Guerilla Food Photography: 10 Tips for Taking Great Food Photos

How do you get food to look like that? What kind of camera do you use? Do you use any special lenses?

Fried Wantons - Hoi An, Vietnam
Challenge of food photography: making the photo look as good as the dish.

Go to a big food website and the food glistens, the light is perfect and everything is in its place. But let’s say you are a traveler carrying a pocket or DSLR camera and you have a fascinating, colorful spread before you that you’d like to share with others or capture for your own memories. Conditions are tricky and time is limited.

What to do?

In the tips that follow, we’ll do as we did in our piece on how to take great street and market photos: show that anyone armed with genuine curiosity and a little technical knowledge can take excellent food photos. It’s important to note that although some of the following tips are more easily applied using a DSLR camera, we take many of our food photos with a pocket camera.

1. Go where the food is.

I’m going to expose my bias here: the food that is most culturally and visually interesting is usually found at street food stalls, delis, open markets and hole-in-the-wall restaurants run by mom and pop.

Burmese Food, Streetside Soup - Rangoon, Burma (Yangon, Myanmar)
Streetside Soup in Rangoon (Yangon), Burma

Rely on curiosity as your guide to finding the best food. Don’t just stick to the guidebooks and the safe, shiny restaurants. As you walk the streets, keep your food eyes open. Even if you don’t plan to eat at a given street stall or deli, make an approach and take a photo if something catches your eye.

2. Show genuine interest and curiosity.

Once you’ve found the food, show your interest.

We shoot food because we love it and we enjoy sharing our culinary discoveries. Food is a gateway to understanding a culture. The more intense your interest and curiosity about food, the better your food photo opportunities will be.

Let’s say you’re at a food stall and you are talking, camera in hand, to the vendor or another customer. If your passion and interest don’t immediately convey, try and explain, “We don’t have this in my country.” You may find people — vendors and customers both — explaining dishes and how to cook them.

Indian Street Food - Varanasi, India
Cooking Lessons, Varanasi Style

If your interest is genuine, then your courage will usually be rewarded, not only with good food photos, but with some memorable experiences as well. Next thing you know, you’ll be invited to a Cambodian wedding or you will make some new friends in India.

Food photography, too, is about people and relationships.

3. Experiment with composition.

The freedom you have with food: it will not move — unless you have a hungry eating partner, and it will never tire of your endless framing of it. Find the ideal angle and composition by moving around.

Canchas and Squid Ceviche - Lima, Peru
Canchas and Squid Ceviche, Lima.

Keep your eye in the viewfinder (or on the LCD) as you move the camera around the subject. Take the bull’s eye shot with the plate in the middle, but quickly move to the left of the plate and to the right. Don’t just take the postcard shot. Move in (or zoom in) tight, then pull back. Show us a look that’s not on the menu. Turn the plate around or to the side. Try a shot of the plate directly overhead then bring the camera down until the edge of the plate is at eye level.

Which angle looks best? You’ll know when you see it. If you are unsure, take a few shots and choose the best one during your selection process.

4. Know your white balance.

The mood and color temperature of food photos is critical; the proper white balance setting can be the difference between a dish looking greasy and unappetizing or rich and delicious. This is especially important when you are shooting indoors in artificial light.

For compact cameras and DSLRs, put the camera in a mode that will allow you to adjust the white balance settings. On a DSLR camera, use Manual mode or Shutter or Aperture priority mode. You can also select a program mode (e.g, “Food”), then set the white balance.

If you are using an LCD or your DSLR’s live view, focus on the subject and toggle through the white balance settings to see how the color temperature changes with each setting. For older DSLR cameras without live view, you’ll have to take each shot on a different white balance setting and review the result in the LCD.

Here’s the big secret when photographing food indoors in artificial light: take two shots, one on a white balance setting that matches the light source (or auto white balance) and a second on the cloudy setting.

