Art history is brimming with beautiful still life images of fruit feasts and last suppers. And it wasn’t long after the photograph was invented in 1839 that we started focusing our cameras on our favourite subject: food! William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1845 image of a basket of peaches and pineapples is considered to be the first photograph depicting food.

William Henry Fox Talbot, A Fruit Piece, 1845 – Image via Wikimedia Commons

Black and white food photos continued to be popular all the way up until Wladimir Schohin changed the game entirely with his 1910 colour photo of a cracked egg in an eggcup.

Autochrome Eggcup by Wladimir Schohin, 1910 – Source

The rest, as they say, is history. Mouthwateringly beautiful food photos filled cookbooks and advertisements all over the world, with photographers dedicating their entire careers to the art form of food photography.

Then of course, as social media began to boom and everyone started carrying powerful digital cameras in their pockets (i.e. the smartphone), it became even more popular. Today, food photography is a passion for millions of people who love sharing their home-cooked creations and culinary explorations around the world.

Bloggers, influencers and specialist creators have taken the art form of food photography even further. With a swipe of your phone screen you can find millions of Instagram feeds filled with colourful foodie images that would look right at home on the walls of an art gallery. Check out Caroline Losse’s vivid Instagram feed and “Sugarberry” blog for inspiration. Specialising in vegan brunch beauties, each image is a masterpiece achieved with vibrant colour palettes and thoughtful props and staging.

Image via Caroline Losse

The beauty of food photography is that you don’t need to be a professional photographer or have all the gear to take stunning images. In fact, with the right techniques and knowledge, you can take gorgeous food photos right in your own home. Or even on your next coffee date. Read on to find out how.

Must-know food photography technique

Shoot in natural lightz

Whether you’re photographing brunch at a cool cafe or your latest batch of home baked cookies in your kitchen, natural light is your best friend. Not only is it more versatile and flattering, but it’s also free! This is why many food bloggers go out for lunch rather than dinner. If you’re dining at a cafe, coffee shop or restaurant, ask to be seated by a window. Or if you’re shooting at home, move your dish over to a sun-facing window and get set up there. On a super sunny day you can soften the light by drawing the curtains or simply setting your dish down a little further away from the window. If you feel you need more light, consider placing a reflector directly opposite your window to bounce light back onto your subject.

Bonus tip: Avoid using a flash when photographing food as it can result in harsh and unnatural looking images.

Shoot with a tripod

Food photography is all about capturing perfectly sharp and detailed shots. Tripods make this much easier to do as they eliminate the camera shake caused by our hands. Tripods come in myriad shapes and sizes and are available for smartphones as well as bulky DSLRs. If you’re planning to take foodie photos while travelling or visiting restaurants, consider investing in a small pocketable tripod that you can stand on the table itself. Or if you’re planning to photograph your home cooking creations, pick up a full-size tripod that will allow total control over your composition.

Maintain a low ISO setting

Whether you’re shooting with your phone or a professional mirrorless camera, you’ll want to use a low ISO setting to create crisp and delicious looking food photos. An ISO setting of around 400 or lower will make sure your images are clean and without noise or grain. This is vital for food photography as it ensures you don’t lose any details.

Use a wide aperture

Wide aperture settings such as f/2.8 or even f/1.8 are famously used by portrait and fashion photographers. They are more flattering and help lead the viewer’s eye to the subject by blurring out the background. The same techniques can be used to make your food photos look even more delicious, so be sure to open up your lens aperture as wide as it will go. Conversely, if you want to get everything in your shot in sharp focus, narrow down your aperture to around f/8 or f/11.

Shoot from every angle

Some dishes look better when photographed from the same level. For example, towering burgers and stacks of pancakes look even taller when photographed from a low angle. However, some dishes look stunning when photographed directly from above. Just think of colourful pizzas, salads and pasta dishes. Flat lay overhead shots like this are also perfect for photographing more than one dish at a time. A tripod can really help when shooting these types of shots, as it can be awkward and uncomfortable shooting like this for long periods of time. The key is to experiment until you find the right angle for the dish you are photographing – try some from below and some from overhead until you see what works best.

