3 Things To Unlearn When Shooting Editorial and Lifestyle Food Images

Food is a fundamental part of survival. The very first thing we do after being born is eat. Human brains know food on a primal and instinctual level. Our brains automatically reject or call into question food imagery that doesn't look real. In advertising, our brains are a little more forgiving.

But in lifestyle and editorial food photography, the brain is a stickler for reality. The goal of editorial and lifestyle food photography is to make the viewer literally salivate. Achieving that goal has less to do with your gear and more to do with the photographer’s understanding of how food behaves, light, and paying close attention to the atmospheres in which we typically consume food. A lot of what photographers learn when shooting other specialties will harm your images when shooting food.

So, let's get back to basics. Here are three things to unlearn when shooting food.

1. Stop Front Lighting Your Subject

One of the biggest mistakes photographers make when attempting to move into food photography is using front lighting. With food photography, you really need shadows to add depth to your images. That depth cannot be added back into the image with dodging and burning. All that will do is make the food look fake and the viewer will not respond favorably, and likely won't know why the image isn't landing with them.

Also, underexpose your images when shooting. This really helps to preserve the needed shadows that you will pull up in Lightroom.

2. Stop Using Multiple Lights

Instead, you want a single light source, places anywhere between 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock, and at a 0-to-45-degree angle to the food. If you do figure study, you have an advantage here as you already understand a lot of the basics of directional single-source lighting. Shooting food in this manner creates depth, specular highlights that signal to the brain that the food is delicious, and replicates how the sun is in the sky during periods when we frequently eat.

The great thing about food photography is the set can be rather small.

Instead of using a fill light, make white cards your friend. My favorite thing to use for both black cards and white cards are three-panel presentation boards.

3. Stop Dodging and Burning Your Food Images

As already mentioned, dodging and burning adds a fake look to images that the brain can’t accept, even if you don’t consciously know why. Lightroom is your friend. If you are new to Lightroom or have always relied on dodge and burn, it only takes a few tweaks to add depth and dimension to your food images.

Start off by lifting your shadows and white. Then drop your highlights and blacks. By how much depends on the placement and angle of the light source. Once that is done, dehaze, and add some clarity and texture, But don’t overdo it. Once you start getting where you want to be, then you can add a slight S-Curve in the Tone Curve area, play with the HSL sliders, and add a little blue to the shadows and yellow to the highlights in the Color Grading panel. And don’t forget to apply Lens Corrections.

Good luck, have fun, and don't be afraid to experiment!

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17 Comments

J.d. Davis's picture

What does "accredited professional food photographers" mean & what is necessary to achieve this?

Jules Sherred's picture

J.d. Davis It means, I have proven professional ability to the Board of Examiners of
the Professional Photographers of Canada (PPOC).

In assessing Accreditation submissions, the judges will consider the following criteria: Impact, Creativity, Style, Composition, Presentation, Color Balance, Centre of Interest, Lighting, Subject Matter, Technique and Story Telling.

One has to submit 10 images that also meet specific criteria for each specialty. If you dont get 10/10 on first submission, you have two years to retry. If you dont get 10 accepted images in two years, you can no longer submit in that category. Few get 10/10 first attempt. I did.

As an accredited member, I also have to adhere to a code of conduct when working and when interacting in an official capacity as a rep of the PPOC.

J.d. Davis's picture

Wish it would be done here in the US - too many who can't tell a gobo from a tenner!

Jules Sherred's picture

The PPA has a similar program but they don't have certification for each specialty within the Commercial category, which is a bit of a bummer, as far as I'm concerned.

J.d. Davis's picture

What I liked MOST about the Canadian group is their willingness to teach and share - something ppa doesn't do with outsiders!

Jules Sherred's picture

I did not know this! Yeah, the PPOC has a great mentorship program and we are all about passing our skills on to other aspiring pro photographers and pro photographers looking to expand their specialties. We are very much a teaching group.

renimagines's picture

Nice write up. Direction of light was certainly something I brought in while redoing a company’s menu a few years ago. Thanks for sharing.

Karl Petersson's picture

My only experience is that there is no rules, and the kind of advice that amounts to do like this and don't do like that only results in imagery that will neither sell or be able to use for portfolio and will not take you further in your visual language.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Except there are rules when aiming for interesting or dynamic images. Things like lighting from behind/side are almost always the way to go with food photography.

Of course we can always decide to ignore these hard won rules and shoot any way we like - it's a free world. But there are reasons why certain things look better than others because of how our eyes and brains are wired.

And if anything, sticking to these simple but essential rules will by far deliver much more saleable images and create more commercial portfolios that will get paid work.

