How to Photograph Food Professionally

Has your mouth ever watered when looking at a photograph of food? Maybe you’ve been frustrated that your attempts at food photography don’t turn out similarly. Even when your subject looks and smells exquisite in real life, the photo can turn out flat and not nearly as appetizing in the image. 


There are a lot of things to think about when photographing food. Even if you’re a great photographer of other subjects, photographing food is a completely different ball game. 

So let’s take a quick look at how to photograph food professionally. It’s a big topic, so we won’t be able to deep dive into every nuance like we do in our featured 
FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY 101 course. But you’ll learn the basics that will point you in the right direction. 

Professional Food Stylists 
Professional food photographers usually work with professional food stylists. These folks have a bag of tricks that turns a simple plate into a masterpiece. It also usually makes the food inedible because of the random items they’ve added to it. 

We point this out to help temper your expectations. We’re going to talk about the photography side of things in this blog. To reach magazine-worthy food images, you’ll have to work with a food stylist or learn some food styling techniques as well.

That being said, you can still produce some stunning food images with a well-organized dish and a knowledge of how to photograph it.

Plan Ahead
The first step to making a great food image is to plan ahead. Greens wither, meat dries out, and ice cream melts into a puddle. 

Our point? Once the food is ready, you have a limited time for photographing it while it still looks delectable. That means you already need to have the rest of the scene and your equipment set up and ready to go.

So let’s look at what you’ll need.

A simple photo of a dish by itself can be lovely, but nearly all food images benefit from a few props. These can be napkins, silverware, cups, bowls, or even ingredients used to make the dish. 


Plan your props based on your dish. What items are typically used with this dish? For example, a steak knife might feel out of place with a platter of cheese but would look totally at home with grilled meat. 

The style of your props and background also plays a role. If you’re photographing a plate of bacon and eggs, a rustic wooden background adds to the ambiance. 

But that rustic feel won’t have the same charm if you’re photographing tea cakes and petit fours. These will feel more natural with pastel colors or a fresh white background. 

You should also think about the colors in your image. Start with the dish and work from there. This will inform your prop and background decisions. 

Think about the color wheel and be intentional. You might choose complementary colors from opposite sides, perhaps a blue background to make yellow/orange egg yolks pop. Or you might stick with hues that are next to each other on the color wheel.

If you’re ever unsure, stick with a neutral background like white or gray and work from there. 

Another thing to consider is the angle you’ll use for your image. Some food images, like a layered cake or a tall hamburger, will be photographed best from the side. If you take the image from the top, you’ll miss out on all the action down the side of the food. 
Conversely, a salad is generally not as appealing when photographed from the side. All you can see is the bowl with a few greens sticking out. But when you look down from the top, you can see the bright pops of tomato and other ingredients that have been artfully arranged on the bed of greens. 

Some foods have interesting elements on both the top and the sides and will be better photographed from a 45-degree angle. And don’t forget about close-ups to showcase specific aspects of the dish.

Once you have a plan in place for the background and props you’re going to use, you need to think about lighting. 

It is generally poor practice to light food from the front. Try it. You’ll see the lovely shadows that give the food depth disappear and the food generally looks flat and unappetizing. 

Thus, you need to light your scene from a different direction. Most food photographers light their food from the side, though in some cases you can light from the back for interesting results. 

Fill light may be needed from the opposite direction to prevent the shadows from becoming too harsh. This can be done with a less intense light source or a large reflector. 

Natural Lighting
As a photographer, you are already aware there are so many different types of light. There are different colors, strengths, and textures. 

You have to be hyper-aware of these qualities when photographing food. Strong, hard light definitely has its place, but soft light will often yield the best results, so let’s talk about how to get it with natural light. 

Do you have a big window somewhere at your location? Put a sheer white curtain on it and suddenly you have the perfect natural light box. Light streams in toward your subject and the curtain acts as a huge diffuser to make the light gloriously soft as it embraces your scene. 

This, or any similar setup, is a fantastic setup for food photography. 

Place a table in front of the window and you can choose how close you want your scene to the light source. Shoot from different angles around the table to experiment with the light’s direction. Take the curtain off and let sunlight stream in to play with hard light and shadows. 

Now a big drawback is that you have little control over the strength of the light. Depending on the day or time of day, the light coming through the window may be a little dim for photography.  Put your camera on a tripod and use a slow shutter speed to compensate. 

Be aware of other ambient lighting adding unwanted orange or yellow color casts/color temperatures to your image. It’s best to turn off indoor lights and just work with what you’re getting from the window. 

Artificial Lighting
Artificial lighting gives you more control over the light source, but you have to know how to use it. The flash on your camera will give you less-than-desirable results. 

So position your (off-camera) light carefully, usually somewhere to the side of the food. This can be a simple speedlight or a stronger strobe. A continuous light source is also helpful when photographing food. That way, you can always see what you’re working with.

However, perhaps even more important than the light itself is the diffusion you’re going to use.

 This can be as simple as a sheer white curtain or an actual photography softbox. But you need something large that will enlarge the light source and soften your light. 

Additionally, you may need a smaller light on the other side of the scene to keep the shadows from getting too dark. A large reflector also works for this. 

With the right setup, you can actually make photos taken with artificial light look like they were taken with natural light. 

Camera Settings
Finally, let’s look briefly at the camera settings you want to use. 

Depth of field is very important when shooting food photography. Be intentional about the setting you use. 

By using a shallow depth of field you can draw the viewer’s eye to the most important element in the image. But a shallow depth of field won’t make sense for many food images where you want to be able to clearly see the entire dish. Close down the aperture for those.

Shutter Speed
Your shutter speed will often be dependent on your lighting. If you’re using natural lighting, a slower shutter speed can help you compensate for lighting you can’t control and/or when using a small aperture. 

IHowever, some food images demand a fast shutter speed. For example, If you’re going to make your drink splash, you want to be able to clearly see the splash. In that case, you’ll need a very brightly lit area and artificial lighting will be your friend. 

Your ISO should generally stay as low as possible to give you crisp food images. With your camera on a tripod, you can lower the shutter speed instead of sacrificing ISO. 

But use your judgment. Shutter speeds that are too slow may also cause a blurred image so bumping up the ISO is better than going too slow. 

Food Photographer Extraordinaire!
It will take a little while to get the hang of food photography. But have fun with it! Experiment by photographing your own creations at home. 

One great point about this type of photography is that you can create your portfolio right out of your own kitchen. You don’t have to be a fabulous cook, even a boxed cake mix will do — it’s all about how you style and photograph the food that counts!

If you want to learn more, check out our food photography course FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY 101!  This course takes you in depth on all aspects of food photography from building your scene to lighting, to composition.

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