Food Photography Basics

Food photography is a specialty within photography. There are entire studios staffed with full-time food photographers, food stylists, chefs, all working together to get the best food shots possible for very high-end clients. That's all they do, and they do it very well.

I'm certainly not an expert in food photography, but occasionally, on editorial assignments, I need to supplement a story on a chef or a restaurant with not only portraits of people, but portraits of food. When gigs that involve shooting food come up, I approach it like a would a regular editorial portrait, meaning it needs to tell a story.

Telling a story with food will incorporate not just your creativity in the placement and styling of the food, but the technical aspects of photography as well. Focal length, depth of field, and lighting all come together to help tell that story.

Let me walk you through what goes through my simple mind when I'm planning out a set of food shots. If professional food photography is of interest to you, I hope this gives you a small foundation to start with, if you're like me and it's something that just comes up once in a while, then I hope these tips help you out.

First, I'm thinking location. Where will I put the food to shoot it. If it's an editorial shoot, I want something with context, a kitchen, a table in the restaurant, maybe logos or menus nearby. If it's a commercial shoot, I may want something cleaner, like just a counter top, or even a piece of white seamless.

Next is lighting, lighting and location really go hand-in-hand when you're photographing food. I prefer large soft light for food, natural light when it's available, but I'll add light if necessary. The reason I say this goes right along with choosing your location is because if I can shoot food on a covered restaurant patio during the day, I'm set. Location: Check. Lighting: Check.

If the ideal scenarios aren't available, inside the restaurant may provide enough available light through large windows, or you can still always bounce a flash off the ceiling, a white wall, or set up lighting just as you would a portrait shot.

Once location is figured out and you know what your light is, give thought to your focal length and depth of field. As I'm sure you're aware, focal length directly impacts depth of field, so now some technical things to consider. Nothing isolates your plate of food, ice cream cone, glass of wine, whatever, better than a standard 80-200mm f/2.8 lens you may already have in your bag for portraits, or nature, or sports, or whatever you shoot. It's usually my go-to lens for food and portraits for the same reason. However, depending on how much light you have available, and how much depth of field you need, your range of apertures available to use may be limited. What I mean is, if you're shooting in a dark restaurant, and you need to shoot at f/2.8 to get a decent shutter speed, but at 80-200mm, f/2.8 is just too shallow for what your shot should be, then you either need more light, or a different lens. Now, shooting at f/2.8 with a 50mm lens may work just perfectly. All those decisions are based on the shot you're creating.

Lastly, now you have your location, you light is good, the depth of field is shallow enough to be where you want it, but not too shallow to lose important parts of your food plate, give context one last thought. Would adding a glass of wine, beer, or water, add or takeaway from your shot? Utensils? Menu in the background? You're building a photograph from scratch here, so anything you can think of is at least worth a try. I tend to experiment quite a bit with framing and angles and especially props when I shoot food. Food, I find, is more patient than people.

Of course there are countless ways to photograph food, there is never a one-size-fits-all answer to anything in photography. Find your style, create images that match your vision, have fun with it.


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