Culinary Photography

Have you ever glanced through a menu-perhaps at a fancy restaurant-and seen only words? Perhaps you came across a food item you wished to try, but weren’t quite sure what it was or what it would look like. Without a photo to go by, you chose something more familiar instead.

Driving down the highway, you might have caught site of a delicious looking plate of fried chicken featured on a billboard, or passed an ice cream truck with dozens of colorful scoops painted on the side. While shopping at your local grocery store, you might have browsed through dozens of boxed entrees- each displaying pictures of their delectable contents. If you are “best friends” with Pinterest, perhaps you’ve gone searching for the perfect recipe or party food fix and have come across dozens of delicious looking options.

Whether you are reaching for a box of Cheerios, or ordering a T-bone steak, our eyes are accustomed to seeing images of food. But, what if such images didn’t exist? What if you only had words to go by? Would you shop differently? Would you select different items from your dinner menu? Would you attempt that new recipe?

So, what is “Culinary Photography”? To put it simply: still life food photography. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, although that’s typically what comes to mind. You can photograph a “simple bunch of grapes”, as is featured in the image above, or a three course meal- It’s all classified under food-or culinary-photography.

Culinary photography has progressed from being simple point-and-shoot images to intricate works of art. This genre of photography can be used in advertisements, in informational pamphlets, on websites, in menu books, or just for fun.


Type in the words: “Culinary Photography”, in your Google Image browser and thousands of images will flash onto your computer screen. Type those same words into your Google Article browser and 17,000,000 results will appear in less than sixty seconds- I know because I’ve tried. Culinary photography is more popular than you might think.


Why is culinary photography so important? Our eyes impact our thoughts. Ever felt content one minute and then you spot a picture of food and all of a sudden you feel half starved? We are very visual creatures. When our brains register an image of food, it sends signals to the rest of our body. Images of food can stir up cravings or remind our stomachs that the breakfast bar we ate five hours ago isn’t going to last us all day. Restaurants and local businesses use these images to promote their products as well as to “hook” their customers into shopping and ultimately into buying. A few years ago, movie theaters went so far as to place “hidden” images of food in between scenes to trick viewers into feeling like they simply couldn’t do without that bowl of popcorn or bag of chips. This was called subliminal cuts. The result? Hundreds of people would flock to the nearest concession stand without ever realizing they had been tricked into eating. This example simply serves to illustrate the power of images and the effect they can have on us.

Food pictures are informative. Are you allergic to anything? Pictures can serve as a warning that an item contains a possible allergen such as nuts sprinkled on a salad, or soy sauce drizzled over a dish of meat. When eating in a foreign country, or at a different-culture restaurant, these images can be especially useful. (I don’t know about you, but if I simply read the words, “Du Pousson”, on my menu, I don’t think I would jump to the conclusion that it was French for “fish”.) An image beside the option serves as a very useful clue. (If I was allergic to fish, as in my earlier example, an image could potentially save my life.)

Does culinary photography differ from any other type of photography? In short: yes. Food photography is an art. Like other genres of photography, it requires preparation, composition, proper lighting, and so on. But, it differs in the way you execute these tasks. Images of food must look as good as they taste- perhaps better. This requires careful note to detail. You may be able to get away with a quick point-and-shoot approach when taking a landscape shot, but with food, things like composition are pivotal.


How do I take “food photos”?

Know your objective. Focus on the essential while cutting out any distractions or flaws. Special equipment such as mirrors, black backgrounds, and strobe lights come in handy. Food styling is a must. (You can’t just plop a bunch of items onto a plate and snap a picture. The placement of the food can have great effect on whether or not the viewer finds it appealing).

When it comes to photographing food, there are lots of choices that must be made. For example, do you capture the food on a plate, on a wooden surface, or while it’s still simmering on the stove? Should it be placed in a natural setting or appear as a studio shot? Should the photo be taken vertically or horizontally? Each choice will alter the overall appearance of the image. Try it. Take a basic food item, place it in four or five different locations and photograph it. Which image came out the best? Which makes you crave the item the most? These are things a culinary photographer must know in advance.

Lighting! Reflectors, mirrors, strobe lights, flashlights, and natural sunlight. Each of these can enhance or ruin an image. The key is knowing which to use and how to use it. Mirrors reflect lighting, enhance color, and obliterate shadow. Natural light is amazing, but the sun doesn’t last forever. If you wish to do culinary photography as a full-time job, I would recommend purchasing an assortment of “helps” such as mirrors ans strobe lights.


Other suggestion:

Get level with your food and go in close. What I mean by this is, don’t just take overhead shots. Close ups help obliterate distraction causing your image to have greater impact on the viewer. But, don’t go in so close that you can no longer tell what the food item is.

Example: Can you identify the food in the image above? What could have made this shot better?

Also, be quick. Remember: food melts, steam evaporates, heat burns, and oxidization isn’t pretty. Think: a pool of melted ice cream, a-now-cold plate of stir-fry, an overcooked pie, or a brown shriveled looking apple.

If you want to capture an in-oven shot, or a stove-top angle, you may want to turn the heat down. Keep the temp up just enough where the steam still puffs upwards or the heat continues browning the bread, but don’t go too hot, or your food will burn long before the photo shoot comes to an end. Also, keep in mind whether or not your “object” will be consumed at a later date. Certain food items should not be left out of the fridge for long or exposed to temper fluctuation prior to consumption.


I personally love looking at images of food- especially those featuring steam. I find them beautiful. Culinary photography, however, is an area that I am quite weak in myself. I tend to resort to the old point-and-shoot method, leaving much to be desired in my images. This is fine for an average person, but if you wish to “go pro”, I would highly recommend you research proper equipment and photography techniques. There are plenty of good websites with excellent advice. (I simply haven’t chosen to take the time to learn).

Looking at images of food can spark ideas and get your creative juices flowing. Look through books and scan the web. I promise you, if you look, you will find hundreds of results.

Here are some websites to help you get started: (food photographer)


Further Help:

Horizontal or vertical? Which do you like best? 


Is the lighting good in this photo? Is the background a distraction? 


Too much shadow?


Too close?


Ask yourself lots of questions, before, after, and during your photo shoot. Practice and have fun!


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