First, determine whether the light source is incandescent, fluorescent or halogen lighting. Set the white balance accordingly and take the shot. Then change the white balance setting to cloudy and take a second shot. More often than not, you’ll find that the cloudy white balance setting will add a bit of color saturation, making for a richer, tastier-looking image.

An Experiment with White Balance
Which pizza looks more appetizing: halogen (left) or cloudy (right)?

Note: For food shots taken at outdoor markets, apply the same principles using cloudy, shade, and daylight white balance settings.

5. Show some context.

The plate of food is the main event, but ask yourself: Will additional context influence the mood of the image or convey useful information to my audience?

For example, I often like to take photos of dishes with a bottle of beer, wine or soda in the background, particularly when the bottle features some foreign language or script. Even better – condiments! Take the photo with the plate to the left or right of the frame and some of the condiment bottles at the opposite corner.

Consider taking a shot of the plate with chopsticks on it or nearby. Or a close-up shot of the plate with waiters or other diners in the background.

Steam is nice, too. Or take a serving (if you are two, get your partner to do this) and lift the food off the plate. Food sensuality knows nothing more suggestive than a bite, a forkful of noodles, a square of tofu, or an open dumpling.

Da Yu Dumplings - Qingdao, China
Steaming dumplings from Qingdao, China.

6. Remove visual distractions.

Remove distractions which might corrupt the image. I’m not talking about spending 30 minutes to create a food stage. Take 30 seconds (and no more since your hot food is getting cold) and turn the dish to highlight what you like and wipe the edge of the plate clean. When composing the image, beware of unnecessary visual fragments in the frame (e.g., grubby napkins, other plates or random pieces of silverware).

Be deliberate: include the props and context, exclude the extraneous bits.

7. Experiment with depth of field.

Without doing a technical deep dive, depth of field (DOF) is most apparent where only a portion of the image is in sharp focus.

To reduce depth of field (thereby reducing the portion of the photo in focus) you can do three things: 1) reduce the f-stop (i.e., open the aperture), 2) get closer to the subject you are photographing, and 3) increase the focal length (very roughly, use the zoom).

After you’ve taken a shot of the plate with everything in focus, use the above techniques to make the DOF more shallow. Select where you want to focus in the frame. For example, maybe you’d like to focus only on the edge of the plate or in the middle of the dish.

This will add depth (literally) and visual variation to your food photos.

Conchitas a la Parmesana
Conchitas a la Parmesana

Note: The technique of reducing the f-stop (opening the aperture) also complements shooting indoors in low light. How? To maintain your exposure, you’ll likely want to compensate for the reduced f-stop (more light is coming in) by increasing the shutter speed (to decrease the light). The faster shutter speed will help mitigate the risk of blurred images due to hand movement.

8. Use the zoom to get around macro issues.

We almost never use a macro lens when photographing food. However, there are times when you’d like to get very close to your food, but are unable to focus because the distance between you and your subject is too little. In this case, pull away from your subject and use your zoom to frame your image, then focus.
Note: This technique may not work as well with some pocket cameras whose effective focal ranges are more limited in zoom mode.

9. Make light.

Particularly when it comes to shooting food, we try to avoid using flash. If you wish your food photos to look like hospital fare, by all means make copious use of the flash.

a. Begin with the flash off.

Get in the habit of first determining what’s possible without the flash. If you are accustomed to shooting in manual mode, you are probably already doing this. If you aren’t, educate yourself on your camera’s flash settings and learn how to turn the flash off. If you are using a pocket camera or a DSLR with a program setting (e.g., “Food”), select the program first, then turn the flash off.

b. Know your ISO.

Increase the ISO setting. ISO is basically your camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. What’s important to know: the higher the ISO, the darker the condition you’ll be able to shoot in without having to use the flash. The give and take: as you increase the ISO, image noise increases and your images may begin to appear grainy. The extent of this will depend on the quality of your camera’s sensor. I find that the drawbacks of using flash often outweigh the drawbacks of a grainy image.

