The importance of food photography in the foodie world can’t be underestimated, it’s a quick visual way to ‘sell’ a recipe at a glance. The image needs to entice. It needs to tempt. It needs to draw people in.
Since starting my food blog over 3 years ago my food photography images have transformed. In the early days my photography skills were frankly non-existent with images that I was embarrassed by and were uploaded as a mere thumbnail. I now take images which are clear, inviting and even seductive, and am proud to put my name to them.
I’m the first to admit that there is always something new to learn, so although I’m usually happy with my images, which are (mostly) accepted by FoodGawker (if you’re not familiar with FoodGawker it’s notoriously difficult to have work accepted by them to feature on their site) I realise that there are many people out there who are far more talented than myself. My tips on food photography that I’m sharing below are mainly aimed at those new to the world of food blogging as well as those looking to up their game a little.
My top 10 food photography tips at a glance (though keep reading for more detail!):
- Invest in a DSLR, if possible;
- Practice, aim to come off the auto setting, and learn how to read the camera’s histogram;
- Use a tripod;
- Turn off the flash, room lights and make the most of the natural day light. Be prepared to take your pictures earlier in the day during the winter months;
- Play around with the composition, and aim to use the most suitable aspect for what you’re photographing;
- Collect photography props to add interest and context to your images;
- Make use of what you have around you. If you don’t have a reflector, for instance, use a piece of plain white paper instead;
- Pay attention to detail;
- Take more photographs than the two or three you actually need. I regularly have far more than a hundred from a basic shoot.
- Check the images before dismantling the composition and eating the food!
Without doubt my food photography game wouldn’t be where it is now if we hadn’t invested in our camera and a few other pieces of equipment.
Investing in our camera took me from this Cherry and Almond Fudge (on the left, which I’ve now re-shot) to these Chocolate and Chestnut Meringue Sandwiches over night!
As you can see the composition is very similar, but the upgrade from my compact camera that I had been using for some time to an entry level DSLR made a significant difference in a very short space of time.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t suddenly know how to use it, far from it given that I spent the initial few months working on the auto setting. But investing in a camera and realising what I could potentially achieve with it was what I needed to ignite my creativity so far as my food photography is concerned.
- DSLR Camera: We invested in the Nikon D3300 with the standard kit lens to help up my photography skills. The Nikon D3300 is an entry level DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) which I truly wouldn’t be without. I use it every time I’m shooting images for my blog, as well as taking it with me when visiting family to capture those priceless moments of my baby nephew and his older sister.
- 50mm lens: Even though we bought our DSLR with a 18-55mm lens kit, which was OK and was the lens I used to capture the meringue sandwiches (above), after a couple of months we upgraded to Nikon’s AF-S Nikkor 50MM f/1.8G lens, often referred to as a ‘nifty fifty’. It’s now my lens of choice.
- Tripods: Tripods are great for a number of reasons. Not only do they prevent the blur which often happens when the camera is hand held (especially when a slow shutter speed is used), but it also allows for you to tweak the food and composition whilst keeping the camera in situ. I use two different tripods. The first is a small Ex-Macro tripod by Velbon and is perfect for positioning on top of our large dining table for face on shots. Our other tripod is a standard size Velbon which I use for flat lay shots (those which look down on the food), and means an end to those moments where I end up aching after tensing every muscle in my body in an effort to stay still! A few tricks I have used in the past before purchasing our tripods in an effort to reduce blur was to rest the camera on a stack of books or a small sturdy box to help keep it steady when the shot is taken. Bracing myself against the back of a chair, for instance, was also helpful in the short term.
- Remote Shutter Release Button: Even with the camera securely fastened to a tripod there can still be a tiny amount of movement when the shutter button is pressed on the camera body itself. For a number of months now I have been using a remote shutter release button which basically removes the possibility of any camera blur when the picture is taken.
- Reflector: Reflectors are great for bouncing light back onto your subjects (be it food or props) to help soften shadows. A simple piece of white paper can do the trick here (though of course because of the flimsy nature of paper you’ll probably need another pair of hands to help out), but a white foam board which is a lot sturdier and can be sourced from a craft store for a couple of pounds can really make a huge difference. I’m now using a purpose bought reflector which came with 4 different coloured sleeves (white, black, gold and silver – though to be honest I’ve only used the white and black ones so far).
Notice how there is a huge difference in the light quality in the shot of the Strawberry Cupcakes. They were taken less than a minute apart, using the same camera settings, but the brighter shot to the right was taken with the help of a white reflector positioned the the right of the cupcakes reflecting light from the window (which is to the left of the shot) back onto the objects to soften the shadows and generally brighten up everything.
