How to shoot mouth-watering food photos

From what I’ve gathered in my short career as a blogger who rhapsodizes about food, there are two keys to shooting great food photos: lighting, and practice.

I’m still futzing around with both, and trying to wrap my head around the behemoth that is “composition.” Since a few of you asked, I wanted to share a few tips from the recent workshop I took with Penny de los Santos.

Penny is a senior contributing photographer with Saveur, and she’s also shot for National Geographic and Sports Illustrated, among others. She gives food photography workshops throughout the U.S., and I’d seen raves about her recent Seattle class via her Twitter feed. When she Tweeted that she was offering a class in San Francisco on the same weekend I happened to be in town, I quickly signed up.

The class cost about $300, so it wasn’t cheap. But this was a relatively low price compared to other food blogging/photography classes and retreats I’ve seen. (Some of these places charge $600 or $900, sending the message that you have to be SUPER RICH to be a quality food blogger. This drives me insane.)

Just like I’d hoped, the class was fantastic. Penny was friendly and funny, and she somehow managed to synthesize buckets of information on how to shoot a great picture into eight hours. Definitely worth every penny. (Heh. Sorry.)

Here are the four main points I came away with, and my thoughts on whether or not you need a fancy DSLR camera to shoot great photos.

How to create fabulous food photos

1. Lighting, lighting, lighting. Penny doesn’t shoot with crazy lamps and a tripod. She shoots in natural light, no flash, and holds the camera in her hand. If she’s inside a restaurant and the lighting isn’t any good, she takes the plate of food outside. She once shot a plate on top of a Dumpster, because the Dumpster was in an alley behind the restaurant, where the lighting was perfect.

We learned how to use our light meters in this class, but you don’t necessarily have to do this to produce a good photo. You can shoot in automatic, and if the lighting’s right and the subject’s right, you’re going to get a great shot. Just DON’T use the built-in flash. Ever.

When you’re considering the light, think about where it’s coming from and how bright it is. Around noon on a sunny day, the light is white and strong, and if you’re taking pictures outdoors, it’s going to completely throw this harsh blanket over your image. (Not a good thing, in most cases.) So if you can only shoot at noon on a sunny day, look for shade, or shoot inside near a window. Or shoot in the morning or around sunset when the light is softer and more golden. Of course, if you have the money, you could also buy a full-spectrum lamp to mimic natural sunlight.

2. Vary your angles. There are three basic angles to taking food photos: Overhead, three-fourths and side view. Overhead is exactly what it sounds like: shooting the dish or subject in question from directly overhead, as if your camera was a hovering UFO. This works great for salads and other colorful dishes.

For three-fourths, you move your camera-UFO position down and a little to the side. It’s about a 45-degree angle.

Side view is just like it sounds, too — a direct side view. This works well for things that have height, like a loaf of date bread.

3. Think about colors, textures and contrasts. A big bowl of oatmeal probably isn’t going to photograph well. But what if you added some toasted nuts and dried fruit for texture? Same problem with this bowl of lentils, which I struggled to photograph, because they felt so brown and blah and boring to me.

I probably should’ve added a dollop of crema, and maybe a little sprig of thyme. That would’ve jazzed up the photo. Again, this goes back to that practice thing. You just gotta keep at it until you figure out what garnishes might work best to add that much-needed color pop and contrast.

Think about plates, and surfaces and napkins. A dark-brown plate is not going to photograph well on a dark-brown wooden table. But a white plate against a wooden table looks pretty nice… and even livelier with a bit of green in the background.

Another thing to consider is portion size. Smaller portions tend to photograph much better than large ones.

4. Look for energy, and don’t be afraid to get in people’s faces. This is what I struggled with the most in Penny’s class. I’m super content to be home alone in my little TV-room/photo studio, shooting a zillion photos of a bowl of lentils. But walking up to a stranger and asking them if I can take their picture? Especially a stranger eating? I can’t do it.

It’s odd, because I worked as a newspaper reporter for eight years and I had — and still have — absolutely no qualms with walking up to a stranger and asking them a question related to a story. A camera feels so much more intrusive than a notepad and pen, though.

Why is taking pictures of strangers important? Because in a lot of cases, people are what make really great food photos. They’re interesting and vibrant and they have unique faces. They bring character and variety and movement to a photo, especially if they’re eating. Penny has some fantastic food-related people images on her blog, which I highly encourage you to check out.

So yeah. I only took three photos of a people during my assignment. My favorite one was this kid, at a fish market.

The other bloggers in the class really brought it, though. Check out the Flickr group for more evidence.

Real quick before I sign off, I wanted to talk about cameras. Penny didn’t address this much at her workshop — we were too busy learning a mountain of other things, and hitting the streets — so I’ll share my own opinion.

How important is a DSLR camera in shooting great food photos?

You don’t need a DSLR camera to take good food photos. If you can’t afford one, a digital point-and-shoot takes perfectly fine pictures. This is what I used for five years, and what I used on this blog for about 10 months. If you can fiddle with the ISO and turn the flash off, you should be fine. Personally, I loved the macro setting on my Canon camera, and I used it like a fiend.

Here were some of my favorite photos, taken with my Canon point-and-shoot:


Nicuatole, a thickened, corn masa pudding from Mexico, photographed on Nov. 9, 2005

Apple granola breakfast crisp, with yogurt:

Apple granola breakfast crisp, to serve two or three people on a weekend morning. Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Orange bread pudding with gooey raisin sauce:

Orange bread pudding with gooey raisin sauce

That said… if you are serious about food blogging, and you can scrimp and save and afford a DSLR, you should get it. Seriously. It’s basically like the difference between a homemade hamburger bun and a packaged one. The packaged one is fine, and the hamburger tastes well enough if that’s all you’ve ever known. But a homemade bun makes the burger so much better.

Really, with my Canon Rebel XSi — the entryway Canon after a point-and-shoot — I don’t even do anything. I just make sure the light is okay, and then I press a button. Really. That’s it. (But I press the button a bunch of times and take a bunch of photos at different angles.) My camera was $599 on Amazon, and I skipped the kit lens in favor of a $99 fixed 50mm f/1.8 II that was recommended on various food blogs. Fixed lenses tend to offer sharper quality than zoom lenses, or so I’ve read, which makes them great for shooting food.

Here are a few food-blogging resources I consulted while trying to figure out whether I should upgrade, and which camera to buy:

Smitten Kitchen: Our Approach to Food Photos

Steamy Kitchen: Gettin’ that Money Shot

101 Cookbooks’ Food Photography Tips

Family Friendly Food: Learning About a Lens

Still Life With, a blog dedicated to shooting food photos, also has some great tips, and links to classes at their new food photography studio (!) in Seattle.

Obviously I’m still learning here. If you have any other tips you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them!

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