Food Photography and Styling- Tips and Ideas

A few months ago I took a food photography course given by Daniel Lailah , professional food photographer for Israel’s premier culinary magaizine, Al Hashulhan as well as other publications. Amit Farber and Naama Ran, Israeli food stylists also participated in the workshop. This is not a comprehensive guide, just a few tips which I learned from his course at the Zilum Baam photography studio in Tel Aviv.


  1. Natural, indirect light is preferable for food photography. Flash gives harsh, two dimensional qualities to the pictures, making the food look flat and plastic-like.
  2. It is best to photograph with the light coming from behind the food (at about 10 or 2 o’clock) to create highlights and depth. Brighten up the dark areas in front by using mirrors and other reflective surfaces.
  3. Direct light can be used for a dramatic effect but it can look unprofessional if done incorrectly. Details can be lost because of over or under exposure.
  4. White balance should be manually adjusted in each setting. Artificial light can add unappetizing blue or green hues which should be avoided. Here is a video explaining how to  adjust white balance on Nikon cameras.

Setup and Equipment

Photography equipment can be very expensive. It is often sensible to find secondhand gear at eBay or similar website. There are also many ways of improvising using inexpensive, easily obtainable items.

  1. White poster board (bounce card) gently reflects light, illuminating dark areas. It can also be used as a neutral background for photographs.
  2. In the same manner, mirrors can be used to lighten and highlight areas of a shot. It is a good idea to invest in a collection of mirrors in different sizes. Use sticky putty to adhere mirrors to cans or boxes to help prop them up.
  3. Scrims are used to diffuse harsh lighting, reducing glare and dark shadows. They can be made from fabrics, window screens, canvas sheets and any other material that softens the light without changing its color.
  4. The single most important piece of equipment, besides the camera, is a tripod. Under low light condition it is essential to reduce the shutter speed for greater light exposure. The tripod stabilizes the camera so no blurring occurs. It is also invaluable when working alone and multitasking. For example, the camera can be activated automatically using a timer making it possible to concentrate on lighting or food styling. A reflective surface can be held near the setup to brighten the area or a handheld prop may be added for interest. I recommend the Manfrotto tripod with the three way Manfrotto Head.
  5. It will save time if there is a setup that can be easily moved from one area of the house, depending where the optimal light is during different parts of the day.  A simple folding table or decorative boards and stands are useful for this.
  6. Tethered photography transfers your photographs directly to a computer screen allowing you to see them in full. Although not necessary, it makes it much easier to see what adjustments would improve the shot. The camera is connected to the screen via a cable or wireless control, instead of the usual memory card download. I don’t have this set up yet so must zoom into the tiny camera screen to see the details of the photograph and to make sure I have focused properly.
  7. If it is not possible to photograph during daylight hours, invest in an artificial light source such as a Lowell Ego or an external flash system. The Lowell is relatively inexpensive and user friendly, but is limited to only small setups. For larger, professional photographs, an external flash system should be used.  It usually consists of a flash, tripod base, soft box light diffuser or umbrella and sometimes a wireless control.  It has a much larger range of uses but is a major investment. At this point I don’t have an external flash and all of my photographs are done under natural light.

Learn to use your Camera Manually

Read the manual! Actually, I tried reading the manual and it was incomprehensibly boring. Instead I watched instruction videos on you-tube. At the very minimum, learn how to adjust shutter speed and aperture. This is essential if you want to manipulate light, depth of focus and movement in the photograph. There are many informative sites for the beginner photographer.

Food Styling

Food photographs are like Japanese gardens, a highly stylized and manipulated version of nature. It is the role of the food stylists to present the food in an attractive and appetizing way, while creating an atmosphere or story behind it-perhaps a picnic, a holiday meal or romantic dinner.

Like other forms of art, food styling is influenced by personal taste as well by current trends. Photographs have evolved from being highly stylized and focused to more minimalistic and natural, with soft selective focus.

The everyday tools of a food stylist include tweezers for arranging herbs, wet wipes (with alcohol) and cotton swabs for cleaning surfaces, toothpicks for propping foods, spray bottles for misting, clips for holding things down and many other doodads. Of course a stylist also has numerous props at her disposal.

A great source of styling ideas can be found either on Foodgawker or Tastespotting. Ilva’s Lucculian Delights Blog also has great weekly posts on food styling and props. Another favorite is Tartelette by Marie-Helene (also known simply as Helene)

My Camera and Lenses

In Israel, photographers usually choose between two main camera manufacturers, Nikon or Canon. I have a Nikon D80 I bought in the States, which I have been using for the last three years for food, family and outdoor photography. This is an extremely durable and versatile camera which survived being bounced around on numerous hiking and international trips. I am very happy with Nikon and if it was possible I would replace it with a Nikon D700 , but that will have to wait a few years. Although I still use my Nikon D80 on hiking trips, I have upgraded to Nikon D300S which I am very happy with.

I am using the Nikor 18-135 lens which came with the camera. Although it worked well enough for the first few years, recently the auto focus stopped working correctly, especially in the 18-20 range. I was told by the local photography shop that this is a common problem. I also have a Nikon 18-200mm lens which is a great all purpose camera I use when traveling. However, for sharper images in food photography with a larger aperture selection (great for low light conditions or to achieve the soft out of focus background called bokeh) a zoom lens is not always the best option.

I also have a Sigma 50mm which is a reasonably priced macro lens great for close-ups. I would have liked the Nikon 60mm but it is more expensive.

I don’t usually Photoshop my pictures except to adjust white balance or to crop.

Other food photography tutorials on the web:

Food Photography for Bloggers (Vegan Yum Yum)

Food Photography Setup (Wrightfood)

Food Photography Setup and Speedlight Basics (White on Rice Couple)

Photography on Simply Recipes

Photographing Chocolate (Lara Ferroni)

Food Photography Tips from Heidi (101 Cookbooks)