In this food photography styling post I delve into tips, tricks, and information on how to style mouthwatering food photos using elements of design.
Today I’m coming at you with another photography post. We’re talking about food styling, a topic that actually gives me anxiety. I get a lot of questions about blogging and photography and what I use to take pretty food photos. Let me preface this post by warning you that I am not a super expert amazing incredible genius photographer by ANY means. But I have learned a lot over the past 5 years of blogging and I want to share that with you because I wish I had someone to learn from back in the day. Why should you listen to me if I’m not a photography wizard? Because I had to struggle to learn everything I know.
I look at it this way. My dad’s first language was Spanish and he is completely bilingual. I didn’t learn Spanish from him, he never taught me when I was young. I learned Spanish best from my teachers in high school who ALSO had to learn Spanish. When I would ask my dad to explain why the sentence in Spanish I wrote was wrong all he could really say was, “It doesn’t sound right.” Not helpful. My Spanish teachers, who went through the same struggles to learn a different language, would be able to tell me exactly what was wrong about that sentence and how to fix it in a technical sense. I am not a natural photographer or food stylist. I’ve had to work and practice a LOT just to get where I am today, and I can list off hundreds of other bloggers whose photography talents dwarf mine. However, I think it’s much easier to learn from someone who has been exactly where you are, with the same questions and struggles, than someone who has more of a natural talent and inclination. Hopefully you agree and hopefully you find these posts helpful! Warning: this is a long image-heavy post!
Don’t forget to check out my other photography posts on my equipment and setup!
Let’s jump in. As you prepare your recipe subject and your camera, lighting, exposure, etc. for a food shoot, there are a few questions to ask yourself in regards to food styling:
What’s the wow factor of this recipe?
Envision what the finalized recipe will look like, along with steps along the way. Ask yourself: what is the most delicious part of this dish and how can I emphasize that? Do you think the gooey chocolate oozing out of the center of the cookie will make you viewer’s mouth water? In that case, start thinking about how you can achieve that emphasis. Maybe offsetting the dark oozing chocolate with a light background will do the trick. Perhaps setting up the shot for a shallow depth of field (small f/stop) so that oozing chocolate is highly visibly will also make for a mouthwatering image. How about the perfectly pink and juicy center of that seared steak? What about the melted cheese in that grilled cheese? Think about the aspects of the dish you find most delicious and beautiful, and highlight those. I like to think about this even before I step food in the kitchen, so I can begin to set up my shot or at least envision how I’d like it to look and feel. Things might change once I actually start snapping away, but it helps to have a starting point. OR, maybe the beauty of the recipe is obvious and you’re more interested in invoking an emotional response besides hunger…
What kind of mood, tone, scene, do I want to set?
Todd and Diane, the incredible food photographers of the blog White on Rice, say your food photos should tell a story. Telling a story gives the photo depth, allowing you to make an intimate and unique connection with your audience. This is where I struggle. I have difficulty creating a scene with multiple ingredients/props/dynamics all while also focusing on lighting, camera settings, focal points, making the actual food look good, etc. I love photos that have life behind them, that invoke an emotional response and I’m working on that aspect of my own photography. I’m often too impatient for this. I’ll add a glass of wine/coffee/milk, some silverware, include some crumbs, or even take a bite out of the food to make it feel more real and to break up the composition, but that’s usually all I have the patience for.
As you begin to create a mental image of how you want your photos to look, start intentionally considering the setup and resources you have available. Where will you shoot this? On what surface? What direction will the light be? What props and linens will you use? You may need to experiment with a few different options.
As you narrow all this down, it’s time to start using everything you learned in art class to help you style your shot. All those elements and principles of design come into play, whether you’re consciously aware of them or not. Let’s review them.
Right after light and exposure, composition is the foundation of any beautiful food photo. As Instagram often demonstrates, expensive camera equipment means nothing if your composition isn’t on point. Composition can communicate mood and atmosphere and draw viewers in. I find that unlike learning how to use your camera in manual setting, composition is much harder to learn. It’s not always something you can read about, it takes a lot of experimenting and observation and some people just have a better eye. What do you want to be in your frame? What colors, textures, emotions, stories do you want people to notice? My number one problem is an internal conflict between setting up a beautiful shot and setting up a practical shot.
Where will your subject be in the frame? Could something be more interesting if photographed off-center, like the strawberries on the right in the above image? In a sea of food photographs on blogs and Pinterest, it’s nice to break up the normal patterns with something a little unexpected. It can also be helpful if you don’t particularly like the appearance of the subject. Myspace angles anyone? Lately I’ve been experimenting more with placing things off-center and creating more negative space for better visual impact. Sometimes I question myself, but often times it opens up a whole new view of the subject. Shooting centered allows you to really show off the beauty of your subject.
