Tips for Better Food Photography

How To Photograph Food – Preparation

Just like an eager home cook peeking into a professional kitchen, a behind-the-scenes look at a professional photography studio is often enough inspiration for nascent food photographers to take their images to the next level. Whether you’re picking up a camera for the first time, or are looking to improve your skills, we hope these tips will get you snapping in no time. (Yes, smart-phone photographers, everything here applies to you, too!)

We’re starting with the basics, and will build future blog posts that are geared towards different concepts and skills. Please always ask if you have specific questions about how we shot a particular still image or video—we’ll happily share the details.

Read on for some basic tips on planning, equipment, and technique.

PRE-SHOOT PLANNING

Here’s the scenario: You’re in the kitchen preparing a sumptuous meal, and you want to share it with the world (or your Instagram buddies, at least). The first rule is this: keep it simple. Before you even start cooking, remove clutter from the area and make sure everything is clean and orderly. Set up your tripod, and any tools you might need, within an arm’s reach. In a professional kitchen, this process is called mise en place; the same principle works for food photography.

Before we document anything at ChefSteps, we also discuss exactly what we want to shoot. Since prepared food changes rapidly, it’s best to think about these elements and stage your shooting area before you cook. When you’re all set up in advance, you can work fast to capture a frozen dessert at that perfect icy temperature, or show hot steam escaping off of warm rolls just out of the oven.

BASIC LIGHTING

If you can get it, natural light will show off your food to its best advantage. We’re lucky to have huge windows lining our kitchen, so we can shoot almost everything using natural light—even on those famously dreary Seattle days. Lighting your food evenly is one of the easiest ways to create a delicious-looking photo, so a bright but cloudy day is actually the perfect time to shoot.

But still, too much or too little light can affect your outcome. If it’s too dark outside (at dawn or dusk, for example), we use artificial lights, or we move very close to the window to make use of whatever light we can. And while they’re great for sunbathing and barbecues, sunny summer days can create harsh shadows and overexposed highlights in photos. When it’s too bright, we’ll pull the shades to diffuse the light, or just move plated food further from the window. To get rid of heavy shadows cast from bright light, we’ll hold up a piece of poster board to reflect light onto the shadowy areas. This reflector can also be used on darker days, to reflect whatever light there is evenly onto the subject of the image.

COMPOSITION: SIMPLE IS BEST

Make the food the star of the show by keeping compositions clean and simple. We like a bright, minimalist look, so we use white or black plates set against clean backgrounds like butcher blocks. Personal styles vary, of course, but even if you’re after a more homey, rustic look, less is often more. Play with different surfaces around the house to see what works best for you.

EXTRA EQUIPMENT

If you’re shooting solo, we highly recommend using a tripod. That way, you can “style to the camera”—positioning your tripod first and then plating with a set angle in mind. With a hand-held camera, it’s more difficult to remember camera positioning as you adjust items in the shot. Working with a tripod will also reduce the blur that comes from accidentally moving the camera while shooting.

Another great item to invest in is a remote for your camera—you can capture sprinkling powdered sugar over the moist doughnut you just baked without having to lean over and snap the photo at the same time.

How to Photograph Food – Lighting

We hope these tips are helpful and inspiring enough to get you cooking and shooting. Let us know if you any specific questions—we’re always here to help.

Join our community for empowering recipes and techniques, access to our lively forum, and lots more behind-the-scenes stuff. 

32 thoughts on “Tips for Better Food Photography

  1. Manfred Stiefenhofer

    Interesting,
    was I expecting it for It for some time. CS Pictures of extraordinary quality I
    appreciate your share your knowledge. To prevent hard daylight shadows, a reflector
    works for me fine. You can buy them online or just glue some tinfoil on card
    board. Small mirrors can work wonder for setting light on a selected spot

  2. This will be a fun series, thanks for the tips. What kind of equipment does the CS team use?

    • @nicosanchez:disqus We have a Canon 5D Mark III, II & 6D (we rent fun toys like the Phantom Flex from time to time). For lenses, we normally use a 24-70mm f/2.8L, 100mm f/2.8l, & 50 f/1.4. We look forward to sharing more tips and tricks soon!

