So You Think You Are a Food Photographer, part 1

February 26, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

So You Think You’re a Food Photographer, Part 1


Listen up, all of you Instagrammers and budding capturers of the culinary arts!  That burrito in front of you might look delicious.  It might sit there looking all cute and coy, as if beckoning “Go ahead!  Make sure you get my good side!  You are going to want to remember this moment forever, and all of your friends are going to want to see this!”   You might think it is saying all of that, but it is not.  It’s a burrito.  Probably prepared by a high school student – someone with no training in plating and presentation.  And you are eating it at a plastic table in a restaurant lit by fluorescent bulbs.


Your inner monologue might be telling you “It’s OK.  I can make this look appetizing, just like they do on the menu or a magazine!”  No, you can’t.  First of all, those ads are prepared and photographed in carefully controlled environments.  The food is prepared by professional chefs.  The ingredients are picked through and organized by professional food stylists, who agonize for hours over whether this bean or that grain of rice is photogenic enough.  The photo was taken by a professional photographer,  with thousands of hours experience with food items and with lighting that is carefully controlled.  So, you would be better off putting down the phone for a minute and chowing down.


But, if you must continue crafting artwork of the edible world, here are some tips.  First, a disclaimer.  Scott Johnson Photography, Inc. does not shoot food on a regular basis.  My primary focus is architecture and interior design (I welcome you to take a look through the rest of my site –  So, everything I say here comes from a limited amount of food photography experience.  However, I have over 14 years of experience in the hospitality industry, so I have had the occasional privilege to capture some great food items and dishes in some interesting settings throughout my career.


So, you want to be a “foodographer.”  Well, here are some things you can do to get more likes and positive comments on your Instagram feed.


  1. Don’t use the flash on your camera/phone.  Unless you are a hipster and shooting your food ironically to make it look as unappetizing as possible, don’t ever use your flash.  For that matter, don’t shoot the food in such a way as the light source is coming from the same direction as the camera lens.  Sit next to a window and use strong side lighting to give the food some shadow and depth, and to reveal the textures of the ingredients.  You can use a piece of paper or a white menu cover to “bounce” some light back on the shadowy side of the dish.  You can also experiment with backlighting, but beware of too much contrast.  But, never, EVER, shoot with the primary source of light at your back, or from the phone itself.

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  1. No “aerial” shots, please.  Don’t stand over your food and shoot it from directly above.  Pick a low angle – get at “eye-level” with the food.  This is not always a hard and fast rule, and you can occasionally break it, especially if there is some interesting texture to the table or some geometric pattern that can best be revealed by shooting from above, but in general try to keep the angle low.

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  1. Watch your background.  The background to your food can often be as compelling as the food itself, and can compliment the shot and make it stronger.  Equally, however, it can distract from the subject and cause your eye to wander unintentionally.  So, you should adjust your camera angle, or reposition your food, to make the background work with the food, not against it.  A drink, tablecloth or napkin can add a pop of color to the shot (but not if they are dirty).  The texture of the table or artwork on the wall, even the action in a busy restaurant can add dimension to the scene, making it more dynamic.

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  1. Don’t necessarily try to get EVERYTHING in the shot.  Often the best image of a food item captures just a small detail or portion of the overall plate.   Get in close, as close as your camera will allow and still keep the important details sharp.

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  1. Most importantly, CHOOSE YOUR SUBJECT CAREFULLY.  You love your food, and it might be the most delicious thing you have ever tasted, but if the entire dish is brown, no one will be interested in seeing it.  Shoot food with different colors – green, red, white, yellow, etc.  Make sure it is arranged on the plate in such a way as to make it interesting.  The shot should make your mouth water because it evokes a Pavlovian response – we should be able to “taste” what you are tasting.  No greasy burritos in cellophane or tin foil, please.

food photography esjphotopro

I will be back with more tips, as they come to me.  I will also discuss how to shoot drinks.  Any questions or comments are appreciated below, or respond to me at twitter.  You can find me there @esjphoto


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