Have you ever wondered how the pros take those mouth-watering food shots? They get the lighting just perfect, their timing is impeccable and their styling is simply amazing.
Great news! You don’t need to be a pro to get great food shots, and in this article, I will show you how to take good food photos, even for beginners!
My name is Ali G from Ali G Studios, a Hong Kong-based professional photographer who has worked with Michelin-starred chefs, world-class brands such as Dom Perigon, Krug, Veuve Clicquot, and lots of restaurants for over 12 years!
In this article, I will share with you what I’ve learned from my professional experiences of photographing food over the years. I will cover all the details, from preparation, styling, lighting, shooting and editing.
Keep reading if you want to master this beautiful art!
Why Mastering Food Photography Is So Important?
There’s a famous saying among photographers that ‘if you can photograph food well, then you can photograph almost anything!’ and I can definitely say there’s a lot of truth in this statement!
Food photography is all about details, lighting, camera angles, timing, and most importantly, making mouth-watering images that make you want to grab the food through the screen and eat it!
We EAT with our eyes first, this is a fact! In short, food photography is an art in itself.
Since it can get overwhelming when you’re just starting out, I will break things down into the following parts:
- Preparation and Equipment Needed
- Food Styling
Preparation & Equipment Needed
If you spend a bit of time preparing for your food photography session, then I guarantee you it will be worth it.
The reasons are simple: once you have your setup done properly, then you can just make small changes to it depending on the dishes and angles you wish to photograph.
Useful Gear for Taking Impressive Food Photos
- Backgrounds and Props
- Cameras and Lenses
A great setup will even allow you to produce amazing images just with your mobile phone, regardless of the type of phone. See some of our great mobile photography tips below in the Camera section.
Backgrounds & Props
Both backgrounds and props add dimensions to your photos. How and why?
Depending on the colors of your dish, a suitable background can really compliment the plate and even help you to tell the story better.
For example, a beautiful plate of hamburgers and hot dogs shot on a red, white and blue background immediately reminds us of the 4th of July celebrations and the American flag.
Even a subtle blue-colored background for a yellow cocktail instills a sense of peace and relaxation that we may feel while on holiday!
If you have a variety of textures and colors around your home that you can use, then by all means use them!
However, if you live in a small apartment or you don’t have access to various textures, here are some backgrounds which I recommend as they are flexible for product photography and they are durable:
For props, the most cost effective solution is to use some ingredients from your dishes and utensils you already own.
If you want to take your photos up a few notches, then just check out Amazon for anything you may need in particular such as a wooden board, stylized utensils, or even creative napkins.
Cameras and lenses
Camera technology continues to evolve and improve, with each manufacturer touting the highest number of Megapixels (MP) or Frames Per Second (FPS) with bells and whistles such as WiFi or similar features.
The honest truth is that you can produce high-quality food photos using only a mobile phone and natural light. I have written 2 articles regarding how to use mobile phones to create amazing photos, so please check them out here:
- Mobile photography tips 2021: How to take good photos with your phone
- Mobile photography tips 2021: 7 most common mistakes
However, we don’t always have ideal conditions when we want to photograph food or if we have a paying client, we can’t just show up with a mobile phone!
Therefore, a good DSLR or mirrorless camera combined with a high quality lens can give us an advantage over conditions that may be challenging.
Here are some cameras which produce impressive results for food photography:
A great lens is crucial to the quality of your photography, regardless of the type of photos. However, for food photography, it can make a difference between your average photo and a professional-looking image.
Here are lenses that I recommend based on my experience and features such as sharpness, versatility, price point and of course, overall quality.
- Canon EF-S 35mm f/2.8 Macro IS STM
- Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro VC USD (Nikon or Canon mounts)
- Nikon Z 50mm f/1.8 S
- Sony E 30mm f/3.5 Macro
- Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS
Having a solid tripod is a must in any product photography, food included. Why is that?
- Tripods add stability so your shots don’t come out blurry.
- They also allow for consistency if you need to photograph a series of dishes in the same way from the same angle.
- Having a free hand to move or change the styling of your food is a great idea without changing your best angle.
Some major features I look for in a tripod used in food photography are sturdy legs and a head which allows me to make very subtle angle changes.
In addition, a tripod is an investment, so ask yourself, do I really want to put an expensive camera and lens on a flimsy unstable tripod? The answer should be no!
