Amateur’s Food Photography Part III: Take Your Time

by Jenn on January 25, 2011

in Photography

For me, food photography is about finding my zen space.  Last week we talked about evaluating the color and quality of light with a lot of technical information jam packed into a post, and this time I want to talk a bit more abstractly about photography.  Oftentimes we are flying around to take photos quickly while the food is still hot, only to realize after the food is eaten and gone and that what we shot on camera is less than desirable.  Sound familiar?

I’ll tell you a little secret about my French Onion Soup

prestaging for French Onion Soup

That pot didn’t hold any soup.  It was totally empty, and in this case acted as a prop just used for staging.  The soup was still in a pot on the stove, onions busily caramelizing away (after all, I did have 4 whole hours to set up this shot since French onion soup depends on slowly caramelized onion goodness :-) ) I knew I wanted to include the pot, even with all its scratches and wear, because I love the fun country feel it gives to the scene.  So I set my favorite cutting board on the table in front and started to think about my composition.

This soup had an entire head of garlic in it, which gave me the perfect excuse to set my garlic strand next to the copper pot.  I used a lens and lens cap as standins until I looked for the right bowls for my soup. Yep, these will do!

Staging French Onion Soup Shot Pullback for Onion Soup

Ok now that I have my “scene” a little figured out, I can play a bit – add some garnish from the scallions? leave them out? How about killing the incandescent over head light (see it reflecting on the bowls) and working on lighting up those shadows on the front of the bowls a bit – well, it’s rather rudimentary, but I think this setup will do for now (this is before I knew where to buy things like poster board) – I just hung some white place mats and positioned them to help bounce the light coming in from the windows, and played a little more with my framing, focus and exposure settings.  By the time the onions were finished and I was taking the bowls of soup out from under the broiler, all I had to do was set the bowls in place and then click with the camera.  Less than two minutes later, my husband and I were enjoying piping hot bowls of French onion soup.

French Onion Soup, Gluten Free and Vegetarian French Onion Soup, Gluten Free

Ok, in that minute or two I did take a couple more just for fun.  And yeah, I totally burned the bread.  Oops.  But the point is, I didn’t have to spend a lot of time fussing around with the food trying to find a shot while it was getting cold.  I planned ahead, and took my time.  Often, the photos that I am most disappointed with are the ones where I rushed.

And the way to keep from rushing is to find your zen with the shot.  Before the food comes to the table.  Play with the arrangement of the elements in the scene.  Play with the light.  Use stand-in plates while your food is cooking and try a bunch of angles and perspectives ahead of time, so that when the plate arrives, you already have a plan.  A well-thought out, put together plan – even if it is a little rough on the edges or doesn’t have any fancy equipment.

This week my suggestion for you is to plan your shot ahead of your food.  You can take your time while you make all of your photography decisions.

It will make all the difference.

Need to catch up? Read the rest of the posts in this series:
1 – Amateur’s Perspective on Food Photography – A New Series
2 – Food photography is about celebrating light


Rosa January 25, 2011 at 9:26 pm

I never take pictures before eating, otherwise I would lose my calm since my boyfriend would be yammering and asking when we can start… Impossible to concentrate in such conditions! LOL.

A great post.



Jenn January 25, 2011 at 9:50 pm

haha my husband is the same – definitely hard to concentrate when someone is threatening to grab the bowl off the table and start digging in lol!

Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite January 25, 2011 at 9:38 pm

That’s a great suggestions Jenn. What I have started doing is saving a portion (or making an extra portion if it’s in individual pots) and taking the photo the next day in better light. It’s rare that I photo and eat the meal on the same day. That’s really helped me plan my shots better and get decent light without having to faff about too much. And it annoys my dining companions less 😉 Loving this series!

Jenn January 25, 2011 at 9:51 pm

Thanks Mardi. Yes saving some for a better day is also a good option so that you can have time to play. Though even if I didn’t have a hungry husband hovering over me, with the cheese here I’d still have a pretty narrow window – cheese doesn’t look awesome for long – once it’s melted and then starts to cool it kind of reminds me of glue – not fun to photograph or eat haha!

Jessica January 25, 2011 at 9:46 pm

These are all wonderful tips. I often find myself rushing to get the right shot without thinking about the actual set up of the shot. I need to do better at that, and focus on other things in the photo besides the food. I love the way the pot brings a rustic feel to your photo. Just beautiful. And fabulous series post… as always!

Jenn January 25, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Thanks Jessica – I love that pot as well, it was such a find for only 15 bucks too at a flea market! It’s really meant for fondue chinoise, and one day I’ll actually use it for its intended purpose :)

Launie January 25, 2011 at 9:52 pm

This is the first post that I have read in your series, and it’s fantastic! (As well as coincidental. My husband and I were shooting crocks of onion soup through “The Daily Show” last night.) I’m going to go and read the rest of your series now.

Jenn January 25, 2011 at 9:58 pm

ha nice!! I just updated the post so that links to the previous posts of the series are easy to find, hope that helps! January 25, 2011 at 10:10 pm

Oh Jenn!!!!

