Natural light food photography is a fabulously rewarding genre for so many reasons, that I really want you to try it yourself!
Firstly, you can do it in a very small space, even if you don’t have an abundance of natural light. The subjects don’t run away (hello photographer’s child syndrome!). You can indulge any pre-existing addiction to props (or develop a new one)… and speaking of props, it opens up a whole world of creativity! You’re also not limited to photographing meals, nor do you need to be a fabulous cook.
Honestly, with a few tips, anyone could give this a go… but be warned, it can be addictive! This week’s highlights reel is a collection of delicious food photos from our gorgeous Grads, and we’ve fattened it up with what we consider to be the essential tips to get you started having fun with food photography…
Soft light is best for food photography, and you can recognise it through the absence of sharply defined lines between the shadow and highlight areas. Soft light will wrap gently around your subject and the graduation between the shadow and highlights will be very subtle and hard to pinpoint exactly where one ends and the other begins.
One of the best things about natural light food photography is it’s a small subject, so you don’t need a lot of light. If you have a very dark house, you can set up with a small table (even a card table is big enough) near some window or door light.
Eliminate any background clutter by using backdrops… and the best bit? You don’t need expensive, custom made backdrops or backdrop stand… just a decent sized piece of board will do.
Food photography suits both high and low key exposure styles so regardless of whether your personal preference is for light, bright and airy or dark and moody, it will work and it will sing!
For a light and airy look, use mostly light coloured props and background, and bounce light by placing a light coloured reflector opposite the light source.
For a dark and dramatic look, use mostly deep toned props, and swap the reflector for a black board, card or fabric (anything will work) to bounce shadows onto your set up.
It has to be said, this is one of the most fun aspects of food photography!
With props you can play with colour, texture and pattern… you can create striking modern imagery using minimalist set ups, bold colour and simple props; or you can play with a vintage look incorporating lots of texture, deep tones, old kitchen utensils, platters and line found in op shops.
Props can add interest and depth to your shot, or convey a human element by including a hand preparing the food or eating it. Props can also be a powerful story telling tool – the inclusion of specific cooking tools or ingredients convey how it was made, or where the ingredients came from. They can even suggest what is about to happen (for example if you photograph food on a table set for eating), or what has happened (food half eaten with used utensils and crumbs scattered in the frame).
With all that in mind your option for props are already endless, and that’s not even going into linen, platters and backdrops. So when it comes to props and styling, consider the following:
When deciding what to use, choose just a few and ensure they work with one another and (especially) the subject. Use your food as the inspiration when trying to decide what colours and textures to use in props, for example in this shot below the brown speckles in the platter mirror the tones and texture of the toast, but importantly, it’s subtle so it doesn’t overwhelm.
If styling doesn’t come naturally to you, keep it simple by limiting yourself to one platter, bowl or surface for your food and add interest with one utensil. If you’re ready to level it up, check out this article…
The angle you shoot from is the key consideration in your composition, and you essentially have 3 choices:
When deciding what angle to shoot from you need to consider what you’re trying to highlight, and whether other elements are in the shot might get in the way or distract, or if you want to highlight them. You also need to be able to see the food well, including the detail and texture of it. If you have hero props, for example a beautifully aged vintage spoon, you might want to shoot down so you can really show it off.
When to use it: When you want to showcase the front of a bowl; when food has height; when you’re capturing hands preparing or eating.
This is a classic composition, it suits almost any set up, and it’s easy to get right. For those reasons it’s a great choice when you’re starting out especially if you’re not confident with your angles.
Get down low to eye level, and use the rule of thirds when placing your food and props.
When to use it: When you want to show off both food and set up; when the front of your bowl is a feature and you want to highlight it; when you want to show the height or vertical form of your food; when you want to include the environment or background elements in your shot.
This angle is probably the most common, as it’s the perfect way to show off both the food and the set up, when you want to see the front of the serving ware. It’s also the trickiest to get right… too high and you can’t see the other elements properly, too angled and it feels like it’s falling off the surface. There’s no one size fits all however, because all subjects and props are different, obviously. You just need to try loads of angles and see what looks best when you get them off camera.
Angle yourself at around 45 degrees to the food – this is just high enough to see clearly what’s on the platter or in the bowl, but not so high you can’t see the front of the serving ware.
If shot at eye level, the platter and cutlery in this shot would form more a distraction than anything, but it would also have worked shot down so don’t rule anything out without trying it first.
In this shot below, it didn’t need to be shot at this angle to showcase the platters. However, the height difference between the glasses and the platters would have made it very difficult to highlight the detail of both.So for that reason, this angle was the perfect decision.
When to use it: When you really want to draw attention to detail in food this perspective frames out background elements and really draws the eye to the subject; when you want to highlight interesting props that face up such as a spoon; when you want to highlight the top detail of a prop, such as the gorgeous wire cooling rack in the image below.
You could easily shoot down handheld presuming you have enough light, but if you’re taking loads of shots it can get a bit tiring! It’s also very hard to do if you’re height challenged. If you don’t have a tripod and you don’t have a pair of 12 inch platform shoes… use a chair or a small step ladder to raise yourself high enough that you can easily shoot directly down and not angled.
I love the interruption to pattern in this shot, created by moving one piece. This not only added interest but also the suggestion that slices have already been eaten, and the strawberries give us a hint as to the main ingredient.
Think beyond the finished product and try some storytelling food photography by capturing food being prepared.
Don’t enjoy cooking or don’t have time? Not all food photography has to be a finished meal, and nor does it have to be home cooked!
Think outside the square. Capture fresh ingredients such as fruit and vegetables, farm bought produce, store board cupcakes, herbs and spices.
Depending on your available space, anything from 35mm to 50mm would work for food photography.
As you’re up close, you’ll have less depth of field. Food photography is not a genre where you want an artful sliver of focus, generally speaking. You want to get a fair amount of the food in focus, with a subtle fall away in the depth of field. Try apertures of around f/4 to f/5.6 depending on your subject, your distance to it and what you want to highlight.
I’m so excited to announce our next Creative Workshop, Beautiful Food Photography with Naomi Sherman. Over 4 weeks in this interactive workshop, be led behind the scenes by international award winning food photographer Naomi Sherman and learn everything you need to start creating your own delicious food photos. Register your interest here and we’ll notify you when we go on sale!
Our 8 Week Enthusiast Photography Course is starting again SOON! You'll learn how to get the most from your DSLR & take photos you LOVE!