A large bone-in steak with garlic confit and au jus with asparagus, cocktails, wine, and bacon macaroni and cheese on a white table.

5 Insights That Made Me a Better Food Photographer

I love photographing food, especially for restaurants. Food just has so many qualities that make it an endlessly interesting subject matter – a variety of texture, uncanny forms and figures, colorful or monotone, minimal or messy – it just never gets old.

However, food photography does not come without its challenges. There are so many mistakes I made as a beginner food photographer that I eventually hammered out in order to really begin to amp up the quality of my work. Some of these faux pas I STILL catch myself making today. Thankfully, I am always on watch to catch myself in the process. Now, I’m here to help you catch these very easy-to-make mistakes.

In this article, I’ll go over five things I wish I’d thought to do before I began shooting food and restaurant photography.

1. Shooting Wide Open, All The Time

This one is so easy to make. You spent your hard-earned money on that AMAZING f/1.4 lens and it is your duty to slam that aperture wide open and start shooting food – backgrounds be damned!

NOPE.

While I don’t own an f/1.4 or even an f/1.8 lens at the time of writing this (at least not Full Frame), I have made this mistake COUNTLESS times while shooting food and felt so good about it in the moment because what photographer doesn’t love that beautiful roll-off from the crisp, tack-sharp plane of focus to the gorgeous, smooth, blurry goodness of whatever is secondary in the shot?

Well, this photographer doesn’t. At least not with food.

I was a total slave to shooting wide open at f/2.8 on my 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses. I refused to sit around like a chump and not make use of these hulking, full frame lenses. But every time I did, I’d sit down to cull and edit images in Bridge only to find myself marking more items as rejects than worthy of a star-rating.

“If only I could see what the rest of the garlic bread looked like,” or “Wow, that is a beautiful microgreen, I wonder what secrets lie in the dish behind it?” were just a few of the thoughts running through my head as I drove my Texture, Clarity, and Sharpness sliders ever forward to try to recover some of the detail I wish I’d captured at the shoot.

Learn to Shoot With a Narrower Aperture

Not only is shooting with a smaller aperture useful for seeing the dish and accompanying scene as a whole, it’s also a huge boon for a sharper image on probably 90% of lenses on the market.

Check out the channel Christopher Frost on YouTube. He is a lens reviewer and does very thorough reviews of lenses. Almost every lens review of his that I’ve watched (which is a lot of them) shows that a lens starts performing best about 2 Stops above the maximum aperture. If you’re on an f/2.8 lens, then your image is probably at it’s best starting around f/5.6. If you’re on an f/5.6 lens, then bump her up to at least f/8 if not f/11.

Conversely, don’t shoot too narrow as diffraction tends to occur around f/16 to infinity on most lenses.

I’d say a solid spot to keep your aperture for food photography is around f/8 and making slight adjustments as needed if you really need that focus falloff or a bit of extra detail in the background.

2. Not Planning a Shot List with the Restaurant Manager and Kitchen Staff

If you’re like most people, the kitchen staff already hates you. They don’t mean anything by it (I hope), that’s just the natural order of restaurants and I won’t question the complex ecosystem of the professional kitchen. Mostly because I’m afraid to ask questions like this an under-pressure sous chef that is simultaneously trying to fire three steaks for me while also preparing for Friday night dinner service.

Anyways, having a shot list is crucial. Leveling it up to an agenda is even better.

Talk with whomever oversees the shoot on the client side. Make sure you both agree on a shot list that includes the number of items you’ll be photographing, any desired pairings or smorgasbord flatlays, locations around the restaurant that they’d like to highlight or use as backgrounds, and finally a loose agenda of when each dish should come out for its closeup. Lastly, make sure a copy of your shot list and agenda makes it to the kitchen. A happy chef makes for a happy shoot.

Creating an agenda really helps you stay on track and cover your butt if certain shots start running into overtime.

The agenda also helps keep expectations realistic for the client by letting them know the estimated amount of time it takes to photograph each dish. It can be helpful to say “Hey, let’s move that 2:30 steak back to 2:45!” without flustering the kitchen. Seriously guys, remember, the kitchen is king, always mind the kitchen.