Please check out an article dedicated to tripods here and some additional recommendations below:
- Manfrotto Aluminum 4-Section Tripod Kit with Ball Head
- Gitzo Carbon Fiber Tripod with Center Ball Head
Lighting is the most essential element in photography. After all, the word photography comes from Photo (Light) and Graphy(to paint with or to record with).
Lighting can be broken into 2 categories: Natural and Artificial. Here are some pros and cons of both!
Natural Lighting Vs. Artificial Lighting - Pros and Cons
Pros of using natural light
- It’s free and when it comes to great food photography, natural light gives a well rounded and even light
- Depending on the time of day, it can be very warm and beautiful
Cons of using natural light
- It may not always be available
- We can’t always plan a photoshoot around the perfect time of the day
- The photoshoot location may not have enough natural light
Pros of using artificial light
- It can be set up where and when it is needed
- It can be controlled more effectively
- Helps to create a specific look and mood
Cons of using artificial light
- One needs to understand lighting concepts and setups
- Controlling multiple light sources can be challenging
Natural Light and a Reflector
The easiest, most basic, and affordable lighting setup for food photography is natural light from a window paired with a reflector. Just remember that the reflector is just that, it reflects light, it does not produce it.
The best positioning is for the window light on one side and the reflector on the opposite side to the window in order to push the light back onto the food.
Pro Tip: Getting a 5-in-1 reflector can give you a lot of flexibility. Use the gold side to give a great warm tone to the food.
So what can you do when natural light is not available? You can get very good shots by using only one light. Most social media content creators, including myself, carry a small handheld LED light with us.
With just one light, we can highlight the food to be nice, presentable, and ready to eat! This is good enough for most social media content creators. When we discuss 2 or more lights, it gives us the ability to create more dramatic images and mood.
Not only are these small lights practical and affordable, but in the case of the Phottix M200R, it also serves as a phone charger. We all know how this can come in handy at times!
Other one light options include a continuous light source or speed lights which are very popular among more advanced food photographers.
You can use any speedlight or flash that is compatible with your camera system. However, some of the most affordable and high quality lights in the market at the moment are from Godox:
Godox AD400Pro Witstro All-in-One - Compatible with Canon E-TTL II, Nikon i-TTL Autoflash, Sony, FUJIFILM, Olympus and Panasonic TTL Autoflash System
These are perfect for beginners as well as seasoned photographers because with a quick setup time, they are ready to go! The reason I suggest this type of lighting is also for you to have something to grow into as your photography improves.
For a complete explanation on softboxes, ring lights and light modifiers such as umbrellas, please check out one of our best articles regarding best lighting for vlogging and live streaming.
Here is the link to the M200R and some great food photography light modifiers:
- Phottix M200R RGB Light
- Phottix Raja Deep Quick-Folding Softbox 32" (80cm)
- Neewer Softbox
- Godox Grid Softbox
- Neewer Studio Flash Translucent White soft Umbrella
- Westcott 2016 45-Inch Optical White Satin
Don’t forget to pick up some stands for your lighting setup!
Artificial Lighting (Two or More)
Once you develop your basic skills and style, then you’re ready to move onto a more professional level of photography. For this, you can consider two or more lights.
Quite often, professional photographers use specific types of lighting and light modifiers to create a certain style.
For example, when I did a photo shoot for Krug, one of the world’s top champagne brands, at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong, the objective was to create a mood often associated with luxury ingredients such as truffles, sashimi-grade tuna, and caviar.
The ingredients needed to be lit but Krug wanted something more moody and focused. They didn’t want super bright and airy photos such as those we see every day on social media. Therefore I used 2 lights to create the photos below.
Now that we have equipment and lighting covered, we can discuss the next important piece of the puzzle: Styling for food photography!
In chefs’ circles, they call this ‘plating the dish’, and there are actual professionals who have very successful careers as food stylists. Styling the food is extremely important because it means we are making it ‘camera ready’.
In fact, each of the sections in this article can have its own book depending on how in-depth you wish to go!
However, since this is a beginner’s guide to food photography, I recommend for you to check out the following books dedicated to food styling:
Great Food Styling Books
- Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera
- Food Presentation Secrets: Styling Techniques of Professionals
- Food Styling For Photography: A guide to arranging and styling
Please remember, just pick up 1-2 tips to help you when you are starting out, then you can build more as your experience grows with each photoshoot.
