How to Photograph Food: 10 Tips

I am neither a professional photographer, nor have I studied the art of light formally, but I love the things that a camera can do, and I enjoy using it to express myself creatively. Every time someone clicks like on my photos on Facebook, my confidence goes one notch higher. This includes people who click like for an album of 30 carefully redacted photographs by me and then click like on another post of mine the very next second. Maybe Facebook should learn from Indiblogger on how to curb boundless liking.

My understanding of photography is ultra-basic. I have struggled (and often failed) to understand much of what is written about photography – things like stops, white balance, histograms and many other terms that are refusing to readily come to mind. I like to look, keep fooling around till I like what I am looking at, and click, and hope that it will make the viewer think about what they see in a new or different way. That, approximately, is the sum of my point-and-shoot philosophy.


One place where I enjoy taking pictures is in the kitchen. While the missus puts together things and aromas that promise a great meal, I make things difficult for her by insisting on pauses, rearrangement, angles, and action replays. So when the need came for some food photography for a personal project, I naturally raised my hand. My selection for the project was not based on my skill but on the fact that I came at no charge. Well almost no charge, since the havoc that it unleashed on the home for the next two weeks must have been very costly. Of course, I have no clue.

This post is to share some lessons learned the hard way. It is not a post that will make you a food photographer of the professional type. It is not for the kind of photography where you have a paid-for, ever-generous kitchen staff, a full range of studio lights, and a gang of helpers. Neither is it a comprehensive guide to the pitfalls that lie in wait for food photographers, but only a report on some of the things that I faced in my work, and ways to avoid them. Hopefully, you will be emboldened after reading this post to go into the kitchen and announce your intentions. Wish you all the best. I am not responsible for anything that happens after that.


1. Plan
Prepare by studying examples of what you want to achieve. Look up food blogs, magazines, and art photography books and journals. Watch food ads closely. Learn to distinguish between good food pics and bad ones, and ones that are obviously flawed. Try and understand what might have gone into getting the perfect shots and what could have rescued the disastrous one. Read up on the working styles of the photographers you admire.

Next, study the subject and the setting you will be shooting in. Different kinds of food subjects need different approaches. If it is a restaurant or an event and you are shooting in a live setting, you have to be prepared and on your photographic toes. If it is in a small kitchen, you have to deal with the space and light constraints. If it is spacious setting with lot of outdoor light and you are among friends, with no rush on time, pinch yourself to make sure you have not died and reached food photography heaven. Similarly, your approach will necessarily have to change depending on whether you are shooting soups, starters or a dum biryani on a wood fire.


2. List
This is definitely the most valuable lesson I have ever learned about all types of “event” photography, food being one of them. Make a list of shots and settings that you want to bag, and try and work out of it. Make notes about possible problems, preparation, requirements, and specific camera settings that each shot might need. A shot list is a very handy tool, since it allows you to plan, and then organize your plan into the most practical work flow. For example, you might want to get a snap of herb being chopped, or the chef in a contemplative mood looking at the whole red snapper, but if you have not got it planned, you will miss it forever. Such things cannot be staged. Similarly, no one but you might know that you want the peels and waste in the backdrop of the diced vegetables, slightly out of focus but tangible. Working out of a planned shot list lets you alert people beforehand that this is what you want. It also allows you to optimize by relegating shots that are not time (or heat) specific, shots that can be easily staged, or shots that are incidental to the core food process, to the end of the shoot, so that you can approach them in a relaxed manner. Every few shots, get back to your shot list and cross out the ones you are satisfied with, and concentrate on getting the ones that are still pending.

3. Team
The amount of styling and setting up that is needed for taking good pictures of food, and the fact that food responds poorly to time and exposure, necessitates a lot of quick lending of hand. It becomes very cumbersome trying to do it yourself, and then looking through the camera. Having someone who understands what you are trying to get done, preferably a fellow photographer, or an understanding partner in a good mood is, well, essential. Working as a team, especially taking pictures together, also helps in getting the creative juices flowing, and helps you innovate through imitation as well. I had the good fortune of working together with close friends, but then at the end of the day, I had items on my list that were not covered. I tried doing them on my own over the next few days and while it was definitely meditative and instructional, I not only enjoyed working in a team much more but got much better pictures too.


4. Cloth
When I say cloth, I mean all kinds of cloth – from kitchen towels and aprons, to swipes and tissues, to table linen, bedsheets and cotton gloves. Two reasons. Food is about liquids and oil and wetness. These can get on your hands and get on surfaces where you don’t want them. They can ruin your setting by spilling from a careless bump. If you are like me, you will want to handle and re-style. And then you will want to change the setting on your camera. And get korma gravy under your aperture priority.

