Whether you have a successful food blog and a professional camera, or you are snapping photos on an iPhone to fill up your Instagram feed, there is no denying that food photography is something that peaks the interest of many food lovers. While many professional photographers focus solely on photographing food which is prepared and styled by a food stylist, and plated on dishes and surfaces selected by a prop stylist, our talented photographers tackle all three elements.
We interviewed two of our freelancers, Diana Chistruga (based out of Mallorca) and Cara Cormack (located in London), and asked them to tell all. They gave us a peak behind the scenes, including the five key things to consider before even breaking out the camera and some of their favorite food styling tricks. We had them put their skills to the test, walking us through their process and approach in shooting a BBQ shrimp recipe and an Instant Pot black bean soup for The Spruce Eats. Finally, they share the photographers and stylists who inspire them (and who you should be following) and resources for learning more to up your own food photography game.
Five Things To Consider Before You Photograph
Natural or Artificial Light?
- The pros know that while natural light can be stunning, the best bet for consistency and a lot more creativity is to have command over artificial light sources. Cara says that she, "almost always shoots with strobes unless a client specifically asks for natural lighting. I think it’s important to learn how to control natural light when starting out, but once you’ve got that down you’ll find that artificial lighting will give you a lot more creative freedom."
- A good command of artificial light also allows even the brownest of foods to appear appetizing. The sear on these steaks and creaminess of the sauce, shot by Diana, is brought out because of her skills with light. If you are a novice just shooting on your phone, get close to a window for natural light and, if possible, turn off all overhead lights in the room so that you have just one single light source. As you advance, investing in a strobe light will take your photos to the next level.
- Before shooting, "think about each component of the dish" and what about a dish would make you want to "eat it most," says Cara. Fried foods should be "crispy and golden," as Diana pulls off in this simple but craveable shot of onion rings frying.
- "Pasta should look saucy and creamy," like this carbonara recipe Cara recently shot. Being able to see every component of a simple dish like this matters -- a just-enough grind of fresh black pepper, scattering of parm, and some pieces of pancetta (carefully placed via tweezers when needed) brings it all home.
- "Salad should always be fresh and colorful. No wilted herbs or leaves!" Always use freshly washed herbs and leaves, as Cara does in this citrus salad. Fresh herbs and lettuce can also benefit from a quick ice-bath dunk to perk them up and make them camera ready. "Salads are also fun to layer up, which always creates lots of dimension and texture" in the finished photo.
- Diana says that in addition to what colors are in the actual dish, she also considers "what color palette would complement the food." The white and browns of this tahdig benefits immensely from a fun pop of complementary color thanks to a baby-blue tiled surface.
- Cara also "always starts with props and color, considering how the backdrop and props will interact with the color of the food and what will make the food look it’s most delicious." The deep chocolate browns here get a boost from shades of orange and peach, which all fall within the same shade family on the color wheel.
As part of her creative process, Cara says that she, "considers both lighting and color when thinking about the origin of a food or what setting the food would typically be eaten in." For example, "a lobster roll would be eaten on a fresh sunny day at the seaside." This informs her artificial lighting, which she crafts to be bright, directional, and sunlike, as well as her color choices, "using blue tones to mimic the sea as well as to contrast with the bright red of the lobster."
Cara's number one tip is that she sees too many people being too rigid in their styling. "Where people go wrong is overthinking the styling. Trying to be too exact or symmetrical usually creates a forced look which I think takes you out of the picture. You want the picture to feel attainable, delicious, and natural. You want people to be able to visualize the dish settling into their lives, just in the best looking way possible." The playfulness in Diana's plating of these hot dogs, with one peaking ever-so-slightly off frame, makes for a more visually interesting shot than if they were lined up perfectly.
Three Favorite Food Styling Tricks
While becoming a food stylist takes years of on-the-job training, Diana shared a few of her favorite tricks of the trade. On many food shoots for cookbooks, print magazines, and ad campaigns, the photographer is not responsible for this aspect of the shoot. Entire careers are dedicated to becoming a food stylist, who never once steps behind the lens of a camera. Because our talent straddles the line between photographer and stylist, they have many tricks up their sleeves.
