Serious Eats

The Serious Eats Guide to Food Photography

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Ideal lighting comes from both the side and the back. This is food photography gold. [Photographs: Robyn Lee unless otherwise noted]

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.

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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

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Flash on the left, no flash on the right

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

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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:

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Bird's Eye View [Photograph: Adam Kuban]

5. Shoot Multiple Angles and Exposures

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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.

Click to enlarge in pop-up window.

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

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Unadjusted on the left, adjusted on the right

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

13. Post-Edit

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Editing raw images in Photoshop CS3.

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:

Glossary

These are three terms that come up again and again in photography, so it's good to know what they mean:

If you bloggers and photographers out there have got any more tips, we'd love to hear them!

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