Since starting my blog last year, one aspect I’ve found that I really enjoy is the photography. When I first started out I was pretty appalling, but over time I’ve managed to build my photography skills to a point where I now get quite a few compliments, so I thought I’d share my top tips for better food photography.
For the most part I’ve cleansed my blog of the dreadful photos that plagued it in the early days. However, I’ve had comments recently from people saying they don’t believe that my photography was that bad (that made my day 🙂 ), so in case you don’t believe me, here’s a shot of my delicious (it actually is, it just doesn’t look it) chilli con carne…
As I’ve been writing this post I’ve realised that I actually have quite a lot to say on the subject. So to avoid this turning into an epic, I’ve decided that it’s just the start of a new series on food photography where every few weeks I’ll delve into some of these in more detail (any suggestions for a catchy hashtag, let me know in the comments).
But to start things off, here’s my top 13 tips for better food photography…
1) Plan your pictures and look to others for inspiration
Before I start taking any food photographs I try and plan out a few different shots to try. I’ve usually got a few ideas in mind. However, I’ll also have a quick scout around the internet to see what others have tried.
This isn’t a case of copying someone else images, more taking bits and pieces of ideas and putting them together into something different.
I like to take a quick look through Foodgawker, Google Images, Pinterest and Instagram.
This isn’t something that needs to take long, in fact being quick can help as I find I don’t over analyse things. I simply type in an appropriate search term and have a quick scroll through. I note any that catch my eye and then go back and see if I can work out what sets them apart from the others around them.
I’ve also recently created a pinterest board where I pin inspirational food photographs when I spot them. I use this to identify new styles to try and also what sort of props to keep an eye open for when I’m out and about (I’m currently coveting some antique looking spoons and an ice-cream scoop).
It’s good to have a few different ideas as sometimes I find that the one I think is a little bit of genius ends up looking a little bit rubbish instead. Rather than panicking I simple write it off as a bad idea and move onto the next one.
2) Take your pictures in natural light (or a very good imitation)
When I first started out I knew that my photographs should be well lit. I cast my mind to big photography studios with giant artificial lights and decided that I would therefore get good pictures if I turned on as many of my kitchen lights as possible.
I was wrong.
After being told that my food pictures looked “disgusting” (you can rely on family for honesty!) I invested in Tasty Food Photography by Lindsay at Pinch of Yum. A very successful food photographer whose blog I’d been following for a while before I started one myself.
It was a little too much to take in in one sitting. However, the one rule that stuck with me was to use natural light. You can see the difference it makes in these two pictures of the same dish – the kitchen light makes the first image look dull, flat and pretty unappetising. In contrast, the second image using natural light looks bright and fresh.
Over the winter I realised that whilst using natural light was great in theory, the limited daylight hours and the fact that even during the day it was often cloudy and overcast meant that natural light wasn’t all that readily available.
One solution was to head outside where the light levels were much higher. However, in winter it’s often cold/windy/raining so that just wasn’t practical.
My solution was to invest in a Lowel Ego Lamp, an artificial light, designed for this type of photography. My preference now is to use a combination of natural light and the lowel ego lamp. I use the lamp as the main light source and then the window as a secondary source to lighten areas of the picture that could otherwise look quite shadowy.
Here’s the setup I used for the picture of my bacon, avocado and chickpea salad ingredients. There was no natural light, just the lamp on one side and a reflector on the other, yet the finished picture looks bright.
I know some bloggers use two lamps to create a similar effect to my lamp and window combination and I may consider buying a second lamp to help me in the winter when the natural light is hiding again.
3) Make the best use of the light you have
Sometimes I find that the sun is shining and the light looks like it going to be just perfect. Then I look at the pictures and they look, well… flat. Good light isn’t just about being able to see the food, it’s also about adding highlights and subtle shadows – bringing your food to life.
If you think the light is good but your pictures aren’t, then I find the best thing to do is to change the angle. This is one of the advantages of using an artificial light as, unlike a window, it’s much easier to move around. If you’re lighting from the side, try moving it around the back a little, or vice versa. I also like to try and raise the light up slightly, mimicking the angle of the sun shining down through a window.
In my first attempt at photographing my three bean and vegetable chilli the light was too far back and too low so there was a very dark shadow on the right hand side. Moving the light forward and rising it slightly left the chilli much brighter.
Using a reflector is also a great way to soften shadows and add light to any darker areas.
