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Tips & Tutorials >> All Tips & Tutorials

Take Better Food Photos: 3 Simple Tips

2024-04-25
3
896

Want to take better travel food photos or up the temptation factor of the pictures you take while eating out? Here are some tips from foodie food photographer Mark Ong (@makoeats), whose Instagram account is full of mouthwatering pictures of his everyday meals at various eateries.

 

In this article:

I see, I shoot, I eat

Commercial and casual food photography have similar goals: showcase the appeal of the food. Yet, the experience and challenges are very different. For one, with casual food photography, the food is produced for consumption, not for photography. You are also working with what’s available, making it more challenging to get the image to look the way you want.

Commercial food photography Casual/travel food photography
- More control over lighting
- Can plan and prepare the shoot (styling, etc)
- More time to shoot
- The client’s brief sets the direction
- Working with available light
- Working with what’s available
- Less time to shoot (eating the food is important too!)
- You’re shooting for yourself

But at the same time, it’s also liberating to see what you can create with just a camera and lens and perhaps a Speedlite! I hope the tips below will help you capture images closer to what you desire.

What I usually bring:
- EOS R5 or EOS R6 Mark II
- RF24-105mm f/4L IS USM: A standard zoom lens offers the most flexibility in crowded street food stalls and restaurants
- Speedlite (used sometimes)

When I need a lighter combination, I use:
- EOS R10
- RF50mm f/1.8 STM (though your kit lens should work, too)

 

#1. Lighting: Indirect side or back lighting works best

The ideal lighting is indirect natural light originating from behind the food or from the sides. Front light (light from the same direction as the camera) will make the food look less three-dimensional. While I carry a Speedlite for use in dim lighting conditions, I prefer to shoot in the daytime with natural light. I try to sit where natural light is available.


Do this: Side lighting originating from behind the food

EOS R5/ RF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 65mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/9, 1/80 sec, EV -0.3)/ ISO 125/ Ngoh hiang (pork rolls in beancurd skin), sausages, and assorted fritters

There is a beautiful subtle glow to the food, but at the same time, shadows give it dimensionality. The light on the sauce on the right gives it a delicious-looking sheen.


Avoid this: Front lighting

While evenly lit, the food here looks flat. Front lighting may be ideal for portraits of people because it makes skin look smooth, but for food photography, we generally want to show dimension and textures!


Pro tips

- Reflections and glare can make food look more appealing
I sometimes add a little soup or gravy to food that I feel looks too dry or dull. Many types of food look more appetising if there’s an appealing sheen. How much “shine” is necessary depends on the food and the context, but details such as texture and colour should not be blown out.

- White balance: AWB (Ambience-priority) works well for most shots
I usually shoot with auto white balance (AWB). The default AWB (Ambience-priority) mode on the newer EOS R series cameras does a good job most of the time.

 

#2: Styling and composition: Should complement the main dish

EOS R5/ RF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 85mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/8, 1/100 sec, EV -0.3)/ ISO 500/ Lor mee (Braised noodles)

When uncertain, use the rule of thirds

It’s okay if the other dishes are partially cropped, just make sure that key elements are placed along the lines or at or near the intersections. You can also apply this when you crop your images to 4:5 for social media.

Make things interesting with diagonals

How many diagonal lines do you spot here?
I like incorporating diagonals into my compositions: it’s become a subconscious thing! Diagonals add dynamism to the picture—a different effect compared to if elements were arranged parallel to the image edges.


Don’t be afraid to rearrange ingredients!

I usually arrange the key ingredients in a dish so that the “hero” ingredient is more prominent. For example, the key ingredients in lor mee (shown in the image above) are the fishcakes, fried dumplings, and ngoh hiang (pork rolls in beancurd skin) so I’ve placed them on top along with the chilli and condiments. The noodles are at the base. I asked for the ingredients to be placed only after the thick gravy was ladled onto the noodles so that they would not be covered.


Props and backdrops: Making the best of what’s available

I don’t usually carry props around when I photograph food for myself. Instead, I make use of what’s available, such as utensils, condiment containers, and even the table.

Utensil placement

Placing utensils around the food makes it look more authentic and inviting, and can also help complete the composition. In this lor mee example, the chopsticks are also leading lines that frame and emphasise the two noodle dishes.

Use the table to add layers

To add layers and depth to the composition, place your food at the table edge and incorporate the floor or wall into the frame.
This also shows some context about the location!


Pro tip: Study good images, and then practise applying them

Build your sense of what looks good. When you see appealing food photographs, study how the photographers styled and composed the image. Familiarise yourself with colour theory. This will help you to see more possibilities when working with what’s in front of you. Feel free to experiment and learn by trial-and-error when the situation allows. After all, food isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime moment—just eat it before it gets cold!

 

#3: Learn to use a bounce flash

If lighting conditions are unfavourable but the venue has a white ceiling, I will use an on-camera Speedlite and bounce the flash to ensure adequate lighting on my subject. This lets me use a lower ISO speed, avoiding graininess. E-TTL (automatic flash metering) mode works fine most of the time so you don’t really have to worry about dialling in manual settings!

No flash (ISO 2000)

EOS R5/ RF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 105mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/5.6, 1/160 sec, EV -0.3)/ ISO 2000

With no flash, I had to shoot at ISO 2000, which results in a grainier shot. The shot also looks warmer as AWB: Ambience-priority preserves the warmth of the indoor lights, which might not be the results you want for your food.

With bounce flash (ISO 100)

EOS R5/ RF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 105mm/ Manual exposure (f/5.6, 1/50 sec)/ ISO 100

Using a flash allowed me to shoot with a lower ISO speed while keeping all the dishes properly lit. It’s also added an appealing shine to the noodles and neutralised the warm ambient colours.

 

No flash (f/5.6, ISO 1250)

EOS R6 Mark II/ RF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 47mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/5.6, 1/80 sec)/ ISO 1250

Besides the higher ISO speed, I had to use a wider aperture setting here to achieve sufficient exposure. This made the bowl not completely in-focus. The soup looks less clear as there is no shine.

With bounce flash (f/8, ISO 100)

EOS R6 Mark II/ RF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 47mm/ Manual exposure (f/8, 1/250 sec,)/ ISO 100

The bounce flash allowed me to use a narrower aperture, which puts the bowl completely in focus. It’s also given the soup a delicious-looking shine.


How a bounce flash works

A bounce flash essentially turns the ceiling or wall into a big reflector. It works best when the surface you’re bouncing the light off is white. Coloured surfaces will result in a colour cast.

Experiment to see which bounce angle works best. Use flash exposure compensation to adjust the flash power if it’s too strong (See Step 8 in this article for instructions).

About the Author

Mark Ong

To Mark Ong, food photography is a natural extension of his love for food. Inspired by the tempting visuals in food TV programmes and food blogs and keen on creating his own, he bought his first DSLR camera specifically for food photography in 2008, starting his journey into professional food photography.

Outside of commercial photography work, Mark enjoys exploring places to eat as well as cooking up his own culinary delights at home. His Instagram account @makoeats, documents his recommended eats and creations through delicious-looking images that shouldn't be viewed on an empty stomach!

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