Things I Have Learned While Trying to Improve My Food Photography

One of my big goals for my site this year was to improve the pictures that accompany my food posts. Starting with my Anna Q. Nilsson recipe, I started using more professional techniques and equipment and I wanted to share a few things that I learned along the way.

Quick disclaimer before starting: I am very far from being an expert and I am still new at this. This isn’t a guide for food photographers and there are many skilled food photographers and bloggers who know a ton more than I do. These are just a few things I learned along the way as I pursued my goal of making my food photos somewhat more professional.

Before:

After:

Small Things Make a Difference

Stating the absolute obvious here but I was surprised at what a huge difference it makes when I use quirky dishes, cute cupcake liners, extra garnishes, etc. Of course, the trick is not to use props and dishes so loud that they overpower the food.

Holes in My Armory

I tried to buy every basic prop I thought I would need before starting out but some oversights only become obvious once you start photographing. For example, I purchased white, tan, pale yellow and petal pink tablecloths and got some black foamboard that I scraped with chalk for a dark background. But what I didn’t account for was my need for a light, cool-colored background. I just corrected that oversight with blue, teal and lavender tablecloths.

Professional Food Photographers Have Different Needs Than Food Bloggers

As I was reading food photography tips, I realized that the pros had very different goals. They have clients who need the food to look boffo and they use things like sponges and pins to make things perfect.

I feel that food bloggers have more of an obligation to authenticity. The most I will allow would be fake ice cubes in drinks because GOOD LORD, lights are hot. But I think the food in the pictures should look basically like what you actually made.

MOAR LETTUCE!

Of course, some pro tips are still great for amateurs. For example, the advice to keep the broth to a minimum when taking pictures of clear soup is most excellent and keeps soup pictures from looking boring.

Chintzy is Good

A few years back, I went to see a display of Star Wars costumes in person and was struck by how cheap and unimpressive they look in person. The reason for this is film costume designers are constantly working with an eye to what will look great on the screen. They may not look like much in person but they are showstoppers on the screen and that is what matters. (Lillian Gish had a battle with Erté on this point. He was too literal-minded and thought that just because a costume WAS cheap, it would LOOK cheap. Not so.)

I was similarly impressed by how an inexpensive plate and a polyester tablecloth can look pretty spectacular with the right light, props and camera settings. I am still learning to think like a camera but I am enjoying the journey.

Tell a Story

The single best piece of advice I ran across (I don’t remember the source!) is to tell a story with your food. Don’t just take a picture of the plated meal, show the empty plate, the cooking pot, the first bite. It creates a more dynamic look and makes the photography more intimate and inviting.

The story of a very bad soup…

So, that’s what I’ve learned so far. I hope to keep improving and bringing you more vintage celebrity recipe goodness!

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4 Replies to “Things I Have Learned While Trying to Improve My Food Photography”

  1. I cut the odd food TV food commercial years ago. Things became difficult for the photographer when the authorities outlawed cheating, such as putting marbles into soup to push the pieces of vegetables to the top, and making nasty mixtures of heaven knows what to produce faux ‘chocolate sauce’ that would pour in the best cinematic manner. An unwitting visitor put some of that on ice cream once: an unpleasant surprise ensued.

    On the other hand I do remember a client (and we all love ‘clients’ I’m sure) freaking out about a tiny, tiny red spot on a fillet of uncooked fish: reckoned the idea of ‘blood’ would turn buyers off.

    1. Thanks for the tidbits! I have mixed feelings about food photo fakery. On one hand, lights are hot and you have a maximum of about 15 minutes before the food starts looking really sad (less for frozen stuff). On the other hand, we kind of like the food we eat to somewhat resemble what is in the picture. I like the cut of Austalia’s jib in this matter.

  2. Love the before and after comparison shots. A good camera, lighting, and well-thought-out setup really do make such a difference in food display. Particularly love your crockery and the mint green soup pot, even though the contents of said pot are, well……enough about that 😉 Let Us Eat Lettuce, as the old joke saying goes, just not in that particular way. That pot deserves better and I’m sure will get it many times over.

    Fun Factoids: While living for a long stint in the San Fernando Valley quite near Universal Studios, Warner Bros., Disney, NBC Burbank, et al. it was hard not to run into film crew people everywhere living close to their workplaces. FX and prop folks of all sorts abounded- probably still do- in every apartment complex where I shared flats. Film food and drink stories also were plentiful, tales of mashed potato scoops covered with molasses substituting for ice cream treats, ginger ale for champagne and cellophane for ice in drinks which were made from anything but alcohol (and many times disgustingly undrinkable), and a personal favorite, eucalyptus leaves and chopped palm fronds covered in Elmer’s Glue substituting for salads because, hey, no wilting under the lights. Nowadays of course many on-camera foods can be the super-realistic completely fake ones, ‘though if actors are actually to eat them during take after take there is the age-old use of the “spit bucket” to rely on. Ah, the glamor and magic of Hollywood (as opposed to the nuts and bolts of actual filming) 😀

    1. Ha! Thanks for sharing! I will never look at salad scenes in movies the same way again. (Though I am sure everyone’s noses were cleared by the eucalyptus.)

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