4) Get some props
Adding props to a picture is a great way to make your pictures stand out. I have to admit that I’ve become I bit of a food photography props addict – I look at everything to think if it could be used in a picture and I’ll happily spend an evening browsing eBay looking for some interesting bargains.
Props are great for setting the scene, helping your readers to imagine eating your food. But, they can also be used to draw attention to the food and to fill awkward empty space in a picture.
Some of my favourite props are cloths, cutlery, boxes, flowers, and other food items, but I’ll use anything I have to hand as long as I think it helps make a great picture, even my engagement ring!
You can see the impact of adding a couple of simple props in these double chocolate and caramel profiterole pictures. The soft fabric adds interest to the table top, but the neutral colour means it isn’t distracting. It also helps to disguise the clear join between the table top and the background board. The lavender fills a little of the empty space in the background and adds a hint of colour.
Have a look at the props used in these pictures and think about what they add…
- The apples in the flapjack picture add colour, fill an awkward space behind the tray and give you a hint as to what’s hidden inside the flapjacks.
- The box and ribbon in the chocolate picture suggest that these would make a great gift. A smart box and ribbon also hint that these are a luxurious treat.
- The fork next to the the blueberry tart helps the viewer to imagine eating it. Don’t you just want to pick up the fork and dig in!
In addition to props it’s also worth having a selection of surfaces to photograph on and backgrounds. I’ve made a few boards at home using plain MDF/plywood boards from a DIY shop and coving them with self adhesive wood-effect flooring. For backgrounds I tend to use what I have to hand – baking trays, towels, sheets and even an old headboard!
5) Think about your composition
There are loads of composition “rules” you can follow in photography. Don’t just put things out on the table and take a quick picture, take a bit of care to arrange your food and props so that your food is the star.
I’d love to take a few moments to talk about all of the composition techniques I know and how I apply them, but in all honesty I simply take a really, really good look at the picture I’ve taken to see if…
- Anything looks awkward or out of place
- The food is the star
It helps to get the image up on a big screen, look away, then look back. Don’t think about what you were trying to take a picture of, only think about where your eyes are being drawn to. If it’s not the food, then move things about and try again.
That said, I find knowing about a few of the key composition techniques gives me a starting point for arranging my picture in the first place. Emma from Emma Davies Photography has a great list of 30 composition techniques, the main ones I consider when arranging a picture are viewpoint, the rule of thirds, and diagonals (although not always all at once!).
I tend to try and take pictures of each recipe from more than one viewpoint. It makes the pictures more interesting in the post, rather than having everything taken from the same angle.
This picture of my chocolate orange meringues is a good illustration of applying the rule of thirds. The stack of meringues lies along the right hand line (stacking things in threes is also a good idea). The edge of the box is along the left hand line, and the leaning meringue sits on the intersection of two lines.
I find diagonals cropping up regularly in my pictures, I love them!
Don’t forget, if you’re planning on cropping the image, think about the position of the items in your picture in the cropped version rather than how they appear on your camera.
6) Check your images as you go along
Before I finish shooting my pictures I’ll upload them onto my computer and take a quick look on the bigger screen. As helpful as the little screen on the back of the camera is, it’s small.
By having a quick look on my computer I can check if the lighting looks OK, if the picture is in focus, if there’s any awkward reflections, and if it can be cropped how I want it. By checking as I go along it means that I can quickly go and retake the picture while everything is still set up rather than having to go back and try again later.
I always ensure that my main image can be cropped square. This means that it will look right on my homepage and recipe index, and also the majority of photosharing sites (like Foodgawker and Tastespotting) require a square image.
7) Take your time and persevere
I’ve discovered that taking nice pictures takes me time. I like to set aside a couple of hours for each recipe – sometimes I don’t need it, but there’s nothing worse than nearly having the right picture and having to head out for the school run.
I also find that a bit of perseverance goes a long way. I’ll sometimes be snapping away at pictures that I’m sure are good only to look at them and realise they’re not right. I’ll sit down and look at them for a bit and try and figure out what I don’t like – is the lighting right, is it coming from the right angle. Then I’ll go back, make some changes and keep snapping away until I’m happy. I always get there in the end!
The original image of my coconut chocolate overnight oats was fine but a bit boring, adding a drizzle of chocolate and some sprinkled coconut and almonds turned it into something much more interesting.
8) Have a play with your camera and figure out what the different settings do
Personally I like to use my DSLR (a Nikon D7100) to take the pictures for my blog. I love the ability I have to create a beautiful blurry background by adjusting the depth of field, or using it to help manage the light when it’s not as sunny as I’d like.
