I’m on a mission to help beginners make their food photos look better, so we’re going to jump right in with some info about basic editing techniques.
I’ll be covering the basics of editing in this post, plus showing you a complete editing workflow example from start to finish.
Food Photography Tips: Editing
A lot can be done to improve your photos with the right editing tweaks. On the other hand, it’s also easy to really overdo it and make food look pretty unnatural. With that in mind, I’m going to share editing basics with you so you can start to enhance your food photography.
Let’s start with editing software. There are tons of programs, sites and software you can use to edit your photos. Keep in mind that free versions are usually more restricted in what you can do, whether it’s with adjustments, export options, file organization and more.
(I use a Mac so all my recommendations are specific to Mac-friendly programs. Sorry, PC dudes and dudettes.)
At the most basic, you can use a program like Preview to view and make some simple edits like exposure, contrast and saturation on your photos. You can also use iPhoto to do similar.
For web-based programs, options like PicMonkey.com give you quite a bit of functionality.
For folks who are more serious about taking things to the next level, you have options.
Aperture (for Mac) was my go-to program until a few months ago because its library system, dashboard, and controls were very similar to iPhoto.
It was a natural transition for that reason, but unfortunately, Apple is no longer supporting Aperture via new updates. I decided it was time to jump ship to a new program for that reason.
Many folks I know use Photoshop for the bulk of their food photography editing, and it can do amazing things. I tend to find Adobe products not quite as intuitive so it took a while to get used to it, and I’m only barely scratching the surface of its potential.
The main downfall of Photoshop is its lack of filing or library system to organize your pictures. I use Photoshop for certain tasks, though more for designing graphics.
I made the switch to Lightroom a couple months back after a few failed attempts at converting. My main struggle was in understanding the library system that Lightroom utilizes—because it’s so different from Aperture—so I actually did a couple online tutorials from Lynda.com. to learn more about it.
Turns out, after a short adjustment period, I really love Lightroom!
Basic Editing Adjustments
Let’s talk adjustments. While there are dozens you can make to your photos, I’m highlighting some of the most basic here. We can break it down simply into a few main categories: adjustments related to light and dark, color, and other interesting features like sharpness. Again, these are just some of the most fundamental.
Light and Dark
How can you adjust the lightness or darkness of an image? First is exposure, the overall amount of light in the photo. Cranking the exposure up will eventually make it too bright or “blown out.” Dialing it down makes it really dark. While higher or lower than normal exposure can lead to dramatic effects in photography, with food it generally looks bad; either the food is too shiny or you can’t see it.
Next, you can adjust highlights and shadows. Highlights take the brightest parts of your image, say, the reflection of a window on an apple and make it even brighter or conversely, dull those lightest parts down.
Shadows deal with the darkest parts of a picture. By adjusting the shadows up or down, you can make them more or less intense. I find that most of my photos need a bit of shadow lifted off simply because of how I shoot and prefer the light to hit my subjects (from the side). Sometimes, minor adjustments in highlights and shadows are all that’s needed to make the photo pop.
Lastly, trying playing around with contrast. It’s going to accentuate the difference between darks and lights in your photo—and also intensify or dull the colors—and make it more dramatic. Sometimes I’ll adjust the contrast once I’m happy with the exposure, highlights, shadows and white balance. It’s personal preference, but I like a bit more contrast in my photos because it adds visual interest without making the photo look unnatural.
Perhaps the single fastest way to correct a photo—or to make it look weird—is by adjusting the white balance. Essentially white balance is composed of two color ranges: blue to yellow (warmth), and green to pink (tint). The goal with most food photos should be an image that looks like it was shot in white light—not too yellow or blue and with a normal amount of tint. Remember to keep lamps and other light sources (unless it’s a dedicated photography light) off while you’re shooting since the tendency is for those to throw a yellow cast on to your food.
Even the most well-intentioned photographer can end up with photos that need white balancing because, for example, darker or cloudy mornings (particularly in the winter) can lead to blue casts on the food. Sometimes weather or outdoor conditions need to be accounted for.
It can be tricky to adjust white balance, but most advanced programs have pretty good auto balance features or pickers / samplers that let you pick a neutral point in your photo to set the white balance from. Think of them like a frame of reference where you tell the computer, “This is supposed to be neutral white or grey,” and it adjusts the warmth and tint for you. I like to sneak in something white or grey into my photos for that reason. Even something as simple as a basic white sack cloth can help you balance the color later.
Once you’ve adjusted the white balance, consider other color adjustments like saturation and vibrance. Caution: These are very potent features! A little goes a long way. Saturation is how concentrated the colors in a photo are. Turn it up all the way and you’ll see how garish the colors gets. If you turn it down all the way, you’ll end up with a black and white photo.
Since it’s easy to overdo saturation, I prefer to avoid it in most cases and use vibrance instead. It take just the weakest colors of a photo and bumps them up. Again, use caution because it’s still easy to overdo it and end up with something that looks like abstract art and not realistic-looking food.
Other Interesting Edits
Fixing blemishes in your photo is possible in most advanced editing programs such as Photoshop (PS) and Lightroom (LR). This is one place where I think PS excels over LR and has better functionality and spot matching.
I really try to make my photos as clean as possible before editing because, while these blemish tools can do amazing things, when you start trying to fix large areas of the photo, things can get weird fast.
With that in mind, get into the habit of wiping plate / bowl rims, dusting off your table or backdrops, looking for pet hair, etc. There’s a difference between adding crumbs to a photo on purpose or spilling some salt artfully on the table and having poorly plated food. A little neatness goes a long way later on.
