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10 Tips to Realize Your Sexy Food Photography Dreams

A woman taking pictures of food in her kitchen.
Alliance Images

When you’re beaming about the birthday cake you just made or gushing over grandma’s goulash, the next natural step is to post a pic. But there’s nothing worse than filling your feed with lousy food photos. These 10 tips will help you capture drool-worthy photos, every time!

If you’d told us a decade ago that we’d be sharing photos of our lunch on the internet, we’d have called you crazy. Yet, here we are. While it’s certainly not difficult to snap a picture with your phone (or camera), it’s a bit trickier to make it look good.

Whether you’ve invested in a DSLR camera, or just want to make your iPhone pics a bit better than the rest, we can help you out!

Camera Basics

Both newer phones and DSLRs give you plenty of tools to create stellar pictures. Knowing how to adjust them will take you from dimly lit plates to magazine-worthy shots.

While our camera-tweaking tips are centered on the settings you’d find on a full-size camera, many of them can also be applied (to a certain extent) with the camera on your phone. However, you’ll likely need to download a third-party app, like Halide, to really dig into the settings and get the results you want.

Set the Aperture

Two shots of tuscan white bean soup: one captured at 3.5 aperture, and the other captured at 2.8.
Lauren Sakiyama

While older phones might not have this option, newer ones do! You’re probably already familiar with it as “Portrait mode.”  On a DSLR camera, the same setting is often indicated with an italicized “f.”
Setting the aperture determines a photo’s depth of field by controlling the amount of light that hits the camera’s lens.

A small aperture means a larger opening and vice versa. A larger aperture will also give you less blur in both the fore- and backgrounds. A smaller aperture creates a lighter photo with more blur. 

Which setting you choose is a matter of taste, style, and the general environment. To highlight a plate of pasta or cute little cupcake, you’ll often want the subject in focus, with the back- and foregrounds slightly blurred. Adjusting the aperture to around 3.5 is typically a good starting point for food photography.

If a particular lens you have for your DSLR is lacking in the soft-focus department, and you want to upgrade, you’re in luck! While many DSLR lenses can be extraordinarily expensive (the giant ones used by sports photographers can cost as much as a used car), you can usually get a fixed-length prime lens for $150-$200.

Lenses like the Nikon Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 or Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 are an affordable way to get those creamy portraits you’re craving!

Adjust the ISO and Shutter Speed on DSLRs

If you’re using a DSLR, you have the option to adjust a lot more than just the aperture. ISO and shutter speed are good places to start.

Essentially, the lower the shutter speed, the more light the camera lets in. However, it also makes the camera more sensitive to movement, because the shutter remains open longer. This is why a tripod is essential at lower shutter speeds.

Adjusting the ISO can add more light to your photos if you can’t adjust the shutter speed and aperture. Be careful, though: a higher ISO will let in more light, but it can also lead to grainy pictures. While a grainier look works with some subjects, it’s not recommended for food photography.

Setting Up Your Shots

Once you’ve adjusted your camera or phone’s settings, it’s time to set up your shot.

Use Natural Light

The best way to capture a great food photo is with natural light. Yellow tones in typical indoor lighting create weird, yellow hues on your food. You’ve probably noticed this if you ever snapped a photo in your kitchen.

Look for a low-level window or outdoor space. Then, you can place the food on the ground and stand above it to capture some awesome flat lays.

On bright, sunny days, you can also use a sheet of tissue paper to diffuse the light. It will soften any harsh shadows, just like cloud cover will do.

Be sure to turn off all artificial lights in the room. Even one can create a yellow cast across your photo.

Create a Makeshift Light Box

Diagram of a light box with three poster boards.
Lauren Sakiyama

If you want to take full advantage of the natural lighting in your home, invest in a couple of white foam or poster boards. Use two or three of them together against a window, as shown above. This will create a makeshift lightbox and prevent any unwanted shadows from appearing in your image.
You can replace the bottom board with any surface you want to create fun, textured backgrounds. Old, warped, or completely blackened baking sheets work nicely if you want an inexpensive dark surface.

You can also purchase premade, textured surfaces that are lightweight and easy to clean.
If you do purchase a photo board to provide visual interest, we recommend getting one that’s actually a board, rather than a roll-up background. It’s so much easier to work with a sturdy board that lies flat all the time, instead of wrestling with a rolled-up sheet of faux marble.

