The Serious Eats Guide to Food Photography
Surely you've noticed what's coming from the lenses of our resident photographer Robyn Lee and videographer Jessica Leibowitz's cameras. Perhaps you've wondered how you could get your own camera to work better for you. The thing is, food blog photography is completely different from professional food photography. Most of the time, we're working in low-light situations where we neither have the time nor the ability to set up lighting rigs or even an off-camera flash, for that matter.
Taking a picture that's meant to look good at 500 pixels wide is a completely different story from taking one that's supposed to look good in print or on a photography website.
Over the years, we've figured out the best ways to get presentable photos out of just about every situation food blogging will put you in. We've compiled the most important tips here.
These tips are designed to help you improve your food photography at home or in restaurants. We'll try to keep the terminology and techie stuff as absolutely simple as possible, but some sections will require a bit of shop talk. If you don't know basic terms like shutter speed or aperture, check the bottom of for a quick rundown. On to the tips!
1. Pay Attention to the Light
Good lighting is the single most important thing for good photography. Better lighting means faster shutter speed, which means clearer shots and less blurring. The best light by far is indirect daylight. A shady spot on a sunny day is the holy grail of natural lighting conditions. Indoors, your best bet is during the day near a window. Ask for these seats specifically when you are being seated. There's no shame in requesting seating based on lighting.
If you must go at night, try to grab a table underneath a spotlight. Often this means settling for a seat near the kitchen or at the bar. Get into the habit of scanning a restaurant as soon as you walk in for the tables with the best light and request them.
When positioning food, position it so that the light is illuminating the side facing you from a slight angle. The ideal lighting position for a single source light is to have it just off of one of your shoulders. This means that if taking a shot by window light, the window should be behind you, either off to the right or the left (if it's directly behind you, you end up casting a shadow—no good!). If using a spotlight, the center of the light should hit the table in between you and your food slightly to the left or the right of center so that the food is not illuminated directly from above or from behind.
If there is no spotlight or window light available, get creative. Even a couple of candles can provide enough light to significantly improve your photos. I often carry around a small LED spotlight with me if I know I'm going to be in a particularly dark situation. The kind that fits onto the front of your bicycle (like this one) can be yours for about $20. They are bright, can fit in your pocket, and are great in a pinch.
In rare situations, the light may be too harsh, creating dark shadows or blown-out areas in your photos. This happens, for example, in direct sunlight. In these cases, it's best to cast a shadow either with your body, or a large opaque object (like a napkin.)
2. DO NOT Use an In-Camera Flash
Don't do it, ever ever ever, no matter how bad the lighting. Flash photos of food create harsh reflections and glare as well as funny-looking fall-off—your food looks like it's floating in space. Hotshoe flashes work better, but it's rude to use them in restaurants, so don't unless you've got prior permission from the restaurant and the guests around you.
3. Don't Always Shoot from Regular Sitting Level
Shooting from where you're sitting gets you an angle of about 45° on your food. That gets boring very fast. When shooting, either get down very low—a couple inches above the table—and get tight in on your food, or shoot from a much higher angle. Bird's eye views can be very interesting, like this pizza shot:
5. Shoot Multiple Angles and Exposures
Welcome to the digital world where trial-and-error is OK. As long as you've got a reasonably large memory card, there's no harm in taking a dozen or more photos of the same piece of food. It's usually tough to see how well your shot came out on the tiny camera LCD. Is it perfectly in focus? Is it framed right? Take multiple shots from different angles and at different exposure settings so that you'll have a lot to choose from when you get them onto your computer back home.
6. Be Mindful of Your Aperture
In very low light situations, use a large aperture. Large apertures (i.e. small F-stop numbers) shorten shutter speed and therefore blurring, allowing you to take sharper pictures even in dark rooms.
On the other hand, in well lit areas, choose your aperture based on how wide you'd like your depth of field to be. With large aperture settings, your depth of field is very narrow, meaning that things in the far background or foreground will be out of focus, like the plate of beans on the left above. This can be a good thing if you are trying to call attention to a particular detail on a plate—the crust on a burger or the melted strand of cheese on a pizza. Smaller apertures (larger F-stops) will widen your depth of field, allowing you to get both the front and the back of a plate of food in focus all at the same time, like the beans on the right.
For beginners, an F-stop setting of 3.5 to 5 is a pretty good starting range.
7. Adjust the White Balance
Light in restaurants is often either incandescent or candlelight, both of which are quite yellow. Your eyes compensate for this automatically, but your camera's sensor doesn't. Unless you adjust your white balance, photos will have an odd color cast, like the yellowish burger on the left.
