Whether you’re a food blogger, travel blogger, frequent Instagram poster, heading out on vacation and want to snap some great photos of what you eat, or simply want to take tasty pictures of your food on the go, spending a few minutes to think about your photography can go a LONG way toward improving your finished results.
While I am by no means a master of the art of travel food photography (or even food photography in general), I have learned a few things along the way that have improved my own food photos tremendously. So, I thought I would gather my top travel photo tips and resources together, and share them with you!
Before we jump into the details, here is the broad answer to the question, how do you photograph food while traveling…
To photograph food while traveling, ensure you have good lighting, preferably natural light, and try to capture the dish from various angles to highlight its details. Use a shallow depth of field to focus on the food and blur the background, and consider including local elements or landmarks in the frame to give a sense of place.
On to the specifics!..
1. Remember The Basics
Just because you’re on the road, doesn’t mean that basic photography techniques don’t apply. Lighting, composition, keeping the camera stable, etc. – all that good stuff is still important.
Think about the light
Photography is all about light, and the best photographers know how to utilize light to make an image beautiful.
- Try to use natural, diffused light whenever possible. That means DON’T use the camera’s built-in flash (that flash has been called “food murder” for a reason!), and DO turn OFF the room lights. Ideally, you want to shoot your photos in a bright space, that is not in direct sunlight.
- Bonus – snap your pictures with the light coming from the side. This is called side lighting and can give your food photos more of a professional feel.
- If you happen to be somewhere where you can’t control the lighting – then embrace it! (You can only control so much in life, right?) Sometimes that dark, orangey glow or moody low light can work.
Think about composition
Just taking a few moments to think about the aesthetics of your overall image can make a huge impact on the finished result.
- Arrange the food so it looks especially appealing to you. While you are at it, consider creating some height by stacking the food (if appropriate, of course) and creating some contrasting colors with garnishes.
- Make sure that whatever is around the dish is also appealing, and adds to the image. A beverage, colorful napkin, or interesting piece of silverware can add a lot to a photo. Just be sure that the food remains the most prominent item in the image.
- Speaking of making the food prominent, consider how much of the final image you want the food to occupy. If you are too far away, the food will look tiny, and get lost in the image. If you are too close, the food is overwhelming, and it can be hard to tell what’s going on. Generally, you want the food to roughly occupy between 1/2 and 2/3 of the finished image.
- Remember that 3 is a good number. While not always appropriate, aiming for 3 of whatever is in your image is a good guideline to start with. Taking a photo of cookies? Try using 3 cookies in the photo, with one as the primary focus, and the other two in the background. Using props? Start with 3. That beverage, napkin, and utensil combo is classic!
- While 3 is in your mind, consider the rule of thirds. For whatever reason, our brains like images that are not quite centered. When you are composing your shot, imagine that the final image is divided into 3 equal parts horizontally, and 3 equal parts vertically. Aim to have the main subject (the food) at the intersection where two of those lines cross.
- Consider the angle. You will generally shoot from straight above; angled down at about 45 degrees; or eye level with the food. Which angle you choose really depends on what you are shooting, and what you find attractive. Flat foods will generally look best from above, while foods with some height can look very interesting if shot at an angle or straight on. Simply take a moment and look at the food from several different vantages to determine what will work best. I personally like to shoot at an angle, as it allows me to capture the texture and shape of the food, while still seeing most of the dish.
A blurry food photo is a bad food photo. Now I’m not talking about that lovely bokeh, where a select portion of the image is in focus and everything else is out of focus. I’m talking about a photo that is all blurry because your hand was moving around while you were taking the shot. While you don’t have to run out and buy a tripod (although I use one all the time!), considering when you need to and how to stabilize your camera can go a long way toward banishing the blurries.
- If you are in a bright space, your food is well-lit, and you have a decent camera, you can probably get away without stabilizing. Go ahead and go for that handheld shot!
- If you frequently take photos for your blog or social media and find you are getting a lot of blurriness, then yeah, you should probably invest in a tripod. Just do it!
- If you are snapping a quick photo in a dimly lit restaurant, set your elbows on the table as a makeshift tripod. Or better yet, rest the camera on top of something to stabilize it. I like to set the bottom of the camera on the table and shoot directly toward the food. For a little more height, try carefully resting the camera on the edge of an empty glass or cup for extra stability.
Change things up
Professional photographers will often take 50, 100, or even several hundred shots of a single recipe. They’ll change the camera settings, change what angle they are shooting, change the direction of the light, and change the arrangement of the food and props. This gives them lots of options to choose from when it comes to editing and producing the finished image. While you don’t necessarily need to give your photos this much effort, it’s still a good idea to change things up and shoot several different shots. If for no other reason, you’ll diversify your own personal style and shooting techniques.
Shoot a few initial shots, then take a peek to see how they look. Is there anything you would like to change? Start there, then shoot again. Even if you are happy with the first few shots, try shooting from a different angle, removing or adding a prop, adjusting the garnish, etc. You might be surprised at how much a simple change can impact an image!
Did you know that many of the luscious, gorgeous photos you see on Instagram, Pinterest, or your favorite food magazines probably looked pretty bland and boring before they went through editing? Editing really makes a big difference. Cameras don’t really see things the way the human eye does, so we need to do a little post-processing to make our finished images look as appealing as that original dish of food.
- If you are using a point-and-shoot or a DSLR, take a few minutes to edit on your computer. I use and absolutely adore Adobe Lightroom, while other photographers are in love with Photoshop, but even iPhoto or something along those lines will do the job. If you are using a smartphone, either use the phone’s photo editing software, or one of the bazillion apps available for editing.
