Five Key Elements of Food Photography

Simi Jois

Simi Jois is a former marketing and branding professional who now finds her calling in food styling and photography, and the results are mouthwatering. A fascination with light and a hunger to create unique flavors led her to what she terms “culinary optics.” So whether it’s the gentle embrace of light on a bowl on a dark table or the promise of a fiery bite fueled by colorful peppers, it catches her eye. We asked her to share how she uses her camera to paint photographs that are good enough to eat and gave us her top five ingredients for a successful shoot. 

Food is connected to our lives in more ways than one. For example, the aroma of cinnamon in an apple pie takes us back to our childhood. Food can be a symbol of comfort, emotion, family, tradition or entertainment. 

From the photographer’s point of view, food has to be inviting. The important question to ask yourself is whether the image evokes emotion. Food imagery typically generates a desire to taste. As viewers, we rarely think about the technical perfection of the image. The emotional connection is what makes a photograph stand out. As food photographers, our primary task is to be the storytellers who make that connection, and we use various tools to make that connection successful. No one looks at an image of ice cream and wonders how perfect the exposure is. However, it's necessary to have the perfect exposure to narrate the story. Therefore, the goal becomes one of achieving balance. There should never be any confusion between tools and the end goal of evoking emotions.

So what are the tools that are essential to creating that perfect image of food? To me, these are the top five:

1. Storytelling

One of the key elements is the story behind an image. Narrate a story to make the food look desirable.

For example, if you are shooting picnic food, an outdoor shot of people enjoying the food could make the perfect image. A hot bowl of soup with steam conveys warmth and is inviting. Sometimes, the subject might be the maker in the process of preparation and cooking rather than the final dish.

Ask yourself questions about the food you are photographing. Who is the target audience? Is the food centered around a certain holiday? Is it traditional, fancy, or comfort food? What are the main ingredients of the dish? How is it served?

2. Styling

Typically, a commercial shoot involves a professional food stylist, but some general knowledge of food styling is an important aspect of being a good food photographer. 

If you are styling and photographing the image, here are a few key things to remember:

  • Subject: Pick fresh ingredients.
  • Colors: Look at a color wheel to help narrow down the colors of the props and background. For example, choosing only primary colors in a bowl of food (unless it’s a carnival story!) makes for very distracting imagery. Select colors that complement the food, not compete for attention.
  • Props: When it comes to props, there are a plethora of choices. It’s always better to go with neutral colors, especially for tableware. When in doubt, use white.

  • Texture and shape: Incorporating texture in a photograph is a great way to evoke the sensory emotion to touch. For example, when photographing rice, every grain should be visible to show off the textures (and not a mushy pile). Use texture in backgrounds. If you were shooting spices, for instance, placing them on aged wood adds rustic appeal. The same wood may not work well for ice cream or a delicate dessert like macarons if you’re not telling a rustic food story.

To incorporate a glossy look, use glass. If your subject is fruit punch, adding glassware or a pitcher brings out the colors and elements of the drink (versus using something opaque). 

Adding natural elements like flowers or herbs adds layers and texture to the image.

3. Light and Shadow

Photography is painting with light. But if you let the camera dictate the shot, it will pick the exposure it thinks is perfect. Shoot in Manual mode to determine the exposure that is right for you.

Food loves natural light and so do I; most of my images are made with natural light. But when I occasionally need a boost, I use speedlights to enhance the natural light. 

To make the scene look dark and moody (like a cold winter night), try underexposing your image. On the flip side, a bright and sunny summer day can be well narrated with a bit of overexposure. 

Using a black board (or black reflector) adds shadows and creates depth; basically, it subtracts light by absorbing stray rays so that your subject stands out. Contrarily, using a reflector adds highlights, and bounces more light onto your scene. If the light is harsh, use diffusers. No diffuser? Use a white linen cloth; works just fine.

Shadows create depth. A shadow is as important as the light because it defines the shape of an object.

4. Composition, Framing, and Angles

Composition and aesthetics go hand in hand. We are all born with some aesthetic sense; we just need to hone it. Play around with your choice of props till you find something pleasing. There is some science behind the art. To read more about the science behind composition, read my blog post here.

Framing determines what to include in the final image. This is especially important when photographing for restaurants and you want to show a sense of place.

There are many choices when it comes to angles, including top-down, head-on 90-degree, among many others. Landscape orientation or portrait orientation. A top-down angle gives a bird’s eye view while head-on gives a macro up-close look. Depending on what you want to narrate, consider all the options before you choose. Also, think about the final frame before choosing landscape or portrait orientation.

5. Manual Mode

Set the camera on Manual mode and play with the aperture and shutter. Bokeh fans will be thrilled to know that it works really well in food photography. Experiment with shallow depth of field (DOF) by using a wide aperture (a small number, like 1.4, 2.8, 3.5) and concentrate on your point of focus to see how different apertures affect the end result.

If you want to shoot something in motion—like pouring tea—increase the shutter to a faster speed to freeze motion in the image. Note that when you increase the shutter speed, be sure to pump up your ISO so the image isn’t underexposed. 

Since food is the central hero, it needs to be in sharp focus. If you are shooting handheld, make sure the shutter speed is high enough and there is no visible motion blur. A tripod is a worthwhile investment in food photography to ensure that your camera is as still as possible and that your shot is framed exactly as you want it. 

Using Aperture Priority is a great starting point that allows the camera to help and yet gives you some control. Don’t get overwhelmed: just weave a story with your camera. And remember that there is no right or wrong. 

Simi Jois grew up in a creatively expressive home with her artist parents, and it was there that she subconsciously trained her mind to engage creatively with color, texture, light, shadow, and composition. She uses photographic images as her canvas and the lens as her brush, but she didn’t have to look far for a subject—her passion for creating flavors provided her with infinite permutations of expression. Painting with ingredients and pairing exotic spices for mutual enhancement and richness of flavor, Simi narrates her stories through the play of light and bold strokes of color.

A frequent contributor to the Daily Meal, her work has also been featured on MSN (food & drink), Fox News Magazine, the Kitchn, and Artful Blogging Magazine.

See more from Simi on her website, blog, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, or Twitter. 



Craft & Technique Simi Jois

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  • Thank you Simi for the follow up advice.

    Matthew on
  • Thank you Sumith

    Simi Jois on
  • In a personal shoot, when I am shooting for my blog, I do the set up before I start to cook. In case of difficult subjects like ice-cream ( made the previous day), I set up the props an hour before the shoot and look at it from different angles. I visualize, how the hero will look like. Once the real food is up there, I make quick changes (almost always) . I start taking images and keep changing the styling as I go, so every food has been shot at least 4-5 different styles , angles and light. I do not change the prop much, but do change the placement of the prop. ‘Visualize’ is the key word. That is also the fun part about food, visualize a frame and bring it to life. Once you have done this 25-50 times, you know intuitively, what will work and what will not. The problem then becomes you get stuck in a rut of light and styling….so it’s a constant reinventing yourself to get better and looking at things with a new eye. Hope this helps, you can also send me an email – for any questions. Thank you for taking the time to read.

    Simi Jois on
  • Food only stays fresh for so long, especially cooked food. How much setting the stage (props, plate placement, test shots without the food) do you do before the food is even set? Having said that, how would you know what its going to look like without the food in the shot to be sure the composition is right?
    I have so many other questions but I’ll stop here.

    Matthew on
  • Beautiful post!! Amazing photography! Well worth reading it.

    Sumith on

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