Want to know how to take better food pictures—especially better ones than Martha Stewart?
Food blogging is pretty unique (compared to other subjects) because you’ve got to convey a recipe’s appeal across a computer or phone screen. If you can’t smell the aroma and taste the mouth-watering flavors, the imagery of the food helps draw you in—or makes you click away. After all, we eat with our eyes first.
That being said, if you don’t come to the blogosphere with prior photography experience (like yours truly), learning to take pictures of food that actually look enticing can be a monumental task. In my early blogging days, I put more effort into the recipes and writing than the photos, and it shows.
Before we get to the do’s of taking better pictures of food, let’s start with the don’ts.
Top 5 Food Photography Blunders
1) Using the flash.
Please, above all else, stop using flash carelessly with food. It creates areas of extremely high and low light that give food strange shadows and shiny spots. Put plainly, it makes food look chintzy. Every time I see food photos with improperly used flash – yes, there is a right way to use it) – I think of awkward, crazy club photos from college days: everyone’s got their eyes squinted shut, doing that raise-the-roof thing. Not cool.
2) Getting too close.
Resist the urge to get super up close and personal with the food. I’m so guilty of doing this when I first started blogging and part of it was due to my camera’s limitations. (See #2 below.) The other part was I thought it looked sweet. When you get too close to the food, it’s hard to tell what it is. Nobody needs a Rorschach test when they’re deciding to make a recipe.
3) Sloppy plating.
You don’t have to be a professional food stylist, moving crumbs around with tweezers, but pay attention to basic neatness. It’s one thing to show what a casserole looks like when you just cut into it; it’s quite another to show food thrown onto the plate. Clean up messy spots and splashes. There’s a difference between making food look approachable – and not like a sculpture – and it coming across like Martha’s.
4) Shooting in low light.
Nowadays, with a decent camera and good editing software, you can save lots of low-light photos from the trash can. But. BUT. There are some things you just can’t fix because they’re too dark. Shooting for 4 months in the Scottish winter taught me a lot about getting creative with light, reflectors, plating and camera settings. When in doubt, save the food for tomorrow and shoot in better light.
5) Only shooting in landscape or portrait.
If you only ever shoot in one orientation – horizontal (landscape) or vertical (portrait) – start doing both. You never know when you might need the opposite orientation for another project or post, and if it’s months later, you’re screwed. When I wrote The Paleo Athlete, I realized all of the photos should be in portrait. A handful of them weren’t. Unfortunately, they were from archived recipes, and I didn’t have time to reshoot them all. Give yourself options.
Now, the do’s. Most of these I learned from this amazing book, Tasty Food Photography by Lindsey at Pinch of Yum. It’s by far the easiest photography book I’ve read and is specifically geared toward bloggers who need to take better food pictures.
Here are some before and after examples of my own recipes using techniques I learned in Tasty Food Photography:
Massive improvement, right?
5 Tips for Better Food Photography
Yep, the old saying is true. If you want to get better, you’ve got to spend time making nice with your camera. Taking lots of pictures and playing with settings and staging is the only way to transfer theory into reality. Shoot often.
2) Invest in a basic DSLR camera.
Yes, your phone’s camera and point and shoot cameras can do a surprisingly good job, but there are major limitations. If you have any inkling that you like food blogging, an entry-level DSLR (like the Nikon D3200) gives you maximum versatility. You can adjust settings like ISO and aperture – which gives you the most options for working with light – along with a thousand other things. Most entry-level models come with an 18-55mm lens which will get you pretty far. I also use a 50mm f / 1.8 fixed manual focus lens (nicknamed the Nifty Fifty) for that cool depth of field look called “bokeh.”
3) Learn to love natural light.
Shooting with artificial light can be done, but it takes lots of practice to make it look, well, natural. I generally shoot around mid-day, somewhere between 10 and 2. If you can’t do that due to work schedules, shoot on your off day(s). Early morning / later afternoon light is either flat or really yellow. Food looks best when it’s lit from the sides or back (unless you’re shooting from overhead). For example, I usually shoot in a west-facing window. I put the food on the kitchen table and tend to shoot standing parallel to the window, so the light hits from the left (or right).
4) Use some simple props to fill space.
Remember #2 above…getting too close? Since you generally don’t want to be too zoomed into the food, you’re going to back out and have some open space in the shot. I keep my props simple: old worn baking trays, cutting boards, utensils and simple dish cloths or napkins. Play around with how to fill up the space. That being said, negative (empty) space can look amazing and dramatic, particularly when shot from overhead. Experiment.
5) Fill the plate with food.
No matter which size plate, bowl or serving dish will be in the photo, make sure it’s full. I tend to use small salad plates and smaller bowls because it gives the illusion of fullness without requiring a mega-batch of the recipe. Most of the time, a large plate with a tiny amount of food on it looks awkward. By using smaller plates, it’s also easier to fit more than one comfortably in the shot. If you’re out buying plates for props, try to buy at least two of the same.
These are just a few of the things I’ve learned about taking better food pictures, and there are tons more in Tasty Food Photography. Two other books I really found helpful: Plate to Pixel and Focus on Food Photography for Bloggers. Get out there and start snapping away!