Work with Lines

Lines drawn over some food in a photo.
Lauren Sakiyama

The human eye is fantastic at recognizing patterns—and we love finding them, too! That’s why lines in photos are so important. Props and the food itself create lines, but, sometimes, they’re subtle.

Our eyes will still pick up on this—if not consciously, then subconsciously. This dramatically affects whether we perceive a photo as attractive or not.

When setting up a shot, it’s essential to pay attention to the patterns created by the lines in the frame. Then, you can adjust the silverware, napkins, and garnishment accordingly.

The Rule of Threes

Not to be confused with the rule of thirds, you might call this the rule of odd numbers to be more accurate. For whatever reason, the human eye doesn’t look as kindly on things shown in pairs. We don’t find it as exciting as when there are three, five, or seven of something.

This is especially true in food photos.  Want to make those cupcakes look amazing? Snap a pic with three in the frame. How about that plate of spaghetti and meatballs? Two meatballs on top tends to look awkward, but three seems just right.

Taking the Picture

You’ve set the stage, now it’s time to snap that pic!

Where to Stand

For food photos, the best angles are typically straight overhead or level to the plate’s rim. To get an overhead shot, you’ll want the food on the floor so you can stand above it. For a plate-level shot, you’ll have to get down on your belly or position the table next to a window.

If you just can’t stand the idea of putting the food all the way down at floor level (or you have a dog that would make short work of your photoshoot) you can always keep it on a table next to the window and use a step stool to get up high.

Capturing a drool-worthy shot from other angles can be tough. A 45-degree angle is becoming more popular. It’s also more realistic, as it’s approximately the angle from which you’d be viewing a dish while sitting at a table. It does, however, introduce some problems when it comes to the mechanics of shooting the shot.

If you’re shooting straight down it’s easy to fake a nice background because all you need to cover up is the table around the plate. Once you start shooting at angles, more of the foreground and background become visible which requires more props (or a nicer kitchen)!

But don’t let that stop you and feel free to play around with angles! Don’t be discouraged if it takes quite a few shots to get one you like.

Adjust Your Props

As you take photos, it’s essential to adjust the props. Snap a picture, and then take a look. How do the lines look? Did you frame a set of three or five? Adjust a prop or two, and then continue until you get the result you want.

This doesn’t have to be a long process, but two or three different prop placements will give you a variety of shots to choose from. You’ll be surprised how often you end up picking the second or third prop placement, rather than the one you tried first.


Just like food doesn’t magically arrange itself into a balanced composition, likewise, photos don’t come out of the camera perfect and magazine-ready.

Good lighting and setting up your shots can minimize a lot of fussing, but there are two simple things you can do afterward to instantly make your photos look better.

Straighten Your Photos

When photos are crooked, it’s a sure sign an amateur was behind the lens. You’d think that capturing a perfectly straight photo would be easy, but frequently, it’s not.

Luckily, any editing software (even the apps on your phone) allows you to straighten your photos. Just make sure you do so before you share!

Do note that software-based straightening is best reserved for little adjustments that come from small issues like your tripod wasn’t perfectly level. Correcting significant crookedness or unintentionally sharp angles often winds up looking odd.

Adjust the White Balance

Last but not least, most editing applications have a white-balance tool. Natural light can create gorgeous shots, but it also introduces a lot of variables. One photo might look warm and inviting, but if a cloud moves in, the next might look cool and crisp. Adjusting the white balance will give you consistency and control over your photos.

How you adjust the white balance depends on the editing tool you’re using. Generally, this setting is represented by a magnifying glass icon. Make sure you set it over an area of the photo that should be neutral (neutral gray is usually best) in tone.

If you get serious about food photography you might even want to invest in a grey card that you can pop into a test photo every time your lighting changes. That way you’ll always have a “perfect grey” reference point for your set of photos.

Wanna share a pic of that gorgeous salad you made for lunch? Follow these tips, and you’re sure to capture the sexiest food photos ever!

Lauren Sakiyama Lauren Sakiyama
Lauren Sakiyama is a freelance writer with over a decade of experience in the hospitality industry. She has managed restaurants, country clubs, and large-scale event operations, but her passion has always been about the food. Read Full Bio »
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