Styled food is when dishes are plated up to look beautiful, often on a table laden with props and a backdrop, such as the images that appear in recipe books or food magazines.
Lifestyle photography involves shooting food with minimal embellishment, or exactly as it is, but in a way that still makes it seem delicious. Think of a table spread with food at a family barbecue or picnic or fish and chips on paper, without any bells and whistles. Food bloggers and foodies on Instagram tend to keep things simpler, because they don't usually have as many resources as professional food stylists and photographers do.
However, both these types of food photography use many of the same skills and camera settings.
Although many styled shoots are held in studios, natural light is actually perfect for photographing food at home, or when you're eating out. You can place a dish next to a window if shooting indoors or chose a well lit location if shooting outdoors, and avoid using flash or overhead lighting that can seem stark and flat. If the light coming through the window is too bright, use a white sheet or curtain to diffuse it.
Choosing the right ISO and white balance settings to suit the light you are working in, is crucial in ensuring that food looks appealing and appropriately colourful. This is particularly important when shooting white foods, which can look yellow, blue or green if the light you are working has a strong colour temperature.
When it comes to food, shooting up close is much better than shooting wide unless you have a long platter to fit in or a range of dishes you want to feature in one shot. Open your aperture to get a shallow depth of field, such as f2.8 or f3.5. Macro lenses are ideal for food photography, especially for capturing small details.
Many food photographers shoot from above, and it works well for most types of food, although for some dishes, such as a layer cake where you want to see the inside or a stack of pancakes, it can be better to photograph from the side, to get a sense of height, like in the image below.
Give the food a sense of interaction. A cake cut open, a cookie with a bite taken out of it or some ice cream curled up on a spoon is much more interesting than a static shot of the untouched dish. Some foods such as an egg oozing some yolk, actually look more appealing when they are served in a slightly messy way, like in the photo below.
With lifestyle photography it's nice to capture the food as part of the overall setting, featuring the people who are eating it. They can be part of an album or photo essay of an event such as a birthday party or Christmas Day.
Image taken by Oh Sugar Events
Food photography is one genre of photography that almost always benefits from being in colour rather than black and white. The pop of red tomatoes, blueberries, green spinach leaves or orange carrots will draw the eye in, so use that colour to your advantage and try to include other complementary colours in the frame.
If there are lots of colours the image will be too visually overwhelming, but too many neutral tones (white, grey, black, beige) can be boring. If the food you are photographing is quite plain or neutral in colour, add injections of bright shades or pastels by using props.
In food photography, props can include anything from cutlery or serving elements such as jars or gravy boats, or ingredients that make up the dish, or even other items that have nothing to do with the food, but add a touch of occasion, or hint at the season.
The point is to include props that enhance the food and the type of meal it is. For example if it's a breakfast food it makes sense to add a cup of coffee or tea, or if it's a party food, a colourful plate with some party hats next to it. If you want to keep the focus on the “homemade” or “wholesome” aspect of the food, including some of the produce that appears in the final dish can be nice, such as placing a wedge of lemon next to a slice of lemon meringue pie.
Think also about the surface the food is sitting on – is it a wooden board, white plate, picnic blanket or metal tray? It can affect the overall look you want to achieve – whether that's rustic, clean, formal or informal.
Some foods are visually boring, and trying to make them look appetising is one of the fun parts of food photography. Think of really unsophisticated foods such as toast or a bowl of soup and brainstorm ideas to try and make them look delectable. Sometimes something really simple, such as adding a tiny bit of garnish (like basil or breadcrumbs) on top of the soup, or drizzling a swirl of honey over the toast and capturing it mid-pour, can make all the difference.