Both of the images of the Blood Orange and Chocolate Upside Down Cake, above, was taken with a reflector positioned to the right of the cake. The lighter image on the left was taken with a white reflector whilst the picture on the right was taken with a black reflector to help create a darker and ‘moodier’ shot.
How I set up for a ‘shoot’.
Now that I’ve listed the photography equipment I use, here’s how I set up that equipment in relation to our large north facing kitchen window. I always find it fascinating to see how other people set up, so hopefully you’ll find this interesting too especially if you’re new to food photography.
As already mentioned I like to keep things simple, and as low tech as possible. From time to time I share my food photography set ups in my Instagram stories and highlights. One of the set ups I shared a few months ago was for our Double Chocolate Orange Cupcakes.
I arrange the food and props on our kitchen table infront of a large north facing window (to the left of the shot) the light being diffused with a net curtain. The grey back drop is a length of plain wall paper laid over a clothes horse (clothes airer) the black reflector to the right of the shot is propped up by a sturdy box. So as you can see, it’s pretty basic but I hope you’ll agree the final image does the cupcakes justice.
Of course you can go to the expense of buying lamps with day-light bulbs, large diffusers, clamps and so on, but for me, a regular food blogger, this set up works well.
Think about the composition.
Naturally moving on from how I set up for my ‘shoots’ is the subject of composition. This is quite a large subject with thoughts about the main subject in relation to the foreground and background items and how those items should lead the eye through the image to the main subject, the rule of thirds, and aspect.
For me, personally, I try not to get too caught up with ‘rules’ which can stifle creativity. I like to trust my instinct and play around with the composition whilst the camera is sat on the tripod. More often than not I will take a number of images of basically the same composition before I feel happy with what I have captured. A good example of how an image can develop whilst playing around with items to hand are the 3 images below of my Strawberry Cupcakes which I shot recently.
I started with the approximate positions of the cupcakes with the small cake stand and cooling rack. Although the first image looked acceptable, it didn’t sing. Strawberry halves were then positioned on top of the cupcakes in the background which for me was a big improvement on the first image. But it still didn’t feel complete. I then decided to add a scattering of freeze dried strawberries, which you may perhaps be interested to hear that I initially thought the red
flexs would be too much and over kill, but in fact (or at least in my opinion) they tie the image together.
Another image which improved in my opinion is that above of my Raspberry and White Chocolate Ganache Tarts. Both images include the same items and props, but re-positioning the two spoons to the right of the tart feels more aesthetically pleasing.
One composition ‘rule’ that I do try to follow, though, is the Rule of Thirds. If you’re not familiar with the Rule of Thirds (which actually isn’t a rule but rather a guideline or rule of thumb) you may like to read more about it here at Wikipedia. Basically try to imagine 2 vertical lines and 2 horizontal lines equally spaced on the image to create 9 equally sized squares. This photography composition ‘rule’ sees the photographer position the key aspects of the image along those lines which usually results in a more pleasing image than the focus of the image being positioned centrally. I think it’s important to say that there is no right or wrong, it’s merely a guideline.
I personally prefer images which use the rule of thirds, so when taking a picture I try to keep in my mind the rule and how I might crop the image. Helpfully many cameras these days have the option of displaying the grid through the viewfinder or in the live-view mode.
Here’s an example of that process.
Above is the image cropped to square, with the focal point of the image positioned centrally.
And the same image again cropped using the rule of thirds, the focal cupcake being positioned off centre.
Another consideration of composition is aspect. Some foods, particularly pizza for instance, undoubtedly look their best when photographed from above as a flat lay like our Cauliflower Crust Pizza. I mean, just imagine trying to show off your most recent pizza recipe with a side on view, it’s just not going to do it justice at all! Similarly if you’re wanting to showcase the multiple layers of a cake a face on view may be best. That said a flat lay shot of the cake with a slice of it laid on its side on a plate would not only show the multiple layers of the cake but also how pretty the top of the cake is too.
Food Photography Props.
Think of food photography props as the supporting act to the cake / crusty loaf / savoury pie / curry that you’re taking a picture of. Of course the food is, and should always be, the star of the image but a few thoughtfully positioned props can really help to tell the story and give more context to your picture.
Your props could be:
- something as simple as a key ingredient, like the bilberries in this Bilberry Upside Down Cake,
- a small posy of flowers to add seasonality and bring extra prettiness to a shot as I did with these Rhubarb and Strawberry Meringue Cupcakes,
- A side serving of veggies, for instance, that may be served with the
food, like the peas and carrots which bring colour but also add a
suggestion as to how the Vegetarian Meat and Potato Pies can be served,
- It could be fabric, cutlery, bowls, plates, a cake stand, a cooling rack.
- It could also be some small baulbles, beads, ribbon or even fairly lights (shot with a bokeh effect) to bring a hint of festivities to your images.
