If you flick through any cookbook or lifestyle magazine you’ll find yourself salivating at the delicious dishes on show. But effective food photography requires a range of talents and considerations, including lighting, composition, styling and camera skills. Mastering these different elements is incredibly rewarding, so we’ve put together this handy guide to help your food photography become worthy of a Michelin star.
All great food photography begins with the lighting, and the good news for budding food photographers is that the lighting setup required is simple. All you need is one large diffused light source, and a reflector to soften some of the shadows. The best source of light is a large window; it’s free, everyone has one and you can work in tighter spaces. It’s important to avoid direct sunlight as its harshness creates a strong contrast that isn’t so flattering for food pics. If sunlight could be an issue, hang up a patternless net curtain or stick a piece of baking paper to the window to diffuse the light. To create more depth to the image, it helps to frame up so the light source is on a different axis to the angle of the camera, either to one side or coming from behind the food works well. However, to bounce some light back onto your food and reduce the shadows, it’s best to position a reflector to achieve this.
Sometimes it’s not possible to work with natural window light, but you can do a great job of recreating its effects with a speedlight, off-camera triggers and a large softbox. I prefer to work with speedlights because there’s much more control over the lighting, so you can adjust the power, angle, and softness, and you’re not reliant on daylight hours. The principle is still the same, all you need is one softened light source and a reflector to bounce some of the light back into the shadows to control the contrast.
When it comes to lenses, I find a short to mid telephoto lens works best, and wide angle shots are to be generally avoided as the distortion it creates is unflattering for food. My preferred optic for food photography is a 90mm macro lens as it provides a good field of view and it allows me to zoom in and focus up tightly on the most mouth watering details.
If you’re using a DSLR with and APS-C sensor and don’t yet have a macro lens, a 50mm prime lens works well with food too. It has an equivalent focal length of 75mm and the f/1.8 aperture is great for creating a shallow depth of field to help the dish stand out in the frame.
Taking control of the aperture is the most crucial part of setting up your camera correctly. If you’re working with window light, set up in Aperture priority mode and select an f/number to produce the desired depth of field – depending on how tight you want the zone of sharpness to be. Start with a mid aperture of f/10 and see how you get on. If you want to add more blur to the background areas, select a lower f/number like f/5.6; to make the background areas even sharper select a higher f/number. Set your ISO sensitivity to its lowest setting which is usually ISO 100, as this will produce the best image quality free from Noise. To avoid the risk of camera shake, it’s vital that you fix your camera to a tripod as it’s likely your shutter speed will be too slow to handhold. Using a tripod also ensures the composition is more considered and the focus is accurately set.
If you’re working with a diffused speedlight for your light source it’s best to set up your camera in Manual mode. The aperture and ISO will be the same as if shooting with window light. Keep the sensitivity low to preserve image quality and select an f/number to give the depth of field required, but set the shutter speed to 1/200sec. This is below the flash sync speed and will also minimise the effect of any ambient light such as ceiling spot lights interfering with the lighting in your shot. If you were to take an exposure at these settings but without firing the flash the image should be almost entirely dark, so you know the light from the speedlight will be the only one affecting your subject. Set your flash to ⅛ power, take a test shot and see if the lighting needs to be brighter or darker. Either increase or decrease the power, or move your light source closer or further from the plate of food.
To focus on a plate of food, you’ll get better results if you use Live View rather than the Viewfinder and fine tune the focus manually. Use the magnification button on the rear of the camera to zoom into the frame on your main point of interest and rotate the focus ring on your lens to set a tight focus.
One of the great – but perhaps also overwhelming – things about food photography is that you have total control over the composition. There aren’t many subjects that let you rearrange the scene to suit your artistic eye or choose any angle you wish, but there are certain angles that almost always work well. A very popular angle on food is the top-down, bird’s eye view. It create a very graphical image and allows you to tell a story around the main dish with other relevant items or ingredients. Other high angles also give good results for food, as there’s less background to worry about – if there’s any it’ll be the table or surface your food is on. Finding a low angle to the food also works well and can make the food look heroic, providing the background suits the style of the image.
A lot of the magic with food photography comes down to the styling. The aim is to tell a story of the dish, whether you choose to include lifestyle elements such as place settings and table items, or a smattering of ingredients such as a dusting of flour, a smear of chocolate and a handful of scattered raspberries. It’s important to remember that less is more when it comes to styling. If you’re not careful you can add to much styling to the subject, which over complicates the scene and distracts from the main subject. Just use a few carefully considered items, and arrange them so they guide the viewer’s eye towards the food, rather than fighting it for attention. It helps to look at cookbooks, magazines and websites for inspiration on your styling, as these big budget shoots will have used professional food stylists, so you can steal some tips on composition, colour use and prop styling to help create your own delicious food images.