Flavorful Soup - Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador
Taken on 1600 ISO. I’d much rather look at this than a washed out bowl of soup taken with flash.

c. Steady hands.

If you find yourself having to shoot at a shutter speed below 1/60th, you’ll have to hold the camera very steady. Otherwise, you run the risk of a blurry image. To mitigate this risk, you can use a mini tripod (we do not). Alternatively, use the table top to stabilize your elbows. If you cannot use the table, push your elbows into your tummy for stability and pull the viewfinder up to your eyes. Take a deep breath and shoot.

d. Move to the light.

Use table lamps and overhead lamps strategically; move the plate into the light. If you are able, position light sources at an appropriate distance from the subject to shed just enough of the light you need without frying the image.

e. Adjust flash intensity.

“Ugh, another setting to learn.” I know, I know. If you must use flash, experiment with adjusting the flash intensity — up in case the default intensity is insufficient or down in case it overpowers the subject. Additionally, you can increase or decrease your distance from the subject (moving in and out to simulate an additional increase or decrease in flash intensity). If you are using an external hot shoe flash that allows you to adjust the direction of the flash, point it at an angle to take some of the light directly off the subject.

Now that we have adequately bashed flash photography, we offer a caveat: if you are shooting food outdoors on a sunny day, by all means use flash strategically to remove shadows from your subject.

10. Don’t forsake the experience for the metaphor.

Enjoy the process.

Happy shooting…and happy eating.

———

Camera Equipment We Carry

Check this out for an extensive list of our camera equipment and other electronic gear.

Photo Slideshow: Beautiful Food from Around the World

If you don’t have a high-speed connection or you’d like to read the captions, you can view the photo set here.

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Comments

  1. says

    Maybe another good tip would to be to buy the food before you are hungry. Typically I wait until I am really hungry to get the food and I don’t even want to spend one second making the right shot because that’s one second where food is not going in my mouth. As a result, I now have a plethora of boring quick snapshots of the awesome food we get to eat. Someday, I’ll be able to get food photos as awesome as yours!

  2. says

    Thanks for posting these very helpful hints. I will be eating at Singapore’s Newton Hawker Stand tonight and will try out some more shots. So far Asian noodle dishes have been a real struggle getting them to come out looking delicious.

  3. says

    Thank you for a FANTASTIC article!! I’m obsessed with food photography, and judging by the amount of advice and the quality of your pics, I see that I have still a long way to go.

    I love your usual advice on photography: go where the food is, and get interested. So much of photography — nay, of travel — is about connecting with people.

    Tech-wise, I’m using a Canon G10. I really wish I had the will to carry around a DSLR and lens… I keep my backpack sizeable and everything I have not too expensive. With the G10, I end up taking a lot of very close-up, macro shots, and they look pretty good IMO. Macro up-close is the only way I’ve found to get DSLR-like DoF on close shots.

    Again, thank you for the advice! You guys are my travel heroes. :)

  4. says

    These are some wonderful tips and observations that I will begin to utilize. I am also outrageously passionate about food and food is one of my main interests in traveling. I sometimes mess around taking pictures of what I eat longer than how long it takes to eat.
    Thanks for the advice, I will try to make food look as delicious as it tastes!

  5. says

    Thanks so much for a fantastic article. Your website has inspired me to photograph and write about food on our upcoming travels, so these tips will be really useful. Can’t wait to try them out in Brazil in 5 weeks!

  6. says

    I need to keep reading articles like this, over and over, until they finally sink in and become second nature. My biggest issue is understanding white balance. I also love tip #10. I’ve often been so focused (metaphorically) on getting the shot, that the experience passed me by.

  7. says

    We use almost all of these approaches to get our food shots — and since our site is focused on food, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to photograph it properly! The one exception is that we never, ever take food photography in artificial light. I have messed around with a lot of alternatives – including an expensive flash that works great on people pictures – but I think that food tends to look flat in artificial light.

