4 Not-So-Easy Ways to Improve Your Food Photography

Bruschetta for food photography

Do you make beautiful food, but take ugly photos?  Gorgeous food photography doesn’t require a pro studio with expensive equipment, but it does demand good technique.  With a little know-how, you can dramatically improve the quality of your images.

1. Use a Tripod

The tripod isn’t your enemy.  I know you love to walk around the table and take pictures of food from a million angles, but you need to use a tripod.  When shooting food, you’re not taking pictures, you’re making pictures.  With a tripod, you can move the lights and experiment with the composition while keeping the same frame.  Move the food, not the camera.

From a technical standpoint, using a tripod gives you some big advantages

  • Your food photos are going to be tack sharp
  • You can use a low ISO for maximum tonal quality
  • You can lower the shutter speed, stop down the aperture, and create a deep depth of field

Don’t be that guy who has an awesome food blog, gets a book deal, and then gives his publisher a bunch of lousy handheld photos.

2. Put Everything on Manual

When you use AUTO, you’re letting Nikon and Canon make the decisions for you.  Sure, Canikon might get lucky and give you a few decent exposures, but at the end of the day, don’t you want to be the one in control of your art? This is what MANUAL can do for you.

ISO – Seriously, put this as low as possible.  If you’re on a tripod, you can do this.  A higher ISO increases noise and lowers dynamic range.  If you want your images to look like last year’s Christmas cards from the 99 cent store, push up the ISO.  It may look good on the back of your screen, but it will look like junk if you print it.

Focus – Selective focus can be a really cool thing in food photography.  Increase the size of your aperture to create a very shallow in-focus area and magic can happen.

Shutter – This isn’t a big deal in food photography.  If you’re too cool for school and decide to skip the tripod, make sure you’re shutter speed is at least 1/125 to avoid camera shake.

Aperture –  This is where you can get really creative.  To throw the background out of focus, open up the aperture (f2.8 is wide open on many lenses) and decrease the depth of field (this is the area that is in focus).  To increase the depth of field, stop down the aperture (f22 is closed all the way down on many lenses).  Commercial food photographers typically favor deep focus, but this is an aesthetic choice.

3. Change Your Camera Position

If you want a super lame food photo, take a picture from the sitting position.  I like to go low because I appreciate the dramatic impact of putting food in the hero position, but going overhead works too.  Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  • When shooting low, think about composition and try to create a foreground and background around the subject. The elements around the subject (silverware, napkins, cups etc) tell the story and give the image depth.
  • When shooting from above, think about design and try to frame the subject with various elements.
4. Fix the White Balance

The biggest problem with food photos on the web is the color blue.  Most food blogs are photographed with indirect window light and this light is blue.  The AUTO WHITE BALANCE should neutralize this, but it usually doesn’t.  To fix this:

  • Manually place the white balance on “shade”
  • Do a custom white balance off a piece of white paper
  • Do a custom white balance off an 18% grey card
  • If you want to go “super pro” and impress your friends, go get a Colorchecker Passport.

Blue isn’t all bad and can be used creatively, but you certainly don’t want it to be the dominate tone throughout your photography.

Just a bit more

Here is a little more on the subject if you don’t understand the concept of white balance.

The color temperature of light isn’t uniform.  Take for expample:

  • Morning light is cool.
  • Afternoon light is warm.
  • Tungsten light is orange.  
  • Florescent light is green

The human eye adjusts and adapts to these colors, but cameras aren’t as efficient.  Digital cameras try their best to neutralize these color casts and create a true white with AUTO WHITE BALANCE, but most of the time, they miss the mark.

Once you accept the fact that the colors your camera produces are wrong, you can fix the problem by manually setting the Kelvin temperature or creatively dial in new colors based on your subject.

Food Photography wrap-up

I was going to call this “4 Easy Ways To Improve Your Food Photography,” but good technique isn’t always easy.  One of the great things about shooting food is the amazing challenges it presents. Anyone can put the camera on AUTO and get lucky once in awhile, but if you dig in and learn the science behind the photography, you can shoot like a pro.


Photo Credit: Photographed as a team with chef and photographer Roger Lai