- The most beautiful cheese pull on pizza? That's compliments of John Carafoli’s method, laid out in his iconic book, Food Photography and Styling. Par-bake the crust, pre-cut the slices, and then arranged a few 2 to 3 inch-long pieces of cheese perpendicular to the cuts. Finish as usual with sauce and more cheese and toppings, then bake. When you pull a slice, it is already cut (so you don't wind up cutting the very cheese you are trying to get to pull), and with an extra bonus layer of cheese that is already melted across the slices. Magic!
- Perfectly centered yolks in these deviled eggs? That's compliments of "placing the carton of eggs on its side the day before cooking to achieve the perfectly centered egg yolk."
- "Cool the room down before working with drinks or ice cream" to gain a few extra minutes to shoot. In no time, "cocktail glasses will sweat and the ice cream will melt," so buy yourself some extra time by cooling down the studio. Also, have everything else in the shot already set up (camera on a tri-pod angled just-so, props and surface composed) so that the only thing that needs to fly in is the frozen dessert or just-made cocktail before the shutter clicks.
Behind The Scenes
Cara and Diana walk us through their process and approach to photographing two recipes for our site, applying their knowledge of light, textures, colors, story telling, and composition to create the most mouth watering hero image shots.
Diana: BBQ Shrimp Shoot
Shot With: My Nikon D850 Camera; Profoto B10 Plus lights.
This recipe for New Orlean's Style BBQ Shrimp is full of spice, flavor, and transports you right to the bywater of NOLA. After reviewing the creative brief and inspiration hero images that we provide all of our photographers she then "begins by researching the recipe to see how it is cooked and get a sense of expected results." Diana "learned that New Orleans BBQ shrimp is a spicy and peppery dish usually served with plenty of crusty bread and beer."
She then gathered the props and said she "decided to go for this natural stone background in the color crema. It weighs about 50 pounds, and even though I can barely lift it, it's one of my favorite surfaces to use when the goal is to create an inviting look and feel. The warm lighting coming from the side felt just right for the scene." When everything was set up, the beer cold and the food piping hot, it was time to put the puzzle pieces together. She says, "most of the time, I find out the last missing puzzle piece at the moment of shooting. Sometimes a few naturally fallen bread crumbs or the golden light coming through a glass of beer are meant to complete the image."
Cara: Black Bean Soup Shoot
Shot With: My Canon EOS 5D Mark IV Camera and Sigma Art Lens (mostly with a macro for close ups); I always shoot tethered to Capture One.
This black bean soup is made in an Instant Pot, making it easy and accessible, but not lacking in flavor. "From the beginning I knew that I wanted to shoot this recipe on a bright pink backdrop to highlight those gorgeous pickled red onions and to contrast with the pops of green throughout the recipe," said Cara. "The recipe featured some spices and flavors that I associate with Mexico and I felt that sunny lighting and bright colors echoed this."
Food Photographers & Stylists You Should Follow
- Andrea Gentl for her photography
- Paige Hicks for her prop styling
- Alison Attenborough for her food styling
- Chelsea Kyle - "I love the way she uses dramatic light and color."
- Louise Hagger - "Her work is incredibly creative, and has brought a real fashion element to the food photography industry."
- Jenny Huang - "Her use of pattern for backdrops, risks with color and beautiful lighting, everything she does tells a beautiful story."
Resources To Inspire Food Photography and Styling
- Food Photography and Styling by John Carafoli
- Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera by Delores Custer
- That Photo Makes Me Hungry: Photographing Food for Fun & Profit by Andrew Scrivani
- The Photographer's Eye, by Micheal Freeman
- Food In Vogue by Vogue Editors
- Feast For the Eyes: The Story of Food In Photography by Susan Bright
- Online with food stylist Victoria Granof, in her food styling course through Domestika