Delectable and Profitable Food Photography

Delectable and Profitable Food Photography


By Lou Manna with Erin Laverty

In food photography, you eat with your eyes first.  Colors, textures, contrasts and composition are key.  These elements are what go into creating mouth-watering images that jump off the page.  I’ve been a food photographer for over thirty years, and mastering the techniques to achieve these goals takes time and patience.  Here are some tips that I’ve learned over the years to help you along the way.  

Of utmost importance, enjoy what you do!  Your passion will shine through in your images.

Where to start
First of all, get to know your camera.  Some people are scared off by digital technology; make it your friend, but you don’t need to get too caught up in all the bells and whistles.  Understand what your camera is capable of doing, and learn how to use it to your advantage to bring out the best in your subject.  Learn the foundations first, such as f-stops, shutter speeds, ISO’s and metering.  Keep in mind though, that your eye is still the most important element in taking a good photo, and no amount of developing technology will ever replace this.  
Learn how to see in a new way.  Pre-visualize your shot – what do you want the outcome to be?   
Take a class or attend a seminar! 
Meet people, get involved, join professional organizations, go to conferences, workshops, etc.  Besides improving your skills, you’ll make connections in the industry, which can lead to jobs.

As an artist and an entrepreneur, try to keep a balance between the creativity and the practical side of business.  Keep good records of your expenses.  Stay organized, in both your business and with your images.  Use metatags and keywords in all of your photos. 

The best way to make money, as my father told me early on, is to keep your overhead low.  Work from home when you can, and rent a space when you have a job.  Why didn’t I listen to him?

My simple recipe for success 
Being able to make a client happy will almost certainly guarantee you return business.  It’s the combination of the quality of your work and your relationship with clients that ensures they will stick with you.  Be personable, be professional, and consistently deliver delectable images to them.  Surprise them with something different that they didn’t envision but exceeds their expectations.  There are many times a client comes in with an idea of how they want the shot to look.  I’ll take a few the way they want it, then do a few of my own.  They almost always reply with, “Wow, I didn’t know it could look that good!”

Here are some other ingredients for success:

  • Don’t make excuses, do something about it!  Find creative solutions to issues you encounter. Be positive always!
  • Develop an elevator pitch – be able to tell people you meet the highlights of your career in about 30 seconds.
  • Always carry business cards with you!  Put photos on the back to show off your work.
  • Find your own style: what makes your photography stand out from the crowd?
  • Make your website stand out, and make it attractive and easy to navigate. I use liveBooks, which is a customized website designed to help me get more work and it does!!!
  • Utilize PhotoShelter to increase sales of your images and archive your photos.  Even if you have great images, you won’t get far if they’re hidden away on your hard drive.  They have advanced marketing tools so I make my photos work 24 hours for me.
  • Draw people to your work with a blog, and keep it updated. 

Where I see the industry/market headed
The importance of a photograph in our society is greater than ever before.  Technology has helped people who don’t know what they’re doing come up with something decent or, at least “good enough.”  There are still those clients who understand the value of a professional image in promoting their product properly in its best light, but they are becoming fewer and farther between. 

This is the age of the “do-it-yourselfers” in all aspects – videos, websites, blogs, and writing.  People are using their camera phones to take photos of food everywhere they go.  With the current state of the economy, it might not make sense for companies to go with a professional photographer.  I can tell you first-hand that clients have increased their sales volume 10-50 percent once my images are proliferated.  That to me is obviously a sign of a wise client, and proves that investing in a professional photographer is worth every penny. 

Here’s a taste of what went on behind-the-scenes at a recent shoot at Havana Central in New York.

Photo by Lou Manna

Photo by Lou Manna

Photo by Lou Manna

Photo by Lou Manna

Studio & Shot Set-Up Considerations
Work with a food stylist/prop stylist
Having a food stylist to work with is a great asset, since they’re very knowledgeable in how to make the food look more appetizing for the camera.  If you’re not able to work with a food stylist, here are some insider tips:

For editorial and advertising shots, the real product must be used.

  • Consider contrasting colors and shapes of the food items.
  • Undercook the food so it doesn’t look dried out.
  • Use a brush with light oil to add shine to the food.
  • Elmer’s glue is often used in place of milk in cereal packaging photos, since it isn’t the product that we are selling and it doesn’t make the cereal soggy.
  • Manipulate small elements with tweezers.
  • Spraying a mixture of glycerin and water will add droplets that make fruit and vegetables look fresh and drinks look cold.
  • Fake ice cream (when the ice cream itself isn’t the main product) made out of confectionary sugar, mashed potatoes, margarine and corn syrup looks as good as the real thing and doesn’t melt.
  • Fake ice cubes made out of hand-carved Lucite won’t melt either and look much better in drink shots.
  • Clean up the plates with q-tips, paper towels, and glass cleaner.

A prop stylist is also a big plus, as they know how to use props to set the mood of the shot and enhance the food.  Here are some tips on using props:

  • Use props that are smaller, lighter and softer shades of color.
  • Solid and textured cloths work better than stripes and patterns.
  • Watch for reflections in the silverware and use a small piece of putty to angle it.
  • Always try to keep it simple, so the food can be the star.
  • Currently, fewer props are the trend so more emphasis is placed on each item.

Having the ability to control light on the subject is the key to successful food photography. It is what truly creates a great photo that will make you salivate!

  • Avoid using direct flash, since it flattens the subject.
  • Bounce the flash or light off to the side of the subject to give it more dimension and some shadow.
  • Use mirrors and reflectors to give detail in the shadows and create specular highlights.
  • Use household items such as aluminum foil as a reflector and wax paper as a diffuser.
  • Use gold reflectors to add warmth to the shadows.

Framing techniques
In composition, think right: that is, since we read from left to right here, a spiral clockwise composition will draw people in and make the image more appealing.  Play with the angle of the shot and depth of field – it helps make the photo interesting and captures attention.  Simple, clean images are always best.

I hope that I’ve helped you on your tasteful journey in profitable food photography.

Lou Manna is one of the pre-eminent food photographers and Olympus Visionary photographer. His work has been published in national ad campaigns, major magazines and over 30 cookbooks. He recently authored his first book, Digital Food Photography, which shares many of his techniques for creating delectable shots. See more of his work at his website and check out his food photography workshop schedule.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 3 comments for this article
  1. marshall at 2:52 am

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