Haniela's: ~Tips on Food Photography~

~Tips on Food Photography~

Thursday, September 30, 2010

I’ve always loved taking pictures, but my passion truly exploded when I joined Flickr in March 2008. I’m still on the learning curve, so  what you’ll read below are the things that I learned  so far.
I love outdoors, hiking, wildlife and I'm literally obsessed with documenting everything.

Camera -Lens
Light and Lighting
Camera Settings
Props & Background
Preparation and my little helpers
Shooting Style
File Format
Storing Your Camera
My Favorite Stores

With Camera you basically have  2 options :
Point and shoot – When I first started taking food photos, it was around Valentine’s day  2008, I was using  Sony Cyber Shot 5.Megapixels (SONY DSC-V1).I remember I made some cookies and I wanted to take some pictures of them, and then I found Flickr and I was hooked.
My Sony is really wonderful, I still use it for quick shots.
                Point and Shoot Cameras are equipped with a very small lens, and image sensor is small, so the quality you get is not the best. Most of them have limited photographic controls and capturing textures, and controlling how much light you allow in is really out of the question If you are looking for something more then look for an entry level DSLR, they are becoming more and more affordable these days.
I have overgrown my Sony  really fast and was ready for another adventure… DSLR.

  DSLR(Digital single-lens reflex camera)

  -   Since 2009 I’ve been using DSLR -Nikon Brand. I’m not going into which is better Canon or Nikon, as I have only been using Nikon and I have no experience with Canon brand.

-         I started out with Nikon D200, and then  I changed to Nikon D300.
      Lens -  Quality lens is really must. As they say ~glass~ matters the most.

Good lens doesn’t have to be expensive, Nikon 50mm 1.8 or 50mm 1.4 are really good choices to start with, they are  prime lenses (/no zoom) but offer a great sharpness of the image.I know it has no zoom, but with food it really works great, and I’ve used it on some outdoor portraits as well.

I also use Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8, this one sits on my camera on most days. It offers Excellent optics and sharpness is great throughout out the range. I just love it.

I also work with Nikon 105mm f/2.8 AF Micro, she is a beauty/tripod is a must here/

It really comes down to what you are the most comfortable with and what you can afford.


I LOVE MY TRIPOD. Tripods are made from variety of materials,  from the cheapest : plastic  aluminum, basalt, and carbon fiber are the most expensive ones. Depending on your budget and your needs get a tripod that will be able hold your camera etc. Tripod is very important part of the gear.
I’ve tried few brands, I like Manfrotto brand and most days I use the gitzo, that is expensive – Carbon Fiber tripod, but if you do nature  and wild life photography where lots of hiking is involved. You better get yourself something that is light. I’ll never forget  6 hours hike with a super heavy tripod on my shoulder that gave me a bruises and blisters. Heavy tripod was sold and replaced with a carbon  one. I never looked back.
If you are using point and shoot definitely use a tripod when taking  food photos.
I use a quick release head.

I’ve been utilizing mainly natural light when taking food photos, though I’ve tried studio lights as well. I’m still on a learning curve about these. I would love to try a strobe sometime soon as well.

Best option for those who have limited time, but still want to present their sugar art or product so it looks good on photos is to invest in  a light  tent.
How to build a Light Tent
Light Box
Light Box-ebay

Usually I try to shoot in the middle of the day or early afternoon, but I’ve tried food shots outside early in the morning, or mid morning, later in the afternoon.
Pay attention to the strength of the light, it changes throughout the day. For example : an early afternoon light can deliver a nice bright light but it also can be very strong producing harsh shadows in your photos.

When taking photo inside I recommend to test the light in your house in different times of the day. Best place is by a large window or opening, with the light coming in diffused by a white curtain, or you can use a white bed sheet. I use a white diffuser.
I also have 2 skylights in my kitchen, so  when I need it I have light coming from above.

I actually prefer sunny days over cloudy ones, as with sunny days I get to play more with the light as it has more  direction and casts shadows. Of course there are times, when there is just too much light.

Get Inspired

I have a lot of magazines with food photos, or even a Prevention Magazine has lots of food photos, so what I do I try to understand how each shot was taken, where was the main light, etc, I love Arthur King Flour catalog, it is full of great photos of food and I try to pick up on the lighting. Even though they are using all studio lights and I’m doing all natural lighting I think it applies to both, just the way how you get there is a little different.

