As a food stylist once told me, “It looks easy, but it’s not easy!” And that’s a pretty accurate way to describe food photography, too. It looks like it should be so simple—just position the food near a window, pull out your iPhone, take a shot, and post it to Facebook! But creating truly irresistible images of food requires so much more. Here are my 7 secrets to creating amazing food images.
1. Pay Attention to Lighting
Food that is poorly lit will never look appetizing. That is why learning how to light well is so important if you want to shoot food. Your lighting needs to bring out the texture, color and reflectivity of your subject. If you are using window light, positioning your camera so that the window is behind, or to the side of your subject will help to bring out the texture and depth in the food. If the shadows are too dark, use a white card or napkin to bounce light into them.
If you are working in a studio situation with strobes, you should experiment with the position and quality of your light. Diffused light may be better when lighting something like a stack of pancakes covered with reflective syrup, but a harder, more direct light might be better when you want to saturate the color of an apple.
This image was shot on location using available light, but it was shot in the late afternoon, when the sun was lower in the sky, resulting in a more directional light source. A slow shutter speed also allowed me to pick up the ambient lights on the back of the bar.
2. Hire a Food Stylist
Creating images designed to make people hungry usually requires the talents of not only a food photographer, but also a food stylist. Food stylists are more than just cooks, they are artists—and working with one will make your images better. They not only create food that looks great, but also can make sure it stays looking good while you make last minute adjustments.
3. Work as a Team
Most photographers are more of the lone wolf type, preferring solitude to large groups of people, but food photography requires you to work as part of a team—not just with the food stylist, but with every member of the team: art directors, clients, prop stylists, retouchers and even assistants. There are many voices on a food set.
4. Use Storytelling
When I am working on a personal assignment, I often create a narrative in my head about the scene I am photographing. It makes decisions about props, lighting and styling easier—and more congruent.
Take, for example, the shot of the Maker’s 46 bottle. I wanted to create the feeling of a workshop, where memories were made and glasses of bourbon were shared. Obviously I needed a distressed table or work surface and some old tools. But I wasn’t sure what to use for the background until my digital artist suggested a shot we did at an old blacksmith shop in New Orleans. It was just what I needed to complete my vision. The narrative affected every aspect of this shot and led to an image that not only looks cool, but also connects with the viewer’s emotions.
If I am working on a commercial project, the narrative can still drive the process, only this time I’m thinking about who the consumer of this product is and how the client wants their product portrayed. Should the props and food reflect a more modest aesthetic or a more sophisticated one? Is the food normally enjoyed with friends or as a snack while watching television?
5. Choose the Right Props
There is a reason I have devoted more than 3,000 square feet of my studio to the storage of props and surfaces—the right prop or background can make the difference between an image that is just okay and one that is outstanding. You might even consider hiring a prop stylist to help you find and select just the right pieces. Like a food stylist, once you have worked with one, you will find it difficult to ever shoot without them again.
Sometimes prop selection is more about the technical aspects of an assignment. For example, if I were shooting a bowl of beans that was going to be used on a package, I wouldn’t want to show more beans than the can will actually hold. So the process of choosing a bowl in this case would be centered mostly around scale.
The background for this set was chosen because of the way it contrasted against the product and for the overall feeling it gave the image. We chose white bowls because they were contemporary and didn’t interfere with the food. But we didn’t use just plain white bowls; instead we chose ones whose shape or subtle designs felt modern and similar to something that the consumer might have in their home.
6. Use the Right Equipment
Using an iPhone might be okay if you only plan to post on Facebook, but a good quality DSLR is a must for any serious food photographer. A macro lens can also be a good investment, since shooting food often requires that you get in close. I prefer a normal focal length lens because I like the feeling of being intimate with the food, but there are other photographers who prefer a longer lens for food photography. As always, it’s probably best to try both and see what works for your aesthetic.
7. Know When to Press the Shutter
From the moment it is placed on the plate, food wants to wilt, rot, die or turn black, and as the photographer it is your job to recognize when you have reached the point that you must press the shutter or risk things getting worse faster than you can fix them. Trying to make sure a raspberry is in just the right position may mean the syrup on the pancakes starts to look too thin. Or taking time to move a light to fix a highlight may mean that the lettuce on the hamburger starts to wilt.
It is often such a gradual process that we don’t always notice that our food is not looking its best until it’s too late.
In summary, to make your photography irresistible, work with other artists, (like food stylists and prop stylists) who can elevate your work, develop your lighting skills, shoot quickly, and only use your iPhone to call clients. I hope these tips will help you create truly stunning food photographs.