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A Feast for the Eyes: Food Photography for Bloggers, Part Two

In part one of Food Photography for Bloggers, some of WordPress.com’s most popular food bloggers shared their advice on lighting,…

In part one of Food Photography for Bloggers, some of WordPress.com’s most popular food bloggers shared their advice on lighting, angles, and shot selection. Today, they get into the nitty-gritty of food styling and props to help you create photos that are  beautifully exposed and tell an inviting story.

Welcome back our fantastic panel of foodies:

Ready? Let’s learn to elevate our PB&J from quick-and-dirty snack eaten over the kitchen sink to delightfully retro lunch break with the right plate, the perfect napkin, and an artful smear of jelly.

Recipes can be tested, but sometimes once is enough.

Tomato Pickles by Radikha of Just Homemade.

Tomato Pickles by Radikha of Just Homemade.

Stewart: We make some dishes more than once if we don’t get it right or are playing with unfamiliar cuisines. Cocktails get made, tested, and discarded in smaller amounts before we make them full-size, otherwise we’d be pickled before taking the photos.

Radhika: Most likely, the dish is prepared more than once so I can be sure of the measurements. If I happen to make something I didn’t plan to and it turned out well, I might shoot if I have time.

Carrie: I have an annoying habit of not always making the same thing twice, as there are so many recipes to try!  Dishes are usually one-time affairs. But if the food looks pretty but doesn’t eat well, then it doesn’t get blogged.

Theresa: Baked goods might get made only once, especially when they’re adaptations of other recipes. When I’m making a new dish from scratch, I make it at least twice. If I’m not getting the results I want, I might make a recipe three or more times.

Embrace stylish garnishes and splatters to make your photos pop.

Summer Fruit Lazy Daisy in the oven, by Stewart of Putney Farms.

Summer Fruit Lazy Daisy in the oven, by Stewart of Putney Farms.

Stewart: Almost all of our photos are taken in-process, but we have a few styling go-tos:

  • We work on big white plastic cutting boards with smaller boards on top for a clean, easy, and practical background.
  • When chopping or assembling, we place a tool (like a knife) in the photo as a focal point.
  • Oven shots of baked foods rock — you can almost smell things baking. But be quick so you don’t mess up the oven temperature!
  • Garnishes like chopped herbs, citrus zest, or sea salt and pepper make for easy contrast.

Radhika:  When photographing veggies and fruits, spraying some mist makes them appear fresh. And always keep herbs handy, to add color.

Paola: I like to surround my final product with remnants of ingredients. If my recipe is for a lemon pound cake, I’ll surround it with sliced lemons and a few “accidental” drops of glaze.

Theresa: For monochromatic food, use garnishes or props that add pops of color. If you have boldly colored food or are in doubt, photograph on white! Also, don’t be afraid to get a little messy. Perfectly styled and presented food can be pretty, but there’s something appealing about  fruit juices bubbling over or silky caramel spilling out of a jar.

Small plates and a willingness to wander can help any home cook get a great shot.

Stewart: There are a few things you can do with your camera and computer. Use auto-focus and take tons of shots. Once you have the shot, don’t be afraid to crop it. If you only like 1/3 of the image, use the part you like.

If you’re using artificial light, avoid direct overhead light — it makes dishes “shiny.” Side-lighting is the easiest way to make a dish look good, and a white cutting board held near the food will splash a little soft light and lessen shadows. (Ed.: for more on the quality of light, check out this Photography 101 post.) 

RadhikaSmaller portions of food photograph better. Also, don’t shoot too close to the food — let us see the big picture.

Chocolate Pound Cake with Pistachio Buttercream by Carrie of The Patterned Plate.

Chocolate Pound Cake with Pistachio Buttercream by Carrie of The Patterned Plate.

Carrie:  I photograph plated meals on side plates, not dinner plates. A smaller plate lets the plate look fuller.

Don’t feel confined to the kitchen! The smaller window in my dining area is great for moody shots, and the lounge’s massive windows are good for bright, highlighted shots.

Also, you don’t have to zoom right into that one grain of rice. Taking in most of the plate can offer a more complete shot. Think of where the focus point should be, and how the eye will move around the photo. The front edge of the food is a good place to start.

Theresa: Pay attention to plating — how the food is arranged on the dish. Use garnishes and neutral plates that don’t compete with the food — try to imitate plating you would see in a restaurant.

Another thing that has made a big difference in my photos was creating my own photo backgrounds. I use tables and surfaces in my house, but I also put together a wooden background. There are a lot of tutorials out there — I like these two.

Well-chosen props set the mood and create a more engaging photo, but make sure the food is the star.

Stewart: We don’t have any props other than flowers or fruit on the table and table settings. You can go a long way just switching napkins, changing the placement of the utensil and relying on the beauty of the dish.

If you want different surfaces, kitchen towels and wood cutting boards are easy (and cheap) to play with. When baking, a stand mixer always makes for a pretty background. For cocktails, bottles, shakers, tools and garnishes are props, along with glassware. We use as many props as we need to show how you make the drink, and often layer them at multiple distances to create depth.

