7 Easy, Inexpensive Tips for Improving Your Food Photographs

When we first started taking photos of the meals we cooked or were served in restaurants, we were disappointed in the results. Taking photographs of food can be incredibly challenging, as anyone who has seen the large, picture-based menu at a Chinese restaurant can attest. Bad angles, harsh lighting, and unappealing compositions can all combine to make a delicious tasting dish look just terrible when photographed. But those inherent challenges can make food photography all the more rewarding.

While we’re still learning how to properly photograph food, and still have a long way to go, there are a few tricks and tips we’ve picked up so far that anyone can use to get better, more appetizing food photos out of their point-and-shoot or DSLR cameras. When you’re first learning to photograph food, as we are, you don’t need to spend a dime. As you progress, you can start spending a few bucks, and your results will only get better. Here’s what we’ve learned so far, presented in order from least expensive to most expensive.

1. Stop using your flash. Shoot using natural light, whenever possible. The flash that’s built into your camera, unfortunately, is pretty crappy. Well, I shouldn’t say that. It is great at producing a very brief, very bright flash of very directional light. Unfortunately, this kind of light doesn’t make food look very good. Let’s look at a quick comparison:

The tomato on the left was shot using a flash; on the right, using natural light.

In the photo on the left, the camera’s automatic settings (including flash) were used. Notice the dark, harsh shadow underneath the tomato. You can also see the reflected flash of the camera, which shows as a harsh glare. It makes the entire photo seem flat, two-dimensional, washed-out, and unappetizing. In the photo on the right, only natural light filtering through a curtain was used. Notice how much softer the shadow underneath the tomato is, as well as the reduction in glare.

The quality of your light is the single biggest factor in how your food photos turn out, and it is a theme we will be returning to again and again. Avoid shooting in direct sunlight, as this can cause the same harsh shadows that a flash can. In general, we’ve found it best to shoot during daylight hours, near a window, preferably with a gauzy curtain to help filter the light. You will immediately improve your food photos, without spending a dime, with this tip: Shoot in natural light, with the overhead light off, on an overcast day. The curtain and the clouds will create perfect filtered light. In fact, Ree Drummond (of Pioneer Woman fame) uses only natural light for her blog and in her cookbook, and she gets stunning results.

Tomato, meet macro.

2. If you are using a point-and-shoot camera, use your camera’s “macro” setting, and choose an interesting angle. Zooming in very close on your subject can help show detail and create interest, and most modern point-and-shoots have a decent “macro” mode, right out of the box. Try to create interesting angles, either by getting very close to your subject, in a three-quarter angle, or by shooting from the absolute top-down. Avoid shooting food from angles in which you “normally” see it. A picture of an Oreo cookie bitten in half is going to be much more interesting shot close up, with the bite filling the frame and showing texture, than alone and bereft on a plate, top-down. Why? Because your brain has already seen an Oreo from that angle 100 times.

3. Brace the camera on a counter, stack of books, or on a tripod. When shooting very close in macro mode, any movement of the camera (even your finger squeezing the shutter release) is going to result in a slight loss of “crispness” in the finished photo. Always try and brace your hand against something, and if possible, shoot using a tripod, using either a remote shutter release or, in a pinch, using the camera’s timer function. Set up your shot with the timer, push the shutter release button, and walk away. In a few seconds, your camera will fire, resulting in the crispest possible shot.

4. If you must shoot at night, replace your overhead lights with full-spectrum “daylight” bulbs. That light that’s pouring out of your ceiling fixture, or the light in the vent hood over the stovetop? It’s not going to do your photography any favors. General lighting creates harsh shadows, and even worse, can create strange colors in your finished photographs. Fluorescent light, for example, can give your finished photos a strange blueish hue, and there aren’t many foods that look appealing in blue. Replace your overhead light bulbs with full-spectrum or “daylight” bulbs.

Tomato shot indoors using homemade “can” light.
Your new best friend.

5. Increase your “natural” light with a quick-and-dirty can light. If you find that you must shoot in the evenings or indoors (as is the case for many food bloggers, who hold down normal day jobs, and do the bulk of their cooking and photography at night), building a few quick and inexpensive lights that you can clamp anywhere and position around your kitchen is a must. Purchase an inexpensive aluminum painter’s clamp light and a high-wattage full-spectrum bulb from a building-supply store, such as Home Depot or Lowes. Cut a circle out of an old white dishtowel or bedsheet, and stretch over the front of the light, affixing with tape or a rubber band. Presto! For around ten bucks, you’ve got yourself some on-demand, full-spectrum, directional filtered light. Experiment with shining your light directly on your plate (watching for those harsh shadows), or, for best results, aim the light up to the ceiling, and allow the light to bounce back onto your dish. The photo above was taken using this type of lighting setup. Note the natural appearance and coloring of the food, as well as the slightly-diffused shadow (though as you can see, shadows are still slightly harder-edged than with natural light).

