7 Simple Food Photography Tips

Now for something completely different. Most people that know me think of me as either a nature or travel photographer. A few know me as an event and wedding photographer. I'm essentially a generalist, who is most passionate about nature, but every once and a while I like to mix things up a bit. I sell stock photography through various agencies and when I don't have fresh travel and nature work to submit, I'll often find something around the house to shoot. Usually that's food. I love cooking and eating food. I worked in the food service industry for a decade in casual and upscale restaurant kitchens to support myself until this photography thing gained traction. So, why not make food a subject for my photography as well? During bad weather (and I don't mean light rain, but the torrential downpours and blizzards common in Appalachia), when I can't shoot outdoors, I'll often find some raw ingredients around the kitchen or some simple baked good (that I made myself) to photograph indoors. I try not to overthink food photography. I like simplicity. When it comes to selling food photos as stock I've found that simple sells. About one-third of my image sales are actually food photos. Here's how I go about it with a few simple tips.

Freshly picked blueberries from a local farm.

Freshly picked blueberries from a local farm.

Tip 1: Use the Freshest Ingredients

I always select the freshest and best looking fruits and raw ingredients for food shoots. When I say "best looking" I'm not talking necessarily about the most perfect either. I pick the most interesting and aesthetically pleasing subjects. Because much of the fruits and vegetables that I eat are grown by me or sourced from a local organic grower (the blueberries above were picked at Old Orchard Creek), that means they are not likely to be identical and perfect clones of each other. Every blueberry is different, for example. I like for my photos to embrace that understanding of reality.

Blueberries in a bowl on a simple wooden background.

Blueberries in a bowl on a simple wooden background.

Tip 2: Choose a Simple Background

Wooden cutting boards are in, and sterile, bright white studio backgrounds are out. Thank goodness. I have a few cutting boards and each of them make perfect backgrounds for rustic food shots. Each is a different shade of wood and has an interesting grain structure. If I want to shoot a little wider and include more of the kitchen environment, then I'll typically use a wide aperture to blur a window, dining-table chair, or even my wife. Keep it simple.

A rustic loaf of whole wheat bread on a wooden cutting board. I bake bread from scratch often.

A rustic loaf of whole wheat bread on a wooden cutting board. I bake bread from scratch often.

Tip 3: Use Natural Light

I don't use flash unless I have to. I also don't even own a studio light. I like natural window light the best. A north facing window provides perfect side-lighting, especially on overcast days. I simply place and arrange my subjects about a foot from the window.

My wife kneading dough in natural window light.

My wife kneading dough in natural window light.

Tip 4: Use a Wide Aperture on a Fixed Lens

Most of my food shots are made using a 50mm f1.8 lens, often on a DX (APS-C) sensor camera for a little extra reach. I generally use wide apertures ranging from f2.8-f4. This provides a pleasing shallow depth of field. I tend to get in as close as possible to the subject. Macro lenses are great for food photography also, but I usually stick with the 50mm for most of my food photography.

Colorful peppers and chef knife. The negative space provides room for clients to add text.

Colorful peppers and chef knife. The negative space provides room for clients to add text.

Tip 5: Use a Tripod and Live View

I find food photography clumsy and difficult without a tripod even if I have lots of light to work with. The tripod not only steadies the camera, it also allows me to tweak my composition using the camera's live view function. I often photograph food from above (sometimes standing on a chair), so if I were not using a tripod or live view, I would have to bend over my subject, potentially blocking the light and straining my neck while also risking dizziness. I don't want to fall over into a plate of hot food if I can help it. You don't either. Use a tripod.

Wild ramps (aka wild leeks). This is one of my best selling food stock images. I harvested these from the woods on my property.

Wild ramps (aka wild leeks). This is one of my best selling food stock images. I harvested these from the woods on my property.

Tip 6: Limit Composition to 3 or Fewer Elements

Simplicity is key. I find that for my work 3 or fewer elements in the frame keep the image aesthetically pleasing. I don't mean that I limit my composition to only three blueberries, for example. The blueberries are the subject, so I can use lots of them. I count those as one element. As far as "props" go, I'll only use a bowl and/or a spoon and nothing more detracting. The purpose of this is to further draw attention to the subject while telling a story using its surroundings (just like in wildlife photography).

Carton of eggs with me in the background. I simply used the camera's self timer and stepped into the frame.

Carton of eggs with me in the background. I simply used the camera's self timer and stepped into the frame.

Tip 7: Use Bold Colors

Colorful foods, like ripe raspberries, are quite eye-catching so I tend to photograph them more. In order to boost the color, I'll often try out different white balance settings while shooting in RAW format. Then, when I'm editing in Lightroom, I'll adjust for the correct white balance, add contrast, and bring up the overall saturation and vibrancy until I get the desired look. It's easy to go crazy with saturation and over do it. To avoid this, I'll increase the saturation until I think it looks good and then I'll actually pull back on it a tad.

Freshly picked raspberries from my garden. I shot this outside on a sunny July day using the macro setting on a Fujifilm X10 point and shoot.

Freshly picked raspberries from my garden. I shot this outside on a sunny July day using the macro setting on a Fujifilm X10 point and shoot.