How do photographers make food look so good? A great photo does more than just make us hungry. Food photos evoke an emotional response, stirring up memories and feelings of desire, connection and pleasure. There’s just something so satisfying about seeing an image of a beautiful, well-photographed pastry or pasta dish—even when it’s not something that we can order and have in front of us in 20 minutes.
That said, if you’ve ever scrolled past a less-than-appetizing photo on your Instagram feed or stared in mild horror at the image of a dubious dish on a 24/7 diner menu, then you know that not all food photography is good food photography. What separates the bad images from the I-need-to-eat-this-right-now ones?
20 Must-Know Food Photography Tips
You don’t need to be a professional photographer in order to take beautiful images of food. Whatever your reason for sharing photos—and whatever your photography skill level—here are some essential food photo tips to help you capture dishes in their most appealing and most delicious state.
1. Let There Be (Natural) Light
Flash is the enemy of successful food photography. Whenever possible, use natural light to shoot your images and then adjust your photo as needed in post-photography edits. If the light is too harsh, cover the window with a white bedsheet to get a softer glow without sacrificing the boost that natural sun gives you.
2. Make Use of a Tripod
Use a tripod to get the crispest, clearest image. Tripods give you the ability to make subtle adjustments to your composition without losing your angle, and they also help you avoid blur when you’re using long exposure to highlight a specific food item in the frame.
3. Choose the Right Lenses
Don’t underestimate the importance of choosing the right lenses for your food photography. Food photos often benefit from a low aperture (i.e. a small lens opening), which blurs the background and shortens your depth of field so that the dish in the foreground is what stands out the most. And since you’re likely shooting pretty close up, go with a prime lens instead of a zoom lens for best results.
4. Shoot in Groups of Three
A helpful tip for shooting food in restaurants (or anywhere, really) is to take three items and place them in a triangle shape in the frame. An appetizing dish, a cocktail, and a floral centerpiece artfully arranged together are more interesting to look at than just the dish itself. Plus, each item serves to balance out the composition and give structure to your image.
5. Use a Neutral Background
Props are okay—and even recommended—in food photography, but too much clutter in the background distracts from the main dish. This includes the color, texture, and pattern of your background, which should remain neutral so as not to take away from what you’re ultimately trying to focus on.
6. Choose Complementary Props
Speaking of props, choose wisely so that everything makes sense together. Thoughtful props add to your image instead of taking away from it, and can enhance your viewers’ emotional response. For example, some well-placed birthday candles add color, visual interest, and a celebratory feeling to a photograph of a cake. A hairbrush, though? Not so much.
7. Avoid Props That Overpower the Subject
A final word on props: Make sure that the objects you choose don’t draw more attention than the food you’re trying to feature. There are some exceptions, but in general the props that you use should be smaller than the main feature of your photo and should fit in with the general theme that you’re trying to invoke.
8. Layer Different Textures
Texture helps bring food photos to life, and layering those textures adds dimension and gives the eye more to look at. These textures can be represented in how you style the main dish as well as the surface you put that item on. As a general rule of thumb, try to layer two or three different textures in the photo for an image that really grabs the viewer’s attention.
9. Have Fun with Your Colors
There are many ways to play around with color in your food photography, including coordinating colors around a certain theme, season, or mood, or contrasting colors to make certain parts of your image pop off the screen. A sprig of fresh herbs on top of a pasta dish or a bright red cherry on top of a bowl of ice cream can be the perfect finishing touch, so if your photo is looking a little bland, bring in color for a more visually arresting result.
10. Vary Your Angles
Give yourself options by taking a photo of the same set-up at multiple angles, including straight on and from above. You never know where the light (or shadow) is going to hit just right, and by varying up the angles, you give yourself more opportunity to find that sweet spot and more choices to look at when figuring out your best shot.
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11. Tell a Story
One of the things that makes food photography so memorable is the stories that it tells us. How you curate your images can do more than just display a pretty plate of food, so use props, lighting, and composition to put your image into context and tell a story around it. (Check out this introduction to storytelling in food photography for a more in-depth look at how to do this.)
12. Show an Action
Make your food photography extra enticing by showing some sort of an action in the shot, such as powdered sugar being sifted over a pastry or olive oil being drizzled over a bed of fresh greens. This brings life to your photograph and works to tell that all-important story with your imagery.
13. Choose a Style
Do you want to go dark and moody? Light and airy? Bright and clean? Learn about different shooting styles and figure out how you want your photo to look and feel before you start taking pictures. The style you choose will inform your layout, your use of light and shadow in the frame, and your props, so deciding what it is in advance is key.
14. Use the Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is the idea that an image can be broken down using two equally spaced vertical lines and two equally spaced horizontal lines, with the optimal place to put the main feature of your photograph being on these lines or at the place where they intersect. Try to visualize this rule when placing items in the frame, especially if you have multiple points of interest.
15. Get Handsy
We don’t just look at food—we interact with it. Bring in the human element and add more authenticity to an image by incorporating hands in your photo and showing how they would engage with the item in real life.
16. Don’t Neglect Negative Space
A properly balanced food photo is one that makes adequate use of negative space. This means having areas in the frame where nothing is going on, rather than trying to fill up every available pixel. It might seem inconsequential, but this unused space is actually one of the most impactful parts of your overall composition.
17. Clean the Plate
Ever heard of the “clean plate club”? The same thing applies in food photography, though it’s less about eating everything in front of you and more about styling your items in a more attractive way. Before you start snapping away, use a napkin to remove any crumb, morsel, or drop of food that you don’t want in the shot.
18. Create a Collage
A collage is a super creative way to display food. To make it make sense, group together items that share a common theme, such as the farmer’s market bounty in the image above. Then have fun with it, arranging and rearranging as needed until you get the perfect shot.
19. Edit Before and After
There are two types of editing that you should be doing with your food photographs: editing before you shoot to remove items in the frame that don’t add to the image and then editing in the post-production period. And when it comes to getting an amazing shot, both are equally important.
20. Go for the Garnish
Garnishes are great for adding texture, color, and interest to your photographs. You can certainly use expected garnishes like herbs, but break out of the box a bit sometimes with less-common garnishes, such as pink rock salt, chili flakes, or pomegranate arils.
Armed with these tips, you’ll be shooting and posting like a pro. Just don’t forget the most important tip of all: Be sure to enjoy that tasty dish you’ve just snapped!
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