101 Food Photography Tips and Tricks
Over the last 2 and a half years, I've taken over 25,000 food photos. That's kind of mind boggling. I've put together some of the things I've learned along the way and some of the things I wish I knew when I was starting out. There's also tips throughout from other food photographers and bloggers.
Tips are organized by food photography basics, food photography for Instagram & social media, the best equipment for food photography, lighting, restaurant photography, inspiration, composition, editing, commercial food photography tips, collaborating and how to stay healthy as a food photographer.
Food Photography Basics
1. Use low aperture to isolate one item when you want to highlight a specific item
2. If you’re shooting with a DSLR, always shoot in RAW. This will give you the greatest flexibility in editing later on
3. Your lens will impact how much bokeh you get.
4. If you have a hand model, make sure their hands are clean and moisturized.
5. Incorporate actions if they make sense, like pouring cream in to coffee or twirling some spaghetti but don’t force it if it’s out of context.
6. Make friends along the way. If you work on a shoot with a stylist or PR person or Chef, keep in touch and keep an open mind for opportunities to collaborate. I recently needed a cocktail stylist for a commercial shoot and ended up recommending a bartender that I worked with in my previous job at the restaurant group.
7. To shoot a tablescape use a higher aperture to make sure everything is in focus
8. Frequently format your SD and Compact flash cards, this will help them not develop any odd glitches along the way and make them last longer.
Food photography for Instagram & social media
9. Authenticity isn't a strategy for social media. There are folks killing it by focusing on all sorts of things. Symmetrybreakfast has all perfectly symmetrical images while Higuccini has a mish mash of compositions. Bromabakery has predominately light and bright images while stemsandforks goes dark. Realandvibrant posts all healthy meals while cheatdayeats posts cheese pulls and desserts all the time.
10. Consistency on Instagram works better than anything else. When I worked as a Digital Media Manager at a restaurant group, I increased social media followers by 100% for 8 restaurants within 6 months. 3 of the restaurant accounts were in the top 10 most popular restaurant account in Chicago (I was a fiend for data so I tracked the top 100 restaurants in the city). Once I set a strategy for each account, I basically did the same thing on loop each week (a mix of food, back story and staff feature most of the time).
11. Don’t ignore food trends but not every hashtag food holiday needs a parade.
Your food should look one step away from eating it — that means caps off bottles, straws in drinks, removed from any packaging, etc. You want someone to picture themselves in that moment. It has to feel REAL.
To that end, I’ve also found that some food photos can be “too” good to perform well on social. If it feels too staged/inorganic, it doesn’t create that same empathy - even if it’s a great photo! - and people don’t respond because it’s too far away from how they experience the world.
13. If you’re going to a restaurant under some sort of social media post exchange, clarify the logistic details ahead of time via email. Personally, this isn’t generally my cup of tea so I rarely do these things but it’s a lot better to clarify ahead of time then to suddenly feel on the hook for something you weren’t clear on.
14. PLEASE, please, please don’t post bad food for the likes. If you didn’t like it, don’t promote it!
15. From Chicago food photographer Nick Murway - I mean, it's nothing profound but try not to seek validation from numbers and try to do something different. We all know the handful of places, dishes or drinks, and the way everyone kind of photographs them in the same way. It's way more fun to try to do something a little different, to share your voice, yeah?
16. Consistency isn’t just about posting one type of thing or using the same aesthetic, it’s about having a stance or overarching perspective about what you post. This is really hard. I try to predominately work as a photographer but due to my Instagram following, which isn’t that huge, I’m often offered partnerships and sponsored posts. It’s difficult to say no.
The best equipment for food photography
17. Tailor your equipment to the scope and budget of each project. For a quick restaurant photo shoot, I grab my camera, a reflector, maybe a light and a tripod. For a large commercial food shoots, I’ll bring multiple camera bodies, multiple lenses, lights and tripods.
18. For large shoots, tripods are a life saver, especially if you’re doing a lot of tabletop shots. Your back will thank you.
19. Get a tripod with a 90 degree arm or pick up a side arm for top down videos and photos.
20. From Chicago food photographer Nick Murway - Don't get hung up on it. I remember one time when I was in a super funk, hardly shooting anything, not liking anything I did. I was sitting on my computer, wishing I had this gear or that studio or whatever. Then I thought to myself, "what if I did?" What if all that gear was sitting right here next to me? What would be different? Now I really look at my gear as tools. I want it simple, I want it to work, and I want it to help me achieve what I'm trying to do. That's it. Plus I'd rather buy plane tickets to go shoot somewhere over the newest lens or light or whatever.
21. Keep in mind that you can rent props and photo equipment. For equipment, I often use BorrowLenses or Dodd if I need something in Chicago and quick.
