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Food Photography 101: How to Take Perfect Pictures of Your Food

food-photography-tips

Businesses like restaurants, food trucks, bakeries, grocery stores and more thrive on the strength of their food photography. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that the quality of your food photography meets the standards that customers expect. 

But taking great product photography of food doesn’t have to involve hiring a professional photographer or purchasing expensive equipment. Professional-looking photographs can be shot by beginners on something as simple as a smartphone camera app. Below are our top food photography tips!

How to take pictures of food

  1. Prepare your food to be photo-ready: Arrange your food to show-off its best features. Choose complementary surfaces and cutlery. Plate the main subject of your photo in the middle of your plate and leave room on the edges. 
  2. Get the lighting right: Light from the side, rather than the front. Use natural light whenever possible, softer light when not. Watch for harsh shadows. 
  3. Experiment with framing: Try photographing from different angles. Use warmer, more appetizing colors that are true-to-life. Use depth-of-field to focus on the most appetizing aspects of your photo.
  4. Edit your food photos like a professional: Sharpen your image. Adjust the white balance to negate cooler colors and bring out warm ones. Increase contrast, brightness, and saturation, but only slightly. 
  5. Don’t be afraid to get creative: Rules are made to be broken. A unique angle, perspective, color palette, or composition can help make your food photos stand-out.

How to take food photos FAQ

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1. Prepare your food to be photo-ready

Chefs use the term plating to describe the aesthetic arrangement of food. Good plating is more important than it seems. In fact, studies have shown that when consuming food, people tend to perceive well-plated food as tastier and healthier.

With nothing but an image for the user to go by, plating is the first step to creating the idea that the food being photographed is just as juicy and mouth watering as it appears to be. Before you start snapping pictures, you’ll want to consider how to arrange your food in a stylistically appealing way.

Here are some tips for arranging your food:

Don’t arrange all foods the same way

If you’re photographing food that’s more blended, say a salad or a soup, avoid being pedantic about the placement of elements of the dish.

This isn’t to say that the food shouldn’t be arranged—but you’ll want to think of naturally occurring spectacles in nature like a garden with blooming colorful flowers or a luscious forest with jagged trees.

If you’re photographing food that’s a little more otherworldly—say rainbow smoothies or galaxy cakes—neatness in your plating is key. These sorts of foods rely more on the balance of colors and precision of lines, the same way it would be with a painting, drawing, or sculpture.

Choose the right surface

You’ll want to choose plates that best align with the food’s aesthetic and are able to bring out the strengths of the food’s visual appeal. 

If your food is more monochromatic, say a loaf of bread, it should pair well with a patterned tablecloth. Wooden cutting boards and picnic tables can give a more rustic feel and look great for presenting more homey foods like burgers and fries. Classic white plates can give colorful foods a more vibrant pop.

Put your main subject in the middle

People tend to perceive whatever object is in the middle of a food photograph as being the star of the show. When plating great food, it’s best to start in the middle with the main dish and work your way out, adding sides or garnish, in order to ensure symmetrical food plating. 

Think like an artist

Professional chefs use tools like spoons, squeeze bottles, tweezers and even paint brushes to meticulously decorate their plates in a decorative and precise way, like a painter designing a canvas. Don’t be afraid to use sauces and patterns to give your plate an artistic edge. 

Good food photographers often act as food stylists, sometimes even putting together food styling kits—a collection of accessories and tools to help with adjusting your food to be photographed. Kits can include tweezers, paper towels, cotton swabs and other tools to help you meticulously assemble the objects of your photograph.

After you’ve prepared your food to be photographed, you’ll want to start thinking about the arrangement and composition of the photographs themselves.

2. Get the lighting right

Good lighting is key to emphasizing the textures and color balance of your food photograph. Choosing the right light source for your food involves thinking about what parts of the food you’d want to emphasize; do you want to showcase the juiciness of a freshly cooked cut of beef, or show-off the unique texture of a perfectly sliced piece of cheese?

Here are some things to keep in mind to get the best lighting for your photograph:

Avoid lighting from the front

Lighting from the front has a tendency to create harsh bright spots in your photograph, meaning that textured foods won’t be contrasted to in a way that emphasizes the texture of your food, making it appear bland and tasteless.

