7 Food photography mistakes you should avoid

If you’re looking to improve your food photography, you’ve probably seen the same old advice repeated in every article out there. So rather than re-explaining what you should be doing, I’m going to explain what not to do if you want to get more professional results.

I recently reviewed food photography images submitted by members in one of our live critique shows, and looking at the images there were a few common mistakes that came up again and again. To help you take better food photographs, I’ve summarised the key points to keep in mind when photographing food so that you can avoid these common problems.

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1. The hero isn't clear

Aerial view of fine-dining duck legs

Although it might sound obvious, you’d be surprised at how easy it can be to get caught up in creating a shot and lose sight of what the hero is.

Applicable to all types of photography, the key to great food photography is to elevate the hero and subdue the supporting cast. Two of the easiest ways to do this is through composition and lighting.

When it comes to the composition, the hero doesn’t have to necessarily be the central item in the frame. It doesn’t even have to be entirely in the frame, but it should be the main focus. Think about using smaller or less significant items to guide the viewer’s eye to the subject, or even props to point to the subject.

Lighting can also be used to guide the viewer’s attention to the hero and we can easily use many different lighting techniques to make the subject stand out. For examples of this, take a look at the classes in our food photography course. You’ll see numerous examples in the live critique show where by simply shifting the contrast in an image we can control where the viewer looks in an image.

Jar of feta cheese on rustic wooden board

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2. There's no narrative

Process of making pasta

A top tip from professional food photographer and stylist Anna Pustynnikova is that all good food images should tell a story.

The story could be as simple or as complex as you like and can be told using a combination of backgrounds, props and lighting.

Whatever story you’re trying to tell, whether that be of a classic family recipe for soup or a mixture of herbs used to season the very best steak, the image should create desire and invoke emotion in the viewer.

3. An overpowering supporting cast

Rustic photo of roast beef

Food photography often involves a number of different props — from teapots to chopping boards, napkins to fresh ingredients. The trick to creating a cohesive image is to think carefully about what props you want to include.

Does the item fit with the scene you’re trying to create? Do the props match the style of the shot? For example, spices such as salt and pepper wouldn’t be amiss in a shot of butternut soup, but they wouldn’t work in a shot of croissants. The same way a rustic wooden chopping board would work well for a shot of a burger, but not sushi.

It’s important to consider every item you include in your shot because as much as these can help make a great shot, they can also very easily ruin an image.

4. Incorrect lighting style & techniques

Arrangement of raw fish on a slate background

Whether you’re using natural light or studio flash, the last thing you want to do is use front-on lighting for food photography. This type of lighting is one of the worst for food photography (and product photography in general) as it results in a flat, boring image.

As you’ll see in many of our food photography classes, I often use side or backlighting, as this helps enhance the texture and form of the subject.

Think about what modifier you’re using (especially if you’re photography glossy or reflective objects like berries) and what sort of lighting you want to create. Soft lighting can work for food photography, but you need to be careful that the image doesn’t appear flat. As you’ll see in many of our food classes, I tend to use more sparkly lighting or a combination of hard and soft light.

You can further control the light using flags, to block light in some areas of the image, or reflectors, to add extra light where you need it.

5. The wrong depth of field

Person holding a bowl of prawn stiry fry

A shallow depth of field is a common technique when photographing food, but it isn’t the rule.

While it can look nice and help isolate the subject, don’t get caught out by having too little depth of field as this can detract from the narrative and message of your image.

The best depth of field depends on the angle you’re shooting from and the size of your subject. For example, both the feta cheese and ginger and lime tea images were shot at f5 on a 35mm camera, while the duck was shot at f11. There’s no ‘ideal’ depth of field — it all comes down to what you’re shooting and what you want your image to do.

Karl reviewing images by members

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6. Unnecessary distractions

I’ve already mentioned choosing the supporting case of your image carefully, and while unsuitable or unnecessary props can be a distraction, so can bright highlights, busy backgrounds, or awkwardly placed items. These are small but meaningful distractions that can have quite a big negative impact on the final image.

To control unwanted highlights or bright spots, consider using flags to block some of the light. If you’re shooting on location and the background is too busy, make sure to remove any distracting items (as you’ll see we did in our spaghetti, charcuterie board, and croissant shoots). If you’re working in a studio, make sure to choose the right background — one that won’t distract from your subject.

Pay attention to the placement of your props too. Look for groupings that become too strong or arrangements that look to regimental. Even a simple fork placed at an awkward angle can ruin a shot.

7. Not shooting tethered

Image taken using Phocus software

If you can (and you probably can), shoot tethered. This will allow you to see much more than if you’re looking at the image on the back of your camera.

You’ll see in all of our food tutorials that Anna and I worked tethered, even when we were shooting on location.

Popular tethering software includes Lightroom and CaptureOne, but you can also shoot tethered using your camera’s own software. Nikon users, for example, have Nikon Camera Control Pro while Canon users have Canon EOS Utility.

Although it might require slightly more effort to set up, shooting tethered really is the best way to properly see what you’re shooting; you’ll be amazed at how much easier it makes the composition and lighting stages of the shoot.

All of these points are covered in more detail in our food photography critique show as well as in our food photography course. If you’d like more food photography tricks, take a look at our full tutorials and two live workshops with Anna.

FREE Food Photography Lighting Diagram

Our downloadable Food Photography PDF is the ultimate resource you need to elevate your food photography game to the next level!

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To learn more about food photography, take a look at our extensive range of food photography classes with top food photographer and stylist Anna Pustynnikova. These include everything from natural light food photography, to how to photograph editorial-style shots with models and hands.

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