10 Tips for Better Food Photos

Whether you want more likes on Instagram, to take your blog to the next level, or want to try your hand at food photography in general, here are tips and tricks from a food blogger that has done this a time or two (it’s me, I’m the food blogger). Let’s jump right into it!

1. Use Natural Light

This is an obvious one, but natural light is the best light. It is the light we are used to seeing the most, it provides the least amount of weird hues (lightbulbs can cause a blue, green, or yellow hue to appear around your food giving it a gross/muddied look). I have very expensive photography lights, and they were a waste of money (kinda, they’re good for some stuff and when I’m running behind schedule and complete a shoot at 3 in the morning). You don’t need expensive lights if you have a good sunny window that you can pop a table by and get working.

Natural Light v artificial light.png
You can see that the natural light looks warmer but not majorly yellow or orange. It looks natural and pleasing to the eye. The shadows look natural and soft. The lights I have are blue in hue and you can see that in the right photo. The background here is actually black, but the light has so much blue that it made the black background blueish. The shadows are awkward and harsh. The right photo took more editing and still looks meh. It’s not a bad photo, but natural light is free and looks better.

When taking pictures, be sure to turn off the other lights in the room. It may cause a weird color/hue/reflection on your subject that you may not notice at first, but it helps the pictures look clean and crisp!

2. Get a Good Camera

I said good, not great. You need a camera that doesn’t take blurry/pixelated pictures and that’s about it. I use my phone camera (Google Pixel 1) when we are eating out, after we made a quick meal, and for almost anything unplanned. It does a great job and your average joe can’t tell a difference. Both the photos below were taken with my phone and near a very sunny window, they are from Life is Short, Eat More Food: Trying Halo-Halo.

 

I use my ‘great’ camera (Nikon D3400) for blog posts to give it that extra edge and for nature/other photography projects. A great camera will not instantly make your photos look good, the setup, execution, lighting, and other tips here will make a picture look good. A camera just needs to be good enough to not be blurry/pixelated.

3. Use a Reflector

A reflector is used to reflect light back onto the subject to help with harsh shadows and to even out the lighting on the subject. It can help your pictures look brighter, cleaner, more balanced, and give it that little extra edge.

This one has saved my butt so many times. Every time I take pictures for the blog I use a reflector and sometimes when it’s a bit cloudy out it adds that extra shine that makes the lighting look popping. I also use it when I’m taking pictures with my phone and the subject is a bit dark (black cherries, brownies, etc). But, you don’t need to buy anything super expensive to have your own reflector!

final burrito bowl adjusted photo
In this photo, the light source is coming from the left and the reflector is sitting on the right. The reflector helps soften the shadows on the left side of the bowl and brightens the sour cream and the glisten on the bell peppers and lime. This photo was taken on a cloudy day, but none would be the wiser.

To make your own DIY reflector, take a piece of cardboard (big or small, either works and you’ll find your preference). Lay down enough aluminum foil to cover one side (the front) of your cardboard and a bit for the back (enough to tape it down). Then tape down the foil to the cardboard. Try to keep the foil from crinkling as that can cause it to put weird shadows/reflection onto the subject. If it becomes overly crinkled or you want multiple, just take some cardboard and foil and boom, a few cent reflectors!

To use the reflector just place it on the opposite side of your light source or on the side you are experiencing harsh shadows and angle it toward the subject until you can see the light hitting the subject. You may need to adjust and perfect it to get a good angle on it. You can also use multiple reflectors if you have multiple areas of shadows, but I use a single one 99% of the time. Also, shadows aren’t bad, you aren’t trying to eliminate all of them you are just trying to soften them and it will add more brightness to the areas that are already bright.

Pro-tip: I use these plastic easels from the dollar store to help my reflector stand up, but I use them backward so that they angle down on the subject. I also think these wire easels would work well too.

