Food Photography 101: Lighting and More


Food Photography 101

Restaurant Instagram

It’s pretty safe to say we all have high-quality cameras on us at all times. It’s crazy to think about, especially considering this sort of thing wasn’t even plausible 10 years ago. Nowadays with social media, we can’t seem to go a few hours without seeing what our third grade crush had for brunch or what the happy hour special is at the bar down the street.

So since we’re all able to document literally everything we’re eating, drinking, cooking, and serving, here are some easy tips for the occasional PBFP (phone-based food photographer—yep, we just made that acronym up). If you’re into the hard stuff: DSLRs, lens choice, and food styling, we’ll get in to that later. A lot of what we’re about to get into applies to photography in general, because it’s not always possible to bring in a photographer. Sometimes you’re just jazzed about a special dish you whipped up and you want people to know!

1. Lighting is everything… Well, like 90%.

Hold on to yo’ Pop Sockets, we’re about to get super nerdy: photo is the Greek work for light. Combined with -graphy, the word photography literally means “drawing with light.” So keep that in mind while taking photos: you’re not just documenting what’s on your plate, you’re allowing the light to interpret the tasty dish before you. To put it in less poetic terms:


For Fieri’s Sake, don’t photograph your delicious meal with flash of any sort (now if you’re super fancy and you have a studio strobe, yes, by all means use it—but also, what are you doing here? Go read something about color theory or ISO charts).

Whether you’re shooting with a phone or a legit camera, don’t. use. the. flash. We’ve all seen these monstrosities on Instagram. Using flash will turn a piece of fried chicken into a murder scene, tacos into an autopsy, and ice cream into a space creature. Nobody wants to see that mess. You will lose followers and friends, then your life will be ruined. These are facts.

Try to find soft, subtle daylight. What do we mean by soft daylight? No harsh shadows. Direct sunlight creates harsh shadows (so does the flash—see where we’re going here?). The trick is to never let direct light of any kind illuminate your food. Find a window that might have an awning over it or morning/afternoon sunlight and position your food beside it at a slight angle so that you’re not shooting directly into the sunlight. Is it a bit rainy or cloudy outside? Perfect. Let the light from outside gently spill over the food. If you really want to impress your followers with something special, hold a white piece of paper or poster board just out of your camera’s view and “bounce” the light from the window onto the food. Doing so will brighten up any shadows on the front of the dish that might be too dark.


So…lighting: a pretty big deal. Now that you’ve got that down, a few other things to consider:

2. What Condition is your Composition in?

Try not to shoot your dish straight on. It’s best to be slightly above your subject, and shooting mostly the front (3/4 of it), with a little bit of the side (the other 1/4).

Overhead shots are another great way to show off menu items that are flat or carry most of their visual appeal on top: pizzas, pies, and lattes just to name a few.

Since our phones have slightly wide-angle lenses built into them, try not to get too close to your subject or it will start to distort and you’ll end up looking like an old Busta Rhymes video (hey, nothing wrong with Busta, just might not be the best look for food). Give it some distance and even context. You spent all that money on those nice tables, show ‘em off!

3. Spruce it up!

So you’ve got a great looking sandwich that you’re really proud of. You’ve got a nice photograph of it and everything—but it’s just a sandwich. Nothing wrong with that, but what if we upped the ante just a little?

In this industry, we’re all about up-selling, right? Toss a side item and a drink in the photo. Heck, open up a chip bag and make a tidy little mess if that’s what you’re into. Think the football crowd might like this particular dish? Get a nice heady beer and place it in the background. Don’t be afraid to build out a whole environment, just be wary of too much clutter. You want your sandwich, entree, etc. to the “hero” of the shot. Make sure it stands out the most and fill in some of the details with imaginative ways people can make their dining experience even better.

If you put some specialty ingredients into the item that you want people to know about, chop ‘em up and put them in the photo as well. What’s the point of a strawberry limeade photo without some strawberries and limes in it? This will add color and provide a more dynamic composition.

Liven up your composition with some ingredients.

Liven up your composition with some ingredients.

Grab a friend and add some action!

Grab a friend and add some action!


Hopefully this is enough to get you started. Of course there are an infinite amount of ways to improve your photography, so keep shooting and feel free to get in touch with the team here at Fresh with any questions!

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