How to Improve Your Food Photography

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If you’re a holistic nutritionist, or any kind of holistic health practitioner, you probably love cooking up delicious, nourishing food! Sharing photos and recipes from your creations can be a great way to serve and support your social media audience and online community. You can also create recipe books and meal plans to give for free to get new people on your email list, or even to sell on your website.

If you’ve taken a photo of your beautiful, delicious food and felt frustrated that the photo did not do it justice at all– you’re not alone! Everyone starts somewhere. With a few key tweaks, your food photography will go from dark and dull to bright and appealing. It really doesn’t have to be complicated. Once you know how to work your camera, the lighting, styling elements, and simple editing, it becomes fun and easy to share stunning food photos.

Good news! Your smartphone is the perfect camera to start with. Most smartphones have built in cameras that come pretty close to a DSLR in terms of photo quality! So if you don’t have a fancy camera, start with what you’ve got.

If you do have a DSLR, do you know how to use it on manual mode? I highly recommend reading the guide your camera came with (these are usually available for download online on the camera manufacturers website as well) and start playing with the different settings to get a good handle on it.

If you only use one tip from this guide, let it be this: use natural light.

Have you ever taken a photo of your dinner in the wintertime under the dining room light fixture in your otherwise dark dining room? Artificial light from lamps and light fixtures in your home is the top reason your food photos don’t look nearly as appealing as you’d hoped. They cast a yellowy glow and make your food look dull and dark.

Use natural light! Light from the sun has a whiter quality to it than indoor lighting does. If you’ve taken photos in the daytime but they look bluish, it’s likely because there were no clouds covering the blue sky. If the sun is coming in really strongly through your window, you might find there are intense shadows in your photos. Direct sunlight provides harsh lighting that’s harder to work with.

The best ever light for food photography is when the sky is covered in fluffy white clouds in the middle of the day. Cloud coverage “diffuses” the sunlight so it isn’t too harsh, making your photo look light and airy instead of shadowy. It also eliminates the blue tint that you can get when the sky is bright and blue. If there’s no cloud coverage on the day you want to snap some photos, you can pin a plain white bed sheet over your window to act as a diffuser.

Set up your table or surface as close to a large window as you can. You want to angle it so the light from your window is hitting either the left or right side of your set up (see the diagrams below). This angle illuminates your food really well. You can experiment positioning your table on slight angles to change the positioning of the shadows in your photo. See what works best for the look you’re going for and then stick to that angle to help create a cohesive look in all your photos.



If you love that light and airy look, buy one of those white fold-out presentation boards (you know, the ones you used in school for your presentations!). Set it up on the opposite side of your light source (window). It’ll bounce back some of the light to illuminate the shadowy area of your photo, making the whole thing look brighter.

The easiest thing to do for a nicely styled food photo is to choose a simple, bright-coloured backdrop. If you have an aesthetically pleasing table, you can absolutely use that! Many people have dark-coloured tables that make their food photos look too dark. You can purchase a large piece of tile or even a professionally-made backdrop (yes, there are actually people out there who make backdrops for food photography as their career!), but the cheapest, yet equally effective, way to acquire a perfect backdrop is to make one.

To make your own backdrop, head to the hardware store and purchase a piece of particle board or plywood. You want a piece that’s about 3’x2’. Most hardware stores will cut plywood to any size you want for free.

To create a beautiful backdrop out of a piece of plywood, all you need is some paint and a sponge. Pick light colours like light blue, light pink, whites, and greys. You can use more than one shade to add some interesting detail to the backdrop. Lay your board on a drop sheet and put globs of paint all over the board. Then, take your sponge and dab away to cover the whole board. Don’t over-dab if you want all the colours to be noticeable and not fully mixed. If you want a smoother look, you can simply paint your board with a single colour. Let the paint dry and you’re all set to create bright, beautiful photos!

To style your dish, you want to incorporate as many colourful, fresh-looking elements as possible. Some of the best-tasting food is brown (like chili, stews, etc.) but it does not photograph well. An easy hack is to sprinkle on some fresh herbs for a pop of green freshness. You can also take “process” photos that show the elements of the dish as they’re being prepped or just about to be cooked so they still have all their colour. For example, a chili before it is cooked still has bright green peppers and red onions, beans that are still a bit firm, etc. It looks “prettier” in the pot than a cooked chili. Same thing goes for a roast. The still-red meat with green herbs and white garlic photographs better than a cooked roast. Greens are your friend in food photography. Add lots of fresh herbs and greens like lettuce, kale, and arugula. It gives the dish an appealing freshness. For desserts, which are often brown and wouldn’t pair well with greens very often, contrast the brown with white. An example of this is to set the dessert on a white plate or on a piece of white parchment paper.

A good way to add some interest to your shots is props. Whether it’s a little dish of salt, a bundle of fresh herbs, a tea towel, or antique cutlery, adding props helps pull the whole shot together. Sourcing props can get pricey if you aren’t being mindful but a few versatile items from a thrift store or yard sale make fantastic additions to your collection. They’re both interesting and cost-effective. When it comes to any elements you add to your photo, you want to make sure they’re relatively small so your food remains the star of the shot. Plate your meals on salad or dessert plates rather than dinner plates. Find small wooden boards and tiny bowls to add in to your shot. Another reason small plates and props are a good idea is that you can fit more of them into your frame. It’s nice to have two plates of the same dish in a shot rather than one. It gives a sense of sharing a meal with someone and feels inviting.

Another key thing to keep in mind as you’re styling your shots is how the image will be cropped. If you will be posting the image on instagram, for example, you’ll want to position your shot to fit well in a square so that none of the important parts get cut off when you’re cropping it. If you’re using your photographs on your website or on pinterest, you’ll want to make sure you have some vertical shots. For facebook, you’ll want a few horizontal shots.

Good news: editing can be easy! When you’ve taken all of the steps above to make sure your photo is well-lit and styled well, editing becomes less of a task and sometimes not even really necessary. You can usually just increase the exposure a bit and increase the contrast. I highly recommend using Lightroom, which can be downloaded as an app on your phone. Play around with the different tools to see what you like best. In general, you’ll likely want to increase/bring up the following settings:
● Exposure
● Contrast
● Shadows
● Saturation
● Sharpening
● Noise reduction
Once you’ve found a look you like, save the settings as a “preset”. Next time you upload a photo to edit, you can just apply that preset with one click. This gives all your photos a cohesive look with almost no effort. You can also download presets from other people! This saves you the step of having to figure out how to use Lightroom at all. There are so many food bloggers who have gotten impeccably good at food photography who share their presets now. Search online for “food photography presets” and download one that fits the look you’re going for.

I hope this guide has helped take some of the mystery out of taking photos of food. It’s a whole different art form, so be patient with yourself as you learn– and keep going! Your skills will improve with every single photo you take. It can be fun to give yourself a challenge, like one photo a day for 30 days, and see the progression of your work.

Having the ability to produce beautiful food photography can be a huge asset as a holistic health practitioner or holistic nutritional consultant. You can create recipe ebooks to sell, partner with natural wellness companies by creating sponsored recipe posts, drive traffic to your website with highly-shareable recipes, or even create your own cookbook. Start where you’re at with what you’ve got and keep working at it.

Contributed by Melanie Maxwell, R.H.N.