How to photograph food

Tom BonnettWe asked Tom Bonnett, an Assistant Producer at the Good Food Channel website, to share some of the helpful tips he had gathered whilst working with photographers, food stylists and prop stylists in the food photography industry, including our 2012 Food Portraiture category winner Hilary Moore.

Getting started

There's no need for elaborate setups, all you need for great results is a camera, natural light, some props such as pretty bowls, plates and cutlery and of course, delicious food.




Light not bright

Natural light is always the best so don't waste your money on expensive flashguns or lightboxes - just choose a place to shoot with a decent-sized window.

In summer, avoid south-facing windows if you can as yo71610_lightingu could get a lot of direct sunlight on your food that will darken the shadows and brighten the highlights. This will stop you getting the soft tones that help create beautiful shots.


Food and prop stylist Kate Wesson says a good natural light source is crucial. "Turn out any overhead electric lights and get close to the window, a side north-facing light is best or experiment with an overhead natural light source," she says.


Back to basics

71604_caramel_slice Caramel slices by Tim Hill

It can be difficult to get enough light on the food to show off the ingredients without over exposing other areas of the picture. Tim Hill has been a food photographer for more than 20 years and he says, in the age of Photoshop, techniques that were commonly used in the past are often overlooked.

"Black velvet is wonderful at limiting stray light and providing a deep black tone in an image. Black net placed between the subject and the light will reduce the intensity of the light without diffusing it," he says. "White net, similarly used, will softly diffuse light.

"Make up mirrors used with a directional light will provide little pools of light like minature spotlights for very little cost. Also invaluable are the pieces of silver foil card from takeaway packs and gold and silver foil cards from smoked salmon packs carefully cleaned."

Black or white card or baking parchment are also commonly used for removing light and bouncing it in.


Choosing props 71606_fish_balls_in_masala

Olivia Wardle uses tones and texture to create atmosphere but the food remains the focus of the image

Props allow you to create a world for the food that helps you put across where the food is from, what time of year it's in season or how it should be eaten. The skill is in keeping it natural and the props subtle.

Stylist Olivia Wardle says: "Props should always complement rather than detract from the food. Colours and patterns are fabulous but should be used creatively to aid rather than overpower the food. I am a big fan of texture in imagery. I like to mix a variety of textures to make the props look as tactile and inviting as possible."

Wesson agrees that layering up different textures always makes for an interesting shot. She says: "Using weathered chopping boards with frayed edged clothes or painted distressed woods and chipped enamels, stuff you might ordinarily throw away, can look great in food photography."

71626_cola_chocolate_cakeThis image by Charlotte Tolhurst, styled by Kate Wesson, looks suitably American because of the colour scheme

Getting props positioned so they look natural can take time. Have fun moving your props around and try putting something at the edge of the frame to give a hint of context without distracting from the food. Food photographer Charlie Richards tries to avoid having equal numbers of any prop in a shot because the symmetry can become distracting.

A good rule to stick to is to think about whether the prop you are adding would be there in real life. If you have set up a beautiful dinner table, would you have the bowl you made your cake mixture in in the background? Probably not, as you would have left the bowl in the kitchen and put the cake on the table when it was ready.



Be creative with colour 71615_clare_barboza

Clare Barboza uses similar-coloured props to make the food 'pop' out and grab attention

Seattle-based Clare Barboza is a documentary food photographer who loves "the story behind the food".

"Think about your colour story when picking props," she says. "What will showcase the food the best? Complementary colours like blue and orange, red and green or violet and yellow can look lovely in a shot and really make things pop. Another approach is to use varying shades of the same color in your props, so that the food really stands out."

Stylist Lucy Harvey gives an example. "For a beetroot dish, a soft jade green works well for the plate, bowl, background or napkin," she explains. "But make sure there are blueish purpleish tones in the jade green. A yellowish green wouldn't look right at all! For a dish using oranges, try a light or pale turquoise blue with greenish yellowish tones. Also, using props and fabrics with a matt finish can be helpful because they're much easier to light."

Size and scale


Barboza found photographing a small piece of salmon looked far prettier than a shot of the whole fish.

The camera can make props look unusually over-proportioned so pick props that scale properly.

"A normal size piece of cutlery in real life can look like a garden tool in a photograph," says Harvey. "Smaller scale props often work better. A normal size baking dish can look like a vast landscape of food through the lens."

This applies to the food too. "Smaller food often photographs better than large platters of food," says Barboza. "In this photo, I had to photograph a chunk of smoked salmon. The piece of fish was on the larger size and not terribly attractive, so I sliced off a small portion and re-styled it on a cracker with cheese and capers. It became easier to shoot and much more attractive."


Framing 71622_framing

When dealing with food that you can't scale down, an overhead view is often best. This also removes the need for a backdrop.

Alternatively, you can line up the camera so the food looks like it is on the table in front of you, ready to eat. More often than not, you'll need a backdrop behind to stop you getting your kitchen cabinets or bookshelf in the background of the image. You can make your own by hanging parchment, wallpaper or a board in the background. Experiment with your camera settings and try blurring the background. This can create a softer feel. A tripod is really helpful for eliminating camera shake when experimenting with different shutter speeds and apertures, especially in low light.




Hilary Moore photographed this sea bream on the hob

Choose fresh ingredients with great colours and think about the composition and how they will work together to make your final image. Ingredients don't always have to be perfectly formed but bear in mind shape, size and colour.

Award-winning food photographer Hilary Moore took this shot on an actual hob to achieve that "just cooked" feel.

"It was shot at various stages of cooking," she says. "The sea bream is the absolute hero so it was vital to get the best looking fish available. A variety was bought from supermarkets and fishmongers. It's amazing how different they all look. I finally used this one from a local fishmonger because of its shape and colour and because its fins were still intact."

Cooking 71625_sausage_casserole

Kate Wesson added chopped herbs to give freshness to this slow-cooked casserole

It's important not to overcook your vegetables and meat or the colours will go grey and less appetising, Moore adds. "Always ask yourself, 'would I want to eat this?' If the answer is 'yes' then you're on the right track."

It's important to work quickly so you'll capture the food at it's very best. This means it's a good idea to compose the shot using props without fresh food in then add it as soon as it's ready so you shoot while the food looks fresh. Herbs and vegetables may start to wilt or lose their colour so, if a shot takes longer than expected to get right, spruce it up with some fresh herbs or vegetables for the final shot.

To really elevate a dish, Wesson suggests adding garnishes such as a sprinkling of pepper, a drizzle of olive oil or fresh herbs.

"I try to avoid making things look too placed and perfect," she says. "Experiment with how and where you put garnish - it can be tricky at first to make a plate look casually thrown together and beautiful as opposed to a mess. When chopping herbs, I like to use a pair of sicissors to trim the ends of the leaves so you just get the interesting outside edges with more shape."

71627_fritattaDon't rely on re-touching

Photographer Tim Hill says get the image right through the lens to avoid giving yourself extra work later

Hill comes from a time when re-touching was done on film with a paintbrush by incredibly skilful and expensive artists rather than Photoshop.

"This meant I was schooled to solve problems before shooting," he says. "A change of lighting, camera angle or subject often eliminates problems that would take time sat in front of a computer using Photoshop."

The most important ingredient in a shoot, according to Tim, is a sense of humour as the ridiculous can occur without warning!

You can read more culinary exploits from the Good Food Channel Blog here

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