In food photography, there is some equipment you just can’t live without. In this blog, I’ll discuss what I consider to be the ‘must-have’ gear for food photography, and tell you why these tools worth the (small) investment. Most of what I will discuss, with the exception of the camera and lens, are relatively inexpensive items with the power to make a big impact on your business and take you to the next level. For a food photographer, these must-have items make life so much easier and allow you to capture the best image in any circumstance.
A DSLR Camera
Although virtually everyone has a phone camera at their fingertips, a DSLR is the best camera for the job and one that you will ultimately need. Contrary to some beliefs, A DSLR, in my opinion, is an absolute must. It gives you the ability to experiment in different lights, has control over depth of field, takes super sharp photos at high resolution, achieves that perfect bokeh effect, and make your photography look professional. For these reasons and more, a DSLR camera is worth the investment.
Which camera is best for food photography? Well, the camera body can be either full frame or a cropped sensor. Even a ‘’beginner camera” with a cropped sensor can shoot beautiful food photos, so the ‘best’ camera for you just depends on your budget and preference.
A Quality Lens
Let me first give you the bad news: The kit lens that came with your camera is not very useful for food photography.
Many people choose to save some money by getting a cropped sensor body (instead of a full frame) and spending the money they save on investing in a great lens. Most of my lenses are compact fixed lenses (fixed means that the lenses can’t zoom in or out). So in my food photography, I physically move closer or farther away from the set to get the right shot. The good thing about fixed lenses is that they are typically smaller, cheaper, and faster than zoom lenses. Most of them have a nice, wide aperture, which gives the photographer better control over the depth of field.
If you’re shopping for lenses, let me quickly walk you through some of the lenses you should consider purchasing.
- A 35mm 1.8: or the 50mm 1.4 (the 1.8 is much cheaper and almost the same in quality). These lenses are great for overhead shots aka flat lays.
- 60mm f/2.8 macro lens: or (for a bigger budget) the 100mm macro 2.8. I use a macro lens for close up shots to capture details. This lens is also ideal for 45-degree angle shots. I use my macro lens the most since I love the crisp, clear quality it gives to my images.
- 24-70mm f2.8, this is a zoom lens and a very versatile lens. If you are not on set, for example, but shooting market food or restaurants, a zoom lens can be handy.
The Perfect Light
In food photography, there are a few ways to create a beautifully lit frame by using natural outdoor light and artificial light. My favorite type of light is natural light. Oftentimes, you can get the best from your natural light if you tame it and manipulate the light with a diffuser or skim. So, while the light itself is free, diffusers and skims can help you get the most out of it. Lucky, these tools are simple to use and inexpensive.
There are many easy DIY diffusers. Using natural light from a window, you can cover the window with a semi-sheer white curtain to soften the light. If you don’t have a curtain, you can also DIY a diffuser by taping your window with white baking paper to create the same effect. Clouds are also excellent (and free!) light diffusers. If you want an easy-to-use diffuser or skim at your fingertips for any occasion, you can buy one that will evenly diffuse the light for less than $20.
Place the diffuser between your light source and your scene. The light that passes through a diffuser will appear softer and luminescent, rather than bright and harsh. Diffusers create indirect light to help you avoid blown out highlights and uneven shadows, and will make the food glow.
Perfect light is the Holy Grail in food photography, so it’s important to consider your light source, research your options, and invest in a diffuser so that you can have perfect light every time.
A Bounce Board
A white (or black) bounce board or reflector is another must-have. A bounce board allows you to control your light source by bouncing light from your light source, backward into your scene to remove any dark shadows. You can use a variety of materials to build your own bounce board, including a white foam board (available at any craft store). Sometimes, I use my second diffuser to act as a bounce board; it just requires a stand and clip or a second set of hands to hold the diffuser in place as I shoot.
If you want to add deeper shadows to your photo, use a black reflector/foam board to ‘’take away’’ some of the light.
Below is an example of a picture with and without the use of a white bounce board on the bottom of the scene. Since the bounce was so harsh, I moved the plate to the middle of my scene to create the best light and shadows for my shot.
Although there are plenty of food photographers who shoot without a tripod, I believe that a tripod is a big must-have. I always feel a bit more limited when I shoot without one. A tripod allows you to shoot great overhead shots (aka. flat lays) and it also gives you much more freedom to style your scene. You can start your composition by setting up your tripod and camera at the angle you want, then move freely and perfect your food presentation within that frame. Food photography is all about showing the food off, so being able to remove the camera angle variable and freely style your scene is a great bonus.
The second reason why I adore my tripod is that it allows me to create super sharp pictures without having to adjust my shutter speed or ISO when shooting in lower light or when holding the camera (which always increases the risk of shaky hands and blurry images). With a tripod, I’m able to shoot in gorgeous, low, indirect light situations where I can set my camera to an ISO of 100 (to avoid any noise), and set the f-stop that I need for my picture without having to worry about my shutter speed. I can set a super low shutter speed without having to worry about any blurriness in the picture.
You get my point: A tripod is a must-have. Be sure to get a tripod you can rely on, especially if your camera is bulky and pricier. Cheaper tripods risk tipping over!
Purchasing a remote for your camera can be a game-changer. When shooting with a low shutter speed especially, camera shake must be avoided in order to create a sharp image. So it’s best to stand still, (floors can move when you walk away) and not touch the camera. Even pressing the shutter button can make the camera move, so the best way to take a photo is by using a remote. A remote also allows you to be more flexible when you style and shoot your set, or when you take a photo that shows your hands in the scene.
All in all, a remote and tripod will give you many more opportunities to experiment with your f-stop while keeping your ISO low, without requiring you to use a higher shutter speed to avoid blurriness.
Last but not least, you must invest in an editing program. Editing programs are for enhancing great pictures, not fixing bad ones (even the best editing programs can’t make a bad photograph look good). Editing is an essential process in food photography. An editing program such as Adobe Lightroom can help you make your photo pop, give your photos consistency (a big plus when building your Instagram feed), and accentuate any colors that may have gotten lost during your shoot. Lightroom can also remove splatters, spills, and specks that you didn’t notice when you were shooting. When used correctly, Lightroom can revolutionize food photography.
Editing programs such as Lightroom give you the power to correct your photo’s white balance, adjust the highlights/shadows, and create contrast. After I adjust everything to my liking, I apply my preferred preset to the image. For food photography, I use my own presets, and I also use the Mastin Labs Portra Pushed presets.
Above is an example of how an editing program can add magic to an image. It shows a photo with a blue subject and a somewhat ugly cheap blue tone next to an edited version of the same photo. When taking the photo, the light was average, the set up was perfect, yet I couldn’t make the picture pop. After a quick edit in Lightroom, the result is what I had in my mind: Light and bright, and with a rich light blue color.
I hope that with my list of must-have gear, food photography will become less intimidating. These inexpensive, easy-to-use tools have made a world of a difference to me. They’ve allowed me to find my own style and to work with the light I have to create images that pop.