22. From Los Angeles food photographer Jakob Layman - One of the best pieces of equipment I have only costs $10 and fits in my back pocket. I always make sure I have a 12 inch collapsible reflector on me when I'm shooting in a restaurant. It's really versatile, whether I need it to bounce window light for filling in shadows or blocking incandescent/florescent light from the dining room.
23. Antique shops and thrift stores have great food props that tend to be affordable. I also have a completely unhealthy love of Food52 items and have my eye on some oyster linens, ceramic baking dishes and vintage flatware. These are not the cheapest food photo props but don’t judge if these pop up in some of my photos in the near future.
24. I’ve had Woodville workshop bookmarked for about 2 years now. I haven’t had a need for background food props but if I do, I’m getting them for Woodville.
25. If you’re shooting for Instagram, the best camera for food photography is the one with you. The iPhone has a perfectly good camera for small and quick stuff. For editorial and commercial food photography jobs, I use my Canon 5d mk IV.
26. There is no such thing as a best lens for food photography. I use a Canon 24-70 but have also used a 35 prime for years. These days I also have my eye on scooping up a 100mm macro lens. Shoot with what you’ve got. Research what you want and over time you’ll slowly accumulate gear.
27. There is a time and a place for a wide angle lens. It drives me crazy when I hear photographers making statements such as “never shoot food with anything wider than a 35mm”. This is a creative field. There are no hard and fast rules. Everything is worth trying out.
28. A sifter is a great thing to have! They come in handy in so many different ways. I often use them to sift flour for photos but also make tea and scoop things out of boiling water with mine.
29. Always keep a full back up battery and extra sd cards or compact flash cards. Always. I’ve had just about every possible piece of equipment malfunction (like that time my lens got jiggly in Hawaii) and almost anything can be worked around except for an empty battery and a glitched memory card.
30. There’s so much photo equipment out there! It can be challenging to choose things. B&H does a great job of writing up equipment in a way that is really approachable. Just scroll down towards the bottom of the page.
Food Photography Lighting
31. Practice so you’re comfortable with natural and artificial light. This doesn’t necessarily apply if you’re mostly taking food photos for a blog and have full control of your space and the timing of each shoot. If you’re going to do any editorial or commercial food photography, you need to learn how to get a decent shot in any lighting conditions.
32. To practice bad lighting, just pull down your shades in the middle of the day. I do this whenever I want to practice with my artificial lights but don’t want to wait till the evening.
33. If you’re using external lights and bouncing the light in a restaurant and the walls aren’t a neutral color, the light will pull that in and you’ll get a weird hue.
34. For steam and spritz photos, you need a dark background and some side light.
35. From Erin of 312Food - 2) I prefer to shoot in natural light (like most photographers!), and aim to remove obstacles that will make life more difficult later. That means - don’t shoot on a shiny surface, wipe off tables, make sure fingernails aren’t chipped, clean splatter on plates, etc. You can obviously fix these things in editing, but if you’re shooting a lot of images, that time can really add up — better to just set yourself up for success.
36. Side and black light are used most frequently in commercial food photography. Direct flash is pretty rare in food photography (some portrait photographers use it all the time) but you should experiment with it if you’re intrigued.
37. Besides making sure that you’re hero item is well lit, you also want to make sure that you’re shadows aren’t so dark that all the details get totally lost.
38. A tip I see all the time is to not shoot in direct sunlight but to find shade or use a scrim but as is always my advice, give it a try.
Restaurant Photography Tips
39. Try to keep guests in mind. Most of the time I photograph restaurants when they’re prepping and closed but occasionally I’m there during a meal. I try to be as unintrusive as I can be.
40. If you’re trying to set up a restaurant shoot for something and aren’t sure where to start, call and ask for a media or PR contact.
41. Once you’ve got something scheduled, always ask for a contact person for the day of. Most of the time only a couple of people will know that you’re coming and you’ll get a lot of blank stares until you ask for the prearranged point person.
42. Confirm the shoot a day before or a few hours beforehand, especially if there isn’t a PR firm arranging.
43. The PR person is not your assistant. Sometimes they’ve got a slow day and will hang or hold stuff but most of the time they’ve got emails to get to so don’t assume they’ll be able to hold a reflector or a light for you.
44. Never yell at people. This seems obvious to me but when I worked for a restaurant group I once oversaw a shoot where a photographer yelled at numerous people. It’s unprofessional. It’s shitty. If you have rage issues, find a therapist, don’t take it out on unsuspecting bystanders.
45. Try not to shoot hungry. Some restaurants will offer food after the shoot, some won’t and it’s best not to be hungry.
