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A Few Food Photography Tips

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  January 20, 2009 02:40 PM

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Jennifer Bartoli Truffles.jpg

A food blogger in Montreal who spotted our call for your food photos offered to write a tipsheet. She also included some of her own excellent food photos.

By Jennifer Bartoli
Chocolate Shavings blog

Food photography can be tough. It's a unique challenge to try and convey smell, texture, and taste with a flat, untouchable photograph. Here are couple of tips that I hope will help next time you want to photograph some wonderfully appetizing food.

Food Selection. Some foods are inherently easier to photograph than others. It’s a simple fact that some foods are very aesthetically pleasing, colorful, and crisp, and some are not.

Think, for example, of taking the photograph of a perfectly frosted three-tiered strawberry cake as opposed to a chunky, hearty soup. Even with minimal effort, the cake will tend to look more palatable, and, the stew, no matter how delicious and aromatic, will most likely come across as messier and less appetizing.

I would suggest that beginners first start to photograph easy subjects like well-groomed desserts, savory tarts, and whole vegetables or fruit. Once you’ve mastered the easier shots, you can start taking the stews, sauces, pastas etc.

My advice for those shots is to find a visual interest point on which to focus your shot, such as a touch of sour cream and a parsley leaf to top a stew, or a piece of crusty bread to accompany a shapeless sauce.

Jennifer Bartoli Poppy Seed Cookies

Lighting. Lighting is the essential ingredient to most photography, and food photography is no different.

It’s hard to fool your audience with color: if a plate or an ingredient is meant to be crisp and white, your shot will look off if the slightest yellow tint emanates. Shooting in natural light is thus your best bet. This, obviously, is harder to do in the winter months (for all of us living on the East Coast) but it really makes or breaks a shot.

Of course, you can invest in expensive lighting equipment to mimic studio light used in professional photo labs, but I would suggest sticking to natural light first. Try setting up a small table by a window (or outside if you can) when the light is clear and diffuse, but not too direct.

Try taking shots at different angles around your subject until you find the side with the least shadows and the most sharpness. The use of reflectors can help to decrease shadows and bring out detail around the food. A simple, sturdy white posterboard works surprisingly well, and will help throw light back onto the plate.

Jennifer Bartoli Fruit

Food Styling. Photographing food can really benefit from a little thought about what goes around the subject of your photo.

Playing around with a glass, a colorful napkin, or some visually interesting cutlery can help make your subject stand out and convey the ambiance of the meal. As when you walk into a restaurant or a bustling family kitchen, the ambiance of the locale can tell you a lot about the food you are going to be eating. An easy trick is often to plate a portion of the food (a slice of cake, a portion of pasta) and have the rest of the dish placed suggestively in the background.

Jennifer Bartoli Cookies.jpg

Jennifer Bartoli Cake

Camera setting. Depth of field is an essential point when taking food photos. Often, a nice blur will make the actual emphasis of your shot stand out. This is not true for all shots, of course (some aerial shots of a dinner spread for example can look wonderful without the slightest blur), but most shots will instantaneously have more impact if part of the picture is blurry.

From my experience, 2/3 of the photograph in focus and 1/3 of the background blurry is a ratio that tends to work quite well. I usually set the depth of field on my camera from f/1.8 to f/2.8, depending on the amount of focus I am after. As for equipment, a surprisingly simple setup can generate impressive results. An entry-level SLR with a 50mm lens can cover most of the angles that food requires.

Jennifer Bartoli Soup

At the end of the day, the best way to learn about food photography is to play around with different setups. Whether it’s at home or at a favorite restaurant, you will find that with an empty stomach, a creative appetite, and a little bit of practice, taking an impressive food photograph is within anyone’s reach.

Have a tipsheet to share, or a suggestion for a topic? Send it to You can read all of the tipsheets posted to date here.

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