      • thestylistquo

        If you had to pick ONE lens, which would it be? I just so happen to be debating among all three right now!

        • Good question! There are a combination of factors for which lens is right for you—most importantly, the subject matter & the perspective you are wanting to achieve. I’m putting this on our list to talk about in this series—lenses. I started off shooting with a 50mm f/1.4, then the 100mm f/2.8l (love this guy!), then the 24-70mm f/2.8L. If I had to choose, that would still be the same order in which I would buy again.

          • thestylistquo

            Great to know. I started with my kit lens (when I was just starting my food photography in general) and then got a 50mm, now thinking of a 100mm or 24-70mm. Definitely want a closer focal length

          • Hi Kristina, these options are for your full frame cams I suppose. I have a Canon 70D with a 50mm f/1.4 and 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 and a Sigma 18-35 f/1.8. Do you think I can get same results or at least good ones?

          • Hey Kristina, hope you guys are doing well. Any plans for follow up posts on this subject? A post on camera gears, shoot preparation (may be some behind-the-scenes footage) would be very helpful.

      • Is there any chance you guys could write about / post behind-the-scene videos on how you shoot your videos? Now that I know that it is possible to get such high production value videos as yours using a 6D, I want to find out what kind of gears you use apart from cameras (microphones, sliders, shoulder-rigs, etc.)

        Above all, I wanted to let you know that I admire and look up to the work that ChefSteps is doing. I am excited to see you share a bit of the process with the community. At some point I would like to start a YouTube channel on my local cuisine (Bengali) and I am looking forward to learning from this series. Best wishes from Calcutta!

  3. Also looking forward. Might be fun to offer some real time observation or class. I have used parchment paper as diffuser in a pinch to soften the light.

    • @disqus_KrCghtLZZz:disqus good idea! We normally have one to two shooters, so I’ll make it our mission to capture some behind the scenes footage from time to time. We are excited to share more with you soon! Back to shooting…..

  4. Do you suggest extra lenses for an iPhone if that’s what you’re using to shoot?

    • @disqus_rYeuyaaTPc:disqus we normally don’t shoot with our iPhone, unless it is for quick behind the scene shots for social—instagram, etc. That being said, I have extra lenses for my iPhone and I love playing around with them. I have the Olloclip iPhone 4-IN-1 lens system. It’s pretty fun! If you are looking to buy, make sure you get the right lens adapter for the right iPhone model. VSCO Cam (which I love) is a great tool to help capture and edit images from your phone.

  5. Love the videos too, you seem to use lots of angles, do you have one camera or a couple set up. Also how long does it take to edit and what program do you guys use?

    • @colinmyers:disqus up until January we were using just one camera. Now we have two cameras and normally 1 to 2 people operating them. It really depends on the length of the recipe, but say we shoot a recipe for 4 hours we normally can guesstimate that editing will take double the shooting time (give or take). We use Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro for editing videos and photoshop for stills. Would you be interested in learning more about post production (i.e. the editing process)? And if so, what are you interested in learning?

  6. I load my video from camera to pc first then open win 7 movie maker and load in the video to that. then save it. The watch it then use the hit and split method. Get to point where you have a dead spot and pause then split right there then continue over to the end of the dead spot pause again and split again the remove the gap or dead spot in the video. The save it again and watch it again till I get it right then load it onto my YouTube channel. I like to post some full movies with dead spots and edited versions for peeps that don’t want to see my ugly mug or hear my corny stuff.

  7. Nice tips. What i found to work nicely in a pinch when there’s no natural light, is using an external speedlight and pointing it at the ceiling. That basically turns your kitchen into a huge light-cube. Obviously that works best with white walls, but as long as they’re evenly colored, you can adjust the whitebalance in post.

  8. Sometimes food is prepared in slightly unconventional ways for food photography.
    I know this especially for magazines and brochures. I know this is when the food is not going to be consumed and the shooting session is long or when it does not look juicy enough.
    Mashed potato ice cream. Burgers basted in glycerine. Boiled chicken fillets washed with wood stain. – just some of the tricks I have heard
    What looks hot is probably cold and vice versa.