The other reason you need to keep cloth handy is to wipe surfaces. With reflective surfaces of containers and utensils, smudges and blemishes show up very easily. Always keep a napkin or kitchen towel handy for last minute wipe-downs. I discovered the hard way that with dark glass and see through containers, even handling them can leave fingerprints that show up in hi-res images. One way out is a cotton glove. The only problem is you will need to strip it off to negotiate the settings on most small cameras. So the best bet is to have cloth handy with which you can give the whole setting a wipe down before you click.


5. Steam
Food looks great when it is being cooked, but it gives off steam and if being fried or boiled, tends to splatter. There is no way you can predict the behaviour of either. And steam and splatter can put the food equivalent of a spanner in your lens. However, this does not mean you have to abandon your desire for those delicious macros. There are several ways around it. The first is to shoot through a splatter guard if you have one, and set your focus manually. If you do not have one, you can improvise with the kind of fine sieve that is used for sieving flour. Put your lens right behind the mesh of the sieve and adjust the focus manually. Unless the dish is steaming and splattering violently, this will help you get close safely. You can also use a tripod (or use higher shutter speed) and use your zoom from a distance.

6. Subject
Spend a moment reflecting on what your subject would have to say about how it would like to be photographed. Look at the shapes, colors, textures, consistencies. Look for the associations that the visual aspect of your subject evokes. See if you can bring in accessories, backgrounds, or perspectives that help accentuate those associations. Remember you are trying to create through a purely visual medium the complex multi-sensory aspect of food. Food is not just about looks and taste and smell, but also about eating, about letting the juices flow, about the company or the ambience in which it is consumed. Keeping these in mind will lead to more evocative captures. Food need not be shot in isolation as food by itself. Get shots of people eating, food being cooked or being served, being prepared, or even being bought in ingredient form. Sometimes a finished plate of food can be the best portrait of your subject. It also helps to be in tune with your subject since sometimes the most unexpected settings can make for a great shot, one that wasn’t in your dreams, let alone your shot list.


7. Light
Not everyone will be keen on getting up early and helping you set up your shoot outdoors so that you get the best lighting. You can overcome this by going up a little on the ISO and choosing longer exposures. Food anyway tempts you to use the largest apertures, so let whatever light you are working with be your friend. Shoot near windows or on balconies to make the best of natural light. You can easily set up a small shooting platform by draping a thick white sheet over the backs of two chairs set at right angles to each other, and use the seat as a tabletop. If you have a whiteboard, you can create a third surface either on top or on one side. If you do not have a flash diffuser, you can improvise by sticking a couple of layers of paper adhesive over the flash. Food and the crockery you use are highly reflective, so a direct flash can sometimes spoil the image with excessive highlights and burns. You have to be careful about the other reflections it might pick up too. It helps if you dress in dark colors and use your body to block off reflection when taking close-ups. You don’t want your grandmother’s portrait behind you looking back at you from the side of a serving bowl.

8. Miscellaneous
Keep a paintbrush, a liquid dropper, a paring knife, and a toothpick handy. You will want to touch things up, snip an errant fried onion, remove crusted layers, add a drop of gravy or dip to the plate, line up the asparagus, and prick bubbles. I learned this the hard way, and as I went along, I was amazed at how useful they were. I used a small oil paint spatula instead of a knife along with a small scissor and they worked fine. I used a dessert spoon to get delicate amounts of fluids where I wanted, and it was a mess. A dropper would have saved a lot of time. Bubbles will inevitably form, and they look ugly in images. You can use the toothpick for that.


9. Partake
One of the greatest pleasures of food photography is the feast that usually follows, but there are no rules that say you cannot kick off the festivities while you are working. I found that it actually is rather inspiring. At least till the time I realized that there weren’t enough galouti kebabs left to make for a full plate!! Don’t let such small problems get in your way, make up for it by taking another bite and getting sinful close-ups of the kebab, crust and inside, and possibly your teeth impression.

10. Contribute
My list has been drawn from my limited and amateur experience of taking pics of food. I know many of you reading this are expert photographers and food bloggers, and have much larger treasure chests of tips up your sleeves. It is likely that some of the fixes that I have written about are actually second best ones. I wrote this post to share what I learned and to glean your teeming brains of what it has to offer, so that I can improve as a foodie who likes taking pics of what he eats. So please do loosen your sleeves and share some of your food photography tips with me and other readers in the comments section.


60 comments:

  1. Very practical guide... so far I was scared of using my camera for food and just tried with phone... this is very useful.. thanks.

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    1. Glad you found this useful, DT. Some of the newer phone cameras are actually as good as the best compact available. All the best.

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  2. Lovely article!!! Like all your "how-to" posts--one to treasure...I have to now try my hand on some food photography and use this post as a handy guide.

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    1. Given your love for adventure, will be looking out for a photoessay on food on your photoblog. Thanks for the encouragement.

