Basic but Effective Food Photography Tips (No Technical Jargon!)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Basic but Effective Food Photography Tips (No Technical Jargon!)

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This former news photographer shares 10 really good food photography tips for food bloggers without any technical jargon

One of the things I get asked the most often is for food photography tips. All food bloggers seem obsessed (and rightly so) with the ability to take mouthwatering photos of their food. 

We do eat with our eyes, after all. And thanks to sites like Pinterest and G+, most people see our food photos before they have a clue about what's in them or how to make them. Having eye-catching, quality photos is extremely important. 

There are loads of food photography blog posts on the web, but about 99% of them talk about technical crap: f numbers, shutter speed, white balance, back lighting, diffusing etc. Of course, that's all good for the pros and semi-pros, but for most food bloggers, those types of tutorials don't mean much.

So this tutorial isn't going to be like that. Forget the f numbers/ aperture and shutter speed. I'm going to show you a few very simple, basic tips that no one else is telling you about. We're going to go back to the basics and improve our food photography the easy way. Then, when you have time, you can go back and learn about the f numbers and shutter speed and spend ages getting to grips with the technical stuff.

Find more blogging tutorials to pin:
Take Better Blog Photos in 10 Easy Steps
Apply these 10 steps to your food photography for stunning results in no time at all! No props or technical knowledge required. This tutorial will cover a lot of ground quickly. Don't try to take it all in now, just pin it and come back later. Start with one or two points and once you have those down, move on to something else. That's the best way to improve your food photography.

1. Use natural light
Natural light is one of the most important keys to good photography. It is flexible in strength (depending on what time of day it is) and it often lends a softer look to photos. Of course, there are all sorts of things to consider: is your natural light coming from behind or from the side? Are you using 100% natural light or natural light with a bit of overhead light mixed in?

As a jumping off point, place a plate of food near a window or open door and take a photo. Now take that photo using artificial light. What changes do you notice? Here's some photos I took for the purpose of this tutorial. 

Natural lighting is always best with food photography
Here's what's happening in this photo:
  • The light from the window streams in from the left. 
  • The colors are pretty accurate for the fruit and are vibrant. 
  • There's a noticeable blue tinge that you get when natural light is used in photography. 
  • At the top of each fruit, toward the left hand side, there's a scrape of light that helps make the photo look more natural and the food more appetizing. 
  • The shadows are soft and natural looking.
  • For Anyonita Nibbles, these are the types of photos I tend to take most often and the types that I find more pleasing to look at.

Natural lighting is always best with food photography
 On overcast days, I tend to shoot with my kitchen light (which is an uncovered fluorescent light) on as well as using natural light. Here's what's happening in this photo:
  • The artificial overhead light absorbs the scrape of light that is dusting the tops of the fruit in the first photo. 
  • The artificial overhead light absorbs the light falling onto the backdrop, making the shadows softer and less natural. 
  • The fruit is still shown in true colors but is dull and less vibrant.
  • If I were to use this photo in a food post other than a tutorial, it would benefit from white balance correction and light adjustments.
Avoid using artificial lighting with food photography
In this photo, I just used an artificial light from a lamp positioned on the side. Here's what's going on:
  • The fruit looks really fake and hyper-colored. Look at that luminescent tangerine! It looks like it's been rolling in Cheetos crumbs. 
  • The shadows are all equally dark and harsh. There's no progression in intensity the further away you get from the light source.
  • The food doesn't really look all that appealing.
  • The orange tinge makes the apple and the lemon look brownish and the tangerine looks electrified. 
Avoid using artificial lighting with food photography

In this photo, I used an artificial lamp with the overhead fluorescent lighting. Here's what going on:
  • There's an overall orange tinge to the photographs. It's like this photo spent too much time in the tanning bed. 
  • The fruit has lost all vibrancy and looks a bit anemic.
  • The shadows are far more exaggerated and the closer you get to the light source, the harsher they get. Compare the apple's shadow to the tangerine's shadow. Look how full-on and unnatural the tangerine's shadow is.
2. Turn off the flash
Flash has its place and it's great when used properly. Flash with artificial light is a big no-no and it results in some pretty bad photos.
Avoid using the flash with food photography
Flash with natural lighting. Here's what's going on in this photo:
  • The fruit looks completely washed out. Look how pale that apple is.
  • The shadows are so faint they are nearly undetectable.  
  • Just above the lemon we've got a huge, shiny spotlight, stealing the show from our lovely fruit.
  • There is a soft blue tinge that's easy on the eyes.
Avoid using the flash with food photography
Flash with artificial lighting. Here's what's going on in this photo:
  • We're getting some color back into our apple!
  • Yet our fruit still looks a bit dull and sad.
  • The shadows are harsh.
  • The photo has an overall purplish tinge to it that looks over-saturated.
Just like we saw with the natural lighting versus the artificial lighting, when you add in overhead lighting, your results change pretty dramatically.

