How To Improve Your Food Photography Game

reading time: 10 min

Hi guys,
this is a different sort of advice post, not lifestyle or health related, but photography related. 

At first I felt a little out of line to give food photography tips as a total photography NEWB! But then I thought, perhaps I'm the PERFECT one to give that advice because I'm in that same situation now, looking for tips to improve my photography skills and cheap ways to make photos look pretty on a budget. I KNOW the struggle.

So here is what I have learned about food photography so far.

[Disclaimer] I am in no way saying that I've mastered the art of food photography, I'm still at the bottom of the learning curve, BUT just knowing what techniques there are and what to look for has already helped me tremendously. The rest is just a matter of practice, patience, and did I mention practice?

See what a transformation I made over the past two years?

Now, the reason for this blog post is neither to bash my old blog entries nor to glorify my new ones, but rather to point out what the difference between the pictures on the left and the pictures on the right is.

"A good camera does not a good photographer make."

It's the technique that makes a good photographer and good photos! As you probably already know, the three pillars of photography - whether food photography or any other branch of photography - are:

The best lighting is natural light in a well-lit room since light bulbs often added a lot of orange and yellow hues into your photos, making the food look less appetizing. You may need to move your dish toward a window or even take it outside to get enough light in your photograph. However, there's a tremendous difference between direct sunlight (which casts harsh shadows) and nice soft lighting that can be achieved through a cloudy sky or by finding a way to soften the light yourself. A sheet, tissue paper, a sheer curtain... almost anything can be turned into a diffuser! 

You can bounce light back on the other side too to brighten up the back side of your object and bring details back into the deep shadows, ultimately adding more colour and texture to your images. Use a large piece of white cardboard, a white foam board or even tin foil for this. My current choice of an improvised reflector is a large white envelope taped to a bookend for more stability. Yeah...


The most common angles in food photography are either direct from the top or from a 45° angle (almost eye-level). When shooting from the top, you want to create a well composed flat lay, you want to give an overview and therefore most of it should be in focus (ergo: deep depth of field and small aperture, say f/22). Whereas at a 45° angle you are focusing in on one single dish (your centre piece), isolating it and specifically drawing the viewer's eye to it, leaving the background slightly blurred (ergo: shallow depth of field and large aperture, say f/2.8).

To get a feel for the different angles and their advantages, take multiple shots at multiple angles when shooting a dish. Some dishes might look better cropped in tighter or zoomed in, some may not. If you're eating a fantastic dinner with a multi-dish spread, an overhead shot is a great way for the reader to get a sense of just how much food was there. Same goes for dishes like salads and pizza because they are flat. However, tall dishes (a stack of cookies, sandwiches, ice cream, beverages) look best from the side because you want to see the height and layers. 

Don't be above to get on your knees for a nice shot at eye-level! Some of my very favourite food photos were actually taken while I was standing on a chair directly above the dish I was photographing, lol.

This is probably the trickiest of the three: composition.
Composition is a way of guiding the viewer's eye towards the most important element(s) of your work. A good composition can help make a masterpiece even out of the dullest objects and subjects in the plainest of environments.The composition should be seamless, so that the focus is on the food itself and not what was going on in the mind of the photographer.

In my art history course I first learned about the rule of thirds, or the golden cut. The rule of thirds involves mentally dividing up your image using 2 horizontal lines and 2 vertical lines, each marking the boarders between the "thirds" of the picture, both horizontal and vertical. You then position the important elements in your shot along those lines, or at the points where they meet. Placing your centre piece slightly off-centre, as it is the case with the rule of thirds or the golden cut, you create a asymmetrical and therefore more interesting composition. Balance out the "void" by placing less important objects in the blurred out background, or play with the benefits of negative space! - Having said that, rules are meant to be broken. However, learn to use the rule of thirds effectively before you try to break it.

Another useful composition technique is to create movement with diagonal lines in your composition. You can create a really eye-pleasing image with just a few props positioned so that they fall diagonally through the photo.

Because photography is a two-dimensional medium, we have to use our composition to convey a sense of depth. You can do this by including objects in the foreground, middle ground and background. A tip I read in an article says: Instead of setting up a beautiful scene (or what you think is a beautiful scene) before you pick up the camera and frame your shot, set up the camera first. Then you can style you food shot "to the camera", building your scene one element (or "layer") at a time.


Apart from the three absolute basics of photography, you need to realize the value of food/prop styling and background. For clearer demonstration, I broke the different elements of background and props down into 8 key categories. 