A typical, very inexpensive setup for shooting in the evenings.

6. Adjust your photos using photo-manipulation software after shooting. Many professional photographers scoff at the notion of doing a lot of adjustment after-the-fact, making it a point of pride to get the best possible results directly out of the camera. This is great when it works out, but often doesn’t…particularly when you are first starting out. There are two tricks we used when we were first starting out, that you may find useful. I call one the “doubling trick,” and the other the “depth of field fakeout.” We used both tricks often, when we were first learning.

The “Doubling Trick” artificially bumps up exposure, increasing contrast and color saturation.

The Doubling Trick (Adobe Photoshop):
Open your photo in Adobe Photoshop. (I’m sure you can achieve similar results in other photo-manipulation software, but if you have Photoshop, use it.) Create a copy of your picture’s background layer by dragging it to the “Copy Layer” icon, or by going to Layer>Duplicate Layer. On the new layer that is created, change the blending mode to “Overlay,” and then dial down the opacity if the resulting image has too much contrast. In just two steps, you have made your photo more appealing, by increasing contrast and color saturation.

Picasa’s “Depth of Field Fakeout.”

The Depth of Field Fakeout (Picasa):
Keeping your subject in focus while allowing your background to blur slightly is called shooting with a “narrow depth of field.” It can give your photos a polished look; however, many point-and-shoot cameras tend to keep everything in focus, which can make your photos seem flat. Fortunately, Google has come to the rescue with its free Picasa photo management software. Open your photo in Picasa, and select the “Soft Focus” filter, under the “Effects” tab. Increase the “size” of the effect to the maximum, and adjust the “amount” until the edges of your photo just barely go out of focus. Use this effect sparingly; a little blur goes a long way. You can see this effect in action in this photo of banana-habanero salsa, one of the very first food photos we ever took.

Using filtered light and foamboard reflector.

7. Take full control of your light and shadow. Want to shoot at any time of the day or night, without harsh shadows? For around $25 bucks each, you can buy freestanding lights with full-spectrum, color-corrected bulbs, and white, shoot-through umbrellas. You can either use these umbrellas to reflect the light from the bulb onto your food, or you can shine the light through the umbrellas themselves, diffusing the light very nicely. This is our favorite way to take soft, appealing photographs of the food we cook, and it’s all about controlling your light and shadow:

A sample diffused-light setup.

In the above setup, two things are happening: Light passes through the umbrella, filtering softly onto the subject. Then, a piece of inexpensive foamboard bounces that same light back in the other direction, softening further the already diffused shadow that is created on the tomato. This creates a soft light, which appears to come from one direction, while casting a soft shadow, and is a great way to create a “natural” looking photograph. You could also replace the foamboard with another filtered directional light coming from the opposite direction, which would minimize shadow, and create a very clean, sterilized look. As a general rule of thumb, remember that for every light source you create, you must fill it using either another light, or a reflector. Experiment!

Malcolm Bedell

Author

Malcolm Bedell is co-author of the critically acclaimed "Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road," as well as the taco-centric blog "Eat More Tacos," with writing and photography credits including Serious Eats, Down East, L.A. Weekly, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and more. His seasonal food truck, "'Wich, Please," was named "Hottest Restaurant in Maine" for 2015 by Eater, and he finds it very silly to be trying to write this in the third person.

21 Comments
  1. This is a great post, if only to validate what I try to do without natural light…though I admit it also depends on how quickly we need to eat something when it comes to my patience with playing with light-rigging setups.

    (We also kept losing bulbs on our tree light which I use to help bounce light around, which led to dimmer photos.)

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  2. If you have a DSLR it isn’t necessary to buy full spectrum light bulbs. The white balance on your camera can take care of the color shift problems just as effectively.

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  3. Thank you for posting these useful and simple tips. This was a refreshing read after sifting through many detailed and more technical articles on improving food photography. Still, so much to learn but thanks again for taking the time to share.

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  4. The double down tip is pure gold. I’m building a website for a new gourmet food truck and the budget doesn’t include professional photography but that simple tip has improved the quality of the amateur shops tenfold.

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