Avoid using the flash with food photography
Flash with natural lighting and overhead fluorescent lighting. Here's what's going on in this photo:
  • We've still got some pretty pale shadows.
  • Our fruit still looks unappetizing. 
  • Although it is softer, the bald spot behind the lemon is still noticeable.
Avoid using the flash with food photography
Flash with artificial lighting and overhead fluorescent lighting. Here's what's going on in this photo:
  • We're starting to get a sickly orange tinge. Look at the bottom right of the apple. See it?
  • The flash creates a fake and inconsistent scrape of light across the front of the fruit. (Most noticeable on the tangerine).
3. Turn off the auto-focus
Auto-focus is great if you're touring a city, whizzing past landmarks in a bus and want to take quick snaps. Auto-focus is great for food photography when you're taking wide angled, broad shots of an entire plate (sometimes). Auto-focus is horrible, absolutely horrible and your worst enemy when you want to take those artsy photos that show depth of field. You know, when one thing up close is in focus and everything behind it is fuzzy or vice versa. Let me show you:

Auto-focus isn't hte best for food photography all the time
With the auto-focus on, my tangerine isn't quite as focused as I'd like it to be. The lemon and the apple could be a little softer too, but with auto-focus, this is the best you're going to get with limited depth. In this photo, your eyes are drawn to all three of the fruits. So if I wanted viewers to focus primarily on the tangerine, I failed.

Take control over clarity by using manual focus for your food photos
Manual focus really counts when you have narrow space and want to create the illusion of depth. With manual focus, I decided I wanted the tangerine as sharp as it could be so that the lemon and apple would distort and blur, giving the impression that they were feet apart, when they were barely six inches apart. Look at all the detail I've gained in that tangerine from using manual focus. And most of your focus goes to the tangerine and not the apple and lemon.

4. Take a step back ... or up
The worst type of food photography is photography that is so close to the subject it's not clear what the food actually is! Your readers should be able to look at your photographs and know instantly what the food is. They may not know all of the ingredients, but they should be able to tell what kind of food it is! Take a look at this photo. What do you think it is?

Take a step back and don't shoot your food photographs too close

Take a step up
The other worst kind of photography is photography that is too far away from the subject to really show detail! Look at the same food really far away:

Avoid shooting photos too far away from the subject

Find the ideal distance
The ideal distance is going to give your readers enough information to get a sense of what the food is by looking at it and to get any texture or detail that is vital to the photo. Now take a look at this photo and see if you can work out what the food is:

Shoot food photos from an ideal distance
If you guessed cheese crackers, you're right! Here's why this photo works best:
  • You can see the detail from the bits of cheese. 
  • You can see a few whole crackers so you can gauge their size and determine what they are
  • You can see the texture by looking at the puffed up bits and being able to compare it with crackers you've eaten
  • There's enough interest in the photo with depth of field (The crackers closer to the camera are sharper, more in focus, than those at the back. But the ones at the back aren't so blurred that you can't tell what they are.).
5. Food styling isn't key
I'm really bad at food styling. I know I've admitted that before. My brain doesn't really work that way, when I see a plate of food, I want to make that my focus. I don't instantly think to put in half eaten bits of food or to leave the unwashed baking dishes piled on the side for an arty photo. (My OCD doesn't allow that either!)

I get really fed up when I come across photography tutorials that spend 80% of the content telling you how to scatter forks and half filled glasses of water. When I choose to make a recipe from a book or website, it's not the scattered forks or water glasses that draw me in. I look at the food. You're selling the food, not some quirky, rusting two-pronged cheese fork you found at Goodwill.

Improve your food photography by avoiding contrived food styling
Avoiding contrived food styling is so important for food bloggers. If you must food style, then please, do it naturally. In that photo, it's not natural to have the cookie cutters out with the baked crackers. By the time you get around to serving or eating them, you'll have put the cookie cutters away. Why bring them back for the photo? It just looks weird. 