4. Look at a Reference

This is probably my favorite and most useful tip! When trying to decide how to style your food, where to place props, and which camera angles to use, always look up the food on google images. I have multiple backgrounds and table tops to use for photos (this is a little more advanced than a beginner, so don’t worry about getting a ton of backgrounds and such) and it helps to look at how others are doing it. I will look at what colors they are using for the background/table top, what dish they are plating the food on and how they are plating it, and finally, I will look at what ‘props’ they use (adding small items around the subject to add interest to the final picture). It also helps to look at other photos to see what angles you could shoot from.

coffee-google-search.png
These are images that come up when searching for ‘coffee’ on Google Images. From this, I can see that a dark, warm, and sultry vibe is going on. Dark brown wood would be a good tabletop and black is a good background. Coffee beans, a spoon, and towels can be used as props. Good angles would be from the side of the cup or the top of the cup.
coffe picture comparison.png
These are the pictures I took for my Easy Hot or Iced Turtle Latte (5 ingredients) recipe. You can see that I used the coffee beans, spoon, and towel prop suggestions from my search. I also took the pictures from the top and side. Lastly, I used a dark brown tabletop and black background to give it a sultry and warm vibe.

5. Style your Food

I see so many photos on Instagram not following this and it drives me crazy. DO NOT just glop food onto your plate. It is messy, looks messy, and makes for a messy picture. If you want to know how to plate something specific, use the tip above and look at photos for examples. If that’s not enough, here are some general tips:

  • Always clean your plate: After plating, always go back with a paper towel and clean up any messy area where some sauce went astray or where you accidentally placed something and moved it later. Just go around the outside of the plate, bowl, whatever, with a paper towel to give everything a nice clean look.
IMG_20180702_152435_818
I didn’t follow my own rule here because I wanted to dig into this seared tuna before it got too cold, but you can see the photo looks very sloppy and would be much better if I had quickly wiped the plate.
  • Keep things separate: Food is beautiful when you can see all the individual parts. If you aren’t making something that is soup, curry or things that need to be all mixed together during cooking, try to keep things separated.
    vegan fajita burrito bowl 1
    This photo is from the Fajita Style Burrito Bowl Recipe. You can see here that I kept all the ingredients separate. You can clearly see the cauliflower, bell peppers & onions, tomatoes, and beans all in their respective piles. This plating would have been busy (but still pretty) if all mixed together. Keeping it separate gives the photo a more put together vibe and isn’t overwhelming or confusing (you can pick out what’s in the photo).
  • You don’t have to put everything on: If you have a sauce that would cover up your beautiful dish, leave it off to the side in a nice ramekin or mention that it isn’t pictured. No reason to ruin that beautifully cooked steak with a sauce. Don’t do this with things that are essential to be sauced, spaghetti would look weird without sauce.
  • Take your time and try again: If you plate something up and it doesn’t look nice, try again! You should have more than a single portion and if not, try your hardest to fix it.
  • If it looks bad, get a close up: If your plating is just a disaster and you can’t fix it, go for a close-up.

    kabob close up.png
    This is an image for a future recipe, but the plating was a bit boring: white plate, white rice, and brown sauce on brown meat. By going close up it adds definition to the rice, gives a focal point with blurred edges, and a lovely picture that would otherwise be very boring. I also later used a blue towel to add color and interest.

6. Use Props

As mentioned in previous tips, ‘props’ are items placed around the main subject to add interest. Props for food can be ingredients used in the recipe, towels, cooking utensils, silverware, multiples of the same dish, drinks, etc. Again, if you are unsure what ‘props’ to use, look up examples of what others did. If you baked something a towel, cutting board and a sprinkle of flour are common. For coffee, whole coffee beans and a spoon are a good choice.

But you don’t always have to use props. I find things that are very busy (salads, soups/curry, etc.) and for desserts, it’s not always necessary to add things to it.

mudslide milkshake recipe
I went for a classic diner look in this Mudslide Milkshake Recipe. By having no props it allows the subject and silhouette of the object to pop. I added more visual appeal by using a colored background (I usually use white, gray, or black) and a colorful, patterned straw.