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  3. What an appetizing write-up. There are a lot of things I learned from this post, organizing for a shoot, planning and listing are few of them. One of the great pleasures of food photography is that the elements are mostly at our mercy and the stunning array of colours it provides.

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    1. Thank you for the wonderful time we had doing the shoot. I learned a few things too from our time together - patience, perseverance, looking at lines and shapes and not things, working in monochrome mode, and seeking the aesthetic in everyday objects. Glad you liked the post too.

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  4. And you say, you are not a professional food photographer? These no-nonsense tips make more sense than apertures and lighting and whatever else not.

    On an aside, I would commend your wife for her patience, for I would shoo out anyone who delays my departure from the kitchen, in double quick time :)

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    1. Thanks, Zephyr, you have made me a very happy man. My wife has never been so pleased at any comment ever on this blog.

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  5. A fine and comprehensive how-to, Shubho, using commonly available cameras. I liked how you paid attention to many aesthetic aspects. However, there is a catch about using the largest aperture, certainly when using a DSLR, the depth-of-field is going to be quite shallow. If the lens is set at f/1.4 and you are shooting a paratha on a plain roughly parallel to the plate, half the dish will be out of focus. Lowering the ISO is an easy enough solution to bump up the light sensitivity provided you intend to shoot smaller photographs. In order for the camera to produce large noise-free shots at high ISOs, it has to be expensive.

    I loved the post all the same.

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    1. It is truly gratifying to have someone like you come and share your insights on this post, Umashankar, and this is precisely what I had been hoping for.

      You are right, this post is largely useful for compact users. I struggle with the depth of field issue too using large apertures especially when shooting at low angles. The higher ISO noise can only be overlooked if you are going to resize down from a large canvas.

      Thanks a lot for bringing up these pointers.

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  6. Useful points but tough to keep all in mind at a time during shoot! :)

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    1. Welcome to SJD. I quite agree, Gargi, but trust me, preparing for it - in terms of a list, accessories, tools and protection - goes a long way in making for a more pleasurable and productive time.

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  7. beautifully written, most of the tips are great for everyone who photographs anything,and for food it rocks...

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    1. Thanks, Santa. It is an honor that this post made an accomplished master of the craft like you feel this way.

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  8. You know how imp pictures are in my blog... and I'm not a professional photographer at all. I absolutely have loads of things to share as I'm learning each day - by studying on the net plus nagging anyone who knows anything about photography. It's good that you've taken up this subject to write on. The basic, the most basic thing that I think you have to know is your camera inside out. And try to get off the automatic mode and off the flash. Try to learn everything that you can on shooting in natural light.

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    1. Wow. I drool over your images, so you know how much this comment means to me. Getting off auto and learning to work with natural light are very important first steps. Most amateur photographers stay blissfully unaware of the full power of their compacts. Thank you so much for adding this perspective.

      For readers who might not be familiar with Ishita's blog, may I ask why? It is the ultimate in foodie writing and her posts are usually image heavy, utter food porn heaven!

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  9. Lovely article. My latest post is on culinary delights, of course with photos. Let me know how I fared on your scale. :-)


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    1. Glad you liked this post, Nisha, and your Malaysian street food post was a treat, the images are beautiful and some of the information new to me. Great job.

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  10. I wish I could share some more 'tips' with you but I'm more into nature and wildlife with my shaky click-click vigor... haven't ever tried food photography properly... but your post is provoking me to try the task... I'm quite apprehensive to take food clicks in a restaurant, so may be I've to try on my self cooked porridge and khichdi :))

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    1. Wow, you come back to blogging after months, and I get a comment on my post. Never underestimate the power of the humble subject. Will be looking out for your porridge and khichdi pics. :)

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  11. A very nice article. I love your spice shelves behind her cooking! I tend to get my food in a pretty bowl and then I like to move it to a dining room window for better lighting. I use backgrounds and add flowers etc...

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    1. Jennifer, welcome to SJD. Plating and accessorizing are essential aspects of food photography. Thanks for sharing this thought, which in my focus on technique, I had quite overlooked.

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  12. lovely post with useful tips...not to forget your beautiful narrative...:)

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  13. The post is comprehensive and so is the patience of your wife :). Most people don't realize that for those starting out handy basic tricks work best. Most of us don't aspire to be professional photographers or don't have passion enough to spend too much time on it. You can be certain that I will come back to your post when I am next clicking food :). Wish you and your family a very happy diwali.

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    1. Thanks, Rachna, and wish you and your family a wonderful festive time too (replying to this comment on Diwali evening). I really cannot underemphasize the need to invest time in this, since the best results come from repeatedly trying to get that one perfect shot.

      The patience of my wife knows no bounds. I don't agree. That is what I was instructed to say about it. :)

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  14. Subhorup Dasgupta
    Good tips here
    Thanks for sharing this
    Keep Going
    Keep Inform
    Best
    Phil

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    1. Thanks, Phil. Good to see you here after a while.

