you generally won’t need much water, though, so you may find it easier to invest in a small bottle designed for containing beauty products. While physically smaller in size, this will do the job just as well and will give you greater control for smaller setups.

A small brush can also be helpful, either to brush away dust or hair, or for evenly distributing glazes and sauces, while a rocket blower can also be useful for foods which may be too delicate to touch without damaging, such as raspberries and other soft fruit.

Setting up

DSLR photographers may prefer to use a tripod and live view when photographing food, as it’s convenient for accurate framing and checking focus and detail. Even with the aid of live view, though, it can sometimes be difficult to appreciate small imperfections, those which may only become clear when images are viewed on a larger display. If your camera allows it, consider tethering it to a computer as you shoot; this will make it easier to quickly spot anything you may fail to otherwise, and will save you having to clone the same thing out of a whole series of images. Alternatively, magnify the live view feed to zoom around your image, where you can fine-tune both your composition and focus.

Unless you’re photographing at very close distances, you’ll need to consider appropriate props to go with your own food. At a basic level this can simply be the bowl, plate or cup in which the main subject is contained, as well as any cutlery. More elaborate set-ups can include a stack of serving bowls and a ladle, as well as flowers and other table decorations. It may be tempting to dress up a scene with a variety of props but try to exercise some restraint; don’t include props for the sake of including them, think instead about what actually works and what you would expect to find in and around that particular dish or situation. 

Once you’ve begun to develop a style and body of work, you may find yourself approaching the same foods from different directions. For example, a serving of a dessert on its own can look fine, but would it look better with the serving bowl and spoon in the background, and perhaps another serving elsewhere in the image? Or how about capturing a dish in the pan or tin in which it is cooked, rather than that in which it is served?

Here, a simple garnish of chopped walnuts and parsley was used to give the dish
an autumnal feel

Adding people to your images can also make for a more interesting photo, even if you only include a pair of hands - cradling a bowl of soup, for example, or holding a plate or fork. Something else to consider is whether your images could benefit from a simple garnish; for a main meal this doesn’t need to be anything more than just a scattering of chopped herbs, while for sweets consider a dusting of cocoa or icing sugar, or a palmful of chopped nuts.

Don’t be afraid to work some movement into your images if you feel it may help. If you don’t have an assistant, you can set your camera up on a tripod and use either your camera’s burst shooting mode or (if it has one) an intervalometer. Either will allow you to take a series of images as you pour over a sauce or sprinkle over a garnish. This is particularly useful for the former as once a sauce has been poured over you will only have so much time before it begins to coagulate, forming an unappealing skin.  

Lighting and color

There’s no right or wrong lighting for food photography. The good news for those staring out is that, for most subjects, daylight is arguably the most flattering (and easiest) light to use. You should, however, always consider what kind of light best suits your chosen foods, specifically by thinking about when it would typically be consumed. 

Strong daylight, for example, is an ideal match for boldly colored food and drink which would be typically consumed over summer, an image which can be intensified by the use of colourful bowls, placemats and tablecloths. It’s also suited for foods which have been glazed or dressed in some way, as the highlights created by the combination draw attention to the food’s texture and finish. Flatter lighting, meanwhile, is more appropriate for hearty autumnal and wintery foods, such as stews and roasts, as are more neutral and earthy props. These aren’t fixed rules however, and sometimes breaking them is exactly what helps create a more unique image.

Stronger lighting and colorful props work best with foods typically eaten during
the warmer months, particularly those with strong colours

While you should think about what background works best with your chosen food, if you're taking your photographs at home you might find yourself running out of options for natural surroundings pretty quickly. If you plan an image with shallow depth of field - i.e with a blurred background where only color but not detail can be seen - you can use a range of different backdrops constructed from things around the house. A colored t-shirt for example, can be used quite successfully, and the likelihood is that you’ll have a few different colors to choose from already. You could even opt for a large plain-covered book, or even just a piece of card. 

You don’t need to stick to complimentary colors when deciding on props and backgrounds. Try combining different shades of the same hue... ...or alternatively stick to a neutral palette

Experimenting with complimentary colors can bring a natural harmony to your subjects and their surroundings, but don’t feel restricted by this. Some of the best food photography makes use of only one dominant color throughout, but with the subject, props and surroundings each in a different shade to provide a separation. Many foods, such as cakes, biscuits and so on, are naturally bland in color, so think about pairing them with a more lively tablecloth, plate or backdrop, as this will lift the image as a whole. Whatever you do, try not to overcomplicate your surroundings as it’s this is likely to detract attention from the main subject. Complement your foods simply, with plain backgrounds and props which don’t bring too much attention to themselves.