Other helpful basic adjustments are things like sharpness or clarity. Again, treat these tools gingerly. Too much sharpness can make food look piece-y or artificial against its background. Sometimes too much luminance (an adjustment in LR) makes food look too soft.
One more thing to keep in mind: Most editing programs have auto functions and while I’ve found they can be quite good, sometimes the software doesn’t get it right. Be sure to always check your auto-edited photos before you post them, and remember to turn off screen darkening programs—like f.lux—and adjust the brightness of your display before you begin editing.
How I Edit My Photos: A Sample Workflow
Here’s a basic workflow I use on much of my photography. Individual photos may vary, but I try to keep things as simple as possible by using good light to begin with.
(Note: Click on the screenshots of my LR dashboard to enlarge them. I normally don’t set my blog photos up this way, but I want you to be able to see the details.)
Once I import my photos to LR, I quickly scan through and flag which ones I want to edit. (Hint: Hit the P key to flag your top picks).
Here’s a shoot I did recently for my Cabbage with Apple & Onion recipe. The original was really, really bad. (Like, really.) Taken at night with my old Canon Elph point & shoot, too close with yellow lighting and obviously, the styling was seriously lacking.
I cooked it up again and styled it simply, but in a much more pleasing way. I took advantage of bright early afternoon, indirect light and added some burlap and my favorite kitchen towel (click here to see where I get props) for texture.
I kept the plating basic—just using the skillet I cooked it in—and put it all on top of my Erickson Woodworks reclaimed barn wood background for a rustic feel. Lastly, I blocked some light from the left to add a bit of shadowing using my trusty black foam board.
I’m using a Nikon D610 DSLR camera body. My lens choice here was the Nikkor 50mm f / 1.4 that I just picked up on sale. It’s way more pricey than my budget 50mm f / 1.8 (I used that for my whole cookbook), but it was time to upgrade.
Okay, so after importing to LR, this is what I’m seeing in the Develop pane. It’s already shaping up to be much better, but this photo could use some tweaks.
First, I notice that the tint is a bit pink which I’d like to change. I also want to straighten the photo to make those barn wood planks vertical. Looks like it could use a bit of adjustment with exposure and contrast. And, I’d like to correct a couple blemishes.
Today I decided to straighten this photo first. To do that I click on the Crop & Straighten tool. It looks like a box with dotted lines. From there, I slide the Angle adjustment until the planks look vertical.
That should do it. Then, I click done.
Next, I’m going to tackle the white balance.
Shooting in RAW gives me far more options for adjusting white balance than shooting in JPEG. If you’re a novice, JPEG can work just fine, but I recommend getting comfy with RAW by practicing. (Note: RAW files are much larger than JPEGs so you’ll need an external or cloud-based storage system if you do a lot of photography in RAW.)
I’m in the Basic editing pane now, right at the top. Note the range of options LR gives me for editing the white balance because I shot this in RAW.
Sometimes, the Auto white balance looks just fine. Other times, it looks off.
You can help things along by using a white or grey object in your photo, then using the dropper / picker tool to click on a target neutral to set the white balance.
Note the Temp (blue to yellow) and Tint (green to pink) of the original. It’s a bit cool (blue) and pink for my liking.
When I try to that in this photo, I’m having a hard time finding RGB values that are very close to each other. So, I resorted to Auto, and it looks good to me. Slightly warmer and less pink.
Note the Temp value warmed up to 4050K and the Tint dropped down from +26 to +18 (less pink). I’m happy with how this looks, so I move on to adjusting other Tone settings.
If you’re new to editing, the Auto function under Tone can do a pretty good job. I find it tends to overexpose photos, so if I’m in a rush, I sometimes hit Auto, then drop the exposure back down a bit.
Here’s what happens when I hit Auto Tone. Looks pretty good. Note how the adjustments changed, including highlights, shadows, whites and blacks.
If I’m in less of a rush, I tend to adjust Tone manually, starting with exposure, then changing things like contrast and lifting shadows. Use these tools conservatively or you’ll end up with photos that look pretty freaky.
Compare the values I adjusted to what Auto did. Notice how mine are a bit more conservative.
I’m happy with my adjustments so I’m moving on to spot correction.
Now, this is a bit picky, but there are a couple spots I want to correct out of preference. When I’m editing for a cookbook, I’m way more detail-oriented than when I’m editing for the blog.
See where the arrow is pointing? I want to get rid of that bit of cabbage.
So, I click on the Brush tool (round circle with an arrow), and click on Heal. I adjust the size of the circle until it matches the size of that cabbage crumb.
Then, I hover over the blemish and click. LR picks an area of the photo to heal. I can move that around to get a perfect match.
I lift a couple other spots off the skillet handle, then click done.
This is almost ready to export, but I want to check all my changes. There are a few options here.
Use the shortcut by pressing \ on your keyboard, and it’ll toggle between a full-screen view of before and after.
Or, you can toggle between a few different split screen views of the before / after by clicking down at the bottom of the pane next to the full screen image icon.
My last step is to Export the image. I select the photo I want to export, then right click to bring up the options. (Or, use Export in the nav bar.) I use some different pre-sets most of the time, such as export file type and size, especially if I’m batch exporting for use on my blog and the photos can be the same.
Then, I add a watermark (using Photobulk or Photoshop) or text overlay (using Photoshop or for a free option, PicMonkey), and I’m done.
Here’s the finished image as it appears on the blog.
I know it sounds like a lot of steps, but once you develop a workflow that works for you (and you practice enough), you’ll get really efficient.
To sum it up, most food photos are best when the it still looks natural. Personal style and artistic touches are certainly part of food photography so experiment to see what you like, but keep in mind that some basics still apply.
Click below for the other parts of this series.