    That means that we often eat early in the day, take pictures at lunch time rather than dinner, or just don’t take pictures of some really cool food (like last night, I didn’t take a picture of the black fermented egg with putrescent green yolk because I knew the colors wouldn’t turn out right). I almost always choose to sit next to the window at restaurants to increase my chance of getting natural light.

  8. says

    I just learned so much right here – and thank you for putting in some tips for the pocket cameras – I know I have a cloudy setting on my but never knew when to use it! (besides it being cloudy outside and all ;-) Really fantastic tips and I look forward to putting them to good use in Central America next month!

  9. says

    This is totally awesome. Travel and food photography combined, this is very different.

    Wonderful concept and idea.

    Food Photography is one of the most complex photography genres. Mixing that with travel photograph is quite a challenge.

    Thank you for sharing this idea. Wonderfully done.

    Neel

  10. says

    Wonderful tips indeed!

    Panasonic Lumix cameras are hands down the best backup compacts for photographers. I know a handful of photogs (myself included) who use one as well.

  11. Agne says

    Thanks for your tips. I love to take and share pictures of food as well, and usually I have only my phone camera with me, so sometimes it’s difficult to make the best shot; but I keep trying :)

    Love your food pictures! I never look at them with an empty stomach – they DO make me hungry :)

  12. says

    Interesting timing on these as I was just going to contact you to see whether you’re still selling pics anywhere. We got your food calendar a couple of years ago and saved the pictures thinking we’d frame them, and now that we’re ready, we realized that the calendar pics aren’t really frame-sized…

  13. says

    Great tips! One of the best photographic techniques I’ve learned is simply to just experiment. I’m always manually adjusting my ISO, white balance, etc on my Canon G10. Sometimes it takes me 10 photos just to figure out how to set up the shot, but your tips should help me knock that down a bit!

  14. says

    I am from China, and I also manage a food website, maybe we can make friends and change our website liks.
    if you like, pls make a comment on my website.

  15. says

    This is a great article. I write about street food and markets in Mexico City and I’m always trying to get the best shot possible. The advice and tips you offer in this post are excellent. I can’t wait to try some of them out! Thanks and keep up the great work!

  16. says

    To me, food photography is part and parcel to journalizing travels. Thanks for sharing your tips. It’s great to know how other people do it, what you are doing differently or similarly. I love your food shots, by the way!

  17. Pete De Ritter says

    Food certainly adds to the lushness of the travel experience and you guys take some very appetizing pictures in rather difficult situations.
    When I was a commercial photographer I used film and white balance could really be a challenge. I had a very expensive meter to read the color temperature of the light. In some factory situations I was dealing tungsten, florescent, mercury vapor, sodium and flash to fill in the dark areas. I had about a $1000.00 dollars of gelatin filters to correct the color of the lighting. Then you didn’t know if you had done it right until after the film was developed and Photoshop didn’t exist so you couldn’t make corrections afterward. It made life challenging. Technology has sure come a long way.
    Keep up the good work. I think I’ll go in the kitchen now and look for something to eat because you’ve made me hungry once again.

