The Dirty Stall

Some tips for food photography

Posted on: January 16, 2012

This post came about as an invitation by Canon Singapore to share about why I like food photography and give some basic tips on food photography so I’m going to give my thoughts and tips on this topic.

So why do I like food photography? Simply because I love to eat and share it with the world. And to do so, food photography is the best way of sharing because when you capture the essence of the food correctly, those who see the photo will hunger for it as well.

You know you’ve done it right when your friend looks at the photo and goes “Damn looking at that makes me hungry too!”

Now it’s so easy to snap a photo of your food, anyone can do it with the plethora of cameras available to the public now, from the “serious business” Canon 5D Mark II, to the ultra-compact Canon Powershot S100, or to the one that most people really have – the iPhone 4S. However to make your photographs stand out from the crowd, you’ll have to put in some extra effort.

I won’t be covering tips on staged/editorial food photography because I’d have to get into styling, lighting, etc, which is beyond the scope of this post. However some of the tips given here will apply if you’re shooting a staged shot.

Please note the photos in this post aren’t directly connected to the tip that they are with, as I only inserted them to break the monotony of reading a long wall of text.

However they were all taken by me outside in natural/artificial lighting but without flash. Mouseover the photos to see some simple comments about it.

1) Don’t use Auto or P mode if possible

While you may be tempted to leave your camera in the Auto or Program mode when shooting, you are pretty much leaving all the decisions to the camera.

Don’t do that as the camera has no idea what makes a good photo. Sometimes you get lucky but if you want a good shot, make sure you control the camera, not the other way around.

I would recommend using Aperture Priority mode, setting the aperture to a value (1/focal length) that gives you a reasonable handholding shutter speed.

So for example if you’re using a 50mm lens, you should set an aperture that will give you around 1/60 (FF) or 1/80 (crop) sec shutter speed.

Of course if your lens has image stabilisation, you can afford slower shutter speeds and still get a steady image.

2) Increase the ISO

This is the next option when you have set the camera to the widest aperture and the shutter speed is still too low. Increasing the ISO will help to give you a faster shutter speed.

However this is the part that sometimes justifies a better camera as the smaller sensors in lower-end cameras produce noisier photos at high ISOs, especially when you hit ISO 3200 and above.

There is however a cheaper option then upgrading your camera, which leads me to the next point.

3) Using a flash

I personally don’t believe in using a flash in a restaurant or even at the hawker centre because I would hate it if a table near me started flashing. I guess it depends on how thick-skinned you are.

Using the on-board flash of your camera is usually a bad idea because it gives a strong frontal light which will make your dish look overexposed and create lots of harsh shadows that makes the food rather unappealing.

If you really must use a on-board flash, try to diffuse it with some tissue paper in front. Not the best solution but still better than nothing.

Finally you can buy a proper flash that mounts onto your camera’s hotshoe. Since you shouldn’t point it straight at the food, point it  at the ceiling instead to create a bounce flash, which gives your food a more diffuse illumination and a softer look.

This of course has the side-effect of flashing the entire restaurant or area near you, which is why I hate it.

Learn more about using a flash here and here.

4) Optimise position for natural light

If you’re like me and don’t plan to use a flash, then you’ll have to make full use of the natural light around you. Sitting near a window or lamp is the best option but if not possible, try positioning the plate such that the light creates soft shadows which can help to highlight the textures and shape of the food.

If you only take photos of food at night or in dim restaurants, then you will finally have a good reason to upgrade your camera or lens to something that performs well in low light or with clean images at high ISOs.

5) Composition

If you’ve ever googled about composition with regards to photography, you’ll get a whole bunch of guidelines such as Rules of Thirds, Golden Ratio, etc. I’m not going to repeat all of that here but just to add that most of it applies to food photography outdoors.

Besides going in close, sometimes you’ll want to incorporate the rest of the table/tableware or even the background. Occasionally you’ll want to break the rules of composition as well but for this you’re on your own. It really depends on the subject and setting at the time.

Sometimes going in closer is better, as you don’t always need to show the entire dish because people can recognise it and fill in the rest with their imagination.

6) Shoot in RAW format

This is something that I think a lot of people don’t do because they can’t be bothered to spend time doing post-processing, don’t like the huge file sizes, or don’t want to learn how to use a photo editing software.

But shooting in RAW brings huge advantages because it contains so much data that you can make big changes to things such as white balance or exposure to save your photo without degrading it.

Read this post by Steve Huff for a more information about saving your photo by editing the RAW file.

7) Post-process your photos

As a corollary to the above point, post-process your photos. You should always do the basics like cropping, white balance adjustment, exposure adjustment, contrast tweaking.

