As a food photographer I have been asked all manners of questions about my crazy profession. Understandably so! There are a lot of rumors floating around about food-fakery used on commercial food shoots. Is that hamburger real? Is that milk really Elmer’s glue? These questions are easily answered. There really isn’t as much gluing and shellacking as you may have heard about. These days the food you see in the photographs is actually food, artfully presented along with lovely props and good lighting.
When I speak to food entrepreneurs about photographing their products, the conversation tends to be very different. They usually aren’t interested in parlor tricks so much as the results. This makes a lot of sense! Small business owners who are entering the wild landscape of the food world have a lot to think about. They are usually forced to become an expert of something new at every turn.
One week they have to learn about the politics of grocery stores, and the next they’re expected to master web development and social media! It is to this special breed of person I am going to speak to here. I’ve teamed up with Undiscovered Kitchen to create a short list of food photography tips. The goal is to empower those food entrepreneurs who want to start photographing their own products to get started!
#1 CONSISTENCY IS KEY!
Your photos will most likely be seen in a series. Together, they should appear cohesive. This builds confidence in the view as potential customers scroll through your images.
Choose one spot where you’ll photograph your product and stick with it, such as a sunny spot in your kitchen.
Photograph using consistent lighting by setting up at the same time of day, or place your lights in the same place every time you shoot. Choose a family of props, such as a signature plate, bowl, cutting board, or napkin.
Shoot a series of photos of your product including:
- A full shot of the product
- A photo of the product in a natural context
- A detail shot of the product that shows a design detail or something delicious or awesome
#2 IT’S ALL ABOUT LIGHT!
With food photography nothing could be more true. Here’s the real pearl of wisdom to get you started: for the most part, food photographs well with the main light directed from slightly behind the set – specifically at the 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock position. I don’t know why, but it really works! The food looks sculptural and edible. If you are photographing packaging, however, the opposite could be true. Light from in front of the product could be better.
#3 YOU’LL NEED TIME AND PATIENCE!
It’s all about the details when it comes to food. Find your inner yogi and summon your most patient self. Take the time to shoot, look at your photo, make changes to the composition, then take another shot, and re-evaluate. This is the only way to hone in on the best photograph!
Pixels are free (sort of). Gone are the days of expensive film, so shoot away! Try a variety of angles, props, lighting, crumbs, no crumbs, add a garnish, remove the garnish…just keep shooting and looking! Change one thing at a time and evaluate each new shot. This is the best way to discover what photographic look will work best for your products.
Good food photography is not just a series of Instagram filters or magic tricks with toothpicks and Vaseline. Like anything, practice and patience are the best tools at your disposal. Start with a clear idea of the look you want in your photo, and then move towards it.
That is how I approach every new photo project, whether it’s for a magazine, a cookbook, a web site, packaging, or a personal project. With practice, you will create your own toolbox of photo and styling techniques. Then people will be asking you about glue, shellac, and magic tricks. Happy shooting!
Nina Gallant lives, shoots photos, and eats in Boston. She has a family heritage in the food biz and years of experience behind the camera. Her work can be seen in cookbooks, magazines, on packages, and wherever the internet is found.