- There are many options when it comes to editing, from adjusting the exposure, to adding vignettes, to using a filter, and soooo much more. The best thing to do is just start playing around with your images in your chosen editing software. Try an adjustment, see what you think, try something else, and so on.
- While you are at it, don’t be afraid to try the auto-adjust options. More often than not, I find that this does NOT give me the results I want, but sometimes it works like a charm. So you might as well click that auto-adjust button, and see what you think. You can always click undo.
- If you really want to dive into editing, I suggest you check out the amazing food photography ebook from A Pinch Of Yum. It’s called Tasty Food Photography, and not only does it cover ALL aspects of food photography, but the editing section is loaded with tips, examples, and even corresponding videos to help you master the process.
2. Make Sure You Know Your Equipment
Shooting on the go means dealing with rapidly changing situations. Things and people are usually moving around, and the light is likely different from one place, or even one moment, to the next – to name just a couple of the wonderfully chaotic joys of travel food photography.
Plus you’ve got the pressure to take your photos quickly. (Have you ever felt the weight of a crowd of people behind you, wanting to get to the vendor that you’re busy photographing? Or had the rest of your travel party impatiently staring you down while you held up dinner with, “just one more shot”? Not fun!)
If you don’t know your equipment well enough to make quick adjustments to adapt to the ever-changing situations, you are either going to get a lot of bad shots, or more likely, just give up.
- Whether you’re using a phone camera, point-and-shoot, or DSLR, take the time to get to know your camera. Spend some time practicing at home or during low-pressure outings.
- At a minimum, make sure you know how to set your focus and adjust the brightness.
- If you’re using a DSLR, practice quickly adjusting the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.
- As an aside for DSLR users – if you are going handheld with your camera (which is likely the case if you are out and about), then you will want to make sure your shutter speed is set fast enough to deal with hand movement and shake. The shutter speed you choose will depend on several factors, including the steadiness of your hand, and the focal length of your lens. I use a 60mm lens and find that 1/100th of a second is about as slow as I can go to keep the blurries at bay.
3. Check Your Work
Have you ever gotten home from a great shoot somewhere, downloaded the photos onto your computer, and discovered that they were all blurry? No? Oh, well, I haven’t either!😉
There are few things as frustrating as taking a series of photos, only to realize later, after the moment has passed, that there was something wrong – a smudge on your lens, the shutter speed was too low, your white balance was off – whatever!
To avoid this tragic scenario…
- Take a few seconds to check out your photos on the camera’s display.
- Zoom in, checking the details of the photo. Those displays are pretty darn small, and can’t always reveal if a shot is out of focus. So pause, zoom in, check it out, and continue shooting with renewed peace of mind!
4. Create Good Opportunities
Unfortunately, you really can’t get good photos at every location you visit. Some places will be too dark, or there will be too much going on, or people might even be opposed to you taking a picture. But generally, with a little thoughtfulness, you can create the opportunities you need to get those tasty photos.
- Do a bit of research beforehand. Try to discover when the light tends to be best, and when locations are less busy, giving you more opportunity to linger and shoot.
- If you are entering a location for the first time, give yourself a moment to take it all in. If it’s a market, walk around for a minute or two, scoping out the most appealing booths. If you’re approaching a food truck, stand back for a minute and check out what other people are ordering. These few moments of observation can really help you get a feel for what the best angles, stories, and shots are to capture.
- If you can, chat with the servers or staff. They will be much more helpful and open if you’ve developed a relationship.
- And of course, it’s always a good thing to be respectful and ask before you take a photo.
- Going to a restaurant? Ask for a window seat or a shaded outdoor seat. This will give you the best opportunity to get good light.
- Going to a market? Mornings, or shortly after they’ve opened, are almost always your best bet. The stalls are overflowing with beautiful, tasty goodness, the vendors are still (hopefully) in a good mood, and the market won’t be swarming with the mid-day shoppers.
- Sometimes shooting somewhere else is your best bet. Why not purchase a few beautiful items of food, head to a lovely location, and shoot there at your leisure? Big bonus – now you have a picnic to enjoy!
5. Be Resourceful
Out-and-about photography usually means making do with what’s around you and adapting as necessary. Here are a couple of resourceful tidbits I’ve gathered along my way…
- White napkins can be quite handy! Use them as a light filter or light reflector.
- Speaking of reflectors, white clothing, light-colored menus, or even white plates can be used to reflect light into those shadowy areas.
- Use wrappers to your advantage. Wrappers for cheese, sandwiches, and other hand-crafted items can be quite beautiful. Use them as backdrops or props that add to the story.
6. Keep The Story In Mind
Travel food photography is as much about the whole experience, as it is the individual foods.
- Keep your eyes open for shots that tell the whole story. Is the scene chaotic? Get a few pics showing the crowd. Are the smells intoxicating? Look for some photos with steam rising off food, inviting you in to smell more deeply. Is it an elegant, refined affair? Try to capture a few pictures that are graceful, and filled with coordinating colors and shapes.
- Grab a few wider shots, showing the whole scene.
- If it’s appropriate, shoot some images with the hands or faces of the people preparing, selling, or serving the food. (Remember that respectful bit again from the Create Good Opportunities tip – asking permission is a good idea!)
7. Focus On The Details
Capturing the details is important, too, of course!
- Get close to your food, and capture some mouthwatering details.
- Focus on or emphasize the details that make this particular food special. Regional garnishes, beautiful serving dishes, and unique ingredients will all add to the story and enhance the photo.
Practice and study! The best ways to improve your food photography are to practice taking pictures and to study from folks who have mastered the craft. So get out there and start taking pictures, and while you are at it, check out Tasty Food Photography to learn all about everything from camera basics to lighting, to composition, editing, workflow, and more. Good stuff!
Cheers! I can’t wait to see those tasty food photos!