Secrets of mouthwatering food photography
April 5th, 2013
10:45 AM ET
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Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of Southern food. Today's contributor, Penny De Los Santos, is a senior contributing photographer to Saveur magazine and a contributing photographer to National Geographic magazine. We profiled her on Eatocracy back in 2010. Follow Penny on Twitter @pennydelossantos

I was editing a serious of images from a shoot I did in Minnesota, and I came across the frames in this post. It got me thinking about color and composition, about the elements of what really makes a great food photograph.

For me, it’s several elements:

Deliciousness
First and foremost, start with appetizing food or food that is interesting. This can be tricky. Case in point: the images I’m showing in this post. But here is the take-away: The food should make you hungry. Remember that you want people's mouths to water. If your mouth doesn't water when looking at the food, no one else's will, either.

Composition
There are some general rules to great composition, but for the most part this is something that is learned over time. It starts by studying really good photographs and breaking down every element in them to understand why they are so successful. You basically continue to do that throughout your career so that you stay engaged and inspired and always working toward improvement.

Light
This will make an average photograph great. Always look for nice light. Whether it’s bright from a window or streaming through a doorway, find it at every location and center your photographs around it.

Color
Look for interesting color in food. The mood and content of the image can make the photograph even more interesting. In the photograph below, the colors are muted and monochromatic, but that palette gives the food context and place, making the photograph more interesting. In the photograph above, it's the opposite: The food is brighter, with more contrast and color. It tells a slightly different story, evoking a different mood completely.

penny de los santos

A few additional notes that will elevate your photos even more:

Arrive early and stay late. My best photographs happen before anyone ever shows up—or long after they’ve left. The best stuff happens when no one thinks you’re looking.

Think about how to tell the story of a food. I know this sounds crazy; you're thinking, “It’s just hummus on a plate...booooring.” But trust me, you can create mood, movement, and tension in a food photograph. It starts by adding drips, crumbs, torn bread, messy spoons, interesting light - get the idea?

Note: Still wanting more advice? Here are some tips I offered on National Geographic.

Read more at the Southern Foodways Alliance's blog

Previously:
Take pictures of your food without being a jerk about it
Make your pictures worth a thousand yums
5@5 – Food photographer Michael Harlan Turkell
Blogger Spotlight – Appetite



soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. Lisa

    Really well written story on this, I have been researching this for about 6 months now, to try and write the definitive guide to food photography. Thanks! I have also been trying to shortlist the best food photographers across the world. I was quite pleasantly surprised to see Indian food photographers really pulling their socks up, compared to what they used to produce even 10 years ago, it's now world class. One of my favorite's is http://www.foodphotography.in

    May 17, 2013 at 7:37 am |
  2. Ramandeep Singh

    really lively tricks to click and create awesome photographs. I want to mention that chefs should find best lighting space to click their recipes. I found this artcile useful
    Photography

    April 29, 2013 at 7:46 am |
  3. Neel | LearnFoodPhotography.com

    These are some great high level tips. Here are some more..

    Read Your Camera Manual.
    Understand Your Camera.
    Understand Your Subject too.
    Answer this “What do I want to show in the picture?
    Use White Plates.
    Use White Background.
    Remove Distraction from Background.
    Move closer to the food.
    Adjust White Balance before you shoot.
    Use White card to set your white balance.
    Or try a gray card.
    Ingrain the rules of thirds.

    The best way to improve food photography is by starting a 30 Day challenge and taking photo every day. We recently started a 30 day challenge on http://www.learnfoodphotography.com and the response has been amazing.

    Here are more details: http://www.learnfoodphotography.com/announcing-30-days-food-photos/

    April 7, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  4. Neel

    These are some great high level tips. Here are some more..

    Read Your Camera Manual.
    Understand Your Camera.
    Understand Your Subject too.
    Answer this “What do I want to show in the picture?
    Use White Plates.
    Use White Background.
    Remove Distraction from Background.
    Move closer to the food.
    Adjust White Balance before you shoot.
    Use White card to set your white balance.
    Or try a gray card.
    Ingrain the rules of thirds.

    The best way to improve food photography is by starting a 30 Day challenge and taking photo every day. We recently started a 30 day challenge on http://www.learnfoodphotography.com and the response has been amazing.

    Here are more details: http://www.learnfoodphotography.com/announcing-30-days-food-photos/

    April 7, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
  5. careerbreak360

    The pictures are very Yellow – not a colour that makes my mouth water

    April 7, 2013 at 5:55 am |
  6. Crimson Carrots

    Those look terrible. I don't think you have the right to be giving tips about taking appetizing food photography. I'm not even a professional photographer and can take better instagram photo's of food than that shit.

    April 6, 2013 at 12:59 am |
  7. chaotiklord

    Neither of these meals looks appetizing, and the photography is uninspired. I'm sure that I'd rather take these very generic tips from someone else.

    April 5, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
    • Dx

      How about someone from a beginner? :)

      http://thedxmatillashow.blogspot.com/2013/03/food-photography-thoughts-from-beginner.html

      April 5, 2013 at 11:20 pm |
    • Dx

      Someone LIKE a beginner.. lol. just woke up (not an excuse)

      April 5, 2013 at 11:21 pm |
  8. Stop it

    There is only rule of photographing food: Don't. Unless you are a professional photographer hired by a restaurant, no one cares.

    April 5, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
  9. davidp44022

    I've been a professional photographer for more than 30 years, I was hoping to see some good photographs on this page. Oh well. The two examples are straight down shots on plates of food, that's neither good nor creative.

    April 5, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
  10. ariemobley

    Love your blog!

    April 5, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
  11. cybear

    An iPhone is an excellent tool for diabetics, or anyone on a diet, to document what they consume outside of the home, particularly at buffet restaurants.

    April 5, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
  12. Bev

    So where does this article say that the photos were taken in a restaurant? My first impression was for home cooks/chefs who want to take pictures of their own food that they prepared, not while dining out, especially because they talk about finding the best lighting from a window or doorway. Now that would be rude to take your plate of food from a restaurant around to find the right lighting...excuse me, do you mind getting up from your table by the window so I can capture the right lighting while I take a picture of my dinner? LOL

    April 5, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  13. Liz

    Or how about people get off of their phones/cameras while at a restaurant and stop taking pictures of their food! It's so rude and I am glad a lot of chefs are banning it.

    April 5, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • Crimson Carrots

      Oh boo hoo Liz. If the chef doesn't want foodies to take photos of the meal CUSTOMERS are PAYING for then f!ck the chef.

      April 6, 2013 at 1:01 am |
      • pdxmomma

        YUP. What Crimson said.

        April 9, 2013 at 2:08 pm |

  14. nice

    April 5, 2013 at 10:36 am |
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