1) Ingredients
To make your dishes more appealing and relatable, look at the ingredients used in the recipe and use the most attractive looking as decoration in your pictures. Fresh ingredients are usually the best choice, as they are colourful, fresh and tasty looking, and also very easy and cheap to get. Nuts, seeds, berries, herbs, fruit slices, olives, sliced vegetables (such as beetroot, onions, mushrooms or red cabbage, super pretty),
chocolate chunks, a drizzle of coconut milk, chili peppers, spices... You can use them either to garnish your food, or to fill the frame as seen below.

Even a sprinkle of coarse salt or baking powder on your background will jazz up your image.

Tip: Imperfection over perfection. Instead of actual peanuts use empty shells, or an apple core instead of an intact apple. 

2) Kitchen Tools
Using kitchen tools as props is the easiest way to add some "life" to your pictures, as you probably used these tools anyway. Great prop tools are spoons, knifes, cutting boards, napkins, kitchen towels, oven gloves, tea cans, cups, glasses (filled), baking cups, parchment paper, spatulas, whisks, cake pans...

You want to TELL A STORY with your picture(s). So: how it was prepared, how it is about to be eaten etc.

Tip: By the way, the trick is to look for small plates and bowls for your dishes. This helps the plates and bowls look fuller than what they are!

3) Texture/Surface
A textured background surface is a great way to add character/imperfection and "authenticity" to your photo.
Think about the mood or feeling you want to convey with the photo. Rustic? Cozy? Festive? Casual? Minimalist? Spontaneous? Intimate? Sophisticated? Girly? Or perhaps you want everything to match a certain theme: birthday,
seasons, Christmas, Halloween... adjust the background to your mood or theme. At the same time, you don't want to draw the attention away from your subject.

I would say that anything that accentuates the mood of the photo is a good background. For example, I wouldn't arrange a hearty stew in the cosy folds of a bedspread, whereas a breakfast dish works well with the landscape of a bed, suggesting breakfast in bed. Same goes for baked goods - these are perfectly at home placed on a used parchment paper, whereas the rice pudding below would have looked out of place on such a surface. Any sort of fabric, wooden bread boards, newspaper, an upside down baking sheet, wrapping paper, even an open book can serve as part of a textured background! 

If you're new to this, stay away from heavily-patterned plates, placemats and colours or textures that will compete with the food. Something as simple as a white table cloth can be one of the best backgrounds for your photos.

When I started this blog, I often used my parents couch or our kitchen table as a backdrop. Terrible. Now I would LOVE to have a beautiful distressed white  farmhouse table, however, I don't. If you aren't as lucky either, you could buy weathered wood wallpaper or make your own weathered wood board. 

4) Colour

Again, the mood of the picture is crucial. In general, colours can be achieved by adding fresh herbs, fruits or vegetables, a colourful backdrop or surface. Anything to create a colour contrast and emphasise the dish. I mean, how boring would the pasta or the rice below have looked without the little pop of colour from the basil?! 

However, bold colours in the wrong places can draw the eye away from your dish, so make sure that the relation between dish and colour accent is beneficial to the dish, you could say: Highlight it without outshining it. For example, if I used a hot pink background instead of the white for the yellow turmeric oatmeal, the colour of the background would be too overpowering, too distracting from the actual dish. However, if I'd paired the oatmeal with a few slices of orange or apple, the colours would have been too similar to the oatmeal and therefore dull. So choose colours that contrast or harmonize with your food, but not ones that are the same colour.

5) Personal pieces
Now this is probably my favourite part of all!
It's all about adding character and letting your personality shine through the photos. Bring life into your photos by adding details and quirks, traces of your personality that get transported through little gadgets, personal objects that have a special meaning to you, that make the photos more personal and more you. And that - from your perspective - fit the mood of the image

The possibilities are endless: vintage cutlery, tea cups, candles, yarn, figurines, a dry bag of your favourite tea, your grandma's cookbook, handwritten recipes, even jewellery, postcards, vintage pictures...

6) Flowers
The ultimate tip to bring life to your pictures is by adding something alive to them. (No, not your guinea pig.) Fresh flowers, whether tiny blossoms you snipped off of a rosebush or long flowers from a bouquet, are not only cheap (and everywhere! just go outside and look for a handful of wild daisies or cherry blossoms!), but a colourful - and beautiful - addition to any photo. 

Don't limit yourself to fresh flowers though. Dried flowers (such as roses, sunflowers etc) can be equally beautiful and serve as unique props, especially for more rustic or fall/winter themed recipes.

Tip: I use flowers mostly with my desserts and beverages; however, try adding them to savoury dishes too, such as soups, salads or summer rolls. Such a beautiful - and unexpected - contrast!

7) People
Food looks so much more alive if you involve people (or parts of people, such as their hands or blurred upper body) in the pictures. If you have a friend around, ask them to interact with the food with their hands or utensils. After all, food is meant to be eaten, not to simply be photographed.

