December 5th, 2012
08:00 AM ET
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Editor's Note: Mark Hill is Director of Photography for Turner Broadcasting System, Inc.

Although I have been in love with photography since I was 12, my first serious relationship with the subject began as a wide-eyed intern in New York City. A well-regarded food photographer took me under his wing and taught me all aspects of the craft, starting with a respect for the food that nourishes us.

For me, the key to good food photography is that whatever you are shooting needs to looks fresh from the kitchen. Not all food is inherently beautiful - a rack of ribs, for example - but if it appears fresh and hot out of the smoker, it will look appetizing.

The plate needs to be composed in the kitchen as carefully as you frame your camera. Look at how the food is plated. Ask yourself if the most important element is highlighted. If not, rotate the plate to make it more prominent. Does the garnish enhance the plate or distract? If it distracts, reduce or eliminate it all together. Don’t be afraid to move things around.

Here are a few tips that will really make food images their best. They all apply if using the fanciest digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) or mobile phone camera.

dumpling soup

Don’t forget the prep
Some of my favorite food shots have been made in the kitchen as the chef is cooking or assembling the plate. (Note: If you look a little hungry, the chef will usually give you a sample!)

Flash vs. natural lighting
Nothing will ruin an image faster than using your flash. Turn it off and find the most flattering light on the table. Shooting during the day is much easier than darker dinner situations. Sit next to a window and let the natural, indirect light fall on the plate. If you need a little extra light to fill the dark areas, hold a white napkin near the lens, bouncing light into the shadows. You will be amazed how well this works.

Candlelight is a special situation that is best shot with a DSLR because most mobile phone cameras do not perform well in low light situations.

Find a place that is lit evenly, but not too directionally, such as under a spotlight from overhead. Grab a candle from another table and have a friend hold it near your lens to boost the ambient light. If you have a tripod, use it and set your shutter speed to 1 to 4 seconds. This will allow you to yield a less noisy image.

Get low and close
I tend to shoot tightly, cropping into the plate to emphasize the beauty of the food. Keep the camera low so you can see some of the background. Don’t be afraid to move some elements on the plate to cover parts that you don’t want to showcase.

If you are going to set the table formally, the fork goes on the left and the knife and spoon on the right. An easy way to remember this is that fork and left both have four letters. Spoon, knife and right have five.

Clean plate club
The first order of business once the finished plate arrives from the kitchen is to wipe off the edges of the plate. Even the best kitchens have trouble serving a perfect, pristine plate.

Move quickly
Delicate sauces and fresh garnishes look old in a few minutes, so be prepared to shoot immediately. Don’t be afraid to ask the kitchen for a few extra pieces of garnish if the ones on the plate look a little wilted or brown.

Although I am an enthusiastic consumer of all types of meat, I don’t particularly think it looks appetizing in a photograph. For example, chain steakhouses always showcase a fine cut of charbroiled beef in their advertisements, but I rarely think the image is appealing to the eye. Often, I choose to cover some of the meat with a sauce to tone down the amount of visible flesh.

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Filed under: 100 Places to Eat • Photography • Think • Travel

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soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. test2

    Exceptional post but I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more on this topic? I'd be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit more. Many thanks! test2

    March 17, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
  2. Scott

    Many of the pics do not look appetizing at all. How did all these get past the editor? Maybe it was on purpose. Success then as it made me comment.

    December 11, 2012 at 1:40 am |
  3. Chappellionaire

    lol @ #8

    December 9, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  4. Cookie

    The pic looks like dookie. Food looks old, lighting is not the best, and there are pieces of garnish or drops of soup around. Before talking about something and giving tips, practice what you preach. This is very, very bad.

    December 5, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
  5. John

    It looks like something that someone picked out of their teeth. Absurd artistic food.

    December 5, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • hungryinhamptonroads

      Meh. Go back to your chicken nuggets, microwave pizza, and chop steak swimming in powder-mix brown gravy.

      December 5, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
      • JoePub

        Now your talking. I have an appetite now.

        December 6, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  6. David M

    You forgot to mention that for best effect, you must post your picture to Facebook as soon as possible. :)

    December 5, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • Valerie

      Hahaha! Exactly what I was thinking! ; )

      December 9, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  7. sonomaist

    Thank you Mark. These are great tips. I often find in my blog postings that it's even easier to describe food in words than in pictures. To wit, a recent stroganoff recipe that was divine in the talking and the tasting but looked like the dog's dinner in photos, from every angle (I don't think stroganoff has a good side ;-)) Your tips are my new guide!

    December 5, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  8. Medical_Community

    If you want to see some food pics worth MORE than a thousand words.... food that has saved lives!.... then you need to google BadKittySmiles. Do an image search using that name.

    Not only does she have a way of taking a GREAT mouth watering photo, but she has revolutionized the cannabis cooking oil world! Hash liquor filled cordials, canna beef jerky, tantalizing asian soups, lasagna, and all the oils from gold to black... Mmmm! If you're on a toxic prescription medication, google Granny Storm Crows Medical List, and BadKittySmiles, to see what your alternatives are.

    You will probably discover that cannabis is a much better treatment compared to what you are taking, and even better, that it has fewer side effects, and it's non-habit forming. Even with its history as one of -the oldest known domesticated crops- known to mankind, it has caused NO deaths! You can't even say that for potatoes! Cannabis is safer and healthier than 90% of the food at your grocery store.

    December 5, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
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