But if you must food style and if you must scatter something around the dish, then make it something relevant. Like bits of food or decorations if you are sharing a recipe for a specific holiday. This is the type of food styling I can get on board with:

Use mroe natural food styling techniques to improve your food photography

6. Take more photos than you think you need
When I shoot my food, I always take way more photos than I'm going to need. I tend to post up to 10 food photos each blog post, but I always have a pool of about 40 or 50 to choose from.Yes, it means I have to do more work choosing which photos to use, but it also means I have more room for error.

Take more phtos than you need

If I'm having to rush to get photos done or if I'm trying to wrangle Callum and take photos at the same time, I don't always produce the best work. So it's nice to have more than enough to choose from so that I can be sure I'm picking my best (or close to it) every time.

7. Spend some time editing photos
I'm not a fan of Photoshop. I think it coddles photographers and lets anyone simply point and shoot and then use Photoshop to heavily edit and make any crap photo look good. After I've taken photos, I upload them in Picasa and I usually just straighten them (when I forget to use my tripod) or I tweak the white balance. I also brand my photos in Picasa. Other than that, I don't tend to do any enhancements. 

Edit photos with Picasa

8. Plan when you'll take your photos
Even though I'm a full-time blogger, I still have to plan to take my photos. In Manchester, in the winter, it goes dark around 3:30 in the afternoon. So if I'm planning to shoot something that we're going to have for dinner, I need to finished cooking around lunch time so I have enough time to take photos using natural lighting. If I want to make and shoot something intricate, I plan to do it at the weekend or when Callum is at nursery so I don't have any distractions and so I can spend ages getting the photos just right. 
9. Pull inspiration from Pinterest
If you're like me and food styling isn't your forte, or you don't know how to approach a photo, do a quick Pinterest search for a similar type of dish and take inspiration from what you see. I've done this countless times, especially in December when I posted a lot of hot cocoa recipes. I got tired of using the same mugs and the same style of shooting, so I had a quick look on Pinterest and got the idea to pour the cocoa into a little dip dish instead of a mug.

10. Check your work
Always get in the habit of scrolling through the photos on your camera before you eat the food. Make sure you have a rough idea of the photos you want to use in your post. There have been plenty of times when I've uploaded photos without checking them first, only to find that every single photo was slightly out of focus or obscured in some way. Checking before the food is eaten means you don't have to remake a dish or settle for less than your best.

Check your work

I truly hope you have found this tutorial helpful! I don't tend to do many photography tutorials because I'm not sure the types of things people would be interested in learning. Could you leave a note and tell me if you found it helpful and if there is something you have a question about? 

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  1. Gosh you've gone to a lot of trouble here Anyonita. and put together some great tips. I'm slowly getting better at photography, but there is so much to learn and so little time to practise.

    1. Ah, not too much trouble at all! :) I'm in the same boat as you: so much to learn & so little time! We'll get there eventually, though!

  2. I love how you showed a picture with each type of lighting! I think a lot of people aren't sure what natural lighting can do for their photos, so to have a comparison really shows the benefits of using natural light for blog photos. Will be pinning this and sharing as well! =)

    1. Thanks, Kelly! :) I agree, sometimes it's better to actually SEE what the benefit could be instead of just instructing.

  3. Thanks for sharing this great info! Even though I know all the technical jargon pretty well, I still got some great tips out of this. I plan on using my manual focus more. Thanks for sharing! Pinning :)

    1. Katrina, I'm so glad to hear that you were still able to find some useful tips! :) I'm still brushing up on my technical jargon! I just re-discovered manual focus. For me, it's all about taking the time to take photos properly and not just point and shoot all the time.

  4. Great tutorial and comments, esp about the $2 rusted fork from Goodwill!

    1. Hahah :) I wondered if anyone would pick up on that rant. Lol

  5. Replies
    1. You're welcome, Blair! Glad to hear it :)

  6. I love your blogging tips Anyonita. I totally agree with you about contrived food styling. I am creative in my cooking but not so much with adding decorations to the background of my photos. Pinned.

    1. I'm so glad I'm not the only one who gets annoyed with contrived food styling! I came across a photo this morning of a dish of pasta (that had no chocolate in it whatsoever) but the photographer put chocolate as part of the food styling! I couldn't figure out why; I kept reading and re-reading the recipe because I was certain I'd missed something! lol

  7. Definitely helpful! I need to figure out the natural lighting thing...except I do all my cooking after dark. :-(

    I'd like to learn more about backgrounds...I never know what looks right!