All that can be done with the photo editing software that came with your camera such as Canon’s Digital Photo Professional.

When you get more serious, you can look into learning Lightroom or even Photoshop for advanced stuff like layer masking and output sharpening.

8) Keep on learning and shooting

Shoot a lot of food, read up a lot online or in books, process your photos, then go out again and shoot even more food. There’s no shortcut to learning and I’m sure you’ll enjoy the journey.

Visit this website for more food photography resources online. They take a lot more effort in shooting their food photos than I do, but also note that a lot of these resources are orientated around staging editorial style food shots at home, not shooting outside.

Bonus: Going all out

If you’ve ever taken a food photo and wished that you could get more of the dish in focus, or even multiple dishes in focus, then the answer is to use a tilt-shift lens.

In the early days, food photography was taken with large format view cameras, and they still are being used these days for large editorial shoots.

Of course very few of us would use a view camera since we all own 35mm DSLRs so the next closest thing is the tilt-shift lens. For food photography you’ll be using the ’tilt’ function mainly.

In a nutshell, what the ’tilt’ function does is to extend the plane of focus. So in this case, by tilting the lens downwards, usually by about 5 degrees, you can get a lot more of the table or food into focus.

As an example, here’s some soffritto that I was making, which consists of diced celery, carrots and onion. With Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 lens, this is the photo that you would get without any tilt:

And now the same shot with 5 degrees of tilt:

In both photos the same aperture of f/2.8 was used but you can see how in the 2nd photo all 3 items were in focus.

A general shortcut to using the TS lens is to focus on the nearest item and then tilt until the furthest item comes into focus. If need be, stop down the aperture to to f/4 or even f/8.

To learn more about tilt-shift photography, you can read about it on Wikipedia.

Well that’s the end of this post and I hope that my tips will be of some use to you the next time you go out and shoot some food!

Please feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions.


23 Responses to "Some tips for food photography"

You have BEAUTIFUL photos. I love taking foodie pics for all the same reasons as you, but unfortunately, all I have is a dinky little point and shoot. You have reinforced my extreme desire to get a DSLR pronto.


Thank you Alexandra! While a DSLR will definitely assist you in taking better food photos, do consider something more portable like a Micro 4/3 camera because you probably will not want to lug a heavy DSLR all over the place.

mmmmmmmmmmmmmm!! yummy *drools* lol

If you’re hungry then I’ve succeeded 😀

What a great article! Unfortunately I only have my Blackberry camera to rely on for my food blog; I am pretty low-tech :-).
Natasha @ Come Due Maiali

Thanks! Well nowadays the cameras in smartphones are advancing really quickly; the camera in the iPhone 4S is fantastic and sometimes you can’t even tell the difference from a DSLR.

nice photos!!! You bring a camera everywhere you go?

Thanks! Nah I don’t bring a camera everywhere, I only bring it when it’s a new place and I would want to do a blog post on it then I will purposely bring my camera. Otherwise it’s just too bulky to carry around all the time. I’m considering to get a smaller camera for this reason hahaha

Thanks for that. It is a really helpful post. I put a lot of effort (for an amateur) into getting my food shots right. I usually do OK with the preparation shots and fail with the finished dish. This is in part because there is usually somebody waiting to eat it who has less interest in th photos than me.
Your photography is wonderful.

No problem, I just wanted to share with my readers some tips to help them out. I do agree that I also have a problem with getting a good final shot of my own prepared food, usually because I’m more interested in eating it then taking a photo of it, especially after all the effort you put into cooking it, you want to eat it at its best.

[…] Posted by Rense Click here and here. Awesome, just what I may need to better understand! Oops… that first link had awesome shots, […]

The dumplings look great – especially as they are at the forefront of the image with the fade on the background.

Thank you! I love the food photos on your site as well 😀

Hi Jing Wen, love your photos and thank you for the tips! I’d like to send you an invite to a cooking demo and lunch. If you are interested, could you share your email add with me?


Thanks for your compliments; however I don’t think I will be able to attend the cooking demo. Thanks for offering.

Good Tips… Do you organise makan session? and share more tips in person?

Thanks! Unfortunately I don’t organise makan sessions as my schedule is quite busy and irregular.

Thank you for the great tips and great pics.

You’re welcome!

Magnificent items from you, man. I’ve have in mind your stuff previous to and you’re simply too fantastic.
I really like what you have got here, certainly like what you are saying and the best way during which you say
it. You are making it enjoyable and you still take care of to stay it sensible.
I cant wait to read much more from you. That
is really a great web site.

Hey there! I’ve been reading your site for a while now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Huffman Tx! Just wanted to tell you keep up the good work!

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