Examples of scenarios and settings for your food photography

Indoor food photography at restaurants, cafes and coffee shops

For beautiful food photos while you’re dining out, try to sit at a table near a window. This will instantly give you an advantage as you’ll be able to make the most of natural light. It will also allow you to use a lower ISO setting (400 or lower is ideal) and a faster shutter speed (1/250 and higher is best). If your scene is too bright, don’t be afraid to pick up your plate and move it to another table further away from the window to quickly take your shot. Finally, be sure to open up your aperture as wide as possible so you can blur out your background and put the emphasis on your food.

Food photography at home

The great thing about shooting food photography at home is that you have more control. Move your dish from room to room to follow the sun and test out different window lighting. For example, your kitchen window might be perfect to capture the morning light, while your dining room might have better light in the evening. Also experiment with lights, diffusers and reflectors to shape and control your lighting. Set up your phone or camera on a tripod for crispy sharp images. You’ll still want a nice wide aperture to blur out your background and put the emphasis on the food. If you’re using lights and a tripod, you’ll be able to use a lower ISO setting (around 100 or 160) and faster shutter speeds of 1/500 and upwards for nice sharp images.

Food photography at markets and street food festivals

The main challenges you’ll face while photographing food at outdoor markets and foodie festivals is that you’ll likely be photographing in bright sunlight. The good thing about this is that you won’t need to use a tripod, as you’ll have enough light to shoot at fast shutter speeds such as 1/500 and above while keeping to the lowest possible ISO (e.g. 160 or lower). Use a higher aperture like f/8 to get entire market stalls in focus, or open it up to something like f/2.8 to focus in on a specific subject while blurring out the background. If you buy something to eat from a food truck and stall, look for a shadier location where you can photograph your dish out of harsh direct sunlight.

Creative tips for shooting food photography

Get creative with props and styling

Styling your scenes and incorporating creative props can elevate your food photographs from good to great. For example, try to include some of the ingredients and cooking utensils that were used to create the dish – a whisk, rolling pin or chef’s knife. A wedge of fresh lemon can really add a dash of colour to your lemon drizzle cake photos. Or maybe throw a handful of blueberries on those pancakes to add some colour and contrast. Lay out some vibrant sauce bottles and oils to brighten up your background. Or use towels and place mats to add extra detail, colour and texture to your shots. Always make sure the colours you use are complementary to the food you are photographing. Remember, the food should always be the star of the show.

Plate up like a pro

Whether you’re photographing soups, salads, cakes or steaks, a beautiful plate or bowl can work wonders. Round plates are much easier to photograph than square or rectangular. And it’s also good to know that plates with pretty patterns and vibrant colors are perfect for making plain foods look more appealing. Try to match your plates to your props and general styling scheme for a more cohesive look.

Go for gold with your garnishing

Sprinkle savoury dishes with fresh herbs and spices or top a dollop of salsa. Grind up peppercorns or chop some chillies and use them to brighten up your dish. Grate some cheese to pep up that pasta dish, or drizzle thick honey or treacle over your fruit feasts to make them glisten. Garnishing your plates is the secret to creating beautiful food images. Just be sure to use combinations that will taste as good as they look. Spicy peppers may look great on top of chocolate cake, but the image won’t feel right because we all know how weird it would taste.

Get hands-on

Give your food photos a human touch by asking your partner, friend or child to grab a fork or spoon and dig in. This will help your viewer imagine what it would be like to have your beautiful dish in front of them. Just make sure they don’t eat it before you have taken your shots! And remember to ask them to clean their hands and fingernails if you’re planning to zoom in close. If you’re shooting alone, try something creative like taking a bite out of a cookie or two, or allowing some crumbs to spread out on the plate or table. Making your images more real like this will make them even more tempting.

Food photography is perfect for celebrating your gastronomic adventures, whether in your kitchen or at a local cafe. Don’t be afraid to break the rules and try something new. Our parents may have taught us otherwise, but playing with your food is definitely a good idea!

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