How to Photograph Food Without a Fancy Camera





Introduction: How to Photograph Food Without a Fancy Camera

About: A true city girl who enjoys expanding her culinary palette by exploring new restaurants, especially back home in Los Angeles

As a contributing writer for a top food blog, it's no surprise I have to take quality photos of my food to go along with my blog entries. My friends often ask me what kind of camera I have when I post my food photos. You must use an expensive DSLR, right? No, not at all. In fact, I use a simple point-and-shoot* camera that I’ve owned for years! An expensive DSLR isn’t warranted if you know a few tricks of the trade, which I’m happy to share after much trial and error.

*Sometimes I end up using my iPhone's camera when I'm working on the fly and still find all of these tips applicable!

Step 1: Be Prepared.

Before you even make the food, have everything positioned exactly where you want it in the photo. This includes (but is not limited to) the serving dish, props, lighting equipment, and tripod. The last thing you want to do is rush during a photo shoot! And remember, you will be hungry by the time you’ve finished cooking/photographing the food, so snack on something beforehand so you’re not tempted to eat your food subject.

Step 2: Please Don't Use Flash.

Every food photographer and stylist out there will tell you that lighting is more important than the food itself, and boy are they right! Try avoiding using the flash on your camera (unless you’re using it as foreground fill with other side lighting). It creates harsh, uneven lighting when used alone. It’s always best to use natural light, so take your photos near a window or outdoors. The best time of day is late morning to early afternoon, and if the photo weather gods are cooperating – bright, cloudy days provide perfect lighting conditions. If you must take your photo at night, you can create a soft, natural light ambience with the food-blogger-acclaimed Lowel EGO light. I was lucky enough to receive this truly magical light as a gift, but if it isn’t within your means, there are plenty of online tutorials for creating your own light box.

Step 3: Manipulate the Lighting.

Lighting is everything, but you need to know how to manipulate it. If the light coming from your window is too harsh, diffuse it with parchment paper or a thin, white bed sheet. Want shadows on the right side of your food? Make sure your light source is coming from the left. For a brighter, more evenly-lit photo, use a homemade bounce board and place it directly opposite from the light source. White foam core is best, but silver or gold aluminum foil also creates a lovely effect. To create a foil bounce board, carefully crumble the foil and tape it to the foam core. This will subtly scatter the reflected light.

Step 4: Steady Wins the Race.

Tripods are obviously a must, but if they’re out of your price range, do what I do when I’m too lazy to bust mine out. I’ve successfully improvised a makeshift tripod using things like a stack of books, a jar, or my favorite – an Old Bay Seasoning canister. For extra security, look for the image stabilization function on your camera to reduce blur from accidental camera movement.

Step 5: Read Your Camera's Manual.

You can easily make your photo go from meh to wow! by understanding how to use your camera’s white balance, ISO, and macro settings. Ever become frustrated over that unintentional orange or bluish hue in your photos? This just means you need to adjust the white balance. And that nasty graininess that appears in your photos when you enlarge them up on your computer screen means you should lower your camera’s ISO setting. A high ISO is used for low-light situations, but since you should already have a properly lit setting, it’s best to use the lowest ISO possible to produce the least grainy image. My favorite camera feature of all has to be the macro setting. Usually indicated by a flower or tulip button on your camera, this setting allows you to take close-ups (and only close-ups) that keep the food in focus and the background artfully blurred (otherwise known as bokeh).

Step 6: Experiment With Different Angles and Cropping.

Create interest with how you choose to capture the essence of your food. While most shots look best from a 30-degree angle, it depends on what you’re photographing. Stacked foods (like pancakes and cookies) look best with a straight-on shot to emphasize the height of the stack, and decorated table settings are best photographed with an overhead shot. Although a close-up shot is usually your best bet, sometimes it’s better to pull the camera back and have your food pop out instead of filling up the entire shot. When it comes to cropping, either display the food in its entirety or crop only one side of it. Cropping multiple sides of the food produces a choppy image.

Step 7: Stage Your Food.

Using props like utensils, napkins, extra garnishes (like fresh herbs), and ingredients can help fill that negative space in your photos and bring out the colors of your food. Not sure how to arrange everything on the table? Meet the rule of thirds, which tells you how to use those gridlines on your camera screen.

Step 8: Choose the Right Serving Dish and Employ Variety.

The rule of thumb with serving dishes is to go with smaller dishes to prevent them from looking bare, and, use white dishes because they are simple and clean-looking. White serving dishes may be the safest option, but they can also be boring. Check out Ikea and Target for colorful and patterned serving dishes at affordable prices. For vintage serving dishes, check out garage sales and resale stores. You can even try using old oven baking tins, wood cutting boards or a crumbled up brown bag for shabby-chic effects.

Step 9: Clean Background.

No matter how you stage your food, make sure you arrange it in front of a simple, clean backdrop. Lay a piece of fabric, wrapping paper, tablecloth, bed sheet or shower curtain on the table and prop it up with a box.

Step 10: Use the Dirty Little Secret.

Alright, I’m just going to come out and say it. Almost every food photographer out there edits their photos in Photoshop (or a similar program). It is our best friend when it comes to touching up the cropping, color levels, contrast, and sharpening elements of a photo. You can get good student discounts on Photoshop while you’re in college, or you can download free photo editing programs like GIMP and Picasa.

Step 11: Learn From the Pros, and Practice!

Get inspiration for your food photos from cookbooks, foodgawker, FoodPornDaily, and your favorite food bloggers and pin them to a pinboard. Mimic what they do best and practice, practice, practice.

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    22 Discussions

    I hired Ignite Images to take a professional photo for
    my LinkedIn page. He did a great job. He was professional and timely. I would
    definitely recommend Christophe for your photography needs. They were truly a

    For people interested, there is a site where you can buy DSLR Flashes.

    Hey! Im curious what the light blue surface is? Is it just a plastic table cloth? :)
    Thanks & Best Regards, Kyle.

    Thank you so much for this. I couldn't figure out what was "off" about my photos, I tried everything, and adjusting the ISO made all the difference.

    1 reply

    Thanks for an excellent guide! I can see me using these tips for more than just food photography. One question, though, how does one get pics of hot food without steam fogging up the camera lens?

    1 reply

    Good question! Unfortunately, I don't have a solid answer. I typically back the camera out to make the steam visible, so I never have to deal with a fogging problem. Perhaps opening a window (so the steam can flow out of the shot) will do the trick?

    hi, this is a great guide and i will be trying out your tips shortly... but, what i'm more interested in knowing right now is what those delicious looking pancakes are? looks to me something like baked custard with (obviously) cinnamon... could you please share the recipe with us too?

    1 reply

    They're actually White Chocolate Filled Snickerdoodles. A must-try cookie recipe! :)

    Oops, a little confusion here. It is not free, see this article. Thanks.

    1 reply

    Sadly, it seems if you got a copy you are simply lucky. It was a fluke in Adobe's system.

    The Student/Teacher versions of Adobe's software aren't bad, but you can't do commercial work with them according to Adobe's licensing (fine print). I personally like Sumo Paint. It's free and very much like Photoshop online. Pixlr is another decent one as well...

    2 replies

    Apologies, thanks for clearing it up! I didn't know that the story changed (again) :)

    If you edit on your ipad or android tablet, a good free app is snapseed.

    1 reply

    Very useful post (especially for food bloggers like me!). I use a point and shoot for some of my articles and didn't realize that my little camera was capable of some of the things you mentioned. Thanks for pointing them out and telling us how to use them!

    1 reply