I’m on a mission to help beginners make their food photos look better, so we’re going to jump right in with some basics on styling.
Here’s the thing with food photography: It’s an art. Sure there are technical things to master like using your camera settings correctly, but SO much of it is what you create from your own ideas and from your heart. There isn’t any one style that’s right, and you’ll find over time you may develop your own signature look.
I’ve seemed to gravitate toward simpler styling, some shadowing and highlighting bold colors in the food itself. Other folks are known for their dramatic shadows and moody shots, others for their chic and polished look, and still others for their “smashed” food shots.
My best advice is to experiment and see what you come up with. Don’t feel like you have to copy a certain style to have it be “right.”
Once you’ve set the stage by optimizing the right location and light, it’s time to turn your attention to the aesthetic quality of your photos.
Food Photography Tips: Styling
The only limit to styling is your imagination, as cheesy and cliche as that sounds. There are some basic pointers that can help you get started, however. I learned a TON from the online course Story on a Plate and Tasty Food Photography, and they were highly influential in my work on the cookbook. Their lessons were indispensable then and now as I continue photographing for myself and others. First, I’ll discuss some of the elements of a good photo, and then how to stage it.
Element 1: Props
You needn’t go crazy with props, but as you become more comfortable with your food photography you may want different props to shoot with. Props can be anything from the components of a table setting (plates, bowls, glasses, flatware, etc.) to interesting serving wear to linens to kitchen gadgets and of course, the food itself.
A look inside my prop cabinet…
My rule of thumb is that whenever I’m shopping, I keep an eye out for interesting props. Sometimes I walk out with nothing, sometimes a few things. If I see something I like, I always get it then and there. I’ve gone back to get an item a few days later only to find it was gone. Huge bummer. I also usually only buy one of something. It forces me to mix and match and cuts down on the amount of storage space I need.
Where to find awesome props? The possibilities are pretty much endless, but here are some of my favorites:
- Thrift and antique stores
- Tag / yard sales or estate sales
- Prop swaps with other bloggers / photographers
- Etsy or Ebay shops (good key words: vintage, primitive, aged)
- World Market
- Sur La Table
- Home Goods
- West Elm
- Pier One
Some of these stores are pricey, so I always comb their sales rack or sales page looking for good deals.
There are no rules about which colors or patterns to use or avoid. I try to find props with interesting shapes or textures that lend visual interest to the photograph without upstaging the food. If you’re just starting out, you may want to invest in some basic / classic pieces, especially white / basic designs and avoid the really flashy pieces. It’s hard to go wrong with simpler props, and you’ll get more mileage out of them versus a really unique piece that will be really obvious the 6th time you’ve used it.
For linens, again, use your imagination. I have a mixture of colored and white linens, mostly dish towels but some napkins, too. Believe it or not, my favorite linen is a 99 cent Ikea dish towel with a simple red stripe. I really love soft, thin fabrics instead of actual linen or terry cloth because they aren’t as bulky and have a nice drape to them. I store my linens crumpled up in my prop cabinet because I love the visual interest that wrinkles bring. Burlap is also a cool fabric, and you can usually find it at craft stores.
Element 2: Backdrops
The surface you shoot on can really make a difference to the mood of your photo, and there are so many different options out there. If you have a nice table, there’s nothing wrong with starting with that and branching out over time. Countertops, floors, and chairs make good surfaces too, depending on the material. I’ve shot on top of old, beat up sheet pans, oversized metal trays, marble pastry slabs, pieces of slate, fabric covering a table, and even my wood floor.
By far my favorite option though are wooden backgrounds designed for photography.
I’ve made my own from salvaged wood (this one is my favorite)…
…and from wood I purchased from the hardware store. (Click that link for the full tutorial.)
The other option is to buy a pre-fab background from an online crafter. They range from vinyl printed to made like wood (which, when the shot is close, sometimes betrays itself as not wood) to reclaimed pieces or those made to look aged / distressed.
Generally, I like boards that are 2 to 2.5 feet x 2.5 to 3 feet in dimension. This leaves enough space for pull-back / wide shots.
Recently, I found Erickson Wood Works on Etsy that makes double-sided, lightweight boards in a variety of finishes. When it comes down to the cost of making your own (especially if you’re not very crafty or lack the basic tools), these are VERY cost effective. EWW is a small, family-owned California company, and their quality and service is fantastic.