Lighting your Shots
The most important element of any type of photography is light. You can have the most amazing sushi platter or perfectly cooked steak, but if you don’t have the proper lighting, it just won’t look great!
In food photography, the 2 most common lighting directions are side light and back light.
This type of lighting helps you to add dimension to your food by creating some shadows. It will help your photo to not look flat!
Ever wondered how the pros get that juicy and shiny texture on top of vegetables or meat? The secret is back lighting. Quite often, they combine the back light with a reflector in the front of the dish to push some light back onto the plate.
Pro Tip: Never use the flash on your phone or the pop-up flash in your camera for food photography. It will only make your entire dish look flat.
If you really want your food photos to stand out, try to show angles and perspectives that most people are not used to seeing. Food is all about textures, layers, colors and so on, therefore there's no 'silver bullet' as the perfect angle for all food photography.
Here are 3 techniques and perspectives that will help you:
Go Low and Close!
Most people take food photos from too far away, so it’s hard to appreciate the food. Being too far may also end up including other elements in the frame, which may not be important to your photo anyway.
The average person’s normal eye level is looking directly down at the food on their plate. With food that has great textures and layers, moving the camera down slightly towards a lower angle can provide a fresh new look at the same dish!
This is the angle directly on top of the food. The food will appear as if it is presented ‘flat’ thus the name flat lay. This works great when multiple dishes are on the table or if the food does not have many layers.
For example, the photo above captures aspects of all the dishes in one frame. And now, let’s go over the final step: Editing your Photos
When it comes to editing your photos, the undisputed king of editing software is the suite from Adobe. Personally, I use the Adobe Creative Cloud bundle, which also gives you 100GB of cloud storage space.
When it comes to editing, the first thing you should master is Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, then perhaps Illustrator. I am not a big fan of over-editing, but hey, just follow your heart and build up your own style!
Additional Tips for Taking Good Food Photos
- Keep a small brush and some cooking oil on set. As time goes by during your photoshoot and the lights stay on, the food can get dry very fast. From time to time, you can use the brush and oil to brush over the food’s surfaces and keep that fresh shiny look!
- Always shoot in RAW file format. This will ensure you get as much data as needed from your image file so that when you put it into Photoshop or other editing software, you can maximize the range of darks, lights, and exposures that you may need.
- Sometimes less is more. You don’t need to show the whole plate or pie for example, just a quarter of a side is enough. Let the viewer’s imagination take over!
- Don’t over-edit your photos. Although how you edit your photos is always personal and subjective, it is nice having the colors pop and for the food to look vibrant. However, try not to overdo it, you don’t want to make things look unnatural by using heavy filters.
Here are some commonly asked questions about how to take good food photos:
Where do I Start with Food Photography?
In my photography workshops, I always advise my students to start simple. Take a bowl of anything you like, and photograph it any way you like in order to play with light and composition.
In addition, keeping it simple gives you more confidence to move onto more complex dishes.
How do Photographers Make Food Look Good?
So now you’re asking for secrets! First of all, food for photography and food for actual eating are cooked differently. Food for photography is usually less cooked through in order to keep it more juicy and fresh.
Secondly, both lighting and time tend to make food become dry and unappealing. As mentioned above, many photographers keep a small brush with oil on set. From time to time, they brush the food with the oil. Let’s keep these secrets between us, ok?
What Camera Settings Should I Use for Food Photography?
If you want to keep the front of the dish sharp with a nice bokeh in the back, then consider shooting at an aperture of f2.8 or f3.2. You can adjust your shutter speed accordingly and depend on how much light you have to work with.
However, if you need to get the whole dish sharp, I would suggest f8 or even higher. This takes a bit of experimentation as everyone’s circumstances are different, but these tips will give you a starting point.
If you've read all the way to here, I would like to say a big thanks! I hope that by sharing some of my best tips for mastering food photography, you can also be on your way to taking great food photos. Take it step by step and try to master only one to two tips per shoot. Read, watch and ask a lot of questions so you understand the theory behind it as well.
Let me know what tips you want to know for the next topic!
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A big thanks to Phottix for the professional lighting equipment provided to Ali G Studios.
All photos are © Ali Ghorbani and Ali G Studios
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