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Photographing Food at Home vs. at a Restaurant

November 30, 2015

Liza Gershman

What story are you trying to tell? When you begin to make decisions about your photograph, it is important to consider the story in your image. Are you photographing the food alone, specific ingredients, the chef, the staff or the season? Each decision you make about what to include or not include in your image will help with the story.

Food styling is an art of its own

Styling is such an important aspect of story telling and a successful food shoot. Patterns and colors can support the subject of your story or distract from it. Think about what sort of message your props and backgrounds are going to convey. For example, if you are photographing Chinese Chicken Salad for a food blog, what will it look like on Asian inspired plates vs. Chinese Chicken Salad on Mexican pottery or on a plain white plate? Are you placing your subject inside of a scene, like a chef’s kitchen? Perhaps you want ingredients in view like flower, oil and vinegar, mixing spoons, etc. Remember that when evaluating your propping that less is more.

In many professional settings, like Williams-Sonoma, Martha Stewart, Good Housekeeping or Bon Appetit, the food has been styled well beyond what you would see in a professional restaurant kitchen (outside of an exquisite restaurant like French Laundry, or its equivalent). Food for print has to look both edible and perfect, but must stay within current visual trends. There are numerous techniques used to fake certain foods and it is not always necessary to use the highest quality ingredients (which can be very expensive) to get the best photographs. Trying to cut corners can save you a lot on your budget – a fruit pie stuffed with mash potato rather then expensive fruit that will never be seen can allow you to be able to spend more on props, etc.

When you look at food featured in any of these top catalogs or publications and compare it to your food made at home, do not be disappointed if your food or image doesn’t quite look like what you see in those publications. Keep a journal and make notes of which foods worked and which foods did not and the reasons why. Food photography takes time and a lot of patience. You can get close, but it is good to know that most of these high-end images have been created with large budgets and a team of professionals.

Some food shoots for high-end kitchen catalogs can cost anywhere from $12,000 to $40,000 or more, depending on the team. Shoots on these high-budget sets produce incredible results and these results are the work (and photo magic) of teams often made up of a Creative Director, an Art Director, set building team, a Prop Stylist with one to two assistants, a Linen Stylist (sometimes with an assistant), a Food Stylist with one to two assistants, a photographer, an assistant photographer, a digital technician, a retoucher and a Producer to coordinate and bring the whole project together. Try and explore collaboration, as you might not have access to a professional, but you can still experience the process of working in a team by engaging the help of enthusiastic friends/foodies. It is important to remember that a large part of a successful professional photo shoot comes from being able to work as a team moving towards one creative vision.

You thought all those kitchens were real and in stunning houses? Guess again! Many of those “perfect” kitchens have been created through the masterful skills of set building teams brought into studios. Here, the photographer and team can control the light by using many white cards to bounce light in and many black cards to diminish light. There’s also the advantage of a post-production team to remove imperfections and digitally make any changes requested after the fact by the creative team. Where possible, usually when using a tripod, try and capture a shot of the environment without props and food. This way, you can make adjustments in post, such as removing props, etc. It looks so natural and real? Yes, the best food photographers and stylists can make everything come to life in a perfect way… Remember, that’s their job!

Photographing in your home

Food photography looks most organic with natural light. What lighting can you use to achieve the best possible results?

Window light on a cloudy day and light in full shade outdoors are always the most stunning for food photography. Set up a bounce card (a white surface that is positioned opposite your light source to bounce light back onto your subject, filling shadows and dark areas – a poster board will do) at a 45-degree angle under the food to bounce light into the front. Be sure to look through the camera lens to make sure the card is out of the frame.

Create a shadow side on the opposite side of the dish (left, for example) by placing a perpendicular black card or hang a black piece of material approximately a foot away from your subject or just outside of the image frame. Look through the viewfinder to be sure that you are seeing what the camera sees.

If you don’t have access to natural light then MacGyver it. Create an imaginary window in your house if you don’t have the luxury of photographing near actual window light. Set up a “window” using a light source approximately 10 feet away from your subject to the desired highlight side of the dish. Diffuse that light by setting up a “curtain.” This “curtain” can be a sheer white sheet, a piece of white material, or silks/diffusion paper specifically used for photographic diffusion, which you can purchase online or in a good camera store. If that doesn’t provide enough light onto your subject, then you can use a bounce card to send light back onto the face of the dish (see the paragraph on window light above).

Use a tripod to reduce camera shake. If you are photographing in low light situations, then a tripod truly can make all the difference between a great shot and a blurry image. When purchasing a tripod for food photography, try and buy a model with a “boom arm,” as this will enable you to shoot from directly overhead – a very flattering angle for a lot of food stories. Additionally, a tripod will allow for longer exposure time, thus letting in more light. If you are shooting a story with multiple dishes from the same angle, remember to mark the position of the tripod's feet with tape, so this will enable you to reset position the instant the tripod gets kicked or knocked. Even if you are using a smart phone instead of a DSLR, a small tripod is still useful.