46. If you’re going into the kitchen say “behind" if you’re behind someone and “corner" when going around corners.
47. If you’re just showing up, try to pick a slow time, be polite and tip well.
48. Push for your vision. When I was the in-house photographer for a restaurant group it was a battle to get the time and resources for scheduled shoots. When I switched to being on the press side it was much easier to get everything I needed but initially I was still very sheepish about pushing for my vision. At this point, I’ve seen some of my images circulate for 2 to 3 years. The image lasts longer than the moment of discomfort of asking for whatever it is you need.
49. Communicate your game plan. Most of the time, I say I’ll need 10-15 minutes for interior and exterior restaurant photos and then will be ready for food. I indicate where I’d like to shoot the food. I also usually have a quick chat about timing issues with any of the dishes. Things with sauces that congeal need to be photographed quickly and I usually ask for those last. Same for anything that’s very cold or frozen.
50. Always ask whether it would be ok to step on the furniture at a restaurant, especially at any higher end spots.
51. If you can’t step on furniture and need additional height, ask for a milk crate or wine box. Sometimes you’ll get a 6 foot ladder.
52. Make sure you don’t leave your camera bag and tripod where someone can trip over them. Also, double check that they’re not in any of your shots.
53. Always schedule some buffer time if you’re trying to stack a couple of restaurant shoots in one day. Sometimes dishes take longer than planned or conditions are more challenging than expected.
54. Don’t set up future diners for disappointment with your food photos. Ask for each dish to look relatively realistic.
55. Double check plates for smudges and table clothes for creases. Both those things are easy to fix in person and surprisingly annoying to Photoshop out later.
56. When you export your photo files, name them with the restaurant name and your name. Bonus points if you include the dish name.
57. Be clear on who owns the images you shoot: the restaurant, the publication (if for editorial) or you. Price your work accordingly.
58. From Chicago food photographer Nick Murway - Photographing in Restaurants - Assuming you're there as a guest, just don't be an asshole about it. Fire off a couple quick shots, dig into your meal, fire off a couple more, and then enjoy yourself.
Food Photography Inspiration
59. Seek inspiration beyond Instagram. These days I like looking at paintings for composition inspiration. Also, cookbooks, photographer portfolios and magazines are great.
60. Some of the best food photos are on food blogs. Check out Half Baked Harvest, Stems and Forks and The Kitchen McCabe. These ladies are developing recipes, cooking, styling and shooting! When I feel lazy and uninspired, these are my main sources of food photography inspiration.
61. Pick 10 food photos you totally love and write out what it is that you love about each image. Writing about photography has helped me think about my work and progress in completely new ways.
62. Ask to assist or shadow a photographer you admire. Since I’m predominately self-taught, I’ve assisted and shadowed several photographers. Everyone does things a little differently and I’ve learned something new each time.
63. Pinterest is the best image search engine out there. If you find one image and click in you get tons of related imagery. For projects, I’ll occasionally look through these to see if there’s a common theme. You can either use this to get a sense of what some conventional staging strategies are or use it as a template of what not to do if you’re trying to come up with a new and unique perspective. Neither strategy is better or worse, it just depends on what your goals are for the shot.
Food photography composition
64. Play with composition. I have 3 or 4 angles and setups that I almost always do and once I’ve got those, I experiment.
65. Toothpicks make anything possible. Toothpicks can hold up crazy huge pancake stacks! They can also perfectly position that one rogue piece of fruit that just keeps moving into a weird spot.
66. From Erin of 312Food - 3) One thing I ALWAYS make sure to do when shooting hot food is clean my lens throughout the shoot. Steam on the lens can ruin your shots! I’m tagged in photos daily where I can tell exactly what happened. Once you notice it, you’ll never unsee it.
67. If you’re shooting something that’s in a bowl, don’t shoot it straight on. I’m baffled how often I see this. Shoot from above or from 75 degrees.
68. In a restaurant try to use unique aspects of the space in your photo to give a sense of space to your photos.
69. Get more options than you need. Often getting a shot set up takes a while so I always prefer to have additional options just in case they’re necessary in the future.
70. Hands make food photos feel more realistic. If you want to avoid having a food photo look too staged, get some hands in there.
71. When shooting a glass, keep in mind that there will be lens distortion that will make it look curved. I usually shoot drinks from right above or straight on.
72. Think about textures and colors of the food, plating, background and linens.
73. Double check that your silverware is on the appropriate side. I’m terrible at keeping my left and my right straight. I don’t know why. It’s just a weird brain gap I have.
Editing food photos
74. If you forget to double check that your silverware is on the right side, you can flip it in Photoshop! Or just bluster and say you’re a lefty with indignation.
75. Be careful with your reds and greens. For some reason, I see a lot of heavy handed color hue edits with reds and greens these days. I find it jarring and it’s the sort of thing that will likely look dated in a few years.