However, there’s absolutely no point in having a decent camera if you don’t know how to use it. Read your manual, play with the different settings and figure out what they all do. There’s probably a few that you’ll not need to touch, but you won’t know that unless you try.
Things you should definitely figure out are…
- Set your camera to manual and test the impact of changing depth of field, aperture and ISO
- White balance
In addition to my blog pictures, I spent quite a bit of time earlier in the year practising different types of shots, in particular dark background shots, and popping them onto Instagram. Here’s a few of my favourites…
9) Switch your camera from jpeg to RAW (if it can!)
If you’ve invested in a camera that can take photos in RAW, then use it!
When you take pictures in jpeg your camera makes certain decisions about what the image should look like and loses the bits of information it thinks you don’t need. It means that if you’ve accidentally over or under exposed your picture there’s very little hope of getting it right in editing. When you shoot in RAW it keeps all the information. Your picture may look like it’s overexposed, but a quick adjustment of the light using some editing software and most of the time you’ll be able to get the picture back looking as you wanted.
I seriously overexposed this chocolate picture. If this had been shot in jpeg all I would ever have had at the back and side is bright white, whereas reducing the exposure of the RAW image in lightroom shows that all of the definition of the table is still there (although it was so horribly over exposed I retook it with much better settings).
I’ve heard other people saying that RAW pictures are trickier to edit, but I’ve never really found that to be true.
10) Edit, edit, edit
It’s very rare that I’ll take a picture and think it’s absolutely perfect straight out of the camera. Nowadays I edit all of my blog pictures in Lightroom. For a long time I simply used the free iPhoto software on my mac, but I switched to Lightroom as it allows you to edit just a small part of the picture which may be over-exposed or lacking clarity, whilst leaving the remainder untouched. It also allows you to enhance individual colours. I find boosting greens and reds a little can really help them stand out.
I’ve shared these two pictures before, but I think they’re a great illustration of what can be done in Lightroom. I’ve overdone the editing, just to make the point really clear, but hopefully you can see in the edited (2nd) picture that the cucumber and lemon have greater clarity. The top right has been darkened, and I have brightened the bottom left. I’ve boosted the greens and reds to make them more vibrant, and I’ve altered the exposure on the cheese.
Lightroom isn’t a cheap option, I pay £8.57 per month (although you can also buy it as a one-off). However, if you’re not sure it’s for you then they offer a free trial for one month, which is plenty of time to give it a good test and see if it’s worth it.
Whatever editing software you use, read up about it and make sure you’re getting the most out of it.
11) Set yourself challenges
If you’re not sure where to start with improving your photography then joining in with some challenges is a great place to get going. Around the end of last year I started the #Make30Photos challenge, where you get 30 different prompts and have to take a photo along the theme of each one. For me, this challenge was about learning to think about how to create a picture, rather than just snapping something quickly. About halfway through I found I’d really grown in confidence and my phototgraphy had improved significantly. I didn’t finish the challenge, but I didn’t need to to achieve what I wanted from it.
Instagram is a great place for photo challenges and there are some other great challenges about, including…
- #ScrumptiousKitchen – a different foodie prompt each day (search for the hashtag in Instagram and you’ll find quite a few people who have shared the prompts)
- #CapturingColour – A new colour prompt each week
- #1day12pics – A challenge to take 12 pictures in 1 day on the 1st Saturday of the month – This is definitely a challenge I should do at some point as I like to take my time over my pictures, so having the challenge of sharing so many different pictures in one day will encourage me to try to take great pictures quickly.
12) Make photo friends
Through the #Make30Photos challenge I discovered #BlogPhotoChat, a twitter chat every Thursday at 9pm (UK time) on a different photography theme each week, and the Remarkable 2015 Facebook group. If you’re looking for some photography advice or honest (but friendly) feedback on your pictures then I’d really recommend this group.
13) Constantly strive to learn more
I’m on an ever continuing learning curve with my photography, and whilst I now think I can take a half decent picture, I want to be better. I’m always on the lookout for photography blogs to read and learn new tricks. I keep all of my favourites in a dedicated pinterest board so I can refer back to them whenever I want to.
So that’s it, my top 13 tips for improving your food photography. As I said before, this is the start of a new series where every few weeks I’ll be delving into some of these in more depth. If there’s something you’d really like to hear more about then please let me know in the comments.