Assistants are such a valuable resource in food photography when you are working in a studio or from home. For example, have an extra set of hands to help you bounce light into a side of the subject or to help reset quickly when lighting or creative direction changes. There will always be a time when you have to react to your subject quickly and precious seconds matter. It’s always useful to have an additional set of eyes to see if the background and propping is visually exciting or if it is distracting from the subject. If you are cooking the food and photographing yourself, then an extra set of hands can help you prep dishes and clean. Food photography can make an incredible mess!

Timing of dishes is essential to the look of food and pre-prep will help you stay on schedule and have the ability to photograph your dishes looking their best. Photographing a warm, steaming dish after it has cooled or an ice cream when melting might not be the best way to feature them. Ask yourself if the food really looks the best that it can be. You might take the most incredible photograph, but if the food looks inedible, there isn’t much that you can do. Remember to pre-light and test all the non-food elements of your image before introducing food. Do as much prep as possible so that you are able to focus on the hero elements (the food) once they arrive on set or once you have prepared them from your own kitchen.

If you are developing your food photography portfolio and don’t consider your food to be photo-ready, ordering it or purchasing pre-made items from a gourmet shop or bakery is a fantastic way to start. Even if you are making your own food, getting some items, like bread from the bakery or supermarket, can be helpful.

When you are photographing food, it is crucial that your dish looks edible. One way to ensure this is to have your image color balanced so it is as true to the eye as possible. Even your wall color can cast a tone onto your image. Assess your surroundings and look for colors that might add a tint. If you have beige cabinets, then you will need to color correct your image in post-production, for example. Light from unnatural sources like fluorescent bulbs or tungsten light bulbs cast color tones on an image. Even your clothing can cast an unwanted tone on your subject. Say you are photographing a white dinner set with meringue and you are wearing a red shirt. The red from your shirt will reflect onto the white scene and leave an unwanted tint in the image. Wear all black or a neutral grey to avoid this issue when photographing.

What part of this process is most important to you? Do you want to be a food photographer or do you really want to be a stylist? Do you want to be a chef or a prop stylist? In the commercial world, these jobs are all available and are all distinctly different pay and hours. Assess the aspect of the project that you enjoy most and consider which part truly fulfills you. Perhaps you love it all and want to continue to do some of everything. If you really love one particular aspect rather than the others, look into that as a career and try to look for creative support in the areas you consider your weakest. Focus on your strengths and find the specific role that you really love.

Photographing in a restaurant

Photographing at a restaurant will be much easier with permission from the staff. Most establishments will be flattered that you are including their food in your social media account(s). You might even be lucky enough to gain permission to access the kitchen or to come back another time for a more detailed shoot. When you set up a table, remind the staff that your job is to get the photo that best represents their beautiful food. Your best chance of success in capturing a fulfilling food photo during a meal is to go in during off hours or right at the start of seating when crowds are low.

If your only opportunity to photograph a dish at a specific restaurant is during peak hours, then remember to be polite and considerate to restaurant staff and other patrons. (Remember that other patrons are also there paying for a specific experience and their experience is as valuable as yours.)

If the staff and chef are included in your photograph, then remember to ask for permission to post on social media by having them sign a model release. You can find and download simple model release documents online. Also, if the setting is identifiable or recognizable, then a property release may be needed in many circumstances, which can also be downloaded online. If you have time in advance, talk to your subjects about wearing clothing of a similar look, feel and color palette to gain image consistency. Also, bring a simple make-up kit with you for controlling skin shine, etc.

If the food is the primary focus of the shot, rather than the staff or the setting, there are a few key tips to help make the image the best it can be:

  • Use light
  • Obtain proper white balance
  • Find color theme(s)
  • Wide apertures give you shallow depth of field
  • You can process your images
  • Add motion

Light is essential to any successful image and food photography is not an exception to that. Get as close to a window as possible and sidelight your dish. If you can’t get near a window, use the flashlight app on your smart phone and illuminate the dish from the front and slightly to one side. This won’t be as beautiful as natural light, but it will help to get a decent image. There are also many useful photo apps that will enable you to add basic lighting treatments very quickly in post-production. Try exploring some of these and find one that works well for you. It might not be something that you want to employ all the time, but it could help save an image that is suffering from a lack of good lighting.

White balance is very important when photographing indoors. Light in a restaurant could potentially come from three or more sources: window light, kitchen light, and candlelight, etc – each could be a different tint. Most cameras do have Automatic White Balance (AWB) and this setting is very helpful. Even with AWB, you will likely need to make some minor color correction in iPhoto, Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop when you are adjusting your image. Remember, Tungsten light produces a yellow tint, Fluorescent is green, and firelight is orange/red. For more details on white balance and white balance correction, check out our “Understanding Kelvin White Balance in changing lighting conditions” article.

Lighting isn’t the only element that tells a story in a photograph. Are you creating dark and moody imagery or bright, light imagery? The colors that you use in your propping and styling will enhance these choices. Perhaps you want a summer-y look. In that case, consider selecting bright light colors for your linens, garnishes and plates. A winter-y shoot could be enhanced by rich reds, deep greens, or snowy whites. The visual story is much more than just the food and it is important that you consciously make these decisions to convey the story that you want to tell. Ask yourself if your story is seasonal or evergreen.

