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How To Take Your Food Photography to The Next Level

November 18, 2015

Liza Gershman

What makes a good food photo?

Showcasing the dish’s best traits is essential to any successful food image. Its colors and textures are the key details that make you want to take a bite, so you want to have them all clearly in focus.

Food photography trends change as often as fashion trends and the more you can familiarize yourself with what industry leaders are doing, the more successful your images will be. Take a look at the websites and feeds from companies like Williams-Sonoma, Martha Stewart, Food & Wine, Donna Hay (Australia), Bon Appetite, Sur La Table, etc. and see what color schemes are of the moment. Is it the light bright or is it moody and based in shadow? Is the food messy and broken up, strewn about the plate, or is it tidy, tight and neat? Does the food have a homemade appeal or does it look highly constructed by a professional chef? Is the look attainable or aspirational? Are the props simple or highly stylized? Is the food the focus or is the scene and story that the props create more significant? As you continue to pour though these publications and ask yourself these questions, your eye will become stronger and your own imagery will improve.

In the 1980s, the ideal aesthetic throughout editorial magazines were overly stylized, heavily propped, studio-lit photography. That has been replaced with beautiful natural light food photography, in most cases. Of course, companies like McDonalds, Hidden Valley Ranch and others continue to use studio light for food photography, however, trendsetters and magazines alike produce food imagery with a more natural and organic feel. Trends in food photography also mirror trends in cuisine, so you can look to top restaurants as well to get a sense of what will make your imagery a success.

For best results with your food photography, natural light is key and indirect daylight will give your food a bright even look. Find a table by a window on an overcast day or a shady spot on a sunny day. If you are in your home, you might need to find a room that isn’t your dining room or kitchen. If you are in a restaurant, you may want to find a spot outside or request a table by a window. If you aren’t lucky enough to have your light filtered by a giant cloud, then you can use white drapery, or hang a piece of silk or other photography diffusion tools on the window to cut the severity of the light and create stunning imagery.


Composition

Composition is key to the success of any image. In a well-composed image, the viewer can immediately understand what the subject of the photograph is. In food photography, the subject can be anything from the main dish to a small detail in the dish, like tomatoes in a salad, or even the person who made the dish.

Using the “Rule of Thirds” will make any image stronger and more translatable to the viewer. Imagine the frame (what you see through the viewfinder) divided into a nine-part grid. In this guideline, your subject can be placed along the lines or at their intersections. The eye is naturally drawn to the intersection points and those are the areas of most impact in an image. An image is always strongest when the subject is on a “power point” or intersecting point in this grid, rather than centered in the frame. So ask yourself: What’s the focal point of interest in the dish that you are photographing? Place that focal point on one of the grid’s “power points” and draw the viewer’s eye to the point of interest in your frame.

In additional to the use of Rule of Thirds in composition, you will need to decide on an angle to photograph the food. Some dishes are better photographed from bird’s eye view overhead, like a flat pizza or a cutting board full of ingredients and utensils. A juicy burger is best from eye level to really give notice to the stacks of lettuce, tomato, and meat. You might consider a 45-degree angle for a scene like a cup of tea and frosted cookies to showcase the side of the cup and also the design on top of the cookies.

Keep your camera level and keep any strong lines in your camera straight as well. This will help the focus of the image fall onto your subject, rather than be distracted by the lines.

How you position food in relation to the light source is very important. Ask yourself where the “front” and “best” side of the dish is. Rotate the food around until you have gotten its best feature or angle to the camera. Where is the food’s best “face?” Find its most flattering side and if you are in a restaurant or working with a chef, they will always have an opinion on this. Take photographs from multiple angles and look at each of them. What looks most appealing to your eye?

Simply Styling

If you are photographing something like a burger at eye level, then you will have some background in your image. The cleaner and more simple your background is, the more focus there will be from the viewer onto your subject. If you are photographing at home and in your kitchen, is the kitchen clean and tidy? Or is it busy and distracting? If you have clutter, then try adding a cutting board behind the dish or even hang a sheet or apron behind the dish to create the look of a wall.

Remember that simplicity is key to a good image (unless you are very practiced in styling). When styling images for sites like Instagram, simplicity makes them really stand out from the crowd. Simplicity extends not only to selecting a simple background like a black board or wall, but also extends to propping.

Styling an image is your way of telling a larger story to your audience. What is the message of your image? Are you conveying a sense of place and using the food to situate your audience into a scene? Is the image about a specific ingredient in a dish? Or is the image about the talent of the chef who is making the dish? These are important questions to ask yourself when you are selecting props.

What’s your background? Are you using a wall to convey a setting in a kitchen? Are you placing your dish on a table in front of a tree to show that you are outdoors? What sort of table and chairs will you use? A rustic table can mean one thing to the viewer and a modern table can convey something else. If you use a tablecloth, is it patterned for a specific season and does that match the seasonality of your food? All of these choices convey a larger story in your photograph and you want to be sure that you are purposefully telling the viewer a specific story.

When selecting your background try some of these ideas:

  • Stained wood
  • Tablecloth
  • Wall
  • Window — what’s outside?
  • Marble
  • Placemats
  • Stone slabs

 

How do you maximize your light source to illuminate the food?

Side lit food is often the most beautiful. If the light comes from behind you, then your shadow can fall over the dish and darken the details. Backlighting a dish can produce moody results that are best for a cocktail rather than a food dish.