76. To maintain a consistent look across your portfolio, use your previous photos as a barometer for exposure and saturation. I started doing this after Betty from Stems and Forks mentioned that she did this for saturation in her photos and have found it very helpful.
77. If you’re feeling super lazy, edit your food photos in VSCO on your phone. The INF filter looks good on 99% of food shots.
78. There’s always more to learn! Hunt around for photography tutorials on blogs, YouTube and in books. I’ve been shooting and editing for 7 years now and I still regularly learn new things.
79. For commercial food photography shoots, research ahead of time previous campaigns to get a sense of the brand’s photography aesthetic. Even if you’re being hired for your specific style, it’s good to find the intersection between your style and the brand’s style.
80. If you want to create crazy, flying food or huge and intricate flat lays, you’ll need a bit of compositing and healing in Photoshop. I don’t do much of this but I feel like it’s the sort of thing you can’t quite think of the proper wording for when you’re starting out.
Commercial Food Photography
81. The larger the shoot, the more specialized your role will be. For example when I pop in for an hour restaurant photo shoot, I act as photographer, stylist and retoucher. On a larger commercial shoot, I’m usually focused on the photography. A stylist helps arrange the shot. A creative director oversees the vision. An assistant will help with set up. Twice I’ve worked on shoots with attorneys on the side to oversee branding.
82. Don’t talk about commercial photography as selling your soul. There’s plenty of space for creativity in commercial food photography. Your work can be as interesting as you make it.
83. Have a mood board or set of inspiration images that everyone has agreed on. Shot lists leave a lot of wiggle room and I’ve discovered that there are thousands of interpretations of “moody”, “clean” and “bright”. It’s easier to have a set of agreed upon inspiration images to work from.
84. Check in frequently. Whether I’m working remotely or with an entire team on set, regular check ins are vital.
85. Don’t be afraid to pass on a project if it’s really not a good fit.
86. Ask about any branding guidelines or rules. Some brands require that their branding is always in focus and others aren’t as strict. You run into all sorts of rules and things and it’s good to know them ahead of time.
87. Always be willing to stretch yourself and to experiment but try to do as much research and prep ahead of time. Set up test shoots and collaborations to try things out and learn.
88. If you end up being responsible for the contract, check out And Co. I’ve used it a bunch and it’s super flexible but also pretty good.
89. Always be clear on usage and how the files need to be delivered. I generally deliver files via dropbox and try to set how long I will keep the files accessible ahead of time.
Collaborating on a food photography shoot
90. I try to work on projects where I get some say in the creative direction. Personally, I find that to be the most satisfying work.
91. If you’re working with a food stylist and something isn’t quite working, talk to them. Don’t automatically adjust the food. I would hate it if someone took my camera and started shooting with it so don’t futz with the food. This is also true for elaborate dishes in restaurants.
92. On just for fun collaboration projects, make sure to also come up with a sharing plan. You don’t want your counterparts to feel scooped if you decide to share ahead of them.
93. For your first collaboration with someone, start small. It can take a while to understand each other’s communication style and workflow so it’s good to start with something small and easy.
94. Be careful with feedback. I was extremely lucky in that I worked with incredible producers on some of my earliest projects. They were always so great about giving me feedback in a way that never made me feel defensive. In my experience good feedback focuses on the ultimate goal not on blame or negativity.
95. When you are providing feedback, try to form some of it as a question. This is a a good way to get more information about the other person’s thought process. Things like…with “would it be possible to…”, “how can we make this look more…”, “is there a way to…” are all decent starting points.
Staying healthy as a food photographer
96. Drink a lot of water. I’m not sure how I’ve survived as long as I have because I hate the taste of plain water. These days I add orange bitters to water or a bit of peppermint tea. Whatever it takes, water helps your body process all the stuff you eat.
97. Start a yoga or a stretching routine. This winter I met a professional photographer that had chronic back pain from her 20 years of lugging around camera equipment. She had started a regular yoga routine and was able to work out a lot of her back and should issues. I’m not great about going to class regularly but it always helps with shoulder and back tension.
98. Find a workout plan that works for you. For a while I tried going to the gym daily but my schedule varies too much. I would miss a couple of days and fall out of the routine. I use a workout app so I can do something active during free moments.
99. Keep your equipment load as lean as you can or invest in lots of rolling cases and tables. Carrying around a ton of gear all the time will take it out of you so if whenever you can, don't overpack.
100. Eat a high protein snack before shoots. It’ll fill you up, tide you over if things run long and weigh you down.
101. Have fun! It's food photography not brain surgery! You can use food to illustrate a lot of things about culture, people and ethics but it can be fun and delicious in the process.