  18. says

    @Kyle: Patience is a good tip…and a virtue. We too find it easy to become impatient, particularly after we’ve been walking and searching for a place to eat.
    @Keith: I hope you enjoyed your eating experiences in Singapore. The food there was a delight:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2009/05/what-to-do-in-singapore-eat/
    @Foodie: Good to hear that the G10 is working out for you, especially on macro for DOF shots.
    @Mark: More time shooting than eating? I’m such a slow eater, I couldn’t imagine it.
    @Erin: Good luck. Have fun eating in Brazil…I suspect you’ll find a lot of meat!
    @Joan: It’s easy (we know) to focus and shoot so much that the experience is lost. It happens to the best of us. With more experience (and experimentation), you’ll become quicker with the camera — white balance included — and be able to spend virtually all your time on the experience. Think about it this way, also: the photography itself is sometimes the experience.
    @Akila: Choosing to sit next to a window (when you can), great tip.We find ourselves in poor light so often (little dumpy places without any natural light), that we are forced to find strategies to capture the food in front of us the best that we can. Having said that, I have been known to carry a dish to nearby window.
    @Shannon: Central America…have fun. And good luck with that cloudy white balance setting!
    @Neel: Thanks! That’s what we are all about…finding different lenses to understand cultures while we travel. Food is definitely a good one.
    @Lola: The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 is great for a handheld.
    @Agne: You are welcome. The more you shoot, the better you’ll get. Good tip: never look at food photos on an empty stomach…the only thing worse is grocery shopping on an empty stomach.
    @Nicole: I often wondered whether it was possible to do something with the individual images in our calendars. Sorry to hear the images were too small. Collage, maybe?
    @Chick: Glad we could help. ISO and white balance will make a big difference.
    @Adam: Experimentation (and experience) really helps. The more you shoot, the more you realize what needs to be tuned and adjusted. And the more time you can actually spend on the (eating) experience.
    @Laura: Let us know how the tips work out in Mexico City.
    @Dave and Deb: We’ll look forward to your adding this to your repertoire.
    @Jen: Thanks! We agree. Food is a critical component of our travel experiences.
    @Pete: Another thought-provoking comment. It’s incredible how much we now take for granted in the digital photography age. I’m glad, however, of having begun on B&W and color film. I think it helped me better understand the way the concepts manifested themselves in the digital world. Having said that, color temperature meters and gelatin filters do sound pretty cool. I bet you have some fascinating images in your archive.

  19. says

    Great tips and information,

    May I suggest something here and it’s likely to be a bit contentious?

    I do use over-head shots of food but as yet really haven’t seen anything that compares to other angles. Even the near perfect shot at the beginning of this post is a good but less inspiring compared to others in this series and other places.

    I really am most interested in comments and truly will accept a change of attitude :)

    A fellow longterm continuous 10 year traveller.

  20. says

    Great advice! This made me understand my camera much much better.
    I went out the other night to a happening, where I used some of the thing I learned from this blog to take some pics of a big balloon. It looks awesome!!

  21. says

    @Peter: I don’t think one angle is ultimately preferable to another. The best angle for a given dish will also depend on a number of other factors including the direction of the light source, the layout of the dish, etc. A pile of mashed potatoes with an olive on top will look very different overhead than it will from an angle. Then, consider that same pile of mashed potatoes when the light is overhead vs. from the side.

    As for the first photo, we chose it because it combined a number of the tips we enumerated. It was one of the very first food photos we’ve ever taken (we probably should have noted that in the caption). It evokes emotion. For example, in a recent recorded radio interview, the interviewer launched into a series of questions about our food photography using the details of that photo to spawn a number of talking points.

    @Sofia: Reading the user’s manual is never much fun. It always seems to take a conversation or series of examples to help understand features and technical bits like ISO and white balance and motivate an exploration of what one’s camera can really do.

  22. Mariza says

    Hi Dan,
    I just read your article. Your tips were very helpful for my current digital photography class assignment. I have a Nikon D90 with a 18-105 mm zoom lens. I’m having fun taking nature and landscape pics with it but I’m having some trouble taking close up shots of food. I did some research online about food photography and someone suggested a 50mm lens for food photography. For my class, I had to choose a genre and stick with it for the entire class. I now wish I had chosen nature photography instead of food. I’m thinking of buying the standard Nikon 50 mm lens. That way I can switch out the lenses and take pics of my two favorite subjects – food and nature. This new hobby of mine is getting expensive!

  23. says

    @Mariza: I suppose it all depends on what you want to do with your food photography, but we shoot just about everything with our Nikon 18-200mm (which is a versatile lens, but sacrifices color and image quality) or (gasp), our Panasonic Lumix pocket camera. But the results (at least for us) are satisfying. The question is this: what do you want to get out of your food photography that you believe having the 50mm lens will do for you? Or ask it another way: what’s missing or what’s wrong with your current shots?

