Food photography is a popular genre of photography - just look at most of your friend’s Instagram feeds!
But in order to provide quality food photography images to clients, there are several food photography techniques that will help us capture the best images, including how to style photos of food.
In addition to food photography styling tips, this tutorial will highlight some best practices and techniques that you can use to create the best images of food.
You may also want to check out our primer Getting Started in Food Photography: Beginner’s Gear Guide for an idea of where to start with equipment.
Small Product Techniques
As a first step in food photography styling, let’s get out of the mindset of simply displaying meals as a social media post. Good food photography styling has more in common with small product photography than with documenting dinner.
Starting out in food photography, it’s helpful to look at the food as a small product, using tips and techniques from that genre as our food photography tips and techniques.
Some of the basic ideas for capturing good images of small products that transfer to food photography techniques are to use good lighting, isolate the subject, carefully choose your background, and use props judiciously.
Lighting is a primary skill for all sorts of photography, and it’s vitally important for appealing food photography styling. Contrast and shadows, color cast, reflections, and naturalness are aspects to consider.
With most food photography styling, soft light such as from a soft box or a photo umbrella is desirable. This provides a lower contrast level without a lot of deep shadows obscuring details.
Of course, some food photos look great with harder light and deep shadows. Spotlighting a single item or plate with steam rising off of it looks fantastic against a dark background as that highlights the steam. Another way to capture steam is backlighting, which works regardless of how bright or dark the background is.
Use your discretion here. A series of images may work better than a single image. Shoot some images with soft light and some with very directional hard light.
So, deciding what style of lighting to use, soft or hard, will depend on your idea for how to present the food. A good rule of thumb is to use softer lighting for an overall view while spotlighting specific items adds drama and excitement. Both techniques work fine, and mixing and matching techniques is part of the fun.
Isolate the Subject
There are several methods employed to isolate subject matter in photography. Selective focus, lighting techniques, and adjusting the background can all be used in food photography styling.
Selective focus is an effect created by lens aperture, focal length, and focusing distance. Think of it as directly opposite what you’ve probably already learned for landscape photography, deep depth of field.
For deep depth of field, you use smaller apertures, find the hyperfocal distance, and lean more towards wide-angle lenses. For selective focus, you are wanting a very shallow depth of field. So, you use wider lens apertures, specific focus, and lean more towards telephoto lenses.
A lighting technique that isolates a subject is spotlighting. With spotlighting, you are directing the light you base your exposure on only to the subject, letting everything else fall off in darkness. If you use one of these techniques, you don’t need to use the other, but using both together creates extreme subject isolation.
Adjusting the background is a simple method for isolating the subject in food photography styling. You can accomplish this with lighting and focus tricks, or you can make use of some sort of backdrop.
The background can either enhance or complement your food photography styling techniques. Some backgrounds are hard to control, especially when working out in the field as opposed to your own studio or home.
Premade backdrops that you can carry into the field or use in your own studio are very handy and a great way to control many of the other food photography techniques we’ve discussed. Instead of moving everything around and playing with extra lights, simply use a portable backdrop.
A fantastic series of preprinted designs and textures for portable backgrounds can be found at BestEverBackdrops. Most of the images illustrating this article were created using a BestEverBackdrops portable backdrop.
They make several different sizes, from highly portable to large enough to become a good background for a full spread on a table. They have all sorts of colors, patterns, and styles, many of them are two-sided for added versatility as well.
It’s worth mentioning that these backdrops are extremely durable and easy to clean, too - important qualities when food photography is involved!
Use of props for any small product photography has pluses and minuses, and the same applies to food photography styling.
Props can either enhance or detract from our specific subject matter. The right prop makes the picture more realistic, inviting, or interesting.
It’s a good idea to keep props that are realistic and related to the subject matter. A pizza prop may include a cutting wheel or a shaker of cheese, while a good prop for a steak could be a wood cutting board or a foamy glass of beer.
Think outside the box, too. Articles of clothing and tools could also enhance food photography styling. A pair of gloves for a candy bar or a screwdriver for a cocktail in a glass.
You get the idea. Play around with your ideas and see which ones enhance an image and what may simply look silly or out of place.
Keep coming back, we will publish more food photography tutorials and food photography styling ideas that will help you get the most out of your efforts in this fun and profitable field.