As a parting note, keep your shot list flexible. Don’t live or die by it, but do keep it in mind as you progress throughout the shoot and use it as a tool to keep the shoot in order if you or the client start running into trouble.

3. Forgetting That People Eat Food

This one is very important and very easily overlooked by even the best photographers and restaurateurs. In most instances, your photography should probably aim to market the restaurant and its offerings to people. Instead, we tend to focus on beautifying the dish or cocktail at hand and calling it a day.

But it ain’t a “day.” You forgot to add people to some of your shots, dude.

A glamor shot of a stuntastic menu item is fine and good, but you need to focus on the vibe and the verb here.

People are going to be filling out the tables at the restaurant when this dish is served in real life. Said people will also be eating said dish. Show people in your food photography once in a while.

I get it, professional models aren’t exactly cheap. But try to work something out with the restaurant to ensure there are people available for your shots. That usually means offering food as payment for participation for friends or off-duty staff of the restaurant.

Even if your client is against book models or using friends and family, it’s important to make the case to your food and restaurant clients that images and videos of people sell a lot better on social media sites.

I can say with anecdotal certainty, that food shots featuring people are much more likely to get “the algorithm” to purr versus the incessant posting of food shots. Your mileage may vary, but such has been the case for my clients.

Remember, when photographing for a restaurant, the food is only a portion of the reason people love going out to restaurants – they are there to eat, drink, socialize, and take in the restaurant’s atmosphere. Show those things too.

4. Shooting at the Wrong Focal Length for Your Subject

Talk about a tough issue to come to terms with. I used to loathe shooting with standard lenses.

“Give it to me wide, give it to me close, or don’t give it to me at all!” I used to profess loudly (in my head). I was wrong.

Food and drink does not often look good in wide angle.

It messes with proportions, it warps plates, it bends tables, it makes that mushroom in the center look a hell of a lot bigger than the carrots on the side. Nothing is ever square, plumb, or straight when you start shooting overly wide and no amount of Photoshop magic can fix it.

On the other hand, macros are cool, but we can’t be spending every moment shooting the menu under the microscope. No, no – we need some standard focal lengths in here too. You know, so people can actually see the dish.

One of my favorite focal lengths for photographing food is around the 70-90mm range. It’s a little bit more zoomed in than 50mm, which is most likened to the view of the human eye, but not so zoomed in that you can’t make sense of things. It’s just a really flattering, versatile range that gives dishes that visual “oomph” to catch your attention and look unique enough to stop scrolling or flipping the page.

So just remember, if you are in art school, fine, it’s fine to pull out your macro and masterfully photograph those varicose veins on your chicken thigh. But if you are shooting to market the food to people, then you can still be creative by picking a lens on the longer side of the standard focal range.

5. Ignoring the Little Things and Fixing It in Post

You are sitting in front of your computer the night after an awesome shoot with a collection of pixel-perfect sushi images. You wound up with eight great shots of the Philips Highway Roll, but it wasn’t easy getting there. The viewers of your masterpieces will not ever know that there was actually a huge hunk of wasabi smeared right on the seaweed façade of these picturesque makizushi rolls and you, the photographer, spent a solid hour editing each photo to remove it.

Joke’s on you. You could have just fixed it before you shot it and saved yourself a load of time in post.

Think about it, you spent an hour editing the same smear off of eight different photos of the same dish. Even if it took you 20 minutes to fix on set (unlikely), you’d still have saved yourself 40 minutes of editing, even more if you ever go back to edit more selects.

This goes for so many things – wrinkled tablecloths, chipped plates, grimy silverware, mystery crud, water spots, crumbs, you name it.

Simple photographer brain says, “Me fix in post,” and refined photographer brain opines, “I shall remove thine crumb and steam out thine wrinkle lest I so desire to ache in front of thy computer screen this eve.”

In Summary

Being a food photographer, or any kind of photographer, isn’t hard. Being a good photographer is. It’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of total failure, and a lot of little wins that add up. Eventually you gain enough experience to progress to the next level and up your game. It’s up to you to see how far you can take it. Hopefully my ramblings, reflections, and meditations have come in handy for prospective and entry-level food photographers.

There are a million little things that you will inevitably run into at some point or another as a food photographer, but most of these little things can be remedied with some foresight and about a dozen tools or techniques.