8 Tips for Successful Food Photography
If you're interested in starting a food blog or Instagram, there are some important tips for successful food photography that you should know. In this post I'm sharing just a few tips and tricks that I've picked up throughout the last 3 years since starting out my blog.
Developing skills in food photography is a long journey, and the one takeaway I hope you get from this post is that you don't have to be perfect right away. Even after 3 years I still consider myself to be an amateur photographer, and it wasn't until a couple months ago that I really started to study the art of photography. I have spent countless hours watching photography tutorials and reading articles to better understand the different settings on my camera in order to work on my skills and take more creative risks. And yet I still see so much more potential to grow!
Accepting the fact that you should never stop learning is really the first tip for successful food photography (or successful anything for that matter!) There were many points in my food photography journey where I thought that I had reached peak photography expertise, but looking back at the photos I once thought were so amazing, I realize they were actually lacking in some ways. Be it the lighting, composition or subject matter, I can usually look back and critique my work and point out some aspects of the photo that I would change. And I fully expect to be going through this same process a few years down the line for the photos I’m taking now. Truth be told, we're always growing and learning. A good rule of thumb is that if you ever get to the point where you feel that you're no longer teachable, then it's probably time to challenge yourself again.
So rambling aside, let's get into some food photography basics. In the future I can do a more in depth blog post, but I really want to start with the foundational elements of photography, because that's really the most important thing to master. It's really easy to compare yourself to others and think that you need to invest in the most expensive equipment, food props and lighting, but that's not the case. If you have a working camera (yes, a phone counts!) and a window, you can be a food photographer. Start slow and work on one skill at a time, and the rest will follow. I started off my photography journey with a few plates and a white bed sheet. Anything is possible.
Invest in a good camera
When I say "good" camera, that doesn't have to be a super expensive DSLR. I started off taking photos on my iPhone, and eventually upgraded to a point and shoot camera after a few months. It wasn't until over a year into my photography journey that I actually bought a DSLR camera, and I would say that until you're totally sure that you want to take your blogging/Instagramming game to the next level, stick with the best camera that fits within your budget. But if you feel that you've already improved past the point of phone photography, or perhaps you want to start branching out into the professional photography world I would suggest the Canon Rebel series as a good starting point. Personally, I use the Canon Rebel t6i, which I really love. It has wifi features so you can use your phone as a remote control to take photos, and it also has a live viewing option, so you can actually use your phone as a monitor. This is great if you're shooting with a tall tripod and the screen is too high for you to access. Get my camera here.
Customize your lens
So I didn't think twice about using my kit lens (the standard lens that comes with the t6i is18-55mm) for several months after getting my t6i. I figured that a DSLR is a DSLR and as long as I had one, my photos should all turn out amazing, right? Well, not really. There are a lot of different types of lenses to choose from, and depending on what type of photos you're trying to take, the kit lens that comes with the camera might not be the best fit. While I took a lot of great photos with the t6i kit lens, once upgrading to a 50mm fixed lens, I have seen a huge improvement in the quality of my photos. With this lens, you can highlight small details in the photo in a much cleaner, more crisp way, as well as blur out the background more intensely. How this differs from the 18-55mm kit lens is that the 50mm lens has no zoom, so it has a fixed focal length which does not change. So you will have to be farther away from your subject to get the whole scene in frame, but the overall outcome is a crisper photo. Lastly, this lens allows you to bring in more light. This is because this lens has a maximum aperture of f/1.8, which lets in almost 5 times as much light as the maximum aperture of the kit lens. So it's great for working in low light conditions. Get the 55mm lens here.
A tripod is your friend
For years, the only reason I used tripods was in the event that I needed to take a photo of myself holding a smoothie, or if I was filming a YouTube video. The truth is, tripods are a highly useful tool in photography, even in conditions when you feel that you could hold the camera yourself. The main reason is that with a tripod, you can use very slow shutter speeds and still get crisp photos. As I mentioned above, this ability is crucial when working in low light. The shutter speed determines how long the shutter remains open to allow light to reach the sensor. The slower the shutter speed, the brighter the photo. But the problem is, when you shoot with a slow shutter speed without a stable base for the camera like a tripod, your photos can come out blurry. This is referred to as camera shake. The longer the shutter remains open, the more it will be able to detect even the smallest of movements, so to avoid camera shake I suggest shooting with a tripod. I have two tripods that I like: the Silk U9000 and the K&F Concept TM2534T. The former was the first tripod I bought, and it is a good standard tripod that you can use for shooting subjects directly in front of you, and the latter is my favorite way to shoot overhead photos.
This is an example of a photo I took in low light. I actually took these photos during a thunderstorm and the sky was extremely dark. Left: 0.8 sec at f/4.5, ISO 100. Right: 3.2 sec at f/7.1, ISO 100. For the second photo, the shutter was open for more than 3 seconds, so if I hadn't had the camera mounted on a stable tripod, this photo would have been very blurry. I could have raised the shutter speed, but I would have had a seriously underexposed photo and would have had to rely very heavily on post production editing to get a decent shot.