Instead, light from the side

Lighting from the side of your food is a great way to bring out the shadows and bright spots of certain food textures—such as bread, meat and cheese. This is especially important when photographing food that balances a lot of textures, like sandwiches and burgers.

Watch for harsh shadows

You want to bring out the textures of your food, but harsh shadows can be off-putting and unappetizing, often resembling spots of mold. If you notice harsh shadows, adjust the angle of your light or camera to balance out the shading in the frame and bring out the food's texture.

Use soft, diffused light

Harsh shadows can also be prevented by using softer lighting. If you’re taking a picture under natural light—it’s best to do this by a window on an overcast day. If you’re taking pictures in-studio—try using a low light or reflective surface to bounce and diffuse natural light or artificial light onto your subject.

Use natural light whenever possible

It’s not impossible to get a good photo of food under an artificial light source, but it does take a bit more knowledge of in-studio lighting design. Natural light, especially on an overcast day, is bright enough to bring out the textures of your food, but soft enough that you won’t encounter harsh shadows. 

3. Experiment with framing

Not all food pictures use the same framing. The aesthetic appeal of the food you're photographing should dictate how you frame it in the picture. There’s no right or wrong way to frame a food picture, but here are some things to keep in mind: 

Try photographing from different angles

When it comes to the angles of your photographs, you want to think about what part of the food you’re looking to emphasize. A sandwich, for example, might look best cut in half and shot from the side, emphasizing the texture and juiciness of the beef.

Side-shots won’t work for every food, though. Things like salads or charcuterie boards are best shot from an overhead, flat-lay style in order to show the intricacies of the arrangement of elements.

Avoid shooting your food from a front-facing, downward angle. This is a common mistake in photographing food usually made because this is the first angle a person sees when a plate of food is placed in front of them. 

It’s for this same reason that shooting from this angle tends to look uninteresting. There are definitely exceptions to this rule, but generally speaking, rarely are the best textures and lines of the food emphasized from this angle.

Use appetizing colors that are true-to-life

Remember to keep color psychology in mind when photographing food. People tend to perceive gray, black, and blue as the least appetizing colors, while shades of red and yellow tend to stimulate the appetite. 

That being said, there are exceptions⁠. Deserts, candy, and naturally-blue foods can be made to look appetizing. Think about how the colors of your photograph work together and play off of each other and how those colors serve your aesthetic.

Try to compliment your food with props or interesting textures and patterns in complementary colors and try to keep the color balanced. Keep your photos saturated and avoid using cooler color filters. Most foods—meats and cheeses especially—look unappetizing under a blue glow.

Use depth of field to create a selective focus

Depth-of-field concerns the distance between objects in-frame and the way that focus creates emphasis on parts of the food that are closest. In the same way that certain foods have better angles, they also have better spots to be in the photo to be more focused.

Try experimenting with focused, close-up shots and less focused backgrounds. Playing around with the depth of field of your photographs can help to add emphasis to more textured foods—this effect works especially well with pasta dishes.

4. Edit your food photos like a professional

Once you’ve taken your food pictures, you’ll want to make some light touch-ups using a photo editing tool. If you have the budget, you could use a paid tool (like Adobe Lightroom), but there are a ton of free photo editing software options available. 

Remember to be conservative with your edits. Over-editing can cause your food images to look unnatural and unappetizing. However, light edits to the color balance and shading will give your photographs a more polished and professional look.

To show you what we mean, here’s a food photo prior to making any touch-ups:

Food photography: an unedited example

The food is plated beautifully and there’s some interesting balance to the composition. Everything appears well lit and the image is a great start to a perfect food photograph, but let’s touch it up a bit to really bring out the flavor of the photograph.

Here’s what we did: 

Sharpen the image

Generally speaking, your image should be fairly sharp assuming you’ve used a steady camera and clear lighting. However some adjustments to the sharpness of the image will give the edges more definition and help to differentiate aspects of the image.

Food photography: Unsharp masks in photoshop

In Photoshop and other photo-editing platforms, you can sharpen an image by applying what’s called an unsharp mask. Unsharp mask filters increase the contrast between adjacent pixels, giving the edges of your image a more defined look.