Will your dish look beautiful from a direct overhead point of view? How about at about a three-quarters angle, or even eye level? You may be somewhat limited in what kind of angle you can accomplish according to your space, but don’t be afraid to get creative. Many of us have stood on top of stools, chairs, or tables to get the shot. I like to do at least two angles every time I shoot something, just to give myself options. Be thinking about your angle as you set up your shot because some angles require a different set up. At eye level, for example, your backdrop is highly visible so if you don’t have an appropriate backdrop maybe that’s not the best angle.
This is pretty much common knowledge but be aware of perspective as you shoot. Will your subject look better in an up-close or macro shot or in a wide shot? Sometimes a close up shot can help pinpoint that “wow factor,” but if you get too close up your audience might not have any idea what they’re actually looking at. Start in the middle then work your way in or out. Take shots from every perspective, you may not realize what looks best until you see it on a screen.
Rule of thirds:
Something else useful to composing your image is the rule of thirds, which is better explained here. Remember though that there should be no actual rules in photography, just guidelines and methods to get your brain thinking!
Focus can help you emphasize the “wow factor” of your subject. Without a focal point of interest the eye has no where to go and the image becomes disjointed, frustrating, and confusing for the audience. In the above images I chose a different strawberry to focus on using my camera’s auto focus points to give you an idea of how it affects your intake of the image. For many years my number one goal with my food photos was to ensure readers knew exactly what the food was supposed to look like. Sometimes that’s not always necessary, and I have to remind myself I can experiment with the composition a little and even if every inch of the food isn’t in focus, that’s fine. However, if you are shooting a large scene with lots going on, try to pick a focal point towards the middle so more than one item is in focus.
Depth of field:
This term refers to the amount of space in the frame that is actually in focus. A shallow depth of field shows items in the foreground in focus, but items in the background are blurred, like the above image on the left. This can be helpful to dramatize whatever you want the eye to narrow in on, like that oozing chocolate in the center of a cookie. It also conveys a kind of airy, dreamy sense and can be flattering to food. A deep depth of field (right) means most of what you see is in clear focus, which can be a good option if you’re setting up a large scene and want the audience to see it all. Read more about the technical aspects of depth of field here, just know that generally the larger the aperture (small f/stop), the shallower your depth of field will be.
One of the foundations of photography is of course, lighting. I mention my natural lighting setup in front of a large north-facing window in my photography setup post. When it comes to styling, lighting can be used to further convey a mood or setting. You always want your photos to be well exposed so that the subject is visible, but you can also create light, bright and airy scenes or dark and moody scenes with the help of light manipulation tactics. This is something I’ve just started playing more around with. Of course, using light or white colored poster boards, backgrounds, backdrops, etc. will help brighten your shots. The opposite is true for dark posters, bounce cards, or backdrops. Learn more on this subject in that photography setup post. Beyond simply reflecting the light, we can also strategically block it, as you can see in the above photo. I propped up a basic black posterboard to block out some of the light from the window on the left. This allowed me to darken the background of the photo so that the first strawberry is bright and focused.
The image on the left is without any light manipulation, the image on the right was taken with the posterboard blocking some of the light as shown above. This is really fun to experiment with! Here is another image where I used the same technique:
As you can see the background is practically black, while the brownies are illuminated with enough light to expose their deep chocolate shade and moist, fudgy interior. I wanted to create the feeling of sneaking down to the kitchen at midnight for a sweet treat.
Would your subject look best on a smooth, sleek, simple marble background or a rustic, ragged, distressed wood background? What about linens? Something smooth just to break up the composition like an ivory napkin? Or how about something more unpolished and shabby like a scrap of burlap or a crumbled piece of parchment paper? Once you become more aware of how textures enhance or distract from your subject, it will become easier to know what your shot needs.
The goal in food photography for blogging purposes is often to capture and enhance the best natural qualities of the food. Sometimes if your composition isn’t that great you can compensate with beautiful colors. Use what you learned about the color wheel in art class in school! Be aware of color theories like monochromatic, complementary, and analogous as you select your garnishes, plates, backgrounds, and linens. You don’t have to be exact, but knowing about color theory is why I chose to put the above lemon poppy seed pancakes with blueberries on a yellow plate with a blue background.
When you compose a shot, you want to keep in mind how it will direct the viewer’s eye. You can manipulate this by creating a flow using objects of different sizes and heights. This is especially helpful in vertical photos, which are popular across food blogs because they are larger and better for Pinterest. Contrast a low bowl of fruit with a tall mason jar of sugar. Add in a tall glass of wine or a pitcher in the background of a dinner scene. Think like an architect and experiment with that looks best. Often I’ll place something kind of haphazardly in the background, just to see if it might improve the shot. After some tweaking it usually does. Beyond props, I love stacking sweet foods that would otherwise be very short to create an impressive, mouthwatering image. In the above image of S’mores Fudge Bars, stacking for height and photographing at eye-level makes the image more impactful and allows you to see all the tasty layers of goodness. This has been very successful on Pinterest.