Try this... Good colours are essential to quality food photography. Colours that make food look tasty and sumptuous. This would be one of those simple rules. Now try to break that rule and deliver images with colours which are off. And now try and sell those images to a client... You'll find less clients who want the latter.

Being creative doesn't mean we can abandon some things - just because we want to... well not if we want to be commercially successful.

And as to furthering our visual language - the work had better have some exceptional qualities before decreeing the rules obsolete.

I'd wager that before we are brave enough to ignore the rules, we need to have mastered them beforehand.

Breaking the rules is not the same as here being no rules.

Karl Petersson's picture

Sure there are rules, as to keep the camera aimed at the subject if that is what we are photographing.
I have only shoot food for the last 20 odd years and I have lit subjects from every angle of the 360 there are. I did one cookbook where all but two images where shoot with ring flash and you don't get more frontal than that. If I remember correctly I think the most light I have used are 8 or 9 light for a normal shoot and I am not counting studio products with elaborate setups into that package.
Similarly I have shoot with no lights and only using available light and even sometime not having that, Ive shoot cocktails illuminated only with small candles.
I have delivered images with strange colors (when there was a reason and need for it).
Although I am not part of a similar professional body as stated above where I have to hand in ten perfect images but this autumn is my tenth cookbook coming out and this time with Phaidon so I am doing something right in terms of client satisfaction.
So my objection to the use of things/rules to use or avoid is that if you are not looking at your subject and then deciding what is the best for the situation and the subject but trying to stick to a checklist will only result in boring "trendcorrect" images that will do nothing for you or the client.

Karl Petersson's picture

I looked very quickly over my answer above and I realised that it sounds a bit pushy and aggressive and it was not my intention at all.
My chief opinion is that there is no bullet list to photography and what should be more important is the quality of seeing your subject both in and out of context and reaching the conclusion of what is right or wrong for that situation. All assignment you go into are unique in one way or another and it is important to appreciate that.

Jules Sherred's picture

Everything you said is fine for the type of work you do. The images you chose to upload to your profile do not fall into the editorial and lifestyle style of commercial food photography. They fall within the advertising style. I shoot not only cookbooks and restaurant menus, but I also shoot farms, wineries, distilleries, and more for government agencies where selling a time and place, and a very specific feeling is super important to get people to travel to my location. I've curated my portfolio to attract a very specific type of client. And my style is unique because you can get huge range with a single directional light source. Also, 95% of my work is done in camera. Clients approve images as they are shot. So, they better not need a lot of work in post. If what you do works for you, then great! But the things I wrote about are the 3 top errors that new photographers or people switching specialties make, which in turn causes them to give up on food. Which is really unfortunate because there isn't enough editorial and lifestyle food photographers for the demand. I'm trying to set people up for immediate success so they continue with this specialty,

Karl Petersson's picture

I could not even remember what images I had uploaded to my profile so I had to look back at it and its funny you say what you do and that those images are commercial since one is shoot for an editorial in a magazine, one for a book and one for a restaurant menu and the last for a bakery/patisserie menu. None of them are advertising images as such. And yes those images are not lifestyle I do agree but that was not my commentary either to your post. But I don't agree with you about that your range is huge with one setup and neither is your implication that I spend a lot of time in post. for example is that there is hardly any post done on the images that is in my profile, but I do know what I am doing with my light/lights and camera so I do get it right in camera more or less 100% of the time unless when needed.
And I do think that the top error people do when they venture into a new field is that they do shit pictures and that is because it is very unusual to make a great picture first time you try a new thing but people who do good things are the ones who keep trying things and do not subscribe to textbook rules for how a thing should be done but find their own language. If Bailey,Penn or Avedon would have held on to a one setup situation instead of trying out different expressions, technical, visual, expressively or creatively, photography would have looked very different today.

Jules Sherred's picture

You misunderstood what I wrote. What I do is also commercial photography. I'm talking about styles of photography, not if they are found within a magazine, etc. I think we are going to have to agree to disagree about range. I also disagree with your textbook comment. As Lee said, you have to know the rules before you can break them. I stand by my statements about the lighting to use to get a sense of time and place, and appetite appeal to images. And shooting in other ways, ways that look like an advertisement in style, don't land as well. There is also science and psychology here too.

Roberto Adrian Sanchez's picture

Stop telling people about rules, is this a new editorial style - titles written in a negative petulant way?

Vincent Racicot's picture

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, this is a very insightful comment that really adds to the conversation!!!

Catherine Bowlene's picture

Also eat before the shoot... Don't go unprepared