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How to Capture Amazing Food Photos During the Holidays

November 21, 2017

Liza Gershman

This article was originally published on November 9, 2016 and has been updated to include current product information.

The holidays are coming and food is everywhere; it's glistening, it's colorful, it's iced and diced and dipped. How can you savor your beloved holiday food moments the whole year through? By taking extraordinary food images.

Don't have a DSLR? Composition, styling, propping, and lighting still play a key role in enhancing your imagery. Even if you only have a point-and-shoot camera, these tools will take your photographs to another level.

This time of year is about capturing mood, moments, and all of the things that truly express the excitement and spirit of the season. If you don't have a professional camera you can still use some simple techniques to enhance your imagery, and if you do have a DSLR then these food photography suggestions will make your photographs look like a pro’s.

Lighting is one of the most important aspects of food photography.  With bad lighting your food could have been prepared by a Michelin starred chef and it still wouldn't look appetizing. Photographers have different preferences on lighting for food photography; some prefer to use artificial light, while others prefer natural light.  Natural lighting will be the easiest approach if you are just starting out, and is a preference of many professionals.

Side and backlight are common lighting options for food photography.  If you can position your dish or scene next to a window then you are on the right track. If the light outside is harsh and producing dramatic shadows then use a white curtain or hang a bed-sheet over the window to soften and diffuse the light. (Check out these articles on food photography for more details.)

Lens choices can make anyone feel overwhelmed, but it is very easy to narrow down your tools when you are taking food photographs. You cannot go wrong with a Macro lens (the EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM for crop sensors and the 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM for full-frame are excellent choices). Why Macro for food photography? A Macro lens, also known as a close-up lens, allows you to photograph your subject at a close distance, thus enabling you to capture all of the details clearly.  Think about icing on a holiday cookie, or droplets of moisture from a hot cider mug. Macro lenses will let you get close enough to your subject to get these tasty details that make for exciting food photography.

Composition, or "putting together," is the placement or arrangement of visual images in your photograph. Composition is important for any image, and learning a little bit about the rule of thirds is the easiest way to begin. This doesn't have to be overwhelming. The rule of thirds is the concept that any image can be divided into nine equal parts by two horizontal lines and two vertical lines. Many cameras offer a grid function that shows this very rule of thirds through the viewfinder or in the Live View option. Placing your subject within the intersecting points or “power points” on this grid helps to create interest, tension, and energy in a photograph.  For best results in an image don't center your subject, but place it along the power points instead. This will create a more balanced image and will help you to engage your viewer.

Food photographers typically use a variety of angles in imagery for different effects.  A beautiful table setting full of food can be showcased by photographing from overhead. Use a ladder to get above the table, looking down on the scene.  For a close-up image of a specific element like a bowl of vegetables, for example, you can try taking an image from overhead to illustrate the entire dish, from 3/4 to show the dish and some of the scene, or from straight on to show the veggie mound rising from the bowl.

Try these holiday dishes for great results:

- Turkey & sides
- Holiday cookies
- Pumpkin pies
- Bouche de Noel
- Bundt cakes
- Hot cocoa
- Cider & mulling spices

Include people in your photographs for an added element of interest.  Telling the story of where the food comes from and how it will be served, or who will enjoy the food are all such interesting aspects of the experience.  Food is the one thing that all humans have in common. Cultural stories are shared around the table, people fall in love over meals, news is expressed, events are celebrated.  Food photography can showcase each of these things. Remember to consider not only what the table looks like, but the context in which the food will be enjoyed as well.  Telling this aspect of the food story is so meaningful.

Things to think about to help tell a food story:

Was the food prepared at home? What does that space look like? Was the person who made the food wearing a traditional outfit from a specific culture? A chef hat? An apron? Showing the torso of someone in an apron holding a finished dish is a wonderful way to illustrate food.  This pairing tells more than just the ingredients of a dish, it also tells a bit of the background story.

Do you love holiday cookies made by your grandmother? You can tell an entire story of your time together in a short, memorable photo series to cherish forever. Photograph a close-up of her hands preparing the dough. Photograph her icing the cookies and use a wide-angle lens (or move yourself back far enough) to fit the entire scene in your image. Get in closer and photograph the tops of the cookies, the baking sheet coming out of the oven.  You can create a series of beautiful images from just this one experience, and you can do this in an hour or less.