Shoot in natural light
Lighting is one of the most important elements of successful food photography. You can have the most beautiful looking plate of avocado toast, but if you're photographing it under harsh fluorescent light bulbs or in a dark room, it's not going to look its best. I suggest taking photos during the day time next to a (north facing, if possible) window. This will also help later on in the editing process, because under ideal settings, you won't have to over edit your photos.
Get a reflector
Personally, I don't love the look of harsh shadows in my photos. Shadows, however are unavoidable when you have light coming in from one side only, as it does when you shoot by a window. A reflector is a photography tool that you can use to bounce light in a certain direction. You can use it with artificial lights or natural sunlight. In this case, you would place the reflector next to the darkest part of the photo, or whatever portion you would like to be more lit.
Here is an example of a before and after using a reflector. On the photo on the left, you can see that the left side of the plate (which is farthest from the window) is cast in shadow, making parts of the dish harder to see, but on the right I've used a reflector, so all the colors remain vibrant and there are moe visible details. While a dark and moody vibe can be a stylistic choice, if you're looking for a clean, evenly lit photo, get a small reflector to bounce the light onto the dark side of the photo. At the time I took this photo I was really into zero shadows and would use a silver reflector, now I tend to like a more subtle look so I go for the white side, Here is a 5-in-1 reflector that I recommend: https://amzn.to/2Jv4IRY.
Consistency is key
With food photography, it's crucial to have some consistency with your photos. This is both so that your audience knows what to expect from you, and also to have a cohesive look across all your photos wherever they are displayed. But there are SO many ways to stay consistent, and you don't always have to stick to the same backdrop or food props to do so. For the longest time I thought that in order to have a good theme, I had to use the same marble cutting board, use the same plates and forks, and take my photos at the same angle every time. And it got SO boring. While I still like a clean white (or sometimes grey) background, I have found other ways to make my feed look cohesive while still getting creative with my shots. To do this, I created my own preset which I use on all my photos, and adjust when needed depending on lighting conditions and the colors in the food. I tend to edit with cool tones, and I bump up the contrast and highlights, and lower shadows. I actually made this preset quite randomly while just playing around with a photo of cookies one day. I really loved the look of the cookies after making these adjustments, so I saved the settings and now I use them on all my photos.
Another way you could stay consistent is by choosing a pop of color to include in your photos. You don't have to include this color in every photo, but if a good portion of your photos have the same colors, then you will have a really nice flow. I'm currently working on incorporating pink into more of my photos, because it is my favorite color and I'm really into more delicate photos and colors. So get some plates in a color you love, or even take some risks and get a backdrop in a non traditional color. I'm also working on designing my own backdrop with pops of pink, and I will definitely update you guys when I finish it!
Tell a story with your photos
For the longest time, I would just post photos of a single dish on my Instagram. This was fine at the time because I wasn't necessarily trying to share recipes or really even posting food that required a recipe. I was less of a blogger, and more setting an example as to how I ate as a vegan. Now, I make my recipes and posts a little more substantial and I try to post multiple recipes per week on my blog. So instead of showing singular dishes, I fill the scene with food props and ingredients so that people know what they are getting when they try out my recipe. Like for a recipe for BBQ seitan buns, I want the photo to show that in this recipe, there are carrots, sesame seeds and a Siracha mayo sauce, so I include all those things in the background. Not only does setting the scene with props make it easier for your audience to gauge if they would like to try out your recipe, it also makes for a much more aesthetically pleasing photo. So even if you're not showing a recipe, I recommend trying out a few different props in your photos. Create different levels and textures and draw people's eyes to the focus of the photo, which is your dish. Some great ways to add dimension to your photos is through wooden cutting boards, marble plates and boards, and even flowers. But make sure the props are relevant to the scene. If you're taking a photo of a burger, you probably shouldn't put a random mango in the background (unless you've concocted a mango burger in which case please give me a call I'd love to try it).
Example of no props vs. props. The second photo is much more interesting and aesthetically pleasing. Also the colors in the background help to separate the bowl from the background.
Use the grid
There are many different "rules" in photography composition, and some basic formulas that more or less determine whether a photo will turn out "good" or "bad." But before I even get into these formulas, I must say that rules are meant to be broken. Just because you follow these guidelines does not mean you will automatically have a good photo, and if you choose to stray from them, then your photo won't necessarily be bad. These are just some tools you can use as a beginner to help you get a feel for how to show off your food and eliminate some of the guesswork. So basically, when arranging your photo, imagine that there is a grid over the viewfinder (or better yet, go into your camera settings and click 'show grid'). The rule of thirds refers to that if you place points of interest along the intersection of the lines or anywhere along them, it creates a pleasing, balanced photo and naturally draws the viewers eye into the shot.
And that's all folks! 8 ways to up your food photography game. I hope you enjoyed these tips and tricks! I will definitely keep updating my blog with new tips as I continue to learn and implement new food photography tools. Best of luck in your photography journey and be sure to follow me on Instagram!
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