Most cameras have a custom white balance adjustment setting. All you've gotta do is point your camera at a white or gray object, snap a photo, and use it to set your white balance. In a restaurant, this most often means a napkin, plate, or part of a menu. Look at your camera's manual for specific instructions on how to do this with your camera.
Decide whether you want your light source 100% neutral, or if you'd prefer it a little warm. Often, food can appear more appetizing under a very slightly warm orange cast. You never want a blue or green cast on food, which makes it look cold and unappealing.
Avoid multiple light source situations. Multiple light sources can cast different colored lights, which makes adjusting the white balance nearly impossible. For instance, sitting near a window with a blue neon sign outside and a candle/incandescent light inside. No matter what you do, your food will have either a blue or an orange cast to it.
8. Use the Macro Setting
If you've got a point-and-shoot camera, you probably need to switch it between regular and macro setting manually. The macro button is the one that looks like a little picture of a flower. This allows you to get much closer than you would in normal mode.
Most cameras need to be zoomed out as wide as possible in order for the macro function to focus properly.
9. Get Close
Decide whether or not your food will be better served by seeing the whole plate and some context, or just getting nice and tight into a specific part. Either option can be exciting in its own way. At Serious Eats, we tend to lean more heavily towards the latter, but it's up to you.
10. Use a Multiple Exposure Drive Mode
If your camera has the option to fire off several shots with a single button press, turn it on. Snap four to five photos each time you hold down the button. Chances are that at least one of them will be blur-free and in focus.
11. Keep Your Camera Steady
If shooting by hand, rest your elbows or arms on something sturdy like the edge of the table. In really low light situations, try and find a means to keep your camera steady. Holding it against a chair's edge, a wall, or a column can help, or for tighter shots on the table, I like to hold the camera steady by using an empty water glass as a makeshift monopod.
12. Bring Stuff Home if Necessary and Reheat
A lot of foods don't need that restaurant setting, and you'll get more control and light at home. A slice of pizza in a box or on a paper plate will look much better when reheated and plated in a well-lit room than fresh out of the oven in a dark pizzeria.
If you have Photoshop and know how to use it, do it! Even iPhoto and other simple photo apps (like Preview) have basic photo editing capabilities built in. Here are the most common and useful techniques you can use:
- Fix white balance. Usually this involves selecting the white balance tool, then clicking on a spot in your image that should be a neutral white or gray (napkins, menus, and shadows on plates work well for this). You can also manually adjust the color balance using the temperature and hue sliders.
- Adjust levels to brighten or darken your image. The goal should be to make sure that the lightest spots in your photo are pure white while the darkest areas are pure black with the majority of the image staying in the center portion of the levels curve. You should also aim not to lose any detail on either the light or dark end of the spectrum.
- Adjust contrast, brightness, and saturation. The goal should be to make your images pop, but not look like they've been exposed to radioactive neon waste.
- If your camera supports RAW format and you have an editor that can process it, use it! It makes adjusting things like color balance much, much easier and in many cases, will allow you to fix things that are virtually unfixable once you convert to JPEG or TIFF. Working from RAW is like working from a photographic negative, while working off a JPEG is like trying to fix a photograph that's already been processed by the local CVS. You just don't have as much control.
These are three terms that come up again and again in photography, so it's good to know what they mean:
- Shutter Speed: The rate at which the shutter opens and closes, expressed in fractions of a second. The faster the shutter speed, the less blurry your images will be. If you are holding a camera by hand, you want a shutter speed of at least 1/40th of a second, preferably smaller (I usually aim for at least 1/80 if there's enough light available). Anything longer than 1/20th or so and you won't be able to get clear shots without a tripod.
- Aperture (F-stop): The size of the hole in the lens that lets light into the camera, expressed as the denominator of a 1/x fraction, so an aperture of 2 means that the lens is half (1 over 2) open (large) while an aperture of 11 means that the lens is 1/11th open (small). Most cameras/lenses have an aperture range of around 2.5 to 18. The larger opening (i.e. the smaller the aperture number), the more light comes in, and the faster shutter speed you can do. Aperture also affects depth of field, which is the amount of a given shot that is in focus. A small aperture number will create a shallow depth of field, so only the thing you are pointing at will be in focus. With a larger aperture number, everything from the background to the foreground will be in focus.
- ISO: The speed of the film (or these days, the sensor). The higher the number, the faster the sensor will register information, which allows you to use a faster shutter speed. High ISO's also tend to lose detail and create grainy images though. For blogging, this is not too much of a problem since images are shrunk down so much anyway. Try not to use an ISO of any higher than 1600 or so to limit graininess. If you've got enough light, aim for an ISO of closer to 400.
If you bloggers and photographers out there have got any more tips, we'd love to hear them!