In my opinion there are two or three golden rules when it comes to using props in food photography.
- Firstly, select the food props which make the most sense. So, for instance, there’s not much point including a bowl of nuts in your image if the food itself doesn’t include any nut! Makes sense, eh!
- Secondly, as much as we may love our stash of props sourced high and low from charity shops, offered as gifts from loved ones, or even picked up from a craft fair, make sure the camera is focused on the food and not the props. The star of the show should always be the food and not the props which, as I mentioned above, are merely the supporting act.
- Finally, and this is probably a personal suggestion that I’ve come to realise during the course of improving my own food photography, aim to avoid overly patterned props which are in close proximity to the food you’re focusing on. So for instance, I particularly like the blue and white pattern of the plate that the slice of Apple Rose Tart is sat upon, but it detracts the eye and doesn’t show off the tart. It’s basically vying for attention. A plain blue plate would probably have been better here.
Photography backdrops are brilliant! They’re great for changing the feel of a picture and hiding items in a shot that you’d rather not be included. I mean nobody wants to see a pile of dirty pots! 🙈
There are so many on the market to choose from, and I know many people even make their own. I’ve briefly covered this when I shared how I set up my shots, I often use a length of plain grey wall paper as the backdrop for face on shots (though I have recently started using a white foam board too which I picked up cheaply from the craft section of The Range). To cover the table I have two different vinyl backgrounds from Captured by Lucy which roll up and take up very little storage space and are perfect for splattering with chocolate like when I shot these Triple Chocolate Orange Pinwheel Cookies.
I love my Light Wood and Scratched Metal vinyl backgrounds from Captured by Lucy, but you could also use fabrics, homemade painted boards, or why not pick up some wood off-cuts from the local DIY store (though those can be more difficult to store). Another background I’ve started to use is an old baking tray which has so much character (read as dents and burnt on stains!) – it was brilliant for the Lime Curd I made a few weeks ago.
Light can be challenging to say the least. It’s ever changing, not only from season to season, but from hour to hour and even minute to minute. Taking photographs in full sun can be as difficult as the dark cloudy days of winter! Thankfully our kitchen window is north facing, so although it can be quite dark during the winter months, it doesn’t get the strong full sun of summer.
A few tips I can offer regarding light are:
- Turn off the flash. The flash from a camera is harsh and really doesn’t do your subject any favours.
- Turn off the room lights! I know it can be dull outside but standard room lights often give photographs a yellow tinge which again isn’t flattering. This is where understanding your DSLR settings allows you to slow the shutter speed down to make the most of the natural light available. It will allow more light into the camera whilst the photograph is taken.
- Position yourself as near as possible to the window (though avoid the full sun period of the day).
- Use a defuser at the window to soften the natural light. This could be a net curtain, something bespoke or purpose bought for the task.
- Be prepared to change rooms for your photo shoot to make the most of the changing light as the sun travels across the sky.
- During the late autumn and the winter months take your photographs earlier in the day to make the most of the available light.
- Day light bulbs which mimic day light can be bought, though to be honest I’ve not tried these so cannot comment how effective they are.
As most savoury recipes look their best when they are hot, or at least warm, rather than cold when when sauces may have developed an unappetising skin and fats have solidified, it’s a good idea to have in
mind how you want to capture your food before you start the recipe. Think about if the food
will look best as a flat lay, a face on shot, or even from a 45° angle
and aim to have your photography area set up with a selection of props
to hand (you don’t need to use them all) which will complement the food
before it is ready.
Thankfully, baked goods, the over riding focus of my blog Only Crumbs Remain, does afford me the luxury of being able to take a little more time with the set up and ‘shoot’ of each recipe. There is the occasional exception, though, with ice cream and Baked Alaska!
I distinctly recall preparing to photograph the Strawberry Baked Alaska that we made last summer. Baked ice cream calls for some serious organisation! I purposefully had a good idea of the height of the finished bake when it was presented on the cake stand which allowed me to have the camera and tripod set up exactly how I wanted it. I also took some test shots as part of the preparation to judge if the camera settings were roughly right.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
The, final, and undoubedly the best food photography tip I can offer is to learn to come off auto and practice, practice, practice!
One free resource I can highly recommend if you’re looking to come off auto as well as develop other photography skills is A Year With My Camera run by Emma Davies over on FaceBook (note, her course starts in January and is not about food photography but rather about the camera, as well as composition, how to read the histogram, editing tools etc). She sends out weekly emails to subscribers covering small ‘bite size’ subjects and the Facebook group acts as a support network of sorts where encouragement and help is given by Emma and others in the group. If it hadn’t been for those e-mails I know I wouldn’t have had the knowledge to adjust the manual settings to capture the falling icing sugar over the Cherry Clafoutis Tart.