    If you begin to answer that, you might find that your current kit will suffice, or at least working with your current kit/lens will challenge you to do more with less. I’m not an expert in food photography, so maybe the 50mm lens is the solution, but be very careful — especially when you are starting out — and try to avoid solving problems with more equipment. I’m guessing you are struggling with light and color, in which case you might want to play around with things like very low shutter speeds, DOF, white balance, ISO, and your cameras color settings. Also, if your class also involves post-processing and print, make sure you are shooting your images on RAW (rather than on JPEG), because you’ll have more flexibility to make adjustments to the image if you need to.

  24. Mariza says

    Dan,
    I’m mostly having trouble taking pics inside or in the evening. I can’t get the food to look appetizing and most of my pictures are out of focus. I’m finding it easier to take pics of fruits and vegetables at the market (where there is, of course, more light), but I’d like to be able to take better pics in low light settings. I’ve played around with the ISO, shutter speed, and white balance but sometimes I still get some blur. I don’t have a tripod so I need to work with what’s available around me. I prefer to take pics that are as spontaneous as possible. I don’t want to set up a tripod at a dinner party or at a restaurant. I know I can try setting the camera on something on the table instead. I also just figured out that I need to stand a bit further away from my subject. I was taking the pics too close up to the plate. If I back away a bit, and use the zoom, I usually get a better pic. I’m slowly starting to understand my camera, but it’s been frustrating. For now, I think I’ll focus on taking pics in the daytime and experiment with lower shutter speeds in the evening when I have a lot of time and no hungry, impatient people waiting for me to stop taking pictures.

  25. says

    @Mariza: If the light is so bad, there may be nothing you can do. If the situation is so dark, and you’ve maxed the ISO (it will be grainy), held it as still as you can (and still blurry) and adjusted the white balance to accommodate for whatever light you do have (and there’s no light for the color saturation you are looking for), then there’s nothing you can do but use flash. But here are a couple of thoughts:
    1) Try to recreate the low light conditions at home (with a dish or some fruit) and continue trying to experiment.
    2) Approach your favorite restaurant kitchen, tell them you are a photo student hoping to exhibit some food photography and ask to get into the kitchen to watch and shoot the prep.
    3) If you need a lot more light, buy a flash (one where you can direct the flash), like the Nikon SB-600 flash.
    4) If all you need is a bit more light, then the 50mm lens will help, since it’s a faster lens.
    5) Instead of a huge tripod, consider a Gorilla Pod. Something like this might be a bit more discreet.

  26. says

    As always guys… awesome post! And great advice! :)

    By the by, I do like to use my macro lens for food photography, I have one for my DSLR, but actually I LOVE my Canon SD1200 for this – amazing macro and perfect pocket size!

  27. says

    @Jenn: Macro lenses are great if you happen to be carrying them, but we almost never have one on us when we are in a restaurant.

    Reliable macro shooting in a pocket-sized camera is a great feature though, particularly when it comes to shooting food on the fly.

  28. says

    I always have the hardest time getting food photos that look appetizing. I think I’m too impatient and I just want to eat so I take a quick photo (or none at all) and dig in. I love the photo of the dumpling that shows the steam.

  29. says

    @Christy: I know the impatience, especially as hot food gets cold. We just took a cooking class here in Bali where we shared and passed around large plates of food. You could hear grumbles in the room as I took photos of each dish.

    I’m a big fan of that dumpling photo, too. In fact, I’m a big fan of that dumpling!

  30. says

    Hey thank for your valuable thoughts. Very much useful for all travel lovers. You are right our passion and commitment will produce good output. Once again thank you…

  31. says

    @Pappy: Well summarized. When it comes to good photography and particularly effectively photographing people, passion and commitment (and with people, I would add respect) all help to yield good output.

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