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Food Photography

A short guide to food styling

A great food photograph can do a lot of things – it can make a viewer hungry, it can convince a diner to order a dish and it can sell a hell of a lot of food and recipe books. But knowing how to photograph food to get great results requires a specific knowledge of what works best and what looks terrible. We have put together a few things you will need to think about when you photograph food if you want results like you see in glossy magazines and books.
Think about colors in your dish

Color is a massive part of good food photography. In a lot of cases you can add garnishes that contrast the color of the dish which is very effective in adding an element of color in your photographs. A knowledge of the color wheel and which colors contrast well and which colors complement well can serve you very well in food photography. Notice the contrasting colors of green, red and white in the photo below and the complimentary colors of the photo below that.

Your table setting can make or break your food photographs

The surroundings that your food appears in are almost as important as the food itself. A well designed setting can give context and mood to your shot so think about it a little. What is in the background and foreground of the food? Do you want to exclude setting altogether and get an extreme close-up of only the food? Are your dishes matched to the color of the food? Are the surroundings set up to give a balanced composition?

Elements that you would usually find in the context of a meal (condiment holders, cutlery, napkins etc) can be arranged by a stylist to help the composition. Usually you will want these elements to compliment rather than dominate the main subject – the food.

Lighting in food photography

Natural window lighting usually rules the roost in professional food photography. (If you can get natural window lighting on an overcast day, then you’re even luckier). The soft, dispersed lighting usually given by natural window lighting that casts very soft shadows works beautifully with a lot of food photographs. Depending on how much light is available, you may need to consider artificial lighting.

Artificial Lighting – Sometimes, you’re just not going to be able to get in a position to take advantage of natural lighting. Using strobes on food is a huge topic, but suffice to say that you will often need to soften and disperse the light as much as possible with the use of soft-boxes and reflectors.

Pick an angle

In food photography, there are two common ways of composing basic shots. The first way involves photographing them from directly above the food – either getting a closeup of the food or showing the aerial map of the placement setting.

The second common angle is to shoot at an angle from the side so you can include either a foreground or background or both or the entire surrounds of the dish. Obviously there are a thousand ways to skin that cat, but the examples on this article should give you a few ideas of the common compositions of food photography.

Quick and easy tips

The following tips are for when you’re in a bit of a rush and you just want to bash out a quick, but good food photograph. They are not set in stone by any means and there are plenty of times when you should in fact ignore them. But if you don’t have too much time, following these few ideas will usually get you a better food photograph than you would have had otherwise.

  • Move the scene to take advantage of natural window lighting
  • Limit the depth of field with a wide aperture setting (f/1.8 – f/5.6) and focus near the front edge of the food
  • Either zoom right in on the food or arrange your background to give context
  • Look for contrasting colored garnish and put it on the food (bright colors like green (chives), red (chilli) and white (parmesan) tend to work well
  • Keep the portions smallish so you have a definite center of interest in the photograph
  • Photograph the food while it is as fresh as possible
  • Print your images! It’s the ultimate test for photographers.
Secret tricks

While there are a few photography tricks to getting great shots, there are also a few quick and easy food styling tricks to make sure the food looks as good as possible before you shoot it. Here are some to keep in mind.

  • Anything green (like lettuce leaves) will look greener and fresher by soaking it in ice-water for a few minutes before the shot. Shake them dry before you photograph them.
  • Brush some oil on hot food to make it look fresher for the photograph, especially if it has been sitting around for a while
  • Don’t put too much dressing on salad for photographs – it makes the salad look limp.
  • Fresh is best – for both taste and looks.
    Undercook the food – it looks fresher and brighter for the photograph.
  • Make sure the plates and settings are really clean – spots of errant food on the tablecloth or where it shouldn’t be can ruin a photo.