Updated: Jul 7
Putting a plate in front of a customer to eat is different than putting it in front of a camera. But taking photos that are just as mouth-watering as the real deal is easy when you keep a handful of things in mind. Let’s explore the five key tips that can take your food photos from hmm to yumm!
1. Finding the light
Finding a spot with even, natural light is key in making food look great. Near a window is best, and be sure to find a spot where the sun isn’t beating in (unless sun-soaked is what you’re going for!). Also, turn off any overhead lights to avoid a yellow-ish tone to your photos. If it’s too dark inside, you can even take the food outside on overcast days, or to a shady spot on a sunny day. (You can get artificial lights, though the good ones can be a bit pricey—and if you have relatively good access to natural light, take advantage of it!)
In the photo below, you can tell the light is even because the right side is just as light as the left.
2. Determining the best angle
The two angles I end up using the most are straight-on from the side, and top-down, simply because one or the other is almost always best for capturing the important details I want people to see. Occasionally I’ll shoot at a 45 degree angle, but usually only if I’m losing a lot of important elements by doing either of the other angles. And it all depends on the type of food being featured. As an example, imagine you’re photographing a burger—if you shoot it top-down, you’re going to get a lot of bun. But if you shoot from the side, you’ll get the bun, the patty and all the fixin’s. Conversely, if you’re photographing a pizza, you’re missing all the good stuff if you shoot it from the side. Instead, get right on top of that pizza to capture it in all it’s cheesy glory.
All that said, there are often situations and food types that would warrant a photo from multiple angles. For example, below is a straight-on and top-down shot of the same beverage. The one on the left is focusing on adding salt to the drink, while the shot on the right shows not only the color of the drink, but the garnishes and the ingredients around the edges. (And as you can see, I have been known to opt for a sun-soaked look—after all, margaritas are meant for sunny days!)
I recommend identifying ahead of time what you want people to notice about the photo in order to determine what the best angle will be. And it’s never a bad idea to take shots from multiple angles just in case—at least while you’re getting the hang of the concept.
3. Styling the photo
Let’s say you’re photographing a plate of tacos. Styling this photo could be as simple as putting a margarita, guacamole, and chips alongside the dish of tacos in order to add visual interest. Another styling option for a plate of tacos is to place raw ingredients off to the side to show what went into the dish.
As another example, the photo below on the left shows three simple versions of marshmallows to demonstrate that they can be dusted in powdered sugar, cocoa powder, or granulated sugar. And the photo on the right shows those same options, but also with a few more varieties, along with some marshmallows packaged up to show how you might gift them for the holidays. The styling in these photos is helping to tell two specific stories (we’ll talk more about “telling the right story” in the next section): The photo on the right is for a specific holiday, while the one on the left can be used any time of year—and it’s all about how you style the photo.
4. Telling the right story
Okay, we touched on the story element in the above section, but it’s time to expand a bit on the idea. When you’re planning your photographs, it’s helpful to think not only about how you might style a photo, but also where you might set up a shot in order to tell the right story. For instance, if you’re a restaurant promoting drink specials for specific cocktails, it would be important to get close-ups of the drinks so you can show off the colors, garnishes, and whatever else makes these drinks special. On the other hand, if you’re promoting your weekday happy hour, it probably makes more sense to take pictures of drinks with the bar area in the shot so people get a sense of the atmosphere in your photo.
Let’s take a look at the two photos below to see how two very similar shots can tell different stories. The photo on the left would be perfect to show off this type of brownie if, say, you are promoting your bakery—it’s easy to see all the ingredients, and it’s a great photo for communicating that your bakery’s display case is full of these delicious treats and ready for customers. With the photo on the right, there are brownies missing, so this might be a better photo to advertise party trays, as if to communicate, “These are crowd-pleasers—your guests will gobble them up!”
Overall, just think about what you want your customer to do or think after they see the picture, and consider how and where you might take that picture to get that message across.
5. Strategic cooking and plating
If you’re working with the person who is cooking the food (or if you are that person!), it’s important to think about how to put that dish together for the camera. You’ll want to arrange ingredients/dish elements so they can all be captured from a single angle. For example, in this burger photo, I purposely pushed the egg towards the camera and tipped the top of the bun back so that the egg yolk was front and center. I also arranged the bacon so it was sticking out the sides and very visible.
In this photo of a rhubarb crisp, I added a spoonful of cooked rhubarb peeking out from under the crisp so it was easy to see what type of dessert this was.
For this vegetable casserole, I was very deliberate in making sure there were both yellow and green zucchini slices on the top before I put it in the oven so those colors would be visible. I was also strategic in how I added the crumbled crackers on top—I didn’t want them to cover up too much of the zucchini. And while you can definitely see some of the melted cheese on top, I added a bowl of shredded cheese to the styling to make that ingredient a bit more obvious.
If you’re just getting started, concentrate on one or two of the five elements in the beginning, and once they become second nature, take on others. I promise, this all gets easier and easier the more you practice, and it will start to feel a lot more like fun than work. And even when it’s work, it’s still pretty fun!