YAY! You photograph some of the BEST photos out there!
So, I will be taking your advice for sure!

YES! I we’re crazy to shoot photos before eating BUT we gotta do what we gotta do, LOL!
Perhaps we could serve a amuse bouche…..


Jenn January 25, 2011 at 10:13 pm

Aww thanks Lisa! Ha I love the amuse bouche idea to make time for photographs!

something_good January 25, 2011 at 10:14 pm

really interesting post! thanks for the tips. and I always take the photos before eating because otherwise there will be nothing left to be photographed :))

Jenn January 25, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Thanks! Ha yes this is often my issue too – I need to remember more to cook for more portions and save the rest!

Chef Dennis January 25, 2011 at 10:28 pm

this has been a great series Jenn!! Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with us!

Jenn January 25, 2011 at 10:30 pm

I’m glad it helps! This particular tip took me a long time to realize, and even longer to make a habit out of. But now it’s how I try to approach every pic, and giving myself the time to plan has really worked out well for me.

Sneh | Cook Republic January 25, 2011 at 10:34 pm

Very nicely done! Thanks for sharing some great perspective and advise. Love that copper pot and I bet the soup was delish! :-)

Jenn January 25, 2011 at 10:35 pm

Thanks! It was :)

Linda January 25, 2011 at 11:01 pm

I really like this idea, Jenn. I never thought of setting the stage before the food is ready. So simple, but so helpful. Thanks!

Jenn January 26, 2011 at 5:04 am

Thanks! Ha yeah it does seem like a super simple trick, but it helps!

branny January 26, 2011 at 1:27 am

Great tips about planning shots! I’ve never done that.

Jenn January 26, 2011 at 5:05 am

Thanks Branny – it hasn’t really been so long since I’ve done it either – but it’s really helped my stress level when I’m taking a pic of something that I want to eat right away, which can only be a good thing :)

Gwen~healthymamma January 26, 2011 at 1:46 am

What a wonderful post! Really, I so appreciate the simple, honest thoughts and the pic w the napkins really helped, I’ve been light bouncing wrong! 😉 Lighting and composition are such a struggle for me and you nailed it right on the head w taking your time! I was just thinking a few minutes ago, ‘Why do I do this to myself’ rush, rush rush only to get 20 bad shots. All in all, I looove food photography and food blogging, I’m sortof a newbe and trying to give myself a break.
Again, I really appreciate the time you put into your blog and this wonderful post!

Jenn January 26, 2011 at 5:08 am

Well I’m certainly no expert at bouncing light! As you can see from the pullback there are still some shadows in front of the bowls, which I compensated for by upping the exposure and blowing out the background a bit. But that is a subject for a different post :) Glad this series is helpful!

Gwen~healthymamma January 26, 2011 at 1:46 am

Oh, p.s.
the pretty little pot is great and your cutting board beautiful! 😉

Jenn January 26, 2011 at 5:09 am

Thanks! The pot really was a find!

Heather January 26, 2011 at 2:04 am

I feel like I’m learning a magician’s tricks! Thanks so much for walking us through your creative process.

Jenn January 26, 2011 at 5:11 am

haha sometimes it can seem so a bit! Really anything I’m doing is not so complicated, just a combination of simple little steps – really I am no expert :)

Deanna January 26, 2011 at 2:39 am

Great advice! I never do it, which is why my hot food shots suck, while my bakery shots (where I have all the time in the world) tend to be marginally passable. Meh. Everyone likes bakery anyway, right? :p

Jenn January 26, 2011 at 5:11 am

Thanks Deanna! haha I like your bakery philosophy :)

Biz January 26, 2011 at 5:41 pm

Thanks for your tips Jenn! 😀

Jenn January 26, 2011 at 8:59 pm

You’re welcome!

InTolerantChef January 26, 2011 at 9:33 pm

Great advice as usual Jenn. I hope you are proud of me, I have been playing with all my camera settings and buttons lately. I didn’t know it had so many, there’s even a setting just for food shots!

Jenn January 27, 2011 at 12:06 am

cool! Is it similar to a macro setting? My old point & shoot had a macro setting, but def. not a food setting!

InTolerantChef January 28, 2011 at 11:54 pm

Mine has macro as well as super macro. It’s just a little 8mp olympus but I’m working on it!

Jenn January 29, 2011 at 12:22 am


Barbara @ VinoLuciStyle January 27, 2011 at 2:52 am

Love this series Jenn. For months my photos were always rush jobs. Until recently, standing any length of time on the leg I injured would not allow me much time to do anything other than a few quick shots hurriedly put together. It’s only recently that I’m able to take some more time and put more effort into something as you’ve exampled for us here. Still a ways to go! I’m checking daily now for my ‘perfect’ time of day and find that I’m going to have to use the luxury of working from home for an afternoon photo more often. Not late afternoon when the sun is streaming into my dining room but more of a late lunch break with photos!

I appreciate you sharing your experience; I’m a hands on learner and considering the distance between us; your hand is on my learning! Thank you.

Jenn January 27, 