I love reflectors, they are vital to food photography and they are so much fun.
I bought a kit of reflectors, with gold, black, 2 white diffusers, silver and lightly golden one. You can make simple table reflector by using silver card stock from a craft store, use silver or if you want warm it up a little use gold one.
Recently I picked up on using mirrors and aluminum foil pieces placed on the table. With mirror you have to be careful as it gives you a very directional light and can cast weird rectangle shapes, but I still like it as it is great to get the light where you want it.  Aluminum foil has so many uses you can make little balls with shiny part up or dull  and place them around the table. If in a hurry you could also get a silver windshield protector and use that as a reflector.

I ran a light reflected from mirror across the top of the sandwich here

I ran the mirror from the left through a glass jar in this shot

I directed reflector to run the light just across the top of the white part to make it really shine

A very simple demonstration of how white diffuser works.
I have to say even though my cake threw a very harsh shadow
it was a pretty impressive one too.

This was taken when sun was high and very very strong.
We just picked a good amount of tomatoes and I wanted to také a shot right away.

Another example  : we just picked winter squash and before I cooked it I wanted to snap a picture. Well it seems I can’t just go and snap a picture anymore!
Originally I wanted to shoot it on the table, but then my eye spotted the bench and I thought, hm, that could be interesting and it certainly was. You don’t see what preceded this shot, but  squash collapsed several times before I was finally able to secure each one of them, at the end I was praying so it would stay like that for at least a minute or so, so I could take some pictures.As you see I positioned the smallest ones in the front and I tried to arrange leaves there too so it wouldn’t so bare.

ISO – Manually set to minimum to eliminate noise in pictures.

EXPOSURE -I preferably shoot Manual or Aperture priority when taking food photos

F/STOPS – Aperture. When I first  started taking photos with my point and shoot, I was so desperate to understand how to take picture with blurred background. I think I read about aperture setting more than about anything else. It was so confusing at first.

Depth of field(DOF) – you probably heard this term someway along the way,it is defined as  the portion of a scene that appears acceptably sharp in the image, increasing the DOF increases the sharpness of an image. To increase DOF, you can use small aperture setting .

With my lenses I have  the largest  aperture/f stop/ at 1.8 with my 50mm and 17-55 mm, and 2.8 with the macro.

Nikon 50mm 1.8
Nikon 105mm f/2.8 AF Micro
Nikon 17 -55mm f/2.8

I usually play with different aperture settings to achieve the desired affect.

WHITE BALANCE – Depending of the light, but mostly it is daylight or auto.

EXPOSURE COMPENSATION (EV +/-) – This is a very useful  feature of a camera that allows you to adjust the exposure measured by its light meter. It helps you to control the amount of light that enters the lens.
I use this feature when light is very bright and there is high contrast in a scene. It is also useful when subjects are back lit. When subject is back lit, sometime camera is being fooled by the light behind the subject and  as a  result of this subject appears too dark.
EV is an exposure value.

FOCUS – Manual

SELF TIMER - I use a self timer set for 10 seconds. Using a self timer gives me a freedom of using both of my hands to hold a reflector or a mirror if needed , it also eliminates shaking captured in the photo.

When using a fabric, I try to keep it simple, solid color seems to work the best and then you can add  alittle color with your props or a small napkin. I bought a  lot of small fabric pieces to accent my photos at a fabric store, or you can find really nice kitchen towels at a dollar store too. I always look for props.
I don't really have a preference of what color I like the best. Obviously white looks great but when I take photos I usually try different background until I find one that fits the best for the subject. I’m still growing my fabric collection.
As for the props, Ikea  has a wonderful selection of different bowl, jars etc. I love my weekend visits to garage sales. Especially now in the Fall there are so many of them.
You can find really unexpected things there. Just keep your eyes open for little things that can add a character to your photo. I love how food looks on a white plate but since nothing is set in stone I try different colors as well. Again look at magazine food shots, or a cookbook pictures.
Actually I find styling to be very challenging, I learned that less is more.
-don’t clutter your shot with a lot of different props, simple napkin, fork, knife will do just fine.
-test different backgrounds, either solid, or patterned, scrapbooking papers are great too. Make sure that fabric or paper will cover the the area of view
-experiment with different plates, bowls, silverware, ribbons, ingredients can be part of the set up as well.
-use only the best samples you have available to you (perhaps you made 12 cupcakes, so pick only the best of the bunch)
It grows outside of my window..why not to use in the photo 
I decided to add a little color using yellow paper

Use of a simple prop. Knife bought at a flea market ($2)

Flower matching the napkin color adds a nice touch.