7. Give your Subject Space

When you get right on top of your dish (besides an obvious close up), the image feels cramped and doesn’t let the subject stand proud. By giving the subject space, you are giving the subject a beautiful silhouette (the general shape the object has around the edges), allowing the subject to almost pop off the background, and giving yourself room to add props.

burrito bowl cramped photo.png
This image is cramped, the bowl doesn’t have a nice silhouette or pop off the background. All the props have been cut out.
final burrito bowl adjusted photo
This image is nicely balanced, there is a good amount of space around the subject and room to have props. The bowl and towel have a nice silhouette. Your eye is attracted to the subject (bowl of food) because it is standing out.

8. Avoid Black

This is one I learned the hard way. Cameras have a hard time picking up detail in black and it can add a really harsh color to the whole image. I try to stick to lighter colors for most things. For things with darker backgrounds, I try to use dark brown wood and a black background like in the coffee picture in tip #4. NEVER have both a black background and a black table top. It will look like your objects are floating (this will happen with pretty much any solid color being used for both the background and tabletop, but black will be dark and have no texture compared to other colors). I try to follow the one black rule. I use only one largely black item in the photo and it creates a nice balance. So if I use a black plate, my background and table top will be light colored.

strawberry basil margarita.png
This is from my Strawberry Basil Margaritas (Copycat Red Robin) recipe. I used a black wood table top (but the camera didn’t pick up on that texture) and black background. This image doesn’t pop, looks a bit off, and is way too dark for the bright flavors in the citrusy margarita. In hindsight, I would use a white marble and light gray or white background to communicate the bright flavors in the drink and show off the bold reds and greens.

9. Edit your Photos by Hand

The other huge beginner mistake I see all the time is people taking great pictures and slapping a one-color-fits-all filter on to it. Filters aren’t designed to make your food look good. After all the work you put in, the worst thing you could do is add a filter that diminishes all the colors, throws off the brightness and contrast, and lays on a weird tint.

If you are new to editing photos by hand, the three most important settings you will use are brightness, contrast, and saturation. Be careful with each and when you are done editing consider sliding everything down a little. I find when I edit photos by hand I have a hard time not going overboard because I’m seeing the changes a little at a time compared to someone seeing only the edited photo. I outlined the process below.

unedited burrito bowl photo
Unedited photo.

 

initial burrito bowl adjusted photo
Initial adjustments. The photo is too bright, not enough contrast compared to the brightness, and is overly saturated that the colors don’t look natural. It is also slightly too zoomed in.
final burrito bowl adjusted photo
Final adjusted photo. There is a nice space around the dish. A good balance between brightness (not blaring white whites) and contrast (doesn’t look dark and shadowed–too much contrast or whitewashed–not enough contrast). The saturation makes the colors look realistic but vibrant.

10. Have Patience and Practice, Practice, Practice

Don’t try to rush a photoshoot. Take your time with each step and you will have gorgeous photos. After a bit of practice, you’ll get the hang of it and be quicker. I used to take three hours for mediocre pictures and now I can have several really great photos completed in half an hour that are way better than when I took three hours. You will learn to get faster and produce better quality pictures, it just takes patience and practice.

Also, it’s fine to have a bad shoot every now and then. I still find myself having bad shoot days and realize that not every day am I going to be in the zone enough to place everything correctly, or maybe I rushed myself too much and didn’t get things lined up right. It’s okay, you just got to move on and try better on the next one!

Follow me on Instagram (@MollyKamper) for more beautiful food and nature photos!

Check out my latest photo gallery post: Lily Mountain and Lily Lake in Estes Park, Colorado.

Best of luck in your future food photography adventures!

Sing-off image 3

 

 

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I love cooking, photography, DIY projects and generally seeing what mess I can get myself into. I am very sarcastic and an annoyingly glass half-full kind of person. I like to make everything an adventure and a half and I hate blogs that are boring, so if mine ever is you better let a girl know. I don't know… do you know how hard it is to try and explain yourself in a little paragraph? Poke around a bit on here and I'm sure you'll learn who I am in no time! Thanks for stopping by.

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