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Food Photography Tips For Beginners


Your camera has all sorts of settings.  Most likely you started on the auto setting.  The good thing about auto?  The camera pretty much makes all the decisions for you in order to produce an “acceptable” photograph.  The bad thing about that: the camera pretty much makes all the decisions for you.

And as scary as this sounds, you want to be in full control of your camera.  That’s right.  Own it.  Embrace it.  The camera isn’t the talent.  YOU are the talent.

But I don’t know what to do!!  

Patience, my friend. Patience.

You just have to decide to make the switch.  Go manual.  Do it.  You’ll struggle for a bit, but then you’ll get it .  And it will be glorious.  Glorious victory indeed.


You know that thing that pops up from your camera?  It’s worthless.  Actually, it’s worse than worthless.  Those built-in on camera flashes on many cameras have the uncanny ability to ruin all hopes of getting a great image of food.

Don’t trust me?  Jeez.  I thought we were cool, you and me.

Well, just take a look at some of my absolutely stunning, breath-taking photographs from a few years back utilizing the on camera flash…

Ah, the beautifully diffused light.  Don’t you just love how it just kisses the food in such a way to make it look absolutely irresistible?

Of course not!  That food looks ugly.  Unappetizing.  Gross.

Darn you on camera flash!!!  Darn you.

So do yourself a favor.  Step one to getting better food photographs?  Don’t even think of using that flash.


Here’s where you’re going to need that coffee.  Or chocolate. And chocolate?

Shooting manual basically means you are controlling, manipulating, and balancing 3 basic photographic elements.  Aperture, ISO, and Shutter Speed.  

And those three things work in harmony with each other to produce your image.  It’s your job as the photographer to balance the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed depending upon the situation and/or scenario of what you are photographing.


Aperture allows more light or less light to reach the camera sensor.  With manipulating the aperture, you can create a shallow or deep depth of field (lots of blur or not a lot of blur).

It’s measured in f/stops (i.e. f/1.2, f/2.8, f/4.0, f/10, etc.).  Whoa.  That was a lot of words being thrown around.  Here’s an equation for you to memorize.

large aperture (low f/stop)= shallow depth of field = more blur in the photos

small aperture (high f/stop) = deeper depth of field = less blur in the photos

Warning.  With blur comes great responsibility.

Careful of f/2.8 and other very low f/stops in food photography.  Because there will only be a small amount of your image in focus, it may become difficult to get enough of the food in focus to create appetizing images.  I rarely go lower than f/3.5.  

Notice in the photo below that as the f/stop gets higher, more of the food is in focus (look at the waffle fries).

A word about aperture and light.  If you don’t change anything on your camera except for your aperture, you’ll notice that at lower f/stops, you don’t need as much light as higher f/stops.

Low f/stops = less light needed

High f/stops = more light needed

In situations where light is scarce (like at many restaurants), you may need to keep your aperture large (low f/stop) to produce a properly exposed photograph.


Take a close look at the above photo.  You’ll notice that in the ISO 400 image, it’s clear, smooth, and clean.  The other two images, however, are grainier.

ISO basically controls how sensitive your camera is to light.  ISO typically goes as low as 100 and depending upon your camera, can go up to around 10-25K.  

The higher the ISO, the better the light sensitivity.  Basically, that means the camera is capturing more light.  This is great when you are in a dark environment, like those two restaurants I was in when capturing the two photos in the above left.

But here’s the catch. As the ISO increases, so does the grain or noise in the photo.  In addition, higher ISO’s will also mess with the color in the image a bit.

Lower ISO = more light required = smoother, cleaner images

Higher ISO = less light required  = adds grain to your images

It’s also importnat to note that ISO affects cameras differently.  When you purchase a more high-end camera, it can handle higher ISO’s better (show less grain and capture better color).

Bottom line… always try to keep your ISO on the low side.  I typically try to keep it around 400.


The thing you hear clicking when you take a photo (cchhkk, cchhkk)… that’s the shutter.  And its speed will determine how long your camera sensor will be exposed to light.

If you are taking a photo of something that is moving, a faster shutter speed will be needed to freeze the image.

Shutter speed is measured in seconds.  1/60th second.  1/125th second.  So on.

Faster shutter speed = less light coming in = freezes images quickly

Slower shutter speed = more light coming in = can be blurry

If you are taking handheld photos with your camera (without a tripod), plan on shooting at a minimum shutter speed of 1/100. Anything slower than that and you run the risk of a blurry image due to camera shake…. unless you have crazy steady ninja surgeon hands.  In which case, I hate you. #kiddingnotkidding

I use a tripod and remote for almost all my photos at this point because it helps me to create more consistently clear and reliable images, and also aids in the composition and food styling.  It also allows me to shoot at slow shutter speeds (and keep my ISO low!) while maintaining clear images.


When photographing, you have two choices.  

Innnnnn this corner, weighing in with consdensed, smaller files, is JPEG.  

Although it is a tinier file, it doesn’t allow for a lot of room for post-processing (i.e. editing your images in the computer). 

And in this corner, with much larger files and potential for editing, is RAW.