    1. Maybe in the summer you could take advantage of the longer days and practice then? I've also been known to get up early in the morning just to take photos. Or I've heard about one blogger who makes an extra portion of everything she makes and refrigerates it and then the next morning or when she has time one day, she photographs it and then someone gets to eat the leftovers! :) You could try that? My background is pretty much always a plain white board.It's actually the repurposed back off of an old Ikea bookcase!

  8. This is a nice descriptive tutorial that I think will be really helpful for beginners! I think some of your critiques about artificial vs. natural light though can be fixed with proper white balance. The reason the side lamp + fluorescent light gives hyper colors is because your side lamp outputs at a much warmer temperature than the ambient or fluorescent or flash light. This is a very good reason not to mix light sources of different colors! If you use only flash light, and set your white balance to flash, the colors should look a lot better.
    As for manual vs. auto-focus, the af needs a contrasty region to focus on and the tangerine skin is a bit too monotonous for it to work. In this situation, I personally try to place something like a toohpick or anything with contrasting color in the area I want the af to focus and then take it away before shooting the final frame.

    1. Hi Alessio,
      You're exactly right about the white balance :) I just didn't want to make this tutorial really technical and alienate new photographers who are just looking for basic tips (without having to adjust settings) to get better photos.
      And your tip about the toothpick for AF is well good! :) I'll be using that! Thanks so much for stopping by!

  9. Great tips! Very good for beginners like me : ) thanks for sharing

  10. Great tips Anyonita, very well explained thank you!

  11. Great tips.. I would also recommend shooting pictures in RAW if your camera allows it. The white balance etc seems to work better when pictures are in this state being edited.

    1. Hi Diane,
      You're certainly right about shooting in RAW :) I think many people just starting out may not have camera that allow this or even know what it is! I'm planning on covering it in the future; I think white balance deserves a post all on its own!

  12. I am such a photography novice and am usually overwhelmed by the food photo posts. Thank you for keeping this one at a level I can understand! These are all super helpful tips, especially since you provide so many photographs to explain why one technique works better over another. So glad I found this post at the In & Out of the Kitchen Party! Pinning it and printing it out to keep for reference.

    1. I love hearing that you found this post helpful, Corinne! :) Thanks for the pin, too! I'd leave to see some of your photos with the tips being applied, so if you get around to it, let me know!

  13. Anyonita,

    This is a GREAT post! I too use Picasa to "edit" my photos rather than Photoshop. Also, I've been wanting to try more food photography but was a little intimidated.

    Thank you for sharing these great (and simple) tips!

  14. I never wanted to be a photographer and blogging has forced my interests that direction. I REALLY appreciate all your tips and tricks, which I will be using, because oftentimes it's luck and having tons of pictures to chose from that get me by. Thank you for your time in putting this together. Carrie, A Mother's Shadow

  15. Great tips Anyonita. I think we are all trying to learn new ways to improve our photography. Thanks for sharing at Simple Supper Tuesday.

  16. Great tips! Thanks for sharing at Share Your Stuff Tuesdays!

  17. I could definitely use some improvement in my photos. This is some good info. I will have to revisit this next time I am snapping my pics. Thanks for sharing with us at The HomeAcre Hop!

    Please join us again Thursday at:


  18. Wow, these are some great tips, Anyonita. I feel like we share much the same mindset when it comes to styling the photos. I like using pretty dishes and linens, occasionally decorations if doing a holiday or something similar, but the focus should definitely be on the food. I once heard a fellow foodie say that you don't want anything in the photo that will take your focus off the food.

    Glad I'm not the only one who sometimes makes a meal at lunchtime that's meant for dinner.... just so I can grab good photos with natural light.:) Sharing the heck out of this post. Thanks for sharing on Inspire Me Wednesday. Featuring you in next week's issue.

    1. Oh, yes, Mel,we are definitely singing in harmony regarding all that foofy nonsense in food styling! That's a very good tip: not letting anything take your focus from the food! There's been times when I've been too distracted with bowls and contraptions to even notice the food! And haha yes, dinner is always finished by 3pm here! :) It's nice because I can just relax until it's time to eat! Thanks for sharing & the upcoming feature!

  19. Lots of good info! I am filling up my Pinterest "Blog Stuff" board with all your tips and tricks! Thanks for sharing at the Party On The Porch. Blessings, D@TheShadyPorch

  20. G'day! GREAT! Your post made me laugh and smile today! As a m a very visual person, your post sang to me! Thank you!
    Cheers! Joanne


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