Venturing further afield

You can give your images a more rustic feel by photographing certain foods in their original packaging, such as oranges in wooden crates or berries in cardboard punnets. With their branded packaging and unflattering lighting, supermarkets aren’t ideal locations to try this (and you may have trouble getting permission to photograph inside them anyway). Instead, venture down to your local market where your chances of success stand to be higher. Remember to ask for permission from the stallholder before you begin shooting, though, not only out of politeness but also because they may be willing to let you photograph from behind the stall, or be photographed themselves.

These breads were still wrapped in the bakery's paper packaging, which is
much more pleasing to look at than the plastic sleeves common to
supermarket breads

Photographing food in different environments will help you develop an interesting portfolio of work, so it’s worth enquiring at a local café or restaurant as to whether they would allow you to photograph inside their premises. There are a handful of good reasons for doing so; not only will you be able to photograph a range of different foods, but you won’t need to spend money on any additional props. If you’re lucky enough to have a full day or so to shoot, you can give your images a sense of narrative by documenting food being prepared to being displayed and consumed.

Some businesses may even wish to use your photos on their website or for other promotional material, which will help you gain exposure, but make sure that all issues regarding copyright and exclusivity are agreed to prior to any photography taking place.  

Taking photos in a cafe or restaurant allows you to capture much more than simply the food being served. Capturing food and drink as it's being prepared introduces movement and drama into your images, and this doesn't have to be anything as dramatic as a chef flambéing a dish. More subtle moments, such as a sauce being drizzled over a dish at the last minute, or even just a latte being skilfully poured by a barista, can be just as interesting.
If photgraphing for a client, you may be asked to capture the character of an establishment so that the correct image may be conveyed on their website. If asked to do so, look around at what makes that particular place what it is. It could be a particular type of clientele, decorative features such as fresh flowers or wall hangings, or even just the style of a chalkboard.
High-end eateires may make a point of using specific ingredients, so see if you can capture these in their natural state. Capturing in black and white works with subjects where texture and form takes precedence over colour, such as with charcuterie. While you can always make a black and white conversion from a colour image later on, trying to see in black and white as you're shooting may direct you to change the lighting or your position, which may result in a better image.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

Comments

Total comments: 56
S2ISSA
By S2ISSA (Jun 8, 2012)

Thanks very much. I am a Pro earning my keep from Food, Lifestyle, Interiors and Architectural photography, and I picked up some very useful pointers here. Always something new to learn :)

0 upvotes
liveagain
By liveagain (May 28, 2012)

Thanks, Matt. Tons of great tips for beginners like me. I look forward to the next article!

0 upvotes
vidisha
By vidisha (May 8, 2012)

thanks guys, useful article. I am new to professional photography this article will help me a lot. Just in case Alpha users want to show off thei food pics, they can do it at
http://www.flickr.com/groups/sonyindiaalpha/discuss/72157629939513013/
I keep participating in this group acitvity and keep getting good feedback for my pix.

0 upvotes
riskha81
By riskha81 (Feb 3, 2012)

nice,.. so do you use zoom in or what? if yes what range zoom in to produce the best pictures? thanks

0 upvotes
X Faktor Photo
By X Faktor Photo (Mar 26, 2012)

My first macro (capable) lens was the Sigma 17-70 F2.8-4.5 for my Sony Alpha, and I thought it was the coolest lens, from wide to short tele, and I could focus up to the glass, which I never could understand why.

Now, I have the Sigma 180 Macro (Canon), and it's great but should be stabilized for precise shooting. I'd say a 70mm macro would be ideal.

0 upvotes
Jeetsabina
By Jeetsabina (Jan 31, 2012)

Pretty well written, saved me some good bucks from buying a book on Food Photography. Thank you :)

0 upvotes
Lucky777
By Lucky777 (Jan 19, 2012)

Very nice. Thanks.

