Food photography traditionally has been the realm of a handful of weathered professionals well versed in their niche profession, armed with high-end, medium-format cameras and a ton of expensive studio gear, and flanked by a small army of dedicated chefs and food stylists. You can see their work in ads, cook books, and high-end glossy magazines such as Sunset, Gourmet, Bon Appétit, and Food & Wine.

So for the casual shooter or even the ambitious amateur, getting great food shots can seem like an intimidating and daunting task at best. But it doesn't have to be that way.

The digital frontier has changed the way we shoot and the things we can shoot successfully. The benefit of being able to review the shot instantly, and know for certain that what you have just captured is usable, is absolutely invaluable. This applies especially to food photography where most of your time will go into setup and preparation.

This article will show you how you can achieve professional results with a minimum of equipment, some budget-conscious props, a little technical know-how, and a big dash of creative fun.


This tropical strawberry sorbet, served in a fresh coconut and playfully decorated with lime slices and colorful edible flower leaves, is a prime example of a quick, easy, yet very appealing setup. Note how the black plate and white tablecloth provide the perfect color contrasts, making the red sorbet really leap out of the picture. The shallow depth-of-field draws the eye to the main attraction, the texture of the sorbet. Exposure is 1/8 sec @ f 5.6, ISO 200; focal length is 80mm.

What Makes a Great Food Image?

I love food. And I'm talking about more than just the mere taste sensation. I love everything about it: the colors, textures, smell, and of course flavors. The delightful way a healthy dose of wasabi momentarily stings my nose and makes my eyes water. The smooth and creamy manner in which an exquisite piece of Swiss milk chocolate melts on my tongue. And, after a nice meal, the way my brain rewards me with the release of a particularly fun chemical, namely endorphin, which makes me feel warm and happy all over.

So what does all of this have to do with food photography, you ask? Absolutely everything. You will be hard-pressed to find a professional food photographer who is unappreciative of fine cuisine. So the very first step to creating universally appealing images of food is to have a passion for the subject.

Although I'm an architectural photographer by trade, when a new client asked me to create a portfolio for his up-and-coming in-home chef service, I jumped at the opportunity. But did I give in to my inner gear junkie who urged me to instantly rush out and purchase a bunch of nifty, high-end equipment to ensure success with this new task? No.

I suspect some pro out there (who gets paid an obscene sum of money to shoot a blueberry tartlet for Martha Stewart Living, assisted by that enviable mountain of gear and throng of trained helpers) will scoff at me for this, but instead, I sat down with an Oreo (okay, a few Oreos) and a glass of milk, put on my thinking cap, and reviewed what I knew about food photography.

For one, I knew that shooting food is very unlike architectural and product photography, where you want your entire subject in crystalline, razor-sharp focus so the viewer can pore over the details for hours. Photographing three pan-fried scallops on a risotto cake is more about appealing to--yep, you guessed it--those mighty little endorphins in the viewer's brain.

But because not even the twenty-first century has brought us a technological device capable of translating taste or smell from an image into an actual sensory experience, photographers are left with two other attributes of food: color and texture.

Translated this means: get close with your camera, focus on that texture, be bold with your choices of props and styling, and carefully plan ahead with your dishes, backdrops, lighting, and other environmental factors.


Scallops and risotto cake, on a bed of spinach, with a coconut curry sauce. Garnish: saffron leaves and paprika. Exposure is 1/10 sec @ f 5.6, ISO 200; focal length is 80mm.

Equipment

The setup for my food shoot was very simple:

Yes, that's right. I didn't use any flashes, studio lights, or reflectors. Why not? Easy. The plates, glasses, and silverware used in the shoot were guaranteed to throw back the light from a flash, causing ugly glares and hot spots that would have been distracting and possibly would have overpowered the images. Consequently, I made sure far in advance that the light on location was going to be plentiful (more about that in the Setup & Props section below). A healthy dose of good, natural light always works too. And if you already own a bunch of studio equipment, by all means, experiment. I'm not pretending that my technique is absolute. But it worked for me.

Setup and Props


Lemon chicken crepe roulades, feta-filled phyllo pouches, and fried wontons stacked with ahi tuna, spicy sprouts, ginger, and sesame seeds. This shot is an exception to the shallow depth-of-field rule; because all of the hors d'oeuvres were equally important on the plate, an f-stop of 27 and an exposure of 4 seconds brought everything in sharp focus. ISO 200, focal length 64mm.

Techniques

And now for the easiest part: shooting the food. You have chosen your location, considered the lighting, set up your camera on your tripod (don't try this in hand-held mode), arranged your fresh food on a pretty plate, and garnished it. Everything is ready except you don't know how to translate all that prettiness into a professional-looking photograph. There are really only two things you have to consider: get close and work fast.

Let There Be Fire

While images of mouth-watering food really helped to sell my client's catering services, there is nothing quite like including a human face to get a message across. So I had the idea to show the chef in his element, engaged in the most intimidating of tasks in the kitchen: fire in the pan.

Again, the setup was really simple: I hand-shot with my 35-80mm lens, set the manual mode at f-4 and 1/250 (ISO 400), and just kept the shutter button depressed while the chef created momentary flames with white wine. (Don't try this at home if you're not a trained chef.)

Chef Garrett Adair

So dive in. Have fun. And don't forget to reap the ultimate benefit: eating the food you shoot. Just make sure you do it after you've captured the perfect shot.