Blurry images distract your viewer. Dark lighting can conceal important details. A yellow or green cast caused by most indoor lighting can tint your food and make it unappetizing.

Direct sunlight can be harsh and take away valuable details and information for the sensor. It creates harsh shadows, whites and light colors lose information. Flash can create harsh reflections and glare and can make food look unnatural, like it is floating in space.

Remember, indoor lighting can tint your food a yellow or green color. Direct sunlight on your subject can create harsh shadows and can also diminish the information from your highlights and whites that the camera can read, taking away details in texture and shape as well. As I say, love is in the details and your images should have as much detailed information in each tone as possible. Using your camera flash can create harsh reflections and glare and can make the food look unrealistic, and inedible. The goal is sumptuous, edible food, and you will achieve that with soft natural light.

Plating, prepping and propping your dish

Food plating is an art of its own. If you don’t have help from a professional chef, you can always look online for inspiration. Try experimenting with trends. For a more candid feel, mess the food up! Take a bite out of the cookie and sprinkle crumbs around the plate. A touch of realism can truly speak to your viewer and make for sumptuous food. Don’t be afraid to play and remember that minimalism is good.

In propping, simplicity can be everything. Eliminate unnecessary objects and focus on what you are trying to convey in the image. If you are photographing a bowl of ice cream, a simple napkin, a spoon or an ice cream scoop can add to the image. Much more than that and the viewer’s attention will be on the props, rather than the actual ice cream itself.

Propping doesn’t have to be expensive. You can purchase wonderful props at thrift stores, larger stores like Target and Cost-plus World Market, charity stores, consignment stores, flea markets and more.

If you are a prolific food shooter, then have a few key items in your house to make any food shoot easier. You can purchase inexpensive and nice looking items like plates and bowls in all white to let the food stand out in your image. Items to always have on hand for easy propping:

  • Cutting boards
  • Stacking plates
  • Utensils
  • Cloth Napkins
  • Glasses

Details

Other things to consider when styling your shot: Is the look that you want vintage, new, rustic, or modern? Each selection will drive the mood that you are creating with your images. Is the color of the plate enhancing the image or distracting from the food?

Perhaps your dish is best with garnishes, like a martini with olives. Ask yourself about the dish and what additional ingredients or garnishes might best help the viewer to easily understand what they are seeing. A martini without an olive just looks like a glass of gin, after all. Context is so important in telling your dish’s story. Look at your corners in your image! The corners can be as distracting to the viewer as the background. You want the focus of the image to be on the dish, and not on inconsequential details that are in view due to accidental or poor planning.

Adding people and movement to your image can be a powerful way to tell a story. Stir, lift with a fork, cut with a knife, or pour sauce in your image. This movement will add excitement for the viewer and will bring in a human element to the story. Does your “model” have clean hands and fingers? Do you want to show their arms, their faces or part of their face? All elements in the photograph are equally valuable in the story, so be sure that you are sending a consistent message to the viewer.

Selecting the right lens can make or break an image. Is it better to get close in for a detail with a macro lens? Or use a wide angle to show a scene? Highlight a component of a dish, like a radish in a salad, or zoom out and show the salad plate on a beautiful table setting.

Food Photography for Social Media

Each social media site has a specific structure and look. As a photographer, your images can be best featured if you understand the overall feel of the site as well as the aesthetic their platform best highlights. Spend some time with each website that you post to and look for a few cues for greater success. How is the platform viewed? Is it displayed in a square or vertical format? Does it feature one image at a time or a grouping of images? Do light images stand out or do darker images draw you in? When you see details, are they distracting and too small to enjoy or are they interesting and easy to see?

Instagram uses primarily square format imagery and is most often viewed on a phone or similar mobile device, rather than a computer. To get impact from your posts, use strong, clean, uncluttered photography. The simpler the image is, the more it will stand out in the feed. When you see Instagram on a phone, for example, you see a block of square images (on larger smartphones, you can easily see up to 15 or more images at a time). Do your images have a strong theme? Use that block as an overall composition. Think of your Instagram feed as a series, even if the subject matter of your imagery is different. Select colors in your images that will compliment each other or contrast. Small details are difficult for a viewer to see initially and Instagram is about an immediate experience, rather than a long and detailed look into one image.

Facebook can be used in two ways. It can be your own photography business page or it can be part of your personal social media account. In any medium, the impression you choose to cultivate professionally is not necessarily the same as what you would reveal in your personal life (i.e. what you show to your friends and their cats isn’t always what you want to have as the face of your growing or successful business). Post whatever you like in your personal Facebook page (as long as your setting are private) and select your strongest imagery for your business page.

Pinterest is known for its light colors and airy quality; Art Directors are often heard saying, “Make it more Pinterest-y,” and they even create mood boards for shoots from Pinterest imagery. That said, bright, light images are most popular there. There are one of two types of food images on Pinterest that are most successful: A close-up detail shot of an aspect of the food, like a dripping syrup on a stack of pancakes, or an overhead image of a well-designed table or prep scene.

Food blogs hold serious weight with retail companies, lifestyle brands and more; your food blog imagery is as important to your brand as your website imagery.

With these guidelines, I hope I’ve inspired you to get creative with your food photography. Find more food photography tips in my next article, coming soon!

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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