0 upvotes
JCazals
By JCazals (Jan 13, 2012)

I do specialize in food for the past 15 years, based in London . I believe I have an extended knowledge on the subject obviously having work worldwide with numerous top chefs on over 80 cookbooks and numerous campaign and magazine whether in my studio or location.
The comments and advise given by Matt are indeed very basic. I would agree with other comment done below that the photographs shown as well of being of poor quality do not show a wide choice of approach to the subject of food photography which is now days more trendy than fashion in some sense or even landscape for that matter.!
The digital has allowed a lot of people to become photographer overnight ! The magic of the film and the expertise needed to master it is now done by software . Still quality remain needed which is something people will develop with time and experience like so many other job!
Have a look at my work to get a different and varied view on the subject of food photography
http//:www.jeancazals.net

1 upvote
Dmurph
By Dmurph (Jan 13, 2012)

JCazals: Your gallery of food photos is spectacular especially use of color and composition. When do you plan to write a book on the subject of food photography?

1 upvote
Photo Geezer
By Photo Geezer (7 months ago)

Jean, after viewing your images I feel as if I have attended a master class on lighting. Bravo.
Although basic, I found this article very helpful as I photograph food for local diner menus. Thank you for writing it.
Bill G
Photo Geezer

0 upvotes
paulig
By paulig (Jan 9, 2012)

It's all good, but i'd like to see something more than general advice like make it to look good. Complement colors or whatever. Show me pro-grade studio lighting setup just for food and a dslr with lenses. Or DIY setup like this one:

http://www.akelstudio.com/blog/professional-photography-without-professional-equipment-myth-and-reality/

0 upvotes
Alokchitri
By Alokchitri (Jan 9, 2012)

An excellent write-up, thank you very much

0 upvotes
Irakly Shanidze
By Irakly Shanidze (Jan 9, 2012)

Matt, this is great. Wonderful job!

0 upvotes
QSMcDraw
By QSMcDraw (Jan 9, 2012)

Very nice introduction, a good article to help those of us looking for new perspectives on common subjects. As a teacher, as a chairperson of a group that meets monthly and must have speakers each month, I know the challenge of bringing fresh ideas and material to an "audience" on a regular basis. The harsh criticism for lack of technical details is not helpful, but the suggestions to add a few tips on lighting are important.

Scolding others for disagreeing or questioning is a clear sign that somebody hasn't had their coffee yet.

I had to laugh at the "people starving" comment, which was probably facetious. I wonder what that person thinks of pictures of beautiful women!

As for enveloping depth-of-field, I think every take-away Chinese restaurant I've been too uses such pictures, and they do not make the dishes appealing at all. These catch attention, highlight textures and colors, and provoke good conversation. Thanks, dpreivew!

Comment edited 32 seconds after posting
2 upvotes
papablues
By papablues (Jan 9, 2012)

Ths was interesting... I have been taking photos of my breakfast nearly every morning, with my Android phone publish on facebook, for a few months, but i wasn't aware that this was a photo genre I'd been into. Maybe I have been creating art? My breatfast omelette, coffee, yoghurt and virgin mary suddenly turned into contemorary masterpieces?

/Karlsson

0 upvotes
JaimeA
By JaimeA (Jan 9, 2012)

Although the technique is clearly and kindly explained, the results match images done by my mother at home many years ago -- especially the pasta dish. All I can say, it tasted awfully good.

0 upvotes
madeinlisboa
By madeinlisboa (Jan 9, 2012)

Nice article. Whoever complains about the depth of field does not know jack about food photography and shouldn't be even reading this article.

1 upvote
Antonio de Curtis
By Antonio de Curtis (Jan 12, 2012)

good point, so ?

0 upvotes
Antonio de Curtis
By Antonio de Curtis (Jan 9, 2012)

there's too much out of focus in the first 2 images, they make my eyes squint

I also notice no vapor from warm food ... but I can understand ...

the article in itself isn't bad

0 upvotes
Snaaks
By Snaaks (Jan 9, 2012)

Good article. Thanx.
Personally I never go to a restaurant that has pictures of their food or meals displayed in the menu. Usually a tourist-trap alarm. :)

0 upvotes
delideli
By delideli (Jan 9, 2012)

Good article, I use a 50mm F1.4 lens with my Canon, nothing is better than that for food photography!

0 upvotes
Stefan Stuart Fletcher
By Stefan Stuart Fletcher (Jan 9, 2012)

I suppose it's a good article to begin with, if you have absolutely no idea about food photography (and practically none about photography in general), but this is hardly the site or the readership for that type of article. Frankly, I'd expect this in one of those "field guides" people buy in desperation when they can't get much out of their DSLR's user manual (well, that's what I did...).

I hope it is only an introduction to something with a little more meat to it (so to speak).

0 upvotes
yokochanie
By yokochanie (Jan 9, 2012)

This is a first class article and really contains all you need to go out and start. I totally agree Shallow DoF gives better results, the pictures invite you in that way.

