We are lucky enough to live in a time where people feel comfortable sharing their personal journeys and knowledge on food photography. It can be overwhelming, confusing, and difficult to discern what you should focus on immediately and what you should keep in the back of your mind for later.
After a lot of reflection on my own journey, there are concepts I wish I had taken seriously early on. I’m sure you’ve heard each of these points discussed, but I want to illustrate the importance of reflecting on these ideas; moreover, how waiting to take them seriously impacted my food photos.
Do your research, but don’t be afraid to break the rules
Food photography rules range from the best light to use, to how to style and compose your scenes, to the most effective camera settings. All these resources are fantastic, however, they are just guidelines. They are a base to get your started, but by no means are they hard and fast rules.
I didn’t understand this for the longest time! I was following these rules religiously, and confused when I didn’t like the outcome. Surely if I shoot a certain way, my photo must turn out amazing! It wasn’t until I started treating these “rules” as guidelines that I started to find my own style.
Food photography resources are out there to give you a start, but trial and error is the real secret to success. Do you prefer to only shoot with a shallow depth of field? Great! Maybe you love messy tablescapes over minimalist scenes, awesome! Experiment and find what speaks to you! Only then will your photos convery your true vision and passion!
Understand & master light regardless of the source
Being a food photographer means you must shoot with natural light, right? WRONG! Natural light is beautiful and flattering to food, but it’s put on a pedestal. It’s not the light source that makes the food photographer, it’s the food photographers understanding of the principles of light that elevate their work.
My food photography journey started while living in Seattle. You’d think those grey, overcast days would have been my dream lighting, but I struggled to find consistency with natural light and in my personal schedule. I worked full time (still do), and I just wasn’t able to shoot at the times when natural light was best. I needed flexibility from my lighting, but I hesitated to embrace artificial light because I was convinced it would produce sub-par photos.
In reality, beautiful photos can be created using any light source. I’ve been shooting with artificial light exclusively since the beginning of 2019, and I’ve never once been criticized for the light in my photos appearing fake. In fact, most people are surprised when I say I only shoot in artificial light!
Having a consistent light source gives me the freedom to study how light behaves in different scenarios. I don’t regret moving from natural to artificial light; however, I do regret not embracing the change sooner. Think about what you need to create beautiful photos and don’t feel forced into using one source of light over the other.
Understand your camera settings & practice all the time
Can you take nice food photos using auto mode? Sure. Can learning how to work your camera in manual mode elevate your photos? Most definitely!
One of the most consistent pieces of advice for beginning food photographers is to practice constantly, and practice using manual mode. It’s intimidating; ISO, aperture, and shutter speed blur together leaving you frustrated and unsure how to take a quality photo.
I read about other food photographers taking pictures of their dinner every night, and thought “I don’t have the time to constantly style my dinner!” I failed to understand that they weren’t only focused on practicing styling; they were focused on practicing how to operate their camera in manual mode.
If I had been practicing nightly, I would have understood how my camera settings interacted much sooner. Instead, it took months for concepts to click and much more frustration when I wasn’t achieving the outcome I envisioned.
Take the time to get to know your camera. Shooting in manual affords you the greatest flexibility to control the style and vision of your photos. If you find yourself struggling or confused on where to start, check out my eCourse on mastering manual mode!
Know when to quit…shooting
You made your dish, set your scene, and shot for what seems like maybe an hour. In reality, you’ve been shooting for 4 hours and have 300+ pictures; dinner is cold, your significant other has abandoned you to order pizza, and you are on the verge of tears. Raise your hand if you can relate to this scenario.
I used to shoot the same dish for hours! The longer I shot, the more frustrated I became because I couldn’t get the shot I wanted. This cycle of behavior was demoralizing. I would get angry and blame myself, only to end up in a very negative mindset.
It’s easy to get caught up thinking “just one more shot”. Most of us are very self critical, and we place enormous expectations to get it right the first time. Overtime I learned that stepping away from a dish provided me with much needed perspective, and the space I needed to think clearly about why a particular set up did or did not work.
If you aren’t getting the shot you want, put your camera down and walk away. Clear your head and come back to it later. I promise that stepping away when things aren’t working will only help you overtime to nail your vision on the first couple shots.
Take note of your expectations & outcomes
How many times have you taken photos of a dish only to hate all of them when you go to edit? Come on, I know it’s not just me! How quickly were you able to recognize why you hated those photos? Be honest; it’s okay to admit you didn’t have a clue.
It takes time to find your style. What makes this process more difficult is not having a clear understanding of your expectations. I had zero understanding of my expectations when I started. I just wanted to create beautiful photos.
I knew I loved dark and moody photography, so I initially set out to create photos in that style, but every photo I took felt off. They were dark, but there was something about them that didn’t fit into the style I was trying to achieve.
So I started taking note of my expectations before I shot. I would start with a high level concept, and niche down to specific expectations. Then I would sit down with my photos and compare my expectations to my outcome.
Niching down my expectations and comparing them to my outcome, gave me a clear picture of the adjustments needed to achieve a dark and moody style.
If you are struggling to figure out why your photos feel off, going through this process will give you more clarity.
Own it, invest in yourself, and treat your photography like a business
I have a confession; I was afraid to call myself a food photographer when I first started shooting. I felt guilty owning it! A huge part of me felt like I didn’t deserve that title; I didn’t have a huge following or awesome partnerships with brands. I hid my passion, and in the end, it hurt me.
Fear of owning my passion held me back. I had a constant internal struggle about investing in myself, and turning my dreams into a real business. To most people, my photos and blog were just a hobby. To me they were freedom. They were a means to an end where I made my own schedule and worked on something I was passionate about.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when my mindset changed, or why it changed. But in the last 6 months, I’ve owned up to being a food photographer. Now when people ask me what I do, I can proudly say I’m a food photographer. I registered Clean Plate Clb as a real business, I invested in my brand by attending Tastemakers Branding Mastermind, and I have seen more growth in the past 6 months than I have in the past 2 years.
If you are serious about making a career in food photography, then you need to own it and treat it like a business. Getting in that mindset will make you more confident in your skills, and help you achieve real growth!