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How to Bring Your Food Photography to the Next Level

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Want to learn how to make your food photography look more delicious, exciting, and professional? Sharon Palmer shares her top tips on everything you need to know on how to take your food photography to the next level.

Color is your friend when it comes to food photography—this recipe for  Pistachio Turmeric Rice Power Bowl offers different colors and textures. 

It used to be that food photography was limited to trained professionals shooting for gourmet magazines in well-lit studios. Welcome to the new age of food photography! Just look at the amazing level of food photography exhibited by amateurs on Instagram and blogs! It may look super easy, but unfortunately it may not be as easy as it seems. There’s the lighting, the equipment, the props, the editing. But never fear, food photography can be conquered with a bit of practice and a few tricks of the trade. And you will reap the rewards, as good food photography can make your blog, and social media soar. If you’re describing how fudgy a dessert is, you also want to SHOW it…clearly and beautifully. Plus, it’s a fun hobby! In fact, I relish my time shooting my recipes. It’s a creative outlet that I can share with others. In fact, my new book California Vegan includes all of my own food photography!

California Vegan 3d Book Image By Sharon Palmer
All of my food photography is on display in my new book California Vegan.

I’m answering your top questions on what I’ve learned about food photography over the past years, including my tips on lighting, props, food styling, and hardware that may help you in your food photography journey.

How to Bring Your Food Photography to the Next Level!

Christian and I doing a TV segment in my kitchen using my camera, lights, and tripod.

Question: Which camera do you recommend for food photography?

Answer: I first started out using my iPhone for food photography, and I know many colleagues that use their smart phones (later generation) for all of their photos. However, I believe that if you are getting really serious about food photography you should invest in a good camera. I have a very reasonably priced Cannon DSLR, which I have now had for about 7 years. It also has a video setting, so I use it to make all of my high-quality videos, too (pictured above). I have a telephoto and wide-angle lens that I use occasionally, but you can just start out with the standard lens too. I use my Cannon DSLR for all of my high quality recipe photo shoots, but ocassionally I will use my iPhone too, perhaps for a quick prep shot or outdoor shot.

This photo for Light Aperol Spritz is taken with my iPhone on Portrait Mode.

Question: How do you learn about the basics of food photography?

Answer: I read many articles and a book on food photography, attended some webinars on food photography, and enrolled in a one-day workshop at a local community college on photography. All of these things really elevated my knowledge. I learned the basics about things like lighting, exposure, shutter speed, and f-stop. Generally, I use settings of about 400 ISO; 125-60 shutter speed, F4-6 aperture. However, these need to be adjusted based on my setting. If I’m shooting indoors or outdoors, late in the day, or early in the morning, on a dark day or sunny day—these all make a difference on my settings. I learned to adjust my settings each time I approach the food photography setting based on that day’s lighting.

Question: How do you light your food photography?

Answer: One of the tricks of lighting is to make sure you have a good source of light coming on to your food setting between 9 and 3 o’clock (if you picture your food setting on the face of a clock). Natural outdoors light is fabulous, but you don’t want direct light, you need to shoot in the shadows. In my previous home, I had a weathered picnic table near my vegetable garden that was shaded by my citrus trees—it had the perfect lighting (see below) for food photography. I would gather up all of my food styling needs on a tray and head outside to shoot photos.

Outdoor food photography on a shaded picnic table.

Today, in my home in Ojai, I have a large window with great sun exposure and an antique pine table that came with the house. It is my new favorite location for food photography. Check out the main image, where I’m setting up a food shot at that pine table, with Lilly checking it all out! I also use a white foam board to bounce the light off of to avoid shadows. If the light is coming in at a slight angle, I place a large white foam board on the other side of the photography set up to reflect the light back on to the food and avoid shadows. For me, the light is coming in on the left, so I stand the white foam board to the right of the food.

Food photography of my recipe for Mofongo in Ojai on my antique pine table near the window, with a white foam board placed on the right to bounce light back on food.

I rarely use my artificial lighting for food photography, as it can be very harsh. But you can indeed use it! I use it all the time in my videos. You can see how I set up the lighting on either side of my pine table below.

Video taken on my pine table in Ojai.

Question: What types of surfaces and backdrops can you use for photography?

Answer: There are lots of options for surfaces and backdrops for food photography. You can find inexpensive artificial wood backdrops, such as seen below. I had a collection of these, however I find that they don’t look very natural as you start refining your food photography process. Don’t get me wrong—they are fine and I use them a lot. But if you are really going to get into it, find some natural surfaces you love. Weathered or painted wood, marble, and tile are good options. I even have purchased some large pieces of tile and marble at the home repair store for my food photography. 

My recipe for Cinnamon Apple Crumble photographed on an artificial wood backdrop.

You can also find artificial surfaces to use for a backsplash. This set up (see below) gives me the look of a modern, white kitchen with subway tile backdrop.

Setting up my modern white backdrop for this food photography session for California Vegan.

Question: What types of props do you use for food photography?

Answer: I recommend that you find your own photography aesthetic and go with it. Some people love clean, white, over-exposed looks; while others like dark and moody. My aesthetic is organic and natural. I want nature to be brimming over in the food shot. This informs my photography props. I use a lot of natural produce from my garden and the farmers market, including herbs, flowers, vegetables that have gone to flower, and things I find in nature, such as leaves from trees, moss, stones, and wild plants.

This photo for Sesame Tempeh Grain Bowl uses pansies from my garden, wild mushrooms, chives, and multi-colored radishes, as well as fabulous bowls, napkins, and silverware.

In addition to natural elements, I also collect cutlery, unusual and vintage bowls, and napkins. These really add a lot to the food styling of the shot. I try to pick up a color in the food scene with a napkin. And bowls are a great container for food photography vs. plates, as it assembles the food nicely without it spilling out over the plate. I also enjoy the symmetry of photographing two servings of foods in my shots, so I collect a variety of twin objects.

I like to try some unusual shots of food, such as this veggie-burger cut in half, stacked up, and ready to bite into!

Question: How do you edit your photos?

Answer: I recently landed on Lightroom, which is a wonderful tool for food photography editing. You need to spend time experimenting with it. I have learned that my first attempts at editing on this platform from a year ago aren’t nearly as good as my recent shots. You need to like at things like the tint of the food shot, presets, exposure, saturation, and texture when you edit your photos. It’s ok to go back and edit them again with a fresh eye too!

I like to pair my food with wine occasionally for an interesting shot.

Question: What angle do you use in food shots?

Answer: I use different angles, including top down, at an angle, or straight on. It depends on what I’m shooting. For example, if it’s a veggie-burger, I may want that straight on angle, but a bowl of soup may not reveal as much with that angle. I shoot up to 80 photos on a recipe, so I will try a variety of shots and delete them if they don’t work out. I find that top down is a great angle for most any food shot, so I try to garnish my food beautifully for this angle. I also like the angle shot too.

I like to get involved with my food, such as in this shot for Gingered Red Kuri Squash Soup with Pomegranates.

You can also have fun with your food photo by getting involved in the shot. I like to dish up a spoonful of food with my left hand while I’m shooting with my right. Or, I hold half of a veggie burger in my left hand, or a stack of cookies. The action of being involved with the food adds more intrigue.

Angles make nice shots for beverages in clear glasses.

 

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