Food photography: Details of an unsharp mask

Unsharp masks give three adjustment options:

  • Radius: This controls how many pixels adjacent to high-contrast edges will be affected by the filter. If your photo contains fewer, larger objects you can adjust this to a higher radius of about 2. For images with more intricate elements and sharper lines, you’ll want to use a lower radius between 0.05 and 1. For our image above, we’ve used a radius of 0.7 because there are a lot of sharp lines on the dishes.
  • Amount: This option controls the amount of contrast that will be applied to the edges of the image. Usually with great food pictures, it’s best to keep this minimal. A high amount of sharpening can give a more “gritty” feel to your photographs, and while this may work for some types of photography, gritty food can appear unappetizing.
  • Threshold: This adjusts how much of the image is affected by the filter. A value of 0 will apply the filter to the entire image. As you adjust the threshold, high-contrast areas of the photograph will be sharpened while low-contrast areas will not be. In the above example, we’ve kept the threshold at 0 because the abundance of lines in it benefits from a lower threshold, but feel free to adjust this a little higher if your food shots contain larger objects and fewer lines.

Fix the white balance

White balance refers to the tint of the white parts of your photograph. Adjusting white balance can help to make an image look more “warm” or “cool” depending on how you adjust it.

When taking pictures of food, using a warmer white will make the food look more appetizing than cooler light:

Food photography: warm vs cool light for photos

White balance can be adjusted in different ways depending on the photo editing tool you’re using. For Photoshop, you can adjust this by selecting the image and then selecting Adjustments > Color Balance.

Food photography: white balance

Adjust Brightness/Contrast

Contrast is the separation between the darkest and lightest areas of your photograph. Adding higher contrast between light and dark parts of the image will give it more detail.

Food photography: brightness and contrast

Different photo editing software will have different ways of adjusting the brightness and contrast of your photographs. In Photoshop, you can do this by selecting Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Brightness/Contrast. This will give you a panel with sliders that allow you to adjust the brightness and contrast of your photograph.

Giving a slight boost to your brightness and contrast will bring out the diversity of colors, highlights and shadows in your photo and make for a more eye-catching image.

Increase the saturation

The final tip for editing your photos is a slight increase in the saturation of your photographs. Saturation describes the intensity of colors in your photograph. When it comes to food photography, remember: more saturated, warm colors are more appetizing. 

Think of the intense color of juicy, red beef or a bright orange slice of mango. Adding just a bit of saturation in a food picture is a great way to bring out the colors of your photograph and make the image seem all the more mouth-watering.

Food photography: saturation

Experienced photo editors may be able to apply more advanced editing techniques, but even these small, basic changes can make a big difference in the way the image looks:

Food photography: before and after editing

5. Don’t be afraid to get creative

Food photography is an art, not an exact science. While these are some rough guidelines that will help you get better pictures of your food, don’t let them stop you from experimenting with filters, lighting techniques, and composition that can bring a unique edge to your photography. 

There are a ton of incredible and interesting ways to play with your food, like using food to sculpt a landscape or making desserts that look like cute animals. A unique take on the concept of the food photograph is a great way to make your food images stand out.

The more unique a perspective you can bring to your food photography the more likely you are to catch the attention of those social media users scrolling through their feed. And at the end of the day, catching people’s attention—and hopefully their taste buds—is what’s most important.

Learn more about starting a food business: 

How to take food photos FAQ

How can I make my food look good in pictures?

  • Prepare your cutlery and plating before you begin taking photographs
  • Light from the side, rather than the front, using soft light, and be on the lookout for harsh shadows that can look like spots of mold
  • Experiment with different framing, angles, and depths-of-field to find out which brings out the appetizing textures of your food
  • Use true-to-life colors, avoiding blues and grays
  • Lightly edit your photos for sharpness, contrast, and saturation to help bring out the warmer, more appetizing colors of your food. 

Can you take good pictures of food with your phone?

Yes! You don’t need an expensive DSLR camera to take good pictures of food. These days, it’s likely that most of the food photography you see on social media was taken on an iphone. Just remember to follow all of our food photography tips for getting the best shot.
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