    It would be nice to see tricks of the trade in action especially for when you are doing a shoot and the food is not coming out with the desired result / look.

    • Thanks @Darkmagi:disqus – The chefs are just that good at making dishes look naturally beautiful, without a lot of staging! Makes our job (the photographers) that much easier! None of that mashed potato ice cream tricks. haha!
      That being said, they do have some tricks of the trade to get that perfect shot. I’ll put that on the list to talk about for sure!!!

    • Manfred Stiefenhofer

      In big commercial production (TV ads) there still aren’t a lot of nutrient products used, but in still food photography the trend is moving clearly away from using artificial materials to crate brilliancy. The deployment of used motor oil for chocolate sauce or hair spray to get a shining touch on a dish is somewhat outdated in the time of software
      based post-processing abilities. And for good, the approach in food photography
      today is originality. WYSWYG if you like. And from my observations ChefSteps
      is doing an entirely good job at it. But of course if you have an unskilled and
      uncreative cook at work, even with post-processing there isn’t much of a chance the
      picture would trigger any culinary desires or yearning.

      Using an atomizer to spray tab water on a salad is about as far as it should get. Being
      honest and give viewers the chance to replicate what they actually get to see is
      much more in the aceppted trend than to display an impossible beautiful dish.

      Setting up for/and taken Pictures will take some time, so if you do it at home make sure
      before working the picture to switch on the oven at 60° C /140° F to enjoy your dish
      after the pictures all taken.

  9. Tim Sutherland

    I keep the 4×5 on the tripod for I find it too hard with the tilt shifts to hand hold.

    Action shots and quick angle changes I use the Speed Graphic with on camera flash, although the bulbs do get hot when removing. I always have a stack of preloaded 4×5 film backs.

    For even flexibility I drop to Rolleis (one with flash and one without) and a Hasselblad in reserve.

    As a final backup a use a Lecia with a pancake 50mm. Not good for close up but great low light and normal views.

    With a few hours set up and loading I can shoot almost 100 images in a few hours. Many more hours in the darkroom; behind the scanner and computer and I might get 1-2 good shots.

    Finding the assistant to load the film and do the processing is getting harder though.

    • @timsutherland:disqus I must say you’re pretty cool! 😉

    • Manfred Stiefenhofer

      A really beautiful collection and brings nostalgic thoughts. Enough to dig out my Nikon F70 with attached motor winder using for traveling to a big extend only a 28-200mm Nikkor lenses it was top of the notch at the time.

      Your Hasselblad is still a beauty Tim, and makes me wonder where you still get paper
      and chemicals for darkroom development.

      Remembering for a mirror flex a roll of film had max. 36 pictures, there was much more pre consideration to invested on the scenery you selected especially when on traveling before taking the shot. On my first trip to Egypt 20 years ago I took about 120 pictures and every
      single one turned out just fine.

      The concept of, „The first shoot must be it“, still survived as principle from the time
      into my digital photography.

  10. Marinus Hoogendoorn

    Good tips, I am a recipe writer and sometimes have projects requiring me to take pictures. I do not have a sophisticated camera, because photo shooting is not my primary business, so these tips are very useful. Presently I have client asking me to close up the food avoiding other crops or parts of a plate, at the same time he complains about garnish touching the edge of my pictures.
    Some tips how to crop or size the pictures would be great for a next article

    • Manfred Stiefenhofer

      Basically you can use the preinstalled Picture editor of your operating program if you
      simply want to crop the picture. If you want to work more detailed on your
      pictures (cleaning spots ect,) I would advise you to get Adobe Lightroom for post-processing.

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  12. I guess I didn’t give much thought to how to get the best pictures of food. Like any other kind of photography, lighting is very important. It would be fun to try out.

    Nora Moore | http://www.limelightvegas.com

  13. I think that these are some great tips to improve the photographs of food. Getting the right lighting is a key element to making something look better than life. I think a simple composition and the right camera can make things look incredible.
    http://radshotphotos.com/Photography.php

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