Food Photography was and still is a big source of frustration to me from time to time. I guess the perfectionist in me is just never completely satisfied with how my pictures look. You may ask why the hell I am writing a post about food photography then? Valid question! But I have a point here. Promise!
In the last couple of weeks I figured out that the biggest part of my dislike stemmed from the fact that I tried to create pictures that were in line with the style of other photographers. Yet I had never taken the time to figure out my own style. Until very recently.
In this post I am walking you through my process breaking it down in 5 easy steps to help you figure out your own style as well. It works the same whether:
→ you prefer a bright and clean or dark and moody style
→ you shoot with a DSLR or phone
→ have taken 5 or 5000 pictures of food in the past
It’s not focusing on previous experience and work. We will focus on figuring out the food photography style that speaks to you and subsequently on developing an own style in line with that vision.
Step 1: Gather Instpiration
Most articles and youtube videos I have read and watched regarding food photography agree that a good starting point is to look at other people’s work. I wholeheartedly agree with that. I think the first step to truly figure out what kind of food photography you like is to gather inspiration. So go on Pinterest and create an inspiration board!
On my board I pinned every picture that really spoke to me and of which I really like the style. I tryed not to think at all about it and just collected everything I love. Easy enough, right?
Step 2: Analyze what you like and don’t like
Some of these aformentioned advice videos and articles suggest that a good next step is to copy other people’s pictures in order to learn how setups and styling work. And then from that basic understanding you are supposed to develop a unique style. And with this I wholeheartedly disagree.
First I wonder how it should work to miraculously switch from copy paste to unique. Secondly I think recreation is the opposite of creativity and if you want to figure out your own, personal style it’s vital not to get caught in the copy trap. Because you might get stuck in it.
Nonetheless for me personally it was vital to figure out why I like a certain picture. So let’s refrain from copying and let’s use our brains instead. Hence next thing I did was sitting down with paper and pencil and analyze the pictures on my board focusing on overall mood and common denominators.
This is what I got:
1. Overall Mood
From a quick first glace at my inspiration board I seem to enjoy the more moody pictures. Which makes me wonder why I always thought I should try to create super bright pictures. I also like whole scenes and I am not really drawn to close-up views. So I guess from this alone it’s not surprising that I am not really satisfied when a picture looks like this:
Even if the picture is not really a style I enjoy this Cream Cheese Lunch Sandwich with Figs is still super tasty. You can grab the recipe here
2. Common Denominators
Next thing I did was picking my favorite 5-7 pictures from the board to have a closer look. The common denominators of all these pictures were:
- They didn’t use backdrops but were actual scenes on a table, sometimes even with a chair in the frame. A detail I LOVE!
- They all had a depth of field between I guess f5.6 to f8 maybe – so neither had a very small nor a very large focal length
- Some of them were overhead shots and some captured the scene in a 45-ish degree angle
- Props were made of cotton or linen, plates and bowl were pretty neutral in color or even rustic in appearance
- The food was presented in a styled way but looked still edible. It often had a bit if a rustic touch as well (which goes also well in line with the kind of recipes I make)
- The overall presentation was neither clean nor overly cluttered. The story all pictures told were somewhere among the lines of ‘ready to sit down and have dinner’
So when we take a look at the sandwich picture again it’s even more evident why I didn’t really like it. There is no trace of any feature in it I love in food photography.
Now we are done with the inspiration board and we will focus on our own pictures and what we drew from the analysis only!
Step 3: Pick a setup & get accostumed to the light situation
Now finally the fun part beginns. The next thing I did was looking through my apartment and figuring out what I already have that I can use to create pictures I really like.
Starting with the base I gave my pile of backdrops the stink eye and picked my kitchen table instead. It’s old (a inheritance from my late grandma) and a little wrecked but still has a stylish touch. With the matching chairs it’s perfect for creating a dinner scene.
But the kitchen is definitely not a good place to shoot. My living room is suitable though. Bright with a beautiful wall color that also fits the moody theme. And by rearranging the furniture I can set up a shooting area in less than 5 min.
The light is a bit more tricky. All windows in my entire apartment face south so shooting is only possible in the morning or late afternoon. Knowing that I can now time my shoots accordingly and save myself a lot of frustration. It’s not ideal but that’s what I am going to work with.
Step 4: Pick your Food Photography props and eqiupment
For years (much to the dismay of my husband) I have hoarded all kinds of food props. Dish towels, napkins, plates and bowls in all sizes and colors, with or without patterns… you get the point. I guess about 80% of it are not in line with the style I want my pictures to have. So they have to go and make room for props that I love and fit that style.
In my case I go for what I found appealing by analyzing the common denominators in step 2. Napkins/ towels made of cotton or linen, plates and bowls in pretty neutral colors like white, grey and blue and maybe even a little rustic in appearance. Minimizing the list of props that fit also helps deciding what props to use and hence shortens the styling process significantly.
Step 5: Create, analyze, recreate
And now comes the really fun part. Cook up some food, set up your shoot and just get going. Try different f-stops and shutter speed settings. Sometimes the perfectly exposed shot isn’t the most gorgeous! Try different angles and arrangements. Play with your distance to the subject and maybe different lenses as well. Get creative!
Once you’re done, transfer all the pictures to your computer and take a step back. Do you like the overall vibe and mood? Take a close look then and critically analyze what you like and don’t like about your picture. Finally get back to your list of common denominators and see where both lists overlap and where they differ.
So for me for example I like the set up, light and mood of the above picture of a potato salad. But I don’t like the pretty shallow depth of field very much. I’d rather have the Schnitzel a bit sharper in the background. So I’ll increase the f-stop a bit next time. I also feel a bit too close to the scene so I will increase the distance to the object a bit. But my props and table look good in my opinion and I like the overall vibe. So this is definitely much closer to my style than the fig sandwich picture above.
Last step in the process is recreating! Which means, try again! And then again! Maybe not with the same dish but every time you get a chance and have half an hour to spare, practice and analyze. Define that list of features you really enjoy seeing and creating and adapt it in the process. Don’t forget to write down what you like about your pictures as well. It’s so easy to get overly critical and focus on the 5% that are ‘negative’ and forget about the 95% where your picture is perfect!
The best thing about it though:, and maybe I should make this statement really big and fat:
There is no right and wrong! It’s about what you personally enjoy.
Well said and great advice. I think you have a wonderful way with setting the scene and since I also adore the light and bright photos, your pictures always make me happy. Oh and really hungry too.
Thank you <3 That's definitely the one thing I am really working on right now!
Great tips Juli and I love the fact that you emphasise that we all have different styles… And that’s what makes photography so special!
I love being out taking photos with David. From food to street art we will always take a photo in two completely different ways. I love the detail, David prefers a big shot but one thing I introduced to David was the fact that having people or items in a picture is often what can make it shine. Like a person walking past a piece of street art rather than just the wall itself.
Exactly! Special and interesting. I am so fascinated by how much of the person you can see by assessing the picture only. That’s one of the coolest things about the photography classes I have taken. Everyone gets the same assignment and you have a unique interpretation by every person.
I totally agree. Especially in street photography, there is so much to find in a good picture. The surroundings set the tone but people make it unique!