Here’s an example of their boards:
Element 3: Planning the Shot
Again, there’s no real right or wrong answer with how to style a shot, but there are some basics that can help you construct a great looking picture. Probably the most basic way to arrange a shot is called the Rule of Thirds. When you look through your camera’s viewfinder, imagine the field of view divided into 9 small boxes, Brady-bunch style. Placing the focal object of the shot at the corners of these boxes can really help make a photo look more interesting. Put in other terms, centering your focal object can kind of look boring. That’s not to say that a gorgeous plate of food centered can’t look dramatic and striking! It certainly can…
I usually start the process of shooting a recipe by choosing my location, then selecting my props. I think about things like the color of the food and the feeling I’m trying to convey. Is it rustic? Casual? Refined? Playful? I tend to choose my props based on the mood I’ve selected. For example, when I shot this soup, I wanted to create a feeling of fall so I picked a copper tray and a small bowl made of horn because they were both warm / darker colors. The soup really popped!
For this picture (from my upcoming cookbook), I wanted to create more of a process shot. This is great for recipes where you end up with multiples of things, like these little jars or other individual servings. I set up the photo as I was really topping each jar with blueberries, and I chose simple props that were silvery / had interesting shapes to play off the round jars. (The background? An old beat up baking tray.)
As much as I can, I try to visualize what I want the shot to look like before I set it up. I don’t always end up with that I envisioned, but usually it’s pretty close. And sometimes, to be honest, I just wing it and see where inspiration takes me. I try to think about what, if any, food I’m going to include in the shot and save some while I’m prepping the recipe.
For example, in the squash soup recipe, I saved the seeds and toasted those in the oven, then used them as a garnish and a prop element in the photo. When possible, save the BEST-looking food for the shot. Generally, you can get away with more when food is cooked than when it’s raw. For example, in the blueberry sauce above, it didn’t matter at all what the berries looked like. In the shot of the Blueberry Pork Patties though, I saved the best berries for the garnish.
Now I’ll walk you through how I set up this photo of a Blackberry Thyme Kombucha Slushy…
Once I select my location, props and background, I begin by setting up a skeleton of a shot without the food. I’ll take several photos with a “stand in” such as an onion (or in this case just the empty mug), adjusting my camera settings as I go. I added some frozen berries (which I wanted to start thawing) and some thyme leaves. Generally, I shoot on ISO 500 to 1000, f / 2.5 to 3.5, though that varies depending on the subject and the lighting.
This shoot presented a challenge because the berries are very dark and the background, very light. Since I wanted mostly overhead shots, I set my aperture to 7.1 which results in less bokeh since a larger depth of field can be tricky from above. Since that means the lens opening is smaller, my shutter speed was slower to let in more light. (Note: The following photos are unretouched.)
(Settings: ISO 1000 f / 7.1 1/320)
I knew this felt too dark, so I added a piece of white foam board (helllllo, cheap reflector) on one side.
(Settings: ISO 1000 f / 3.2 1/1600)
I try to start with fewer props than I think I need, then add as I go to comfortably fill the frame. I think there’s a tendency with newbies to overdo it with props and crumbs and sprinkles of this and drips of that. Less is generally more. Here, I decided I wanted more berries and few more sprigs of thyme. Notice I still haven’t poured the frozen drink!
(Settings: ISO 1000 f / 7.1 1/320)
I felt sufficiently happy with my styling, so I went and made the frozen drink, then poured it. I knew over time it would start to settle, so I wanted to do the next shots pretty fast. Having this set up ahead of time made that possible.
(Settings: ISO 1000 f / 7.1 1/320) Notice this still feels really dark.
To compensate without changing aperture, I changed the shutter speed to make it slower which allows more light into the camera. The result…It’s a bit overexposed, but that can be fixed in editing.
(Settings: ISO 1000 f / 7.1 1/60)
Here I changed the composition and angle of the shot a bit. I ended up not liking this as much as the overhead shot, but I encourage you to change things up and see what you get. You never know! Note: I changed the aperture to f / 4.5 since I moved away from an overhead shot. Notice how the shutter speed changed from 1/60 or 1/80 to 1/200…much faster since the aperture was more wide open (lower number) which allows more light into the camera.
(Settings: ISO 1000 f / 4.5 1/200)
I also shot this recipe in both orientations: portrait and landscape. Having both orientation options is really key because you never know when you may want to use photo for a future project that requires one or the other. Keep your options open.
(Settings: ISO 1000 f / 7.1 1/80)
Probably the best advice I can give is to keep things looking as natural as possible! Click below to skip to other parts in the series.