23 tips for beautiful food photography

Posted on February 28th, 2012

Now. You might have noticed (and politely not commented): I’m am THE crappiest food photographer going around.

Cooking? I’m in my element. Dreaming up flavour combinations? Few can rival my boundless creativity (hyperbole alert). But I just seem to descend into an impatient numbskullness when it comes to capturing it in a pretty pic.

photo by Aran Goyoaga, Cannelle et Vanille


I’ve been meaning to ask a few friends of this site for a while to share their tricks. They most gracefully agreed to share theirs here with us all. And all of them are indeed graceful…their pictures speak more than my words can…

Aran Goyoaga, food stylist, writer + photographer

Her blog: Cannelle et Vanille, a basque-inspired mix of food, life, and photography.

Her story: a gorgeous Basque ex-pat living in the US since 1998. We connected online and share auto-immune love (Aran also has thyroid issues)…there’s a little community of us who’ve connected in this way and we plan to unite on a project one day, don’t we Aran!? Aran runs food styling workshops around the country and her first cookbook will be published later this year.

1. Lighting is everything. Shoot in natural light when possible. Find a bright space, but try to avoid direct sunlight as it casts harsh shadows on subject. If sun is right on top, diffuse the light with a diffuser, a sheer curtain or even a sheet of parchment paper taped to the window. Manipulate light using white or black foam board. White will reflect even more light into the subject and black will take away. Play with these elements until you find the bright/darkness balance that speaks to you and the mood you want to evoke.

photo by Aran Goyoaga, Cannelle et Vanille

2. Determine what the focus of your image will be. Then think about what depth of field suits this image that you want to create. You will have to think about the lens you want to use. Once I have determined the lens I will use, I examine the light available. I set my aperture and ISO according to the light. The aperture I select will also affect the depth of field so I take that into account. I always shoot in manual mode so I control all the settings and I shoot RAW.

3. Pay attention to composition. Place the food and the props in a way that pleases your eye. I usually recommend taking something out while shooting and comparing the before and after. Add movement to a shot by adding curves and geometry. Avoid too much repetition as it looks too staged.

4. Food should be a bit interactive. I like to incorporate styling elements that evoke an interaction – reminding us that someone cooked that dish or that someone is eating it. Cooking vessels where the soup is swirled around the edges, a spoon with a bit of food that rests on the plate, a half eaten cake… Think about the small details.

5. Think about harmony in color and shape without being too “matchy”. Add unexpected elements that break repetition.

Vanessa Rowe, graphic designer by day…

Her blog: Low Flying Duck, a blog about happy gluten free eating.

Her story: I know Ness from Sydney. She was diagnosed with Coeliac’s a few years back and developed this site because she was…hungry. The name of the site originates from the very Australian and irreverent saying: “I’m so hungry I could eat the crotch out of a low flying duck”.

6. Be prepared. Have a rough idea of how you want the shot to look before the food is ready. I often set everything up without the final prepared meal – do some test shots and check the lighting and composition first.

7. Experiment with styling. White plates are beautiful, and most food will nearly always look great on them. But different is great too. Mix up your coloured plates with your food and see what happens. Change the background around. Put ingredients or objects into the shot and see their impact. Visit second hand or op shops to find interesting props. Shoot lots and lots of shots in a variety of angles.

8. Study & read. Go forth and google. Or go through your beloved cookbooks. There’s so much information either online or on the bookshelf which can help with ideas, technique and motivation.

9. Don’t shoot when you’re hungry! This can be hard if you blog about your meals, and often shoot right before eating. I find I shoot in a much more relaxed and patient mode if I’m well fed before hand.

10. De-­blob and clean up. Give plates and cutlery a wipe before shooting. A blob of food in the wrong spot or fingermarks on a wine glass may not be totally noticeable when you’re setting things up, but could become glaringly annoying once you view the pic on your screen.

Maria Laitinen, a Finnish prop stylist + blogger

Her blog: Scandi Foodie, a blog full of healthy, feel good foods influenced by her Scandinavian background.

Her story: Maria’s a prop-stylist originally from Finland, now living in Sydney, Australia. As you probably know, because she’s contributed to this site a bit, she’s recently done the sugar-free challenge and has developed some great vegan versions.

11. Learn how to use your camera. Many foodies are willing to invest in a good camera, but it is just as important to learn how to use it and understand the significance of lighting, angles and depth of field.