I used a cut out  parchment heart and a ribbon to make it more interesting
Background is  satin red fabric. Perfect for Valentine's Day

I lined the smallest box I could find ( I think it used to be  a small jewelery box) with pink tissue paper (Victoria Secret),

I had this shot in my head for a while, I planted some grass into a pretty green container and voila, it made a for a perfect Easter Egg Photo prop.
I collect paper napkins and hankies, some of them I iron or I cut them into shapes. Further below you'll come across a photo of Ice Cream Cones, on the side is a polka dot napkin with ice cream cone image on the top.
Same napkin was used here.

I usually set my table before I have food ready and I test the light so I know what to expect later. I usually  iron few backdrops just to have few choices.
Get my tools ready : tweezers, paper towels, cotton swabs, glycerin, vinegar  – it does magic on plates, I use it make them really shiny and spotless, spring clamps, painter's brush to remove crumbs, sometime I use  tape to pick up crumbs if I can't get there with the brush. I use  all kind of little helpers.
For example in this shot. Cookies wouldn’t stand on its own, I tried aluminum foil balls, I tried little tubes etc. So what I did I placed few glass pebbles inside of the aluminum foil and made shapes, don’t ask what shapes they were just some shapes,  in such fashion so they wouldn’t be showing through when shot at table level, but they would hold the cookie up. I balanced each cookie and this is the photo that came out.
I really wanted  Flying Halloween Witches….and I think I got them. ;-)

Paper towels – I love them, I use them to support cookies on a plate as cookies - they just keep sliding and sliding, it is nearly impossible to place them on the plate.
I used few paper towel pieces in these shots to keep the cookies from sliding into the dish.

Parchment paper – I used parchment paper pieces in these Raisin Bread photos. Reason I  decided to use parchment pieces was very simple,  I used a fabric background with a very natural feel and  since I knew I’d be moving bread around a lot
I didn’t want the fabric to get all dirty from the raisins that were all over this delicious bread, they very soft and they would definitely dirty the fabric.
I cut out rectangle piece of parchment paper and placed them underneath of the breads. It worked wonderfully.
I photographed this bread for my friend Bread Artisan Maker Rachel from  Mangez Brioche, she entered her bread into a Bread  Contest, and her bread based on photos and her formula   was chosen to go into the final round and   she will be attending a bake off in Kansas.

Addition of a simple prop as stalks of dried wheat made it look more interesting .
I was very pleased with how I was able style this shot. I love the DOF here

Practice Practice Practice
I like to do a little research , study food photos in a magazine, in a cook book.
Then when I’m ready to shoot I always try different angles when I shoot, but generally closer you can get better,
Shoot  the whole set up from from above, standing level, table level, but don’t be afraid of exploring and have fun with it.Get closer with a macro lens, or wide lens.
Shoot with small aperture, then change it.

Here I shot the whole set up from an angled position from above and second shot is a close up.

Using the same prop – this gorgeous antique scale, two different angles give you a totally different perspectives.

From above

Shot at table level

Get Close

I do the both. I shoot a lot and it seems like memory cards need a little boost after they’ve been all filled up. Once you download your pictures to the computer, back them up and then format your memory card in your camera not in the computer.
 I didn’t believe it, but I did a little test, I deleted all my images on the memory card and I checked what is the available number of photos I can take, and it was rather small number so I formatted the card and voila number jumped up.
Formatting improves the performance of the memory card.

I shoot in raw , my online photos are mainly PNG
I use Capture NX for  editing and converting photos and then Corel Paint Shop Pro for adding a watermark, text and such.
Beauty of Raw format is that  in the software application you are able to work with the photo like you’d in a dark room, you can still go in and adjust exposure, correct white balance etc.
I keep my editing to minimum, usually it involves : contrast, boost of color, if needed color control point

When not in use I store my camera in an air tight container filled with a large bag of silica gel.
You can read more on the subject here.


See you later.


  1. Thank u so much for your great tutorial.

  2. Great tutorial! Now i can understand a bit more than completely nil before..lol! I'm really bad with cameras..

  3. Wow. This was incredibly informative. Thank you SO MUCH for taking the time to share this with everyone! I can see that I have a lot more research to do before I even understand everything you said! ;)

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