Food — if you aren’t cooking it, you’re eating it, and if you aren’t eating it or cooking it, you’re probably thinking about it, photographing it or posting about it on Instagram. Instagram and Pinterest have had huge influences on how people see and experience food. The food photography and food styling scene has become fun and playful in terms of lighting, props and style, and more and more photographers have moved out of the studio and are using live settings and situations.
It has taken me years to learn how to style and photograph food — how to choose the right plate, deciding when messy is okay and knowing which lenses are the best. Styling and photographing are two different things, but they go hand in hand. I sometimes forget when I’m the stylist and when I’m the photographer. Here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way that will help you with your own food photography endeavors.
Food Photography Tips
1. Good Lighting Is Essential: Try to always shoot in natural light. You’ll find that it is softer and smoother than studio lights. To do this, shoot close to a window and never in direct sunlight. If the sun is bouncing onto a surface, soften it out with a curtain or a white cloth, or simply wait until the sun has moved.
2. Use a Reflector: You can use basically anything that bounces light; white cardboard or small mirrors work great. If you’re willing to invest, go for a multi reflector. It will allow you to reflect both warm and cold light and is super handy to bring along to shoots.
4. Try Different Backgrounds: Test out different colors and textures. Wood lends itself to a rustic look, while black and white tables and backgrounds add elegance. Find the in-betweens by adding tablecloths and napkins.
5. Your Lens Matters: Use a long focal length, such as 50mm, 85mm or 100 mm or chose a macro lens for close ups. Wide angle lenses will make the scenery crooked, lines won’t add up and the food becomes less appealing.
6. Shoot in Manual Mode: This will give you total control over your image, e.g. depth of field and ISO.
7. Be Precise: Pay close attention to what is in focus and experiment with aperture. Some images look great with a shallow depth of field, while others function better with a longer depth of field.
8. Experiment With Angles: Think about how you are going to use the image. Shoot both vertical and horizontal images of the same dish so they’ll fit all forms of media. If you’re aiming for your images to be pinned on Pinterest, shoot verticals. They take up more space and therefore get more attention in the Pinterest feed.
9. Use Lights When You Need Them: Never shoot in a dark restaurant without using lights. Otherwise food looks dark and often red, which is not appetizing. During the day, move your plates closer to the window to make use of natural light. At night, you can fire a flash into a reflector or white cardboard to get softer light. Never fire flash directly at the dish!
Food Styling Tips
1. Gather Props: Collect as many plates, bowls, cutlery and tablecloths as possible. Be creative and look in your grandma’s kitchen, go to flea markets and invest in some basic things from designers you like. Mixing old and new designs gives your images a personal touch.
2. Build Your Scene: Choose one thing and then add in more elements one by one. For example, start with a tablecloth or a plate and then add other props to the image as you go.
3. Less Is More: Use less food on the plate than you normally would. Large amounts can more easily lose their shape.
4. Garnish the Food: Sprinkles of salt or chopped parsley are easy tricks to make what might have been a boring-looking dish appear remarkable.
5. Make Your Pictures Move: Use cutlery, napkins and even human hands to indicate movement. This doesn’t mean placing things randomly. Think about how the picture is taken and from what angle the viewer sees it. Place cutlery and napkins by the plate like it is meant for the viewer to pick up and use. If you use someone’s hand in the picture, make sure it doesn’t cover the food or steal the spotlight from the dish you’re styling.
6. Make a Mess With Purpose: Keep the styling and image alive by adding a little mess such as crumbs and herbs.
One Dish, Styled Five Ways
I made a simple pasta dish and styled it five ways to show you how background, props and camera angle can make a huge difference even on the exact same food. Making decisions about all the things mentioned above depends on the story you’re telling, the season, the food and even your own mood.
1. Lots of Movement: The cutlery and piece of cheese tell us someone is already sitting at the table, and the wrinkled tablecloths shows a little messy randomness that makes it feel more real and relatable.
2. All About That Food: A tight horizontal image shows food clearly with no distractions. This type of shot really highlights the food. To make the shot more interesting, additional props are included. The blue color in the marble is pulled out with the blue in the napkin and the plate.
3. Insider’s Sneak Peek: This image gives insight and a sort of behind-the-scenes look into the cooking process. To achieve this, incorporate raw ingredients and cooking tools and supplies into the background.
4. Restaurant Quality: Here is a simple and elegant styling with lots of air in the image. This empty space gives the image a restaurant feel and could be used to post a recipe on a blog post or in a magazine article.
5. At Home Goodness: Compared to the elegance of the previous image, this shot is more romantic and relaxed. It looks like a wholesome kitchen in the country thanks to textiles, the background, the ingredients sprinkled about and the angle. It lends itself to more of a Kinfolk feel and less of a Food + Wine vibe.
Pasta With Sage and Brown Butter
If all these images are giving you mad cravings for the spotlighted dish, here’s the recipe. Don’t let the simplicity of this dish fool you, because it is super yummy, delightful and a perfect combo of Italian and French cuisine.
Ingredients for Two Servings:
— 7 oz dried fettuccine
— a handful of pistachios
— 4 tablespoons butter
— 5 fresh sage leaves
— 1/2 lemon, juice and zest
— salt and pepper
— fresh parsley for garnish
1. Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package.
2. Remove pistachios from shells, chop them roughly and toast on a dry pan. Set aside.
3. Melt the butter over low heat, add roughly chopped sage leaves and let cook until butter has browned and smells nutty.
4. Squeeze the juice from ½ of a lemon into the butter. Toss the pasta in the sauce. Salt and pepper to taste.
5. Divide into two bowls and top with lemon zest, shaved Parmesan, toasted pistachios and some finely chopped parsley.
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