The Wide World of Food Photography

Posted by Donna Rouviere Anderson September 28, 2015

Good food is a global thing and I find that there is always something new and amazing to learn - I love it!

— Jamie Oliver

Photos by Forrest Anderson

Food photography is an exceptionally broad field of photography that encompasses a wide variety of photographs in many styles.

We honed our food photography skills while working as international journalists in Asia in general and China in particular. China is a country with a rich and varied cuisine as well as an obsession with food. Food is both a fun and very serious matter in China because of the constant fierce pressure to feed 1.3 billion people in a country with limited arable land and a water shortage. We learned through this experience that food photography touches on many other styles of photography – landscape, agricultural, environmental, fashion, advertising, editorial, historical, art, documentary, scientific, closeup and others. It also deals with  some of the major issues of our time – population growth, climate change, immigration, consumerism, health, biological engineering and globalization, to name a few. Food photography often involves a food stylist and lighting set, which introduces a whole new dimension of artistry.

The key to good food photography, like most other photography, is to always keep in mind that you are creating a portrait of human life. In order to be meaningful to your audience, your photography must communicate something interesting and significant about the human condition. 

Food photography is one of our passions. We photograph food for cookbook projects, website projects, books and a variety of other purposes.

This blog is the first of several future ones we plan to post about food photography. and is a general survey of the many possibilities for great food photos.

People eat

Our favorite food photos are ones that we capture while shooting broader topics about people. Food is an important part of life, but is somtimes ignored when documenting people's lives. When shooting pictures, don't take a break at lunchtime. Instead, accompany your subjects to lunch and photograph them. Come early and have breakfast with them, snapping a few pictures. Photograph them having dinner with friends or family at the end of the day. This photo of two girls exiting a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Beijing, China, transcends cultural barriers. 

Agricultural Landscapes

Food photography includes agricultural landscapes -  sweeping views of fields planted with crops. Wheat, barley, corn, potatoes, carrots, cabbages, lettuce and other vegetables as well as fruits are always worth shooting. Photograph in the spring, when new crops are being planted and then every few weeks as crops mature. Harvest time is another great photo opp. Capture with a wide angle lens the converging lines created by young crops planted in tidy rows. Get down low with a wide-angle lenses to capture crops growing against the sky. Isolate individual plants. When you have a chance to fly, photograph the patterns created by different crops planted in neighboring fields. Photograph tractors and combine harvesters, as well as crop dusters spraying crops.


If you live in California, photograph effects of the drought on agriculture. When there is a natural disaster, photograph farmers looking over ruined crops in your areas. Photograph farm animals from when they are newborns until they are herded into trucks for butchering. 

If you are interested in quirkier photos, experiment with closeups of cows and sheep with a wide-angle lens.

The Manufacture of Food

Most manufacturing is extremely interesting to photograph, especially food manufacturing. 

Chocolate making at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. 

The Transportation of Food

Food travels globally to get from farm to dinner table. This journey can make for fascinating photographs.  Below, truckloads of cabbages enter Beijing, China. 

American grain is unloaded at a granary in Beijing, China. 

The Marketing of Food

Markets, stores and restaurants are a huge proportion of the global economy and are always colorful subjects. 

Food Still Lifes

This type of food photography is what most people think of when they think of food photography. Some photographers go to great lengths to ensure that their food still lifes are perfect, with perfect food prepared by stylists who are concentrating on how the food looks rather than its consumption. Great pains are taken with props, lighting and artificial means such as invisible toothpicks, glue and other devices are used to make food look perfect. This style was the gold standard for food photography in the advertising world of the 1980s and 1990s. It is still seen (why do your favorite hamburger joint’s advertising photos not look anything like the lopsided hamburger that is shoved hurriedly at you by the teenager behind the counter?) However, the food bloggers and Pinterest have changed the food photography world dramatically. Many food photographers now insist on creating more realistic, natural looking food in natural settings -  food that will actually end up being consumed and enjoyed after the shoot.

We find this style refreshing. Our food still life photography ranges from beautiful food photographed in a farmers’ market or a roadside stand to plates of food that we carefully craft and style. So we’re in the middle between the perfect advertising style and the blogger. Our goal is to concentrate on what makes food meaningful from a human perspective. We’re more focused on that than on whether we have spent half an hour perfectly arranging a ruffle of lettuce.

Food photography is as susceptible as anything else to style trends, but we concentrate on simple, cluttered shots that tell the story we want to tell.

We photograph food everywhere – at the supermarket, farmer’s markets, at home before eating dinner or a special feast, in the kitchen while it is being prepared, at a fish market and anywhere else we can.

Vegetables, fruits, simple plates of food and bread all make great still lifes. For mineral water or any other bubbly drink, photograph it quickly after pouring it so you can capture the bubbles.

A subset of food still lifes are symbolic food concept photos. This photograph of a man's hands holding rice can be a symbol of feeding billions of people in some parts of the world.  

Fresh strawberries shout freshness and good health. 

Creating an environment for food

What if the food that is the main subject doesn’t look that great in a still life no matter what you do? Create or find an environment for it that tells the story. Put the food at the bottom of the frame on a butcher block counter, with the raw ingredients arranged behind it so you are telling the story of its creation.  Or take it outside and put it on a picnic table with a picnic basket behind it. Arrange items so that the lines lead to the food.

Photographing food in a restaurant or kitchen

Start by making sure the background isn’t too busy and the items you are photographing all look good in a kitchen. Try to find locations where large polished pans are hanging in the background or there is an inviting scene in the background, for example.

In a restaurant, the best time to photograph chefs is 11 a.m. and late afternoon., because the food has been prepared but the crunch of guests haven't arrived yet. Arrange the shot so they look good for a picture. Try to take someone with you to assist you so that you can work quickly and get out before the chefs become busy.

If you can, shoot on a tripod and use light bounced from an umbrella with soft side lighting.

In a restaurant dining room, photograph with a strobe bounced from an umbrella or through a soft box. Bring people with to pose as patrons in the restaurant if you like. Have them wear simple clothing. If you want to sell the pictures, make sure you get model releases and also written permission to photograph in the restaurant.

Don’t be afraid to rearrange items on a table to get a good shot. After the shot, restore anything you may have gotten out of place for the shot.

With this type of food photography, correct color can be important and you might want to photograph a GretagMacBeth color checker and match it to your photos later.

Don’t forget to include the chef, owners and waiters in the environment.

Shooting food outdoors

This often involves the logistics of buying and cooking food and getting to the site, so you need to plan well in advance for that. You also need to consider what time of day is best and check the weather and angle of the sun. Generally, about two or three hours before sunset is best for shooting food outside because you have nice warm light.

Start by composing the background, and then light the food area if necessary to balance it. Put the food close to the lens so it dominates the pictures. Do test photos and arrange the food and drink as you do. Shoot both horizontals and verticals.  

The rituals of food

Food has intensely symbolic meaning in most cultures. In the photo below, a restaurant owner in China offers food to a photograph of Mao Zedong as a symbol of respect.