Home > The Editor's Corner > Editor’s Corner: Creating a Cookbook, Part III: Food Photography

First and foremost, a good food photo should evoke the food’s best traits and its inherent deliciousness. The colors and textures of a dish should be celebrated, not muted or hidden. … If your mouth doesn’t water when editing your photos, you did something wrong.1

Tips for Taking Enticing Food Photos

Now that you’re pretty confident in how to present the text of your cookbook, you’re probably thinking about photos. In some cookbooks, the photos seem to be the stars, with the text just there as a prop, but you’ve put a lot of time and effort into perfecting your recipes, so you want it to be the other way around. You want your pictures to enhance your content.

You may decide to include a photo for every dish, but that isn’t necessary. Some dishes—stews, for example—will look very similar. You might consider highlighting one dish every few pages or having one page for each section that includes a number of dishes all in one shot. I always suggest doing a bit of research first. Go to a bookstore or library (or even your own kitchen) and find cookbooks that have the feel you want to create in your own. Analyze how many photos are used and in what proportion to the number of recipes.

Once you’ve decided how many photos you would like to include, you need to cook the food (this is a good chance to test the recipes by following exactly as you’ve written them!) and then photograph it. Professional food photography is a thing for a reason, just like professional studio photography and professional portrait photography. As an indie author, however, you probably like to keep most things in your own hands whenever possible. may not have the money to hire a professional to style your food (yes, there are professional food stylists!), plus another to take its portrait.

No need to worry! Even professional food photographers agree that with recent advancements in cameras, you can create your own beautiful photos of your delectable food by keeping a few tips in mind. As with finding the right blend of ingredients, temperatures, and cook times to create your savory palate pleasers, you just need some patience, practice, and a bit of creativity to create drool-worthy photos to highlight your creations’ best features. Certain fundamentals such as composition, lighting, and styling go into every great photo. Below, I’ve captured some of the most widely agreed-upon keys from amateurs and professionals alike for photographing food.

  1. Use good lighting.

Everyone agrees this is the single most important thing you need for any good photography. Natural indirect light will make your food look its very best. Direct sunlight can create extremes of shadow and brightness, removing a lot of visible texture. (You should avoid using your in-camera flash for this same reason.)

  1. Employ the rule of thirds.

Good composition allows the viewer to immediately recognize the subject of the photograph. Using the rule of thirds is particularly helpful for ensuring this. Imagine your frame is divided into nine equal squares, like a tic-tac-toe or Sudoku board. In the rule of thirds, the feature of your image should appear at the crossing of any two of those lines to draw the eye.

  1. Vary the angle and zoom.

Your first impulse may be to snap a photo of your food from above while it’s still in the pot or pan. Although this is a great idea for a pizza, it may not be best for other food. Every food will photograph differently, and each will have a different feature you want to highlight. The best way to determine your food’s best side is to experiment. Maybe you’ve dished out a small serving of stew and one glorious chunk of potato keeps drawing your eye. It’s okay to zoom in on that potato from just a little above and to the right, letting the carrots and meat fall into the background.

  1. Consider your dish’s components.

What do you do when you’ve got a dish that always looks superb but just doesn’t seem to photograph well? Or one that tastes divine but looks … well, awful? Try photographing individual ingredients, like the delicate curls of shaved chocolate awaiting arrangement on top of the pudding in the background. Or consider taking an action shot, with your hand stirring a colorful ingredient into the cooking pot.

  1. Keep it clean—but not too clean.

Once you’ve plated the food, clean the plate up. A food stylist might arrange food with tweezers to get everything just so. You don’t have to get that detailed, but do make sure there’s no mess within the frame to pull attention away from your star. Of course, the shot doesn’t have to be pristine. An artful dribble of sauce on the lip of the bowl or a few scattered crumbs on the table in front of that plate of cookies can make the viewer long to clean it up for a little taste.

  1. Use props, but keep it simple.

Obviously, you’ll want to carefully consider the dishes you place the food on. They should complement the look of the food. Other things to consider in making the food look more appealing include utensils, napkins, tablecloths, even ingredients—and be sure to use the freshest available. Don’t overcrowd the image, though; one or two extra elements should suffice.

  1. Aim for plump, juicy, and fresh.

Meats and vegetables continue to cook after you remove them from the stove or oven, so some photographers say food should be removed just a bit early to keep it looking its most appealing. Another way to convey juicy and fresh is to lightly mist water or brush a bit of oil on raw or lightly cooked vegetables. Alternatively, you can do a few practice shots with stunt food before cooking so you can then quickly photograph the “star” food as soon as it’s done. Think of how a photo of just a little steam rising from a roast makes the food appear fresh and hot. That’s the impression you want your photos to convey.

Go on, give it a shot and take your own food photos. How do you know if you’ve taken a great photo? Your mouth will water when you look at the image!