I have never done any food photography but this weekend will be doing some and am looking forward to it. There is more then enough in here to provide a good start in this field.

Many thanks

Malcolm

0 upvotes
Debankur Mukherjee
By Debankur Mukherjee (Jan 9, 2012)

Nice Article !! ......Thanks....

0 upvotes
Charles2
By Charles2 (Jan 9, 2012)

"The good news for those staring out" is that most likely no one will stare back in at you.

0 upvotes
Alexsfo
By Alexsfo (Jan 9, 2012)

is there a requirement that food must be shallow DoF? Wouldn't it be better to have the entire dish razor sharp in focus?? The above photos may look way too blurry to non-photographers

Comment edited 57 seconds after posting
1 upvote
rambler35
By rambler35 (Jan 8, 2012)

Some interesting pointers, but why the obsession with such shallow DOF?

For example, the shot of the halved orange. Is this really the best way to show it? In this photo no part of the orange skin (of both halves) is in focus, and neither is most of the flesh of the fruit -- so we hardly see those textures at all.

If the reason was to focus and direct our attention to an important part of the image, then in this case it is to the small central core of pith -- which is not the most interesting or appetizing part!

4 upvotes
HeezDeadJim
By HeezDeadJim (Jan 9, 2012)

Also, why only cut in half? If you want to associate this with an orange rather than, lets say, a grapefruit, I would have had some "slices" sitting around for proper distinction. A juicy slice without skin or pit is much more appetizing.

0 upvotes
Loua
By Loua (Jan 9, 2012)

Short depth of field in food photography serves several very useful functions. It mimics the way the eye sees - and thus draws attention to the area of the shot that the photographer has chosen as the 'hero' area. When food is photographed in focus from front to back it can curiously lose its character and can become a shot about technique rather than about taste and smell and the texture of the point of impact.
I have been a professional food photographer for 20 years and before that was art director of Good Housekeeping magazine (UK) and so have been gazing at food for most of my adult life and I never tire of it. This article gives a fair starting point for considering food photography, but as another comment below points out there are useful ground rules that can be given for basic lighting - soft and 3/4 behind for main light with soft fill from in front. Never on camera flash! That can only flatten and destroy texture and appeal.

4 upvotes
OneGuy
By OneGuy (Jan 9, 2012)

I like the focus at the center of the orange. It is about the geometry of a star and the way nature does things.
I would agree, though, that making both an appetizing and inspirational food photography could be difficult (yeah, put some seeds on the side). The best pictures are the ones I like without being able to explain it.
The article is about getting (all kinds of) the juices flowing and that gets 1A from me.

0 upvotes
johs
By johs (Jan 9, 2012)

But is it really necessary to have DoF so shallow that it isn't possible to actually make out what is on the plate? At least for restaurant reviews I think this is annoying, when the purpose should be to document what is offered rather than just being artsy.

0 upvotes
HeezDeadJim
By HeezDeadJim (Jan 8, 2012)

Some people just don't get the enthrallment of taking photos of food. I used to do it all the time, till I turned into the guy that always took photos of food he ordered at restaurants/bars.

Yeah, THAT guy...(friends look at you funny)

Needless to say, I don't take as much photos of food unless there is something special about it.

1 upvote
Kfrog
By Kfrog (Jan 8, 2012)

I enjoyed the article. I like macro photography and photographing food is another form of that. To do it well takes another skill set and a good eye. I may have to give it a try.

0 upvotes
M Jesper
By M Jesper (Jan 8, 2012)

Great... now i'm hungry !

1 upvote
nikkormac
By nikkormac (Jan 8, 2012)

inspiring!

i'm sure it's a discussion for a more advanced article, but do pros still use tricks like putting cereal in Elmer's glue instead of milk and so on?

0 upvotes
beespeckled
By beespeckled (Jan 8, 2012)

Your article is perfect timing, I've been invited to be part of a modest local exhibit in April. The theme is "Food."

Thank you.

0 upvotes
dtmoody
By dtmoody (Jan 8, 2012)

I really enjoyed this article. Thank you.

0 upvotes
agavin
By agavin (Jan 8, 2012)

Great writeup!

I personally shoot a lot of dishes in restaurants (food blogging). I wrote up a whole bit on this http://all-things-andy-gavin.com/2011/10/09/foodie-photography-101/ but there the "natural" lighting is often VERY dark, so I find a macro flash essentially for really nice images.

