Getting Started in Food Photography

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Scroll down to the bottom of this post for a full list of food photography resources.

Getting Started in Food Photography

Getting started as a food photographer isn’t nearly as hard as you might think, but it does take some trail and error to get good at it.

I worked previously as a portrait photographer (in a studio and in the field), and I’ve even spent some time shooting landscapes as a hobby, but it had been almost a decade since I’d shot anything professionally.

Despite being a bit rusty, I decided to try my hand at food photography to see if I could create some gorgeous images to accompany the recipes I was sharing on the blog.

The first few photos didn’t come out as beautifully as I wanted and I think the main issue was my trying to hard. Too many props, busy scenes and not having experience in styling food.

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What I did wrong.

Below are a few examples of my early food photography shots. These pictures are by no means terrible, but they suffer from a few basic problems.

  • Too many props, patterns, colors and textures
  • Lack of props to choose from
  • Using plates and bowls that are too big for the staging area or to properly style the food
  • Too many closeups with no negative space
  • Not showcasing key ingredients
  • Poor lighting and editing techniques

What you need to get started.

As I spent more time on my food photography, I was able to justify spending money on props, like tabletop tiles, backgrounds, and flatware. And don’t misread me, I still haven’t spent much.

I was able to work in trade for a brand that gifted us a marble and slate slabs in return for a blog post. And I bought a lot of dishes at the dollar store or on clearance.

My main background for my current food shots is a piece of cardboard that I covered with marble textured contact paper.

I’m a big fan of saving money, especially until you start making money on your blog. I mean, if you’re spending more than you’re bringing in, you’re way more likely to get burnt out and quit before you’ve even made it.

It’s better to just keep things simple and affordable until you start bringing in the bucks. Below, I’ll share some links to resources that can help you start working on your food photography on a budget.

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Practice, practice, practice.

The most important aspect of photography is practice. Shoot every day. You won’t realize it right away, but the more time you spend practicing, the better you’ll get. Each day, week, month, year…you’ll improve.

A few years ago, I joined Instagram, and since then I’ve taken hundreds of snapshots and I’ve even put time into a few really gorgeous photoshoots of the kids, our adventures or the delicious dishes we’re tasting.

It’s a fun way to share your favorite photos with friends and track your progress. I’m always amazed when I look back on my old Instagram posts to see how far I’ve come.

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Using the right equipment.

To be honest, the camera you use isn’t as important as your creativity and attention to detail. A quality smartphone (with at least 8 MP resolution) will work for most shots as long as you have good lighting. At least half of my Instagram photos are smartphone shots.

While some might not showcase the depth of field (focus on a single point in the image and a blurred background) that a D-SLR allows, it’s great for overhead shots, like scenic or flat-lay style scenes. All of the 6 images in the gallery below are taken on my Samsung Galaxy S9.

And keep in mind that a lot of the new smartphones do have depth of field with portrait mode or selective focus. Below is an example of this effect (also taken on my Galaxy S9).

I highly recommend a smartphone lens kit for food photography shots on your phone. And make sure that there is enough space between your food and the background so that the portrait mode or selective focus feature can do its job.

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A basic D-SLR is absolutely fine when you’re getting started. I personally have used a previous model (2-3 years old) Nikon and Canon cameras that were priced much lower than the current models. They work just fine.

In fact, all of the pictures in this post are from my Nikon D3200, my Canon Rebel T6 or my Samsung Galaxy S9…all purchased for less than $400. For both DSLRs, I just used a standard 18-55mm lens.

If you do choose to get a Canon Rebel series, they do have a Food Photography mode, which also helps to keep things simple when you’re just getting started.

For props (plates, bowls, glasses, flatware, linens, etc.) I visited the local dollar store and or the clearance sections at Walmart and Target.

Basics to have on hand.

