I love photography.
I should probably start there. I love taking pictures and I pretty much always have. In college, I took every photography course they offered (which was a whopping two). As soon as I had enough income to justify it, I bought myself a nice camera. And over the years I’ve taken thousands of photos and spent hundreds of hours happily looking through my favorites over and over again.
I think I’m rather good at finding interesting shots, especially in a travel context. I’m also pretty good at composition – knowing where to frame things in the shot.
But one thing has been a little frustrating:
My food photos in particular can be hit or miss. Especially when I’m taking shots in restaurants.
And so when I decided to do food challenges every month this year, I knew that one month would be devoted to trying to move my food photography forward a few notches.
Obviously, a month isn’t a ton of time and I was doing this in between work and exploration. But I carved out time each week to research questions I had (how the heck do you take a good food photo in a dark, atmospheric restaurant at dinnertime?) and watch plenty of food photography videos.
At the end of the month, I realized – somewhat hilariously – that I hadn’t taken many photos. But the ones I was taking I was thinking about differently.
Here’s what I learned.
The thing I need most is courage.
One of the reasons my eating out shots have been hit or miss is that I’m anxious about them. I’m anxious about looking dumb as I rearrange my whole table for a shot. I’m anxious about making Chad wait to eat. I’m anxious about the food getting cold.
And I really needed to chill.
So a huge part of what I did this month was just give myself permission to take my time and look like a fool if necessary. When waiters asked if we wanted them to split the dish before bringing it to the table (since Chad and I share each dish), I insisted they serve it as they normally would – no splitting. When I needed to rearrange things on the table, I just did it. The anxiety isn’t going to go away overnight, but I can certainly work around it. And so I’m starting to.
The second thing is better lighting.
The trick to taking great food photos in dimly lit restaurants is, unsurprisingly, lighting. And there are two solutions that I can put into play.
The first is simple: ask for a better lit table. And so I started scoping out tables when I walked into restaurants and asking to be seated by the window. When taking photos of things like ice cream cones (see above), I moved to the best lit spot by the windows or doors. This simplified and improved the lighting situation pretty quickly.
Still, it’s not always possible to sit by the window. Sometimes there isn’t a window (I’ve eaten in a lot of old wine cellars). Sometimes it’s already pitch black outside anyway and the window is little help.
In those cases, I love The Bite Shot’s brilliant idea of carrying a little light and a piece of paper. I haven’t been able to implement this yet because when you’re traveling full-time, purchasing anything new to add to the weight on your back takes a little thought. But I do think I’ll be investing in a little light and testing it out myself soon.
Playing with lines.
Another tip that I found super interesting was the idea of playing with lines. What kind of lines do you see in your most successful photos? Why do they please the eye?
I spent some time going through old favorites and noticed that there were some patterns that stood out. I especially liked some of my photos that felt a little like a cascade of veggies (see below) with strong but imperfect vertical lines and a slight sense of downward movement.
I have always loved contrast, but now I’ve also started to think specifically about color theory. Instead of focusing on contrast in a general way, I’m thinking about shots where two colors on opposite sides of the color wheel contrast against each other. Like the red and green of radishes. Or yellow fruit against a purple backdrop.
Realizing what I can and can’t do.
The deeper I dug into food photography tips, the more I realized that while there are ways I can improve my food photography, there are also trade-offs I can’t or won’t make right now.
Since I travel full-time, buying giant reflectors or tall tripods that can steady overhead shots aren’t really practical for me, even though they’d improve my photos vastly. It’s also impractical for me to have a dozen differently colored cloth napkins on hand right now (instead, I’m limited by whatever’s in my Airbnb) or to make my own food backdrops.
And while some of my all-time favorite photos are abundant – featuring a half dozen plates, drinks, sauces, or sides (as shown below), with just Chad and I eating, it’s usually not practical to order enough to cover the table in abundance like that.
So, can I work on my color contrasts and my lines and my lighting game? Absolutely. But I also need to recognize my limitations and recognize that not having 16 food backdrops is a part of the choice I’ve made to be a nomadic minimalist.
And now, to you…
What are your best food photography tips? What have you learned lately? Is there any particular tip that’s changed your food photography drastically? Drop your tips in the comments!