In 2020 I made the decision to learn food photography. I had never clicked a photo with anything other than a point and shoot camera or my phone. Little did I know that food photography required so many skills in addition to knowing how to use a camera. These skills include cooking, baking, food styling, graphic design, photo editing and the list goes on. It has been an eye-opening experience to say the least.
I have had a crash course in food photography, soaking up as much information as can. I took Foodtography School -an online course that taught me the basics. Then a pro photographer friend tutored me for hours and hours on using the camera, composition, editing and more. I took a workshop with a New York Times food photographer and have watched countless youtube videos on food photography. The Bite Shot is an EXCELLENT free resource. Thousands of photos later, in just one year, I feel confident behind the camera.
I am still learning and developing my style but several things have become clear to me along the way. In researching what it takes to make food look appealing in a photo, I learned some of the methods photography pros use to achieve beautiful photos.
Professional Food Photography Hacks
Many perfect looking food photos are highly manipulated and don’t use edible items.
- Would it surprise you to learn that the “milk” in those photos on the cereal boxes is likely to be glue?
- The perfect scoop of ice cream is made of instant mashed potatoes, lard and food coloring.
- The whipped cream you see is actually shaving cream.
- Glycerine is sprayed on to food to create the look of water droplets.
- Motor oil, yes motor oil, stands in for syrup.
- Pancakes are sprayed with fabric protector to prevent syrup from absorbing.
The good news is that the trend is starting to lean more towards real food.
Why is Food So Manipulated in Photography?
Getting just the right shot takes time. The first click of the shutter is not always the best even for a seasoned pro. The food has to be “fluffed”, moved, the props in the photo need adjusting, the angle of the shot, so many factors have to be considered to get the “hero shot.”
Many foods do not look the same 1 hour after they have been cooked, baked or prepared. Over time, food dries out, shrinks, changes color, wilts, gets soggy, melts and more. So photographers often go to great lengths to use replacements for the real thing that will stand up over hours.
Another reason is the look of the real thing doesn’t look good in a 2-dimensional image.
My Philosophy in Food Photography
I made a decision early on that I wanted the food in my photos to be real food. Most importantly, I don’t believe in tossing the food in the trash when the shoot is over. Food waste is a huge problem for this planet and I am adamant that I don’t add to it. So anything that I add to enhance the look must be edible and something that will not ruin the flavor of the food.
I am a food blogger who pretty much sticks to foods that I love. I don’t often post a recipe just to please the audience. So, I eat what I make or give it to a friend if I have too much.
Because I create and post recipes that I share with others, I want photos that realistically show what the food looks like. Of course, I do my best to make it appealing and beautiful, but I don’t want my readers to be disappointed when theirs looks completely different from the posted photos.
It has taken some creative thinking but what you see in my photos is the real thing. It may not be perfect, but it will soon be my next meal or snack.
Tips for Real Food Photography
My number one tip is be prepared, but here are some specifics:
- Get an idea of the different shots you want – overhead, close up, straight on – think it through. If you can draw, you may want to sketch a rough drawing of the scene. If you think more like me, I suggest doing a web search for the item you are shooting and look at the images for inspiration. Or place dummy items that are similar shape and color to the food you’re photographing and take some test shots.
- Have some idea of how the food will be styled and/or plated.
- Set up your camera – Get it on the tripod, c-stand if using. Make sure the battery is charged to full. Set some of the basic settings including white balance and ISO.
- Gather and set up props.
- Set up your light source whether it be artificial or natural.
Other Photography Tips
- If it’s a baked product that needs to cool, complete the preparation tips below, while it’s cooling.
- If it’s something that has a short window for looking fresh or hot off the stove, get ALL of the preparation tips done, so you can plate the food and start shooting right away.
- For foods that need a cold environment, ice cream or items that melt, I set reusable ice packs on the surface (table) and invert a large sheet pan or roasting pan over them. Place a napkin, cloth or parchment paper on the pan and us this as your surface. Chill bowls or plates in the freezer for 20 minutes if using. If you can, crank the A/C on hot days.
- For items that need a little extra sheen, I brush on a little oil or melted butter.