  • various serving trays or boards (galvanized steel, wood, marble, slate, etc.)
  • linens or solid fabrics in various colors and textures
  • wallpapers, laminates or placemats in minimalist designs
  • white dishes, preferably matte finish
  • character pieces that set the overall vibe of your shoots
  • various flatware
  • other items you want to try
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Getting creative.

There are tons more things that you could use to improve your food photography. Here are a few of my top suggestions for things you should absolutely have on hand once you start to get serious.

Studio Lighting – While I love working with natural light, it’s no exaggeration to say that I was working against the clock.  When you rely on natural light, you only have a small window to shoot before the light temperature or brightness changes.  And if you’re shooting on a cloudy day, your lighting situation could be all over the place.  It’s work.  A studio light allows you to be more creative and put more thought into every placement because there is no rushing when you control the lighting. If you absolutely have to shoot outside or with window light, make sure you have reflectors and diffusers (like white drapes or a sheet) on hand to soften and correct the light.

A Tripod – Having a tripod will help you to stabilize your camera and keep photos crisp and in focus. You might not notice camera shake in most of your photos, but if you or a brand ever decide to blow them up (for an advertisement or billboard, your images will suffer a huge loss in clarity.

A Reflector – All you need is a white poster board cut out or 1-2 foot square of cardboard covered in foil. A reflector is meant to help cast more light on your dishes and decrease the shadows so that your readers can see every detail of the food.

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Don’t be afraid to get messy.

Whether we like to admit it or not, creatives tend to be obsessive perfectionists. Don’t let yourself get too caught up in a perfect dish. Food looks better when you can see what’s inside. So go ahead…spill the sauce, squeeze the lime and leave that crumbled cake on the plate.

​​​​​​Hell, you don’t even have to use a plate. Just shoot that brisket sandwich directly on a serving tray or crinkled newspaper. No need to get fancy if that’s not your style. And your audience will only further appreciate the fresh concept and fun textures you’ve brought to the experience.

Keep it simple.

The more images I’ve taken, the more I realize the value of keeping things simple. Use solid colors, clean backgrounds and rely on the recipe ingredients to add interest to the shot.

Your readers aren’t going to be focusing on the props as much as they’re focusing on your food. And if you’re working with brands, they’ll definitely value a photographer who can showcase the food or more specifically, the product/ingredient they’re trying to sell.

Always remember, less is more. More negative (empty) space and more focus on the beauty of the ingredients (by using the ingredients as props).

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Create your own style.

So many people spend all their time and energy making their photos look like someone else’s, but my favorite food photographers are the ones that have their own style.

While it’s great to look to other food photographers for inspiration, don’t get too caught up in following someone else’s lead. Instead, focus on creating your own vibe in your photoshoots.

Try out new props, new lighting techniques, different food styling options. The more you play around with these elements, the more likely you are to find the vibe or theme that works best for you. This way, you’ll share more of your personality through your photos and create brand recognition among your readers.

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How to find your own style.

If you’re interested in getting started in food photography, I would suggest reading blogs or buying cookbooks in the photographic styles that inspire you.  

Follow your favorite Instagram foodies.  Figure out what you love about their images and what you want your photographic style to look like.  Then study the composition, color, lighting, props and attempt to replicate it until you’ve got their techniques down.  Then you can put your own spin on your photography and decide how you want to express yourself through your images.

Take some wide shots, some close-ups, some interesting angles, play with shadow.  Try everything and see what works for you! Above all, find out what you like and experiment with it.

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Food Photography Resources

Are you interested in learning more about food photography? Here are a few links to some of my favorite resources for those who want to delve deeper.  

If you have questions, feel free to leave them in the comments and I’ll answer them or try my best to find answers for you.

And remember…the two most important factors in becoming a great photographer are practice and experimentation.  Shoot often and never be afraid to try new things!

Inexpensive Food Photography Props on Amazon

Become a Professional Food Blogger

And if you want to go ‘all in’ and become a professional food blogger, check out this awesome interactive course from the creators of Pinch of Yum!

About Author

South Texas Foodie, Traveler, Photographer, and Designer.