Why professional food snaps are no flash in the pan

I want to eat you: Eddie Jim's photo of Hellenic Republic's saganaki with black figs.
I want to eat you: Eddie Jim's photo of Hellenic Republic's saganaki with black figs. Photo: Eddie Jim

Every day for a year, Katie Quinn Davies got up, went on a grocery run to the supermarket and confined herself to the kitchen with the goods.

Her aim: to learn the art of food photography and styling by cooking and shooting her own dishes for her blog What Katie Ate.

"For the first six months, I would get up every day and the kitchen would go from being spotless to a complete bomb site by 4pm," Quinn Davies says.   "I would be there on my own trying to cook burgers and sandwiches and style ice-cream, and I'd be shooting it as I'm going."

With a blossoming career as a food photographer and a newly published book, her hard work has paid off.

"The whole thing is really practice, practice, practice," says the former graphic designer from Dublin, who styled, photographed and wrote the recipes for her book, also called What Katie Ate.

"It's about experimenting and finding your own style."

The basics

Food stylist and recipe writer Caroline Velik says a good start is to photograph food in the daytime.

"The problem with food photography sharing on the web is that a lot of people are photographing food at night when they are eating it, and that really doesn't work," Velik says.


"They could have the nicest props in the world, but if they shoot it at 8pm at night it would still look terrible."

Food photographer Marina Oliphant agrees natural light is the key.

"Direct flash is food's enemy," she says.

Oliphant, a regular contributor to Fairfax publications, says food bloggers and amateur photographers would get better results by going to a restaurant during the day and booking a table by a window.

Using window light as the main light source and having it come from either behind or beside the dish will be most flattering, she says.

"The glossy highlights will reflect into the lens, accentuating the food's texture. Then you can hold a large piece of white card to bounce back some fill-light."

Fairfax staff photographer Eddie Jim has had to get creative in his quest for the perfect food shot. He has perfected a technique of using the table napkins or serviettes as reflectors, propping them up with a couple of wine glasses. Jim gives detailed food photography tips, including advice on lenses, in the attached video.

"They are really good as they are pure white," he says of napkins. "They're always there, but not everyone uses them as tools."

Styling tips

But it's not just the lighting and photography that make a good food shot. An interesting prop is a good start says Velik, who works as a stylist on both editorial and commercial shoots.

This contributes to the photograph visually while giving the dish context.

"A lot of the shots I see people blogging are just [taken] on the plate they ate their dinner on," she says.

She says the surface they put the plate on is also important.

"The glaring problem for me is [bloggers] all seem to have this orange wooden table," she says.

"Whatever this table is – throw it away. I think old wood is good, pale or dark, but definitely not orange.

"Think about the colour of the food that's on your dish. You can either provide a complementary colour or go simple white, grey or black. If it's a busy dish, don't put it on a patterned nanna plate."

Quinn Davies suggests a trip to a fabric shop to buy natural cloths that can be dyed in buckets.

"You can wash them over and over again so the edges fray and you get a bit of character in them. That is the kind of thing that I do," she says.

"I tend to go to little antique stores – generally out of the city because props can get very expensive – and potter around markets and op-shops picking up old little bits of vintage crockery and cutlery."

And if at first you don't succeed, remember Quinn Davies' motto: "practice, practice, practice".

Leave a comment below and share your food photography tips.