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4 Food Photography Fundamentals

Even though #NationalPhotographyMonth has passed, it's never too late to master the basics! Here are four food photography fundamentals everyone should know.

Disclaimer: This post includes affiliate links, which may provide me a small commission for each sale. This allows me to keep providing helpful resources (such as this post). All opinions expressed are my own.

Does picking up a camera and snapping a photo of some food make you a food photographer? While an occasional great photo can happen by accident, the majority of photographer must master the basics before consistently producing quality work. So, what are the fundamentals of food photography?

The answer to this question may differ depending on who you ask -- but most professionals agree on the same basic components. To truly produce consistent work, it's important to invest time in studying four main aspects: light, angle, composition, and color. Knowing how to navigate these simple yet significant elements elevates your photography and takes your food photos to new heights.

Read on to learn how to master these four photography basics so you can make a living doing what you love.




1. Light

Lighting largely affects the mood of a photo. When taking a photo, the lighting should be set up so that it is correctly balanced.

This image from Beata Lubas is a great basic guide to evaluating lighting:

Light Meter

For most cameras, you can check to see how the lighting is setup with these simple steps:

  1. Look through the viewfinder.

  2. Press the shutter button halfway.

  3. The light meter should appear at the very bottom of the frame.

  4. Also, you can check your Live View display for the light meter.

Your light meter should read something like this: -3 -2 -1 0 +1 +2 +3. When the indicator is at the middle number (0) this means that the exposure is correct, at least according to your camera. This measure can be flawed, but it does provide a great starting point when taking food photos.

Light Control

Light could be a post all its own! Many food photographers swear by natural light, while others have made a living taming artificial light. It all depends on your unique style and how you want the subjects of your photos to appear.

Natural light often limits you to certain times of the day, while artificial light may require more equipment. Both methods have pros and cons. Both can produce incredible results.

Aperture is another measure to play close attention to when dealing with light. The aperture is the adjustable round opening in your camera that controls how much light enters your camera. It also controls how much of the image is in focus (a.k.a. the "depth of field").

Image courtesy of Broma Bakery

Shutter speed is also an important item to pay attention to. It's measured in seconds or fractions of a second. A fast shutter speed means that the shutter is open for a short amount of time -- meaning less light enters the camera.

Image courtesy of Broma Bakery

Generally, fast speeds are ideal for bright days and slow speeds are great for low-light. There are many other aspects of light to study, but I find these elements are the best subjects to begin with.

Examine the differences in light between these photos:

Pros Who Know

For help with lighting:

2. Angle

Angle is a key element in making food look its best. Just like humans, sometimes food has a "good side" for snapping a pic.

A common tip is to find the "hero angle" -- this is the angle that the food looks most impressive from. It can be subjective, but it often shows dimension, height, layers, etc. It produces that drool-worthy photo that makes the viewer immediately think, "I want that and I've got to have it!"

The following images are great examples of hero angles for a stack of pancakes:

Everything else can look great, but if the angle is off or not varied enough in a set of photos, the viewer will quickly lose interest and move on.

Examine the differences in angles between these photos:

Pros Who Know

For help with angles:

3. Composition

There's one main question I ask myself when it comes to composition:

What story do I want this photo to tell?

Photographs tell a story, so it's important to consider composition when composing an image.

Some of the main methods of positioning subjects in a photo include:

  • Placing an object in the middle

  • The Rule of Thirds

  • Placing an object on the periphery or slightly out of frame

  • Arranging objects in curved or flowing lines

  • Using a grid, i.e. Fibonacci spiral, Phi, or the golden triangle

None of these is the "right" way per say. However, studying the reasoning behind why each is pleasing to the eye in its own way can increase the depth and talent portrayed in your photos.

Layer, height, and dimension are thoughtful ways to improve your photos and make them more exciting to the viewer. Showcasing ingredients next to the main entrée can help in two ways: 1) it tells a story, and 2) it adds dimension to the dish.

Examine the differences in composition between these photos:

Pros Who Know

For help with composition:

4. Color

Props have a powerful effect on the subject of a photo. They can change the mood by contrast or enhance existing items through complementary colors. Neutral hues are considered the most versatile, but unique and breathtaking images can be made with one-of-a-kind items.

The color of the photos themselves have what is called a temperature. This temperature can be manipulated mainly through editing. You may be familiar with it in terms of "warm-" or "cool-colored."

White balance works by neutralizing warmer and cooler hues in an image. This doesn't always produce the desired results, but it is good for making whites appear whiter -- a common trend in recent years.

A quick tip: Fresh ingredients often produce the best and most vibrant colors!

When composing a photo, using ingredients and items of complementary colors (i.e. orange and deep blue, which are on exact opposite sides of the color wheel) can help make the photo "pop".

Examine the differences in color between these photos:

Pros Who Know

For help with color theory:

For posts on props:

The Final Word on Food Photography Fundamentals

As mentioned above, there isn't a "right" way to do food photography. However, every photographer who becomes a student of the basics knows it transforms their photos from accidental to intentional. Start with mastering the basics, but know there is always something new and exciting to learn about food photography!



Lubas, B (2020). How to Photograph Food. Running Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc. ISBN: 978-0-7624-9962-5.


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