Heirloom Tomato Pizza by Paola of Love + Cupcakes.

Heirloom Tomato Pizza by Paola of Love + Cupcakes.

Radhika: Decide the kind of mood you want — bright or dark. The background and then props follow.

Props should complement the food, not steal the show. Rustic props like antiques, brass, pewter, and cast iron work well for moody or dark shots; white ceramics and clear glasses go well with brighter themes.

Browse through well-styled photographs by other bloggers, photographers, and food stylists. Make a mental note of what looks good, and adapt that in your own work. Follow your instincts and cultivate your style. (My favorite photographer Vanessa Rees has a fabulous post on this.)

Carrie: To place props, I use the rule of thirds and imagine a grid across the frame. Props go on the intersecting points of the grid. Also, props in odd numbers work very well.

I think about the color of the food a lot, as well as the season. In summer, I use bright blues and white. In winter, I go for darker wood; linens and tablecloths also have texture that’s appealing to winter foods. Sometimes I pare down to bare essentials, particularly with baked goods. 

Paola: I usually start with more props than I end up with — I overload the composition and remove pieces until I achieve a look I like. I prefer plain backgrounds, usually white or black. Sometimes I use my concrete kitchen counter or wood grain dining table, but for the most part, I avoid prints and patterns.

Strawberry Skillet Cornmeal Cake, by Theresa of The Craving Chronicles.

Strawberry Skillet Cornmeal Cake, by Theresa of The Craving Chronicles.

Theresa:  Consider how you want to portray the food: is it rustic and homey, like a skillet cake? I’ll use a weathered wood background and textured fabrics like burlap or flour sack dishtowels. If it’s something more refined, I’ll use the dark wood of my dining room table and finer linens for more elegant feel.

Keep in mind that props add a sense of scale and story. Utensils help viewers determine the size of the dish. Tall glasses balance a photo by drawing the eye up. A stack of dishes implies a party about to enjoy the food just out of the frame.

Props don’t need to be expensive. A little bit of natural parchment paper and some inexpensive fabrics can go a long way. I shop for linens on sale or in clearance bins, and antique, outlet, or consignment shops are great places to find props on the cheap.

You can’t go wrong with white plates, but don’t feel limited — try anything that sets the scene and compliments your food.

Stewart: Our favorite background is the basic white plate on dark wood, to highlight the food. White or neutral plates and bowls usually work best. Avoid green backdrops; it gives lighter  foods a sickly glow.

Paola: You can’t go wrong with white dishes. Most foods look great on white. I’ve also collected dishes, napkins, utensils, and fabric scraps from different shops, thrift stores, flea markets, and estate sales.

Carrie: I don’t subscribe to only using white plates. I do have them, but they all have some sort of textural detail.

Theresa:  Try to select dishes, linens and backgrounds that are either complimentary or contrasting colors to the food you’re highlighting. For instance, blue is a complimentary color to browns and a contrasting color to yellows.

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These tips will help whether you’re about to post your first recipe, or just want to set a beautiful table for a family dinner. If you have your own tricks, or have questions for our bloggers, leave a comment.

Thanks to all our guest bloggers, and buon appetito!

Hungry for more? Subscribe to The Daily Post newsletter, and look for bonus content from our fab foodies in this month’s issue.

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  1. Thank you for the great tips! My biggest takeaway is that it’s work and you’re not just snapping a photo while cooking (like I do). The number of photos from the 1st blog was eye-opening.

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  2. If you want to see some really superb food photography (including the raw ingredients in the unmatchable markets) go to myfrenchheaven. The pictures are influenced by Stefane’s love of food, love of cooking and a heritage in what is probably the most ‘foodie’ place in the world, in France. That comes from an Englishman! (The blog is in both English and French, though the pictures speak for themselves). I have no connection with the man other than I follow his blog as a food/cooking ‘fanatic’ and a keen photographer (on film, which he doesn’t use).

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  3. Another lovely and helpful post! Thank you!

    (I feel guilty posting recipes on my blog that I haven’t made at least twice, but if it’s with an ingredient that’s hard to come by and a one-time thing in my kitchen it occasionally happens; thanks for making me feel better about how “sometimes once is enough.”) : )

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  4. I love these tips! My dining room table is too shiny for photos, so I often place the food on a large wooden cutting board that’s all scratched up (I love the texture).

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  5. I am enormously impressed by the beautiful photos, the fine and loving detail and the imaginative take on food here. I have only been a WordPress blogger for twenty four hours, and am loving it already. Keep the great stuff coming, folks!

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  6. I have to say I love food blogs. One of my favorites is “Cooking With Mr. C.” It has the best recipes and also some very cool photos. It’s so much fun to follow creator John Contratti’s “Cooking With Mr. C.” It should be named one of the best on “WordPress”. Check it out.

    http://www.cookingwithmrc.wordpress.com

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