This is how I photograph every image.  Although it does take up a whole lot more room, raw files capture all the information the camera receives when you click that shutter.  That way, you can enhance and edit your images in post-processing (I highly recommend and personally use Lightroom).


What is a great food photo?  In my mind, it’s something that catches and holds your attention, and generates emotion in you… preferably intense, uncontrollable hunger.   I want people to say… Ermagherd!  I want to eat that.

So here are some things to get that type of Ermaghred! reaction.


as you can tell in the above photo, just photographing with the overhead kitchen lights on is pretty nasty.  We already know that automatic flash stinks.  Natural light is totally beautiful.  And in a pinch… if it’s dark out, those Lowel EGO Lamps do an okay job (and are what many food bloggers use when they need to photograph something at night).

When it comes to light, you’ve got options.  Don’t take it lightly.  

Get it?  Get it?  

I said lightly.  And we are talking about light.  I crack myself up.

Be serious, darnit.  How you use and manipulate light is the most important aspect of photography.  No pressure or anything. 

My favorite type of light is the au naturel  kind (i.e. the sun).  Specifically, beautiful diffused sunlight (not harsh, direct sunlight).  Harsh natural light will wash out your subject and cast heavy shadows, making the food look bleh and unappetizing.

So how do you make sunlight look good?

If it’s cloudy out, nature pretty much already did the job for you.  Clouds act as a natural diffuser.  If it’s sunny, you could use a diffuser (that’s the one I personally use and love) or a pure white sheet/ fabric to soften the light.

Light is pretty darn important.  It’s the thing that professional food photographers are masters at.  Finding the light.  Stalking the light.

You have homework.  Ready?

Try shooting at different times of the day and in different locations of your home to figure out what window gives you the best light… and at what time.


Once you find that killer light, it’s time to think about how you want it to hit your food.  We call it… directional light.  I know, so fancy.

And you have options.  Above is an example of what it looks like when you light something from the left or the right.  Do you see where the shadows falls?

You can also light images from the back or the front.

If you want a good rule of thumb about directional light, you pretty much never want to light your food from the front.  Food looks best lit from either the back, one side, or a combination of the two (i.e. back + right or back + left).


And obviously when food is being lit from one side, it will cast a shadow on the other side.  Duh.

Now, shadows are not a bad thing.  It’s personal preference.  I see and love beautiful, bright images without shadows.  I also love photos that use shadows to create mood and shape an image.

I’ve been experimenting more and more with using dramatic and creative shadows in my images, but many times you will want to lighten up the dark side of the image at least a little bit. That’s where reflectors come in.  You can use basically anything white.

White foam core board and white oak tag both work well.  Basically, anything white that can bounce light back onto the food to fill in the shadows will work.

In the image below, light entered from a window on the left side.  I used a white foam core board on the right side of the sundae in order to minimize the shadows in the right image.  Which look do you prefer?

When I’m photographing food for Shared Appetite, I always try it both ways.  With reflector and without reflector.  That way I can make the final creative decision later on while editing images on my computer.

Oh, and do me a favor.  Make sure when photographing to turn off those overhead lights.  I can’t tell you how many times I was utilizing natural light for my images but totally forgot to turn off the kitchen lights. When you mix light sources,  it becomes virtually impossible to white balance your photos.

White balance?!

I told you your brain would start hurting…


Every light has a temperature, which results in a slightly different color.  Flourescent, Tungsten, Incandescent, and even natural sunlight each have a different temperature on the Kelvin Scale.

And even with natural light, the temperature (and color!) will change from blue to yellow/orange as the day progresses and depending upon how sunny versus cloudy it is.

White Balance is simply making whatever light your using look as close to pure white as possible.  You can do this in your camera or in your photo editing software on your computer (such as lightroom or photoshop).  

When photographing, I start by simply choosing the white balance temperature preset in the camera menu that’s closest to pure white.  Each camera menu looks different, but here’s an example:

Obviously I would choose the upper left hand white balance preset (which I believe was “daylight” (the sun icon).

Even though the color (i.e. white balance) in that image isn’t perfect, it’s close enough so I can tweak it in Lightroom by using the two tools circled below.

Click the eye dropper tool and then click on a white or neutral gray area of the photo, and it will adjust the white balance accordingly.  That normally gets it closer to where I want it, and then I use the two sliders (blue to yellow temperature, and green to pink tint) to fine tune the color of the image.  When I’m done, it looks more like this…

Here’s another look at what white balance can do to a photograph.  No other editing was made other then correcting the white balance…

The image on the left was “as shot” out of camera.  On the right, I fixed the white balance in my Lightroom editing software.  What a difference!


This is where your artistic creativity can shine through.  Here are some things to consider with regards to composition…

Point of View.

Whenever Tyler and I are doing an engagement session or photographing a wedding, our couples typically let us know that they have a good side.

Get me from my good side!

Food kinda has good sides too.  You can shoot your food from above, head on, or from a compromise of the two (3/4):


Listen, without a doubt, the most important equipment you’ll ever own is YOU.  Cameras don’t take great photographs.  You do.

But, having some great gear certainly does help.  Just click on that big fat image below and it’ll take you to all the gear I currently use and love.

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