How to take flattering food photos

There is no human experience more universal than food, which makes it an ideal photographic subject. And while smartphone cameras and social media have made taking and sharing food photos easier than ever, a little skill always goes a long way. Even the most whimsical food creations can look like unappetizing stacks in poor light or at an odd angle.

In search of tips for taking more flattering food photos, we spoke with seasoned cookbook photographer Jim Sullivan about how to take the most flattering food photos under all circumstances and with any gear.

Styling the food

This direct aerial shot creates an attractive pattern. Jim sullivan

First of all, the position of the food is very important, including the amount of food appearing in the photo. Sullivan explains how he would approach sushi photography differently than he would for a sandwich: “If it’s two pieces of nigiri, I want to have negative space,” he says. “I may have a bit of the table and the plate as a reference, but the negative space to draw your attention to the nigiri is important. »Try adding more or less negative space as you pull to find the right balance.

With something like a “sandwich, or a steak, or even a donut,” he can take a more lifestyle-oriented approach. “A glass, crisps, a few hands in the photo could make sense. You can see the whole spread, but your eye goes straight to the sandwich. »Practice moving other objects in the photos to understand how they can support the main subject rather than distract it.

If the plate has crumbs or other grime on it, wipe it down quickly to keep everything looking clean and planned.

Think about depth, ambiance and contrast

food photography tips
Here is an example of dramatic, directional light. Jim sullivan

Variables such as texture, height and color should be taken into account. The height of a sandwich could be best served by a lower angle to make it look imposing. In the case of sushi, he advises “measuring for the fish, but you want to make sure you capture the texture of the rice”. Getting closer or adding directional light to the side can help bring out those little details.

Techniques from other disciplines can help with food. “I approach food like the portrait. In portraits, you want to focus on and flatter the eyes and pay attention to the way the shadows fall on someone’s face, ”says Sullivan. Including the edge of a plate in front of the food can add depth, while the shadows created by the food add texture.

Your surfaces are important in the framing of the photo

Food on a plate
A brightly colored surface would clash with the simplicity of the dish. Jim sullivan

How the ensemble is dressed often depends on your personal preferences. “For some reason, I really hate orange tabletops,” says Sullivan. “They’re not exactly flattering but a lot of places have them.” When he sees a background or surface that isn’t working, he advises looking for other surfaces to use. In one case, he used a “cement crack in the floor” as a background element for a shot, and even used fabric chairs. Look around to see which surfaces could be complementary and not distract the dish.

If you are at home, try different plates or serving dishes. Some photographers will even use unique materials like tiles or stones if the subject requires it.

Find the right light

Simplicity goes a long way with food photography. “The best light is on a cloudy day. Soft light, ”Sullivan notes. “If the weather is nice, you can move the satellite dish near a window” where you can use flat diffused light. “In my experience, food does not photograph well in harsh light.

He also recommends paying special attention to shadows. The way a shadow can shape food and the direction in which the light falls is important in creating shapes and drawing your eyes to the right places in the photo without being distracting. Side light will create deeper shadows that accentuate the texture. This is handy for emphasizing the layers of a pie, but not great for something like a cake covered in fondant that you want to look as smooth as possible.

For more advanced lighting options, he recommends small portable lights like the Profoto C1 Plus or something similar. “I film a lot of things on location and always have a little light that I take with me when I travel. Even a small reflector can come in handy if you want to reflect a small window light into the dark side of your food without blinking in a restaurant.

Your phone and apps can be powerful tools

sushi on a plate
The negative space makes the dish light. Jim sullivan

When shooting with a cell phone, Sullivan uses VSCO to record RAW files, which is especially useful for adjusting white balance. “In restaurants during services, the lighting can be very hot in terms of white balance, so you may need to cool it down a bit.” The extensive color information contained in a RAW file will give you more flexibility to not only adjust the color balance, but also adjust the exposure of your images.

If you’re shooting at home, try reducing the lighting to just one color temperature. Mixing window light with an artificial ceiling light, for example, can make food look unnatural and unappetizing. Eliminate the overhead or step away from the window to get a consistent color that you can correct in the mail.

Don’t be afraid to move

“If you are at the back of a restaurant, you can pick up the dish and head to the front of the restaurant where there is a window. Sullivan points out that restaurants and waiters know that people want good photos of their food. While most businesses would appreciate quality photos of their articles being circulated around the world, Sullivan cautions “you need to be aware and not disturb” other customers and staff.


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