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  15. I am not a food photographer but I found your tips useful and practical. I always wondered about over exposer and now i know about pasting a paper over flash to defuse.

    All the pictures you shared are interesting and inspiring. The face pack girl pic is so cute :)

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    1. Glad you liked it, Ghazala. After reading some of the comments, I went back and read the post again, and it does apply to general photography also to a very great extent. Guess who the face pack girl is?

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  16. Subhorup, Thanks a lot. I want to read this in detail soon. Cant do so on the Deepavali eve.

    Happy Diwali!

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  17. Oh my! The photos so amazing. Love them, Subhorup. Thank you for sharing the simple tips. I’ll apply them and see the difference..!:-)

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    1. Thanks, Panchali. Would love to see what you do with them.

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  18. Subhorup, great tips, i love food photography and you can find many of these on my blog :D infact food photography i enjoy the most! Happy diwali!

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    1. Thanks, Poonam. Your images are examples that everyone can learn from. So thrilled that you found these tips useful. Happy Diwali to you too.

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  19. As usual, a very helpful post. Kind of companion post to your how to photograph children post. But I am yet to pick up serious interest in photography even though I enthusiastically bought a Canon powershot G5 7 year back.

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    1. Thanks, TF. I used to paint and draw quite a bit as a younger person, but after starting work with digital images, I have become more interested in photography. I use a reasonably powerful compact, the A710 from Canon, which packs in features and manual controls that are as good as bridge cameras. It is low on the megapixel count but that does not bother me and it shouldn't anyone unless you are in need of large canvases. I do hope you explore the G5 sometime.

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  20. I hope i get to take some good pictures , I mostly use the auto option on the camera .. but these are some very good tips for sure ...

    will keep in mind

    Bikram's

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    1. Thanks, Bikram. Unless you are pursuing creative photography, the auto settings on most cameras is the best option. But it is fun to try out some of the things that your camera can do.

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  21. It is definitely a useful post for amateur photographers, and those who are using compact, like me. You have mentioned some important things to be kept in mind. But a compact has its limitations, especially when it comes to low light. Long exposure and high ISO will produce noisy images. At least a bridge camera will be required to get good food photographs.
    Thank you for the insightful post.

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    1. Thanks, Abhinav. You have raised some very important points that I overlooked in my post. A tripod is a very important tool to have when working with food. This actually helps work with long exposures at lower ISOs, and gives you enough color density to work backwards from. One good thing about food is that other than steam and food in the process of being cooked, it doesn't move. You can take advantage of this by using long exposures at lower ISOs.

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  22. A truly great post Subho! Thanks a lot darling:)

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  23. Thanks for sharing all those excellent tips! Lots of detail but easy to follow steps!

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    1. Welcome to SJD, Alex. Glad you liked this post. Your blog (on learning English Language through celebrity interviews) is so very unusual and interesting. Do keep coming back to see what I get up to.

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  24. Great write up Subho!

    The most important thing about a shoot is the planning. Apart from the shot list, one needs to visualise the small things that would be required to enhance the situation. The use of a small brush to carefully design the texture is one such example of good planning.

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    1. I am so thrilled and honored by all the masters who have chosen to leave a comment here, and your comment, Sabyasachi, really made my day. Other than news, nature and street photography, working out of a plan is always a good idea, no matter how creative you think you are.

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  25. Those are nice, simple and easy tips. Thank you.
    Lovely pics, btw. :)

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    1. Thanks, Divya. Glad you liked the pics. All except the one of the checklist and the one of fish with seasoning are my own.

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  26. Nice list!

    I like the way you have spiced up the article with photos and added a tinge of humour to make a toothsome message!

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  27. Very informative post!

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    1. Honored, Deepak. Your work is a constant source of inspiration for me.

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  28. So many things to take care of for one click?Yes it shows in the first shot-it has very pleasing colors.
    But i am more interested in eating!!!!!!!

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    1. You will be surprised at how a little post processing can make even ordinary food pics look great, Indu. Most of the commercial food photography that you see are masterly manipulations!

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  29. it is a very good post i learn a lot from it
    visit my blog

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  30. Hey Subho, I've been checking out your posts regularly. I've stopped food blogging now. The main reason is most of my cooking is done in the evenings when I return from work, and the pictures of my food don't look anything like the colorful food I've cooked. To me, the pictures are what make a food blog, and without that I'm not blogging about food, although I'm so passionate about it. Any suggestions?

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  31. Hey Subho, I've been reading your posts and staying up-to-date with your writing. I don't blog about food anymore because I cook in the evenings/nights and the pictures I take look far removed from what I've cooked - to me a food blog is only as good as the pictures and without it I'm not posting anything. Any suggestions for the night cook?

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  32. This is unique topic in photograph. Your post is very inspiring

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