0 upvotes
MiLei
By MiLei (Jan 8, 2012)

There is very shallow DOF in all sample images here, I wonder is it allways the best way.

4 upvotes
Tmphoto55
By Tmphoto55 (Jan 8, 2012)

Good article on food photgraphy,its short and to the point and i have the equipment. Thanks

0 upvotes
Loraine Arnold
By Loraine Arnold (Jan 8, 2012)

Great article. Inspired me to take some food pictures while it is not nice outside. Getting good food pictures is not as easy as it might seem.

1 upvote
soonghong
By soonghong (Jan 8, 2012)

lots of great tips, thanks a lot!

1 upvote
OneGuy
By OneGuy (Jan 8, 2012)

Ready to be served food could be a work of art. And if the cook is your wife, wow.

0 upvotes
fuego6
By fuego6 (Jan 8, 2012)

very nice although it would have been good to inlcude shooting details with the shots so we can best determine when to use 2.8 vs 8.0 and ISO / shutter speeds...

1 upvote
Tom McElvy
By Tom McElvy (Jan 8, 2012)

Great article! Many thanks for posting!

0 upvotes
MediaDigitalVideo
By MediaDigitalVideo (Jan 8, 2012)

Sometimes I shoot at the local marketstands. Marketstands with all kind of diversity of fruits with so many different colours. I love that.

1 upvote
Rob_Koenders
By Rob_Koenders (Jan 8, 2012)

Nice article, i will try this.
Kind regards
Rob

2 upvotes
peterpainter
By peterpainter (Jan 8, 2012)

Very nice article, I found it interesting - in fact 'food for thought.' It is a bit brief, though, perhaps more of a 'taster', really - but enough to get me interested and with enough pointers to get started. I think I'll give it a go. Many thanks, and sorry about puns.
Regards
Peter

3 upvotes
Mr Physics
By Mr Physics (Jan 8, 2012)

Good article. It forces me to realize that I don't take advantage of the succulent images that present themselves to me on a (almost) daily basis.

3 upvotes
bigdaddave
By bigdaddave (Jan 8, 2012)

An ok article but I'm afraid "There’s no right or wrong lighting for food photography" is just a cop-out.

There certainly are rules that should be passed on - almost all good food photography has soft rear 3/4 lighting - that is the light is soft and from the rear at one side and merely filled-in at the front, this gives a sheen and some mood. The frontal fill is either white, mirrored or flash depending on the degree of reflection required

Making food look appetising in as an art and the lighting is almost more important than the subject.

Also the use of tilt-shift lenses mean you can get selected parts of the image sharp instead of just the standard plane of focus.

All in a bit naive, but never mind

3 upvotes
nikkormac
By nikkormac (Jan 8, 2012)

i guess one could argue that since this purports to be an *introduction* to the subject, the author is giving the very basics in an effort not to overwhelm and discourage people who might like to try their hand in a field that's new to them - you'll notice that almost all photographic technicalities were studiously ignored in this article, and none were addressed in-depth. maybe if we're lucky the author will go into more technical detail in future, and more advanced, articles.

1 upvote
ledgars
By ledgars (Jan 8, 2012)

I like food photography because it is macro or semi-macro photo and therefore take out details which is at least partially hidden to human vision or point of view.

May be food photos are boring, when you are full... It is really interesting how people could add political nonsense even to food photography.

1 upvote
hindesite
By hindesite (Jan 8, 2012)

Thanks, a very good article; a good introduction that doesn't go overboard on gear or requirements yet covers the basics enough to get people started.

I'd very much like to see more articles of this type.

2 upvotes
hindesite
By hindesite (Jan 8, 2012)

@Donny_B

I think photographing dead flies would probably be worse, perhaps you can explain why you find that so interesting yet find food boring?

3 upvotes
Quentin (UK)
By Quentin (UK) (Jan 8, 2012)

A good, sensible, relevant article. I shoot food professionally for stock and generally use medium format. Far from being boring, it is very interesting and creative work. For greatest control you would use a studio but the kitchen or dining room table can work. And if your shots are good, they will probably be saleable, so don't give them away. Remember to get model releases if you include people in your shots and intend to sell the pictures.

1 upvote
farrukh
By farrukh (Jan 8, 2012)

I use the SLR Magic 12mm for my food photography. It works a treat :D

http://www.flickr.com/photos/swamibu/6347851935/in/set-72157628136176162/lightbox/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/swamibu/6261662281/in/set-72157627809121705/lightbox/

0 upvotes
Total comments: 56