12. My style is very minimalistic. I like to keep the props to a minimum and instead focus on the ingredients and food.

13. I use a fast lens that is good for low-light situations.

14. I always shoot in manual setting and use metering, and I try a few different exposures to see what works best.

Julie, interior designer + one half of The Alkaline Sisters

Her blog: The Alkaline Sisters, a site all about de-acidifying your life with gorgeous, healthful recipes.

Her story: Julie started the site with her sister Yvonne because they wanted to share the benefits of going alkaline.

15. Some angles are much more pleasing to the eye.  I find about a 30-45 degree angle toward the dish is usually pretty good but a photo from above or straight on is sometimes exactly what’s needed.  Avoid deep converging lines that distract and distort as this can make the difference between a poor shot and a fabulous shot and this usually occurs with a poor angle while shooting.

16. Use depth of field. This has become a very popular way to shoot food effectively and creatively. Blurring the background enough with a low aperture setting to suggest and soften other elements in the shot while making the focused portion what you want the viewer to see first and foremost, can be very effective.

17. Pleasing proportions and layout make the image feel real.  Choose elements for your shot that scale well together where one doesn’t dwarf the other.  Avoid visually dividing your shot in half, top to bottom for greater interest.  I usually like to consider the ‘rule of 3rds’ – divide your shot visually into roughly 3 horizontal or vertical divisions. Also, placing some items near and some further away creates more depth in the shot.

18. Try to avoid cropping. What I see is what I try to use as my image instead of post cropping. Try to crop the image as you shoot so that you don’t lose quality with a deep crop in post processing and that you achieve your intended composition.

19. Think about your props. Think of the mood that you wish to convey, a fresh bright morning with playful colour and pattern or softer more dreamy feeling with soft muted colours or maybe even darker colours and low lighting to create a bit of drama.  The mood will determine your choices for props being perhaps plain white with natural linens, a stone vase with white flowers OR a patterned plate with textured linens. Of course don’t forget to consider the food- how will the colour of the dish influence the mood, is it comfort food that is served on a cold rainy day or is it a fresh crispy salad on a summer afternoon.

some extra tips:

I also found these tips on this comprehensive food photography post from Vegan Yum Yum.

20. The right dish really sets the overall look for the photo.  White will always work. Square dishes look very classy. And smaller is better – they’re easier to fill with food and prevent your plate from looking bare.

21. Make your own background. My favorite backgrounds are just simple 20×30″ foam-core boards that I spray painted on my porch, a different color on each side. They’re cheap, easy to make and customize, easy to store, and fairly durable. Buy matte finish spray paint – glossy paint will cause unsightly glares in your photos.

22. Follow the rule of thirds. For good reason. It just works. If you’ve never heard about it, definitely check out this link. It’s a reliable way to dramatically improve the images you make without much fuss.

23. Invest in the post-processing.  I recommend a piece of software called Lightroom to edit and organize photos. It’s not free, but it is fabulous. Since I shoot in RAW, the images that come directly out of the camera are usually pretty “flat” looking. RAW images require some sort of processing, and most people turn them into high-res JPG files, making edits to color, contrast, sharpening, exposure, and white balance along the way. I tend to boost contrast and color saturation, as well as add vignetting (darkened edges), but it really depends on what I’m trying to bring out in the photo.

I know many of you are food bloggers/instagramers/pinteresters…feel free to share your additional thoughts. I need them! Do you have a camera lens you love? Software recommendations for post-production? 




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  • http://www.onebitemore.com shez

    I definitely agree with all of the points above – you’ve picked a wonderful group of talented photographers for your tips. When I started taking photos, I spent lots of time collecting and bookmarking images that really spoke to me so that I could remember to incorporate some of those elements when I was photographing and styling my own. Over time, I started to develop my own aesthetic, but I wouldn’t have been able to do so as easily if I hadn’t drawn inspiration from others first.


  • http://www.eatingwithangels.com Samantha Honey-Pollock

    Sarah, adore your posts always and thank you for sharing! a complete amateur, I’ve loved to improve foodie shots with piknik- so sad it is disappearing- thank goodness I’ve some tips to use now via this!


    Naz Reply:

    Hi Samantha I too use picnik and sad its going away but now I try and use aperture on my Mac to fix up the RAW images.


  • Liza

    Sarah, don’t knock your own photos. I have always found them quite creative, esp when you add additional touches like a vase of flowers or some cooking bowls in the background. If your photos are too perfect, I’m sure people will panic that their dish hasn’t turned out looking exactly like yours!