Use the widest aperture that you can use (lowest f-stop). Your depth of field will be very shallow and the background or foreground of your image will not be in focus. This selective focus and shallow depth of field is very popular in food photography and allows the viewer to see a specific detail area in the image more clearly than others. For example, if you are drawing attention to a plated dish and letting the setting props fall into soft focus, then you are conveying a story while allowing for detailed focus to be sharply on the food. If you have a lens that allows you to use a 2.8 or a 3.5 f-stop, then you are in a shallow depth of field range.

Lenses are an important decision in food photography. Macro lenses (50-100mm for full-frame cameras; 50-60mm for APS-C sensor digital cameras) work well for most food photography. They allow you to get in close and show incredibly fine detail. Wide-angle lenses (14-35mm for full-frame cameras; 10-22mm for APS-C sensor cameras) are best used for showing a scene and imagery in the kitchen. Lenses that give a normal perspective, like the classic 50mm standard lens (for full-frame cameras; 35mm or so is the APS-C equivalent), can be especially useful in food photography.

Post-processing a photograph takes it a step beyond what the camera sees to a whole additional level. Color correction, sharpening, brightening or darkening, contrast, and saturation can all be adjusted in Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, iPhoto and others. Adobe makes easy to use software for photo editing called Lightroom. For more advanced editing and retouching, Photoshop is your best tool.

Don’t be afraid to add elements of motion to your image. For instance, the staff might not be the primary focus, but having a hand reaching in, serving, plating or a person moving through the background can help add an extra dimension to your image.

Consider if the food will go out to customers or is it being prepped just for you? If the food is going to a customer, you will have a very limited window of only seconds or minutes to take your shot. In this case, be sure that you scout the location in advance and assess the best possible lighting scenario.

The speed at which you need to work will vary depending on the final use of the particular food. Always look for/request a clean space to work, glasses of water or wine for props, place settings, and other elements like salt and pepper to help the context of your image. Other elements you can use in a restaurant for interesting imagery are tablecloths, floors, and bars. Sometimes you can even take the plated dish into the street or the alley to look for interesting light (ask permission first). Get creative and be inspired by the food and the environment around you.

Liza Gershman
Liza Gershman

Liza Gershman is an award-winning photographer, Bay Area native, and seasoned world-traveler. Passionate about food, people, and culture, Liza has had the opportunity to photograph in more than 37 countries and 46 U.S. states during her career.

Liza Gershman

Liza Gershman is an award-winning photographer, Bay Area native, and seasoned world-traveler. Passionate about food, people, and culture, Liza has had the opportunity to photograph in more than 37 countries and 46 U.S. states during her career.

Photographing for a wide and varied range of clients has allowed Liza to refine her ability to tell strong visual stories that support both the vision of a creative director and brand integrity. In 2014, she worked as the Senior Digital Photographer for Williams-Sonoma where she helped to define the new look of their eCommerce site, and has also photographed for clients including Restoration Hardware, Party City, Safeway, and Hyatt Hotels, among others. Liza is a Getty Image Contributor, and has photographed eight cocktail and food cookbooks for numerous publishers in the US, including Random House.

In 2010, Liza was Governor Jerry Brown's campaign photographer, and in 2014 was the lead photographer for the RedBull Youth America's Cup Team NZ2. Many of her additional clients have included celebrity chefs, wineries, beverage brands, restaurants and more.

Liza's passion for storytelling extends beyond her photography into writing, with many published essays in top magazine and newspapers.

Liza is honored to contribute to Canon USA.

Published books include:

  • The Good Cook's Book of Tomatoes (SkyHorse Publishing). 2015
  • The Good Cook's Book of Mustard (SkyHorse Publishing). 2015
  • The Good Cook's Book of Oil & Vinegar (SkyHorse Publishing). 2015
  • The Good Cook's Book of Salt & Pepper (SkyHorse Publishing). 2015
  • The Good Cook's Journal (SkyHorse Publishing). 2015
  • More Than Meatballs (SkyHorse Publishing). 2014
  • Be Fabulous At Any Age (Lions Gate Corporation). 2013
  • San Francisco Entertains; The Junior League of San Francisco’s Centennial Cookbook (Favorite Recipes Press). 2011
  • A Taste for Absinthe (Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House). 2010

Liza's Publications include: Maxim.com, SI.com, Outside Magazine, Huffington Post, Wine Spectator, NBC Bay Area, Chicago Sun Times, C Magazine, Daily Candy, SF Gate, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle PI, Tasting Panel Magazine, Food & Wine.com, Marin Magazine, 7x7, Fairfield County Look, Eater SF, Destination I Do Magazine, Grace Ormonde Wedding Style, Bloomspot, Beer Connoisseur, Wine X Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, Table Hopper, Nightclub & Bar, Gig Salad, Tasting Table, MindFood (Australia and New Zealand), VSCO, and Food Arts Magazine to name a few.

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