When you are working with people to tell a food story try the following ideas:

Have your "models" stir the pot, and crop the frame to show an arm and hand with a long wooden spoon. Show a hand pouring steaming gravy from a beautiful serving dish onto a fluffy mound of mashed potatoes. Photograph a drink being mixed with a straw, apples being cut on a board, pie crust taking shape. Think about photographing hands kneading fresh cookie dough. Let motion and human elements interact with your food. Crop into the image and isolate the hands for some of your shots, and then pull back and photograph your subject from the waist up.

If you are photographing a 3/4 shot of a prepared dish, arrange the dish with a place setting, drinks, and even candles as you would at a real table. This will draw your viewer into the scene and will tell a bit more information than simply the ingredients of a dish.

Styling:

Styling food is the most important aspect of food photography. Remember that a piggy in lipstick is still a pig no matter how you look at it.  If the food that you are photographing isn't beautiful to you then your image won't be to your liking either.

If you don't have kitchen skills, and don't know anyone else who does, don't despair! Many food photographers purchase part or whole pre-made dishes to work with. Most grocery stores now have deli sections, bakeries, and more.  It is completely acceptable to buy a beautiful pastry, or pie and style it in your photograph. You can even take that pie, for example, and place it into a beautiful dish once you get home.  Try photographing it as a whole, and then take an image with a slice removed to show the inner details of the fruit.  Don't be afraid to make a bit of a mess.  it's ok to show crumbs, dripping gooey bits, knives covered in fruit. Those elements are all part of the food experience, and will draw your viewer in to the photograph. 

Tip: Start by taking at least one "clean" image with everything neatly organized and intact, and then continue to photograph as you deconstruct the dish.

Remember that beverages are part of any meal! If you are photographing a food scene then considering the type of beverage you would have with that meal is a must. Wine can be such a ritualistic experience when eating, and cocktails can be so much fun too! Don't forget to show the sort of beverage that you would pair with a dish. Again, remember to think seasonally and use ingredients and garnishes that speak to the time of year.  Unless you are on a tropical island, then pineapple doesn't indicate "holiday."  Try using garnishes that are more seasonal like peppermint sticks, cinnamon sticks, candied citrus.

Propping:

Propping is such an added value to great food photography. It really can enhance an image.  Not all food is dynamic unfortunately, and food that is monochromatic can really stand out when propped appropriately. Think about the beautiful turkey and stuffing…those are brown and unless they have tidbits of cranberries and garnish they can look bland to the camera.  If you use garnishes and linens, utensils, etc. then the image can really pop. Color is an important aspect of appetizing food photography, but you don't want to overdo that.  Try to stick with one or two complimentary colors for best results. ‘Tis the season and we know how red and green, blue and silver look.  Use those holiday staples if you can't decide on another color scheme.  For an autumn look, go towards chocolate browns, oranges, and reds.

Most food images only show one or two plates at a time.  This means that you can have a variety of place settings in your prop library for a very small budget.  Thrift stores and second-hand charity shops offer a fantastic supply, especially before the holidays. You can find vintage china pieces for a few dollars, silver cutlery, glassware, and more. A piece or two mixed in with more standard items can add a level of sophistication to your imagery. You don't have to spend a fortune purchasing an entire set. You can easily build a prop collection one piece at a time, and for very little expense. Look for additional items like flower vases, salt and pepper shakers, serving bowls, serving spoons, and linens.  Each item tells a piece of a story, and the more interesting the items are, the more dynamic the image can be. Just remember to keep things simple though, and don't over clutter with too many patterns and designs.  If you have one busy pattern on a serving plate, then pick up a color from that pattern and use that color as your linen color, for example.

Pay attention to your backgrounds.  What is behind the dish that you are photographing? How can you make the background less cluttered, and more simple so that your dish really stands out? Is there a messy kitchen behind your perfectly set table? Look at all of the edges of your photographic frame and see what the camera sees...this is very different from the eyes. Be sure to look through the camera lens when you have your final shot set up and clear any unnecessary items from view.

Remember that each element that you select to add to your image will be a subconscious clue into a larger story, so be selective and choose items that make sense with your dish. For example, you wouldn't serve eggnog on a red and white checked cloth that symbolizes Italian food. Also, try to be consistent with your plates and glasses.  If you are using vintage dishes, then you wouldn't necessarily want to include uber modern glassware with that.  Carefully consider what each element will say in your visual tale.  

If you need inspiration on propping, styling, or angle of view look to cookbooks, store holiday catalogs, and seasonal magazines for ideas.  Food photography is so popular that you will easily find images to emulate and inspire you for a fantastic shoot.

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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