-Reserve some of the ingredients to add as garnish directly to the plate or somewhere in the shot.
-For savory dishes I often like to add some freshly ground black pepper to give some more visual interest.
-If you’re working with a particularly unattractive subject, such as pork, peruse your favorite food magazines and cookbooks for shots with the same or similar subject for styling inspiration. You may even start out replicating the shot with what you’ve got on hand to get a feel for how to set things up and style. Searching Pinterest for “food photography” is another great source of inspiration. Start your own photography board!
-If working with food you want to serve hot or a frozen recipe, completely set up the shot using some sort of filler before diving into the recipe or starting the shoot.
All the elements we covered should be considered when creating a food photo. You may already consider them somewhat unconsciously. If you’re new to food photographing or struggling, try to focus on one element at a time until you become more comfortable. Play around with easy objects, like fruit or cookies, so you can just experiment. Taking time to be purposeful is tough when the food you’re photographing is your dinner and your family wants to eat it already. Or when you only have so much daylight to use. I know. But if you want to improve your photography, you’ll find a way to get in some practice.
This image is pretty moody. I thought it might be interesting to juxtapose the bright, fresh, and pretty roasted strawberry ice cream against a dark, stained, old metal sheet pan. I bounced the natural light from the my large north-facing window coming in from the 12 o’clock position (back light) with a black posterboard to further imbue that moody atmosphere. I set this shot up completely before scooping out the ice cream since I knew it would immediately start melting. I wish I had done a double scoop for the top cone. Oh well. Here is another dark moody shot of cookies taken on the same old metal sheet pan.
This photo was taken at about a three-quarters angle, up close, with the guacamole dead center with the middle of the guacamole in focus. I choose this setup because the guacamole itself was so pretty with different colors and textures, I wanted to showcase that. A tray of chips on a diagonal bias in the background adds some context to the shot, and helps glide the eye towards the guac.
Cupcakes are so easy to photograph. In this particular instance I wanted to highlight the “wow factor” of this recipe which was the dulce de leche stuffing hidden inside the banana cupcake. I actually froze the cupcake until it was hardened before cutting it in half to display the hidden gem inside. With so much going on with the cupcakes themselves, I choose an inconspicuous marble pastry board and tile background from Home Depot which makes sense to pair with baked goods. I kept the cupcake wrapper underneath the halved cupcake to add some texture and dimension and to fill space. The cake stand (old from Crate & Barrel) in the background gives this vertical photo some more height and further shows off the pretty swirls of chocolate frosting. Plus it’s just adorable.
As I mentioned earlier, the best food photos tell a story. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but I find the easiest is to add some contextual props. Whether it be ingredients laid out in a process-style image, or more than one plate with silverware and wine glasses included in a table-scape style, these elements can add vitality and connection to food photos. In the above photo of Healthy Shrimp Tacos (recipe coming soon), I styled the shot so that it would only be semi-finished, with the tacos not completely assembled and ingredients laid out around the serving plate. I also added in a glass of wine. I wanted to invoke memories of tacos night where the tasty taco mixins were passed around from person to person at the table. I also knew if I photographed the assembled tacos, it would be difficult to see what was actually inside of them. I don’t think I obtained anything near perfection with the styling of this image, but I thought I’d include it as an example of some of the things discussed.
My prop collection organized in my home office with 2 Ikea Expedit shelves. I prefer props that are relatively neutral in color so as not to distract from the food. Also, stay away from really shiny props. Round shapes are easier to work with than square. Smaller bowls and plates are also easier to work with. I have DIY faux-distressed wood backgrounds in white, blue, and dark stain. I love them because they’re not reflective and they add texture and depth and are on-trend. Marble boards or tiles are also lovely to shoot on, but I may need to diffuse my light source so the marble isn’t too reflective. Napkins, towels, table clothes, and yards of fabric allow you to add color, texture, and pattern. Small cutting boards and wood platters are another way to add some interest to your shot.
Food Styling Resources:
Current Food Photography Styles and Trends from Desserts for Breakfast
My Take on Food Styling and Photography from 6 Bittersweets
When Good Food Looks Bad from Running with Tweezers
Food and Prop Styling for Food Bloggers from Souvlaki for the Soul
Food Styling Tips for Food Bloggers from Simply Delicious
Styling and Props: How to Find Your Style from What’s for Lunch Honey?
10 House Hold Items and 10 More Household Items That Can Improve Your Food Photography from Pinch of Yum
Eight Food Blogging Trends That Need to Stay from I Am Baker
I hope you learned something from this post. Let me know in the comments below what your biggest food styling struggle is and we can commiserate together!
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