Also: traces of people. 
Bring some life into the picture by taking a bite out off something (like the popsicle below, a spoonful of ice cream, or an already eaten truffle such as below) or by just having a spoon in the picture that has already been used. You want the pictured food to look inviting, like it's ready to eat or is already in the process of being eaten. Personally I prefer "real" photos over perfect photo, so little bread crumbs, a hand with beautiful vintage rings or a quirky (not too distracting) sweater in the background make the image much more interesting than a glossy magazine photo in my opinion.

8) Several items / Repetition
Last but not least: (what I call) repetition. To be exact: repetition of shape and colour. This is probably the easiest trick since you usually prepare more than one muffin, pancake, popsicle or brownie at once. To fill the frame and
create an aesthetically pleasing pattern, simply arrange multiple cookies, cupcakes, or truffles within the shot, or display several rows of brownies on a serving tray. Done.

For this, an overhead shot is usually the most appropriate. However, a 45° angle can also be used to capture a pile of pancakes, stacked up brownies or several rows of muffins such as above. 

Tip: Repetition can be more complex as well, such as matching the green tablecloth to the shade of the mint garnish, or matching the decorative red roses to the cherries in your slice of cake - see the passage on "colour". 

Like I said in the beginning, I'm nowhere near my goal. I have a huge journey in front of me, and honestly, sometimes I still cringe when I look at the pictures from like a week ago. 

My next goal is to get some kind of consistency with lighting, composition and editing in my photography. (I've tried to develop my own blogging stlye by using the same style of post title in each title picture, and also compose each recipe post the same way: intro, title in capital letters, info about prep time etc, ingredients, instructions, outro.) I also want to get more comfortable with compositions and camera angles, and I want to take the time to actually COMPOSE my pictures and not rush through it because my boyfriend is starving waiting for the food that is already getting cold. So yeah, there's still a lot to learn.

Some general advice on food photography for you to take along: 


- Get a food magazine and study professional photographs. Learn from the pros. Or look at various food blogs! (I recommend Wholehearted Eats, This Rawsome Vegan Life, Lauren Caris Cooks, Cocoon Cooks, The First Mess, Green Kitchen Stories, Twigg Studios, Cannelle Vanille and Paleo Glutenfree) Pay attention to their styling, their lighting, the angles, the prop use, the colours etc. OBSERVE, EXPERIMENT, LEARN.

- Invest in a few useful or interesting PROPS. You don't need a whole cupboard full of props - just have a few at hand for different occasions/moods. You could even establish your "trademark" props, colour or background.

-  EDIT your photos. Some people might call retouched photos "fake", but seeing photography as a form of art I think it's perfectly fine to touch up your photos. Personally, I usually keep it to optimizing brightness/contrast, levels, saturation and sometimes colour balance.

- Whatever you do, keep the flash off on your camera! Instead, practice taking pictures in different areas of your home to find the one spot in your house where the lighting is the best. Or take your food outside!! There's nothing wrong with photographing your scones on a blanket in a meadow or on a wooden board amidst autumn leaves. Get creative!

- Invest in a TRIPOD (it can be a fancy tripod that costs a lot of money, or it can be a stack of books on the table that you rest your camera on for a few minutes to steady it while you click your shot). This is not essential for food photography, I've only just got one for my birthday and have been using it ever since for self-timer etc. A tripod is also great if you have to take pictures in low lightning conditions – if you're using a DSLR you can use a very slow shutter speed with the tripod which will result in much brighter pictures without having to crank up your ISO to 2000 (which would make your pictures "noisy" and grainy).

- Sometimes it's a good idea to give your dish some room to "breathe", especially in an overhead shot. EMBRACE THE NEGATIVE SPACE! (read more about this in the article on Passive Space linked below)

- Work quickly. The faster you take pictures of the food, the fresher it will look. A wilted salads just doesn't look good. Use an empty plate to help you set up your shot before the food is ready. At the last minute, slip in the real plate of food.

I hope this was of help to some of you! Did I forget anything? Are there any other tips and tricks you know?

Here are some helpful articles to further improve your food photography skills:

- 12 Things That Have Helped My Food Photography
- Ten Household Items to Improve your Food Photography
- Passive Space in Food Photography
- How to Set Up, Style and Shoot 
- Building a Prop Collection on a Budget
- How to use Backlighting for Food Photography
- Dark Food Photography
- Food Styling and Photography
- 6 Must Have Food Photography Props 
- Food Photography Props on a Budget
- Food Photography Props 
- How to Find Amazing Props for your Food Photos

Good luck!

Thank you to Florence for featuring me over at the Sweet Inspiration link party!