  • Mel

    I love Arans’ blog. It is unbelievable, I have never seen such fresh pure pictures before. The props she uses are the prettiest and her photography all seems to have a white light shining through it, even her non food shots. I’ve followed her blog for a year after you mentioned it in a post and I can see a little whimsical network of you guys all linked; everyday musings did arans’ food styling course, my new roots contributes to kinfolk along with everyday musings. Sarah you have opened up a little community of honest, earthy inspiration not just for food but life. Thanks. I had no idea before.


  • http://www.culinographie.com/ Culinographie

    On Culinographie, we also love Aran’s work and did an interview about her photography and styling job (in French!) it was sooo interesting!

    Thanks for sharing such great tips from various food bloggers!


  • Naz

    I started my blog last year just after moving to the US. I couldn’t work for the first few months so I started a blog to pass the time! It is a food blog and when I first started I only had my iPhone camera so the photos weren’t so great! Now I use a proper camera but haven’t quiet mastered the manual features of it. I love the points on this post, one thing I struggle with is lighting as our apartment doesn’t get much natural light (no windows in the kitchen) and now it’s winter here so again not much natural light!

    I like the rule of thirds and I try using white plates in most photos, of course no where near the quality of photos like Aran’s hers are just WOW!

    I mostly photograph as I’m making the dish so I can record it step by step for my blog.

    Will have to look into these points more for my next post :)

    Thanks Sarah!


    Kristin Reply:

    Hey Naz – I have the same issue with the lack of natural light and not much to work with in my apartment.

    I’m pretty sure my camera is suited for what I’m trying to achieve – as Sarah’s examples are gorgeous and similar to the composition of what I want.

    This post was extremely helpful for someone like me who wants to photograph the recipes I make and letterpress work I produce. It will be very useful on my next attempt.

    @sarahwilson: I would like to know what a “default setting” would be on my SLR with a 25mm or 35mm lens. For example when you say…

    “You will have to think about the lens you want to use. Once I have determined the lens I will use, I examine the light available. I set my aperture and ISO according to the light. The aperture I select will also affect the depth of field so I take that into account.”

    How do you know what lens, aperture and then ISO to choose? I mostly have my camera set on the A mode is this correct?

    Thanks Sarah,
    Keep them comin’…



    Naz Reply:

    Yep, no natural light doesn’t help! Think I’m going to have to play around with my camera this week and really get to know it….time to pull out the manual and do some internet searching!


    Lisa_GDRecipes Reply:

    Hey Kristin,

    I have fallen in love with a reasonably priced lens which I shoot a lot of my food shots with. It’s a fixed 50mm Canon lens (goes down to 1.8f) and it’s perfect for an amateur foodie photographer with limited light.

    I make a little set up right under a window at my place, use some of the techniques Aran suggested (white cardboard to bounce light back at my subject/ baking paper stuck on window to soften the shadows/ light) and the photos practically take themselves! With the fixed 50mm, set it to manual, 1.8f, 100 ISO and find the right shutter speed from there. Point straight at your plate. What you’ll get is a lovely sharp focus on your plate and a slightly blurred background. I’m careful not to overuse this lens though, as I don’t always want the same look so I try and mix it up a bit with other styles.

    I think this lens is a great place to start, as it can be really frustrating when you are trying to take pics of your food and just not doing it justice. (I look back at my first few shoots on my blog and I cringe! But it’s gotten better and better :) I got mine for about AUS$115. It’s the plastic-cased version of a much more expensive metal one.

    Happy snapping!
    Lisa x


  • http://www.tasmaniantravels.me Amanda @ TasmanianTravels

    The pair from Island Menu (islandmenu.com – Tasmanian recipe, travel and photography blog), Catherine and Sam, do truly beautiful and natural food shots.

    I’ve just produced a magazine feature on Island Menu, and it was amusing to watch the photographer (Nick Watt) taking photos of Sam taking photos of Catherine’s food…

    The stylist on the shoot, Charlotte Bell (also Tasmanian), had a cool stylist’s trick for gauging the final framing of each shot – she’d create a rectangular ‘frame’ with her hands and look through that at each food shot, adjusting the props/food accordingly.


    LizzyBee Reply:

    just checked out http://www.islandmenu.com.au – brilliant


  • http://www.livehealthysimply.com Jessica Nazarali (@JessicaNazarali)

    These tips were so helpful! At least I know I am on the right track with the white plates! I am looking at getting a new camera – any suggestions? It will mainly be used for taking photos of food, plus day to day stuff :)


  • Anthony

    I use photoshop for all my post production, but photographers and wannabes should not fall into the trap of, “well photoshop will fix it.” Well, yes it can fix it, but the camera today really does have what you need to take a great photograph. In pursuing that great shot which I do more than a bit, I study the photos of the pros, they have all done it before and News agent shelves are full of great pictures from food, babies to Koala bears. Study the pros, get to know your camera and you can take a shot as good as anyone. Cheers


  • http://cenkbaban.com cenk

    Great suggestions, thank you.Yet at times we re out and about and all we have is a smartphone. Any tips for those occasions?


  • Anthony

    Follow the great tips that Sarah and others have provided above, about using light, with learning how to correctly focus your camera, and you will go a long way to capturing a good shot. People quite often think that spending a lot of money on the most modern super camera will deliver them the best shots. There are thousands of people with magnificent cameras but they take poor photos, manly because they never took the time to learn how to use there camera, and how to focus and use light to get a good shot. Cheers


  • Marnie

    Perfect timing. I needed this post. :)


  • http://www.matsljunggren.com Mats

    Great tips! My fav foodblogger is my wife (helenaljunggren.com) so I can get many tips right at home. :)


  • http://little-chan.blogspot.com Little Chan

    Hi Sarah,
    Just came across your blog entry through Twitter re-direct from Clotilde (Chocolate & Zucchini).

    Thanks for the tips – can I also recommend Helene Dujardin, another great food photographer. She has a blog http://www.tarteletteblog.com and I have a copy of her book “Plate to Pixel” which is brilliant as a food photography reference guide :)


  • http://PeeDeeFoodie.com Pee Dee Foodie

    This is truly helpful. I can’t say I’m a photographer – by far – but I’m keenly interested to learn. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and the examples that you did.


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  • http://www.angiessouthernkitchen.com/ Angie ‘s Southern Kitchen

    What a wonderful post…Thanks! Love that you took all the different styles. My photos still have a ways to go…but studying and learning and I am sure it will arrive sooner than later. Thanks for sharing with us all ~ great Job!


  • http://www.ekougi.com LizzyBee

    Really great post, and the timing couldn’t have been better as I launched my photo blog 23 days ago. I’ve been taking photos of food (which for some reason I keep mistyping as phood) for years now, just with a point and click, and now have a second hand SLR.

    Because I’m taking photos of what I eat in cafes and restaurants I don’t have much time to set up a shot, or adjust my lighting and I have a hungry boyfriend who would rather eat his food hot rather than have me turn his plate this way and that as it gets cold.

    I’ve only had my SLR for 2 months and its been a massive learning curve, but I figure the more I learn how to use the camera and the limits of different lenses, the better I’ll be at taking photos in the variety of situations that come with eating out.


  • http://nutritionbynature.com.au/ Kate@ Nutrition by Nature

    Great post! I could definitely do with a few tips for my blog… still getting a feel for the whole food photography thing… trickier than it looks!


  • http://www.misskotack.com Kristin


    Thanks for your awesome tips! I’ll be sure to give them a trial run. I have a 25mm pancake and a 45mm the I can toggle between.

    Since Sarah’s original post I’ve read a bunch of websites that describe the technicalities that go into achieving a properly shot photograph.



  • http://beatamazur.carbonmade.com Bea

    Dear Sarah,

    Very big thank you for gathering all this great info and tips and creating a space for all other foodie-photographic frenzy folk to share their thoughts!

    I’m very new to the whole “food photography business” even though I have been involved with photography for quite a while now. And all that makes the shots of deliciousness look so great is let’s say a little overwhelming at the moment 😉 I also believe I understand and share your ‘impatient numbskullness” 😉

    So hey, again big thanks for that post! And since pretty much everyone here (and not only!) gazes lovingly upon Aran’s oh-so-,amazing photography I think we should make her come over to Australia and strap those workshops boots on! Agreed?


  • Elisa

    Hi Sarah and everyone else :)

    I am doing a call out to see who might be interested in attending a food photography and styling workshop with Dean Cambray. We are yet to confirm the date but it will be held in the first week of December in Prahran, Melbourne. It is strictly limited to a small group of people. Dean’s work is outstanding and you will walk away with so much! Please take a look at this portfolio. http://www.deancambray.com.au/

    Sarah I hope you don’t mind me reaching out on your beautiful site! I’m calling all budding foodies that would love to have a crack to style and photograph some beautiful creations!
    Please feel free to email with questions or to reserve a spot.

    thanks Sarah! :)



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  • Brendon The Smiling Chef

    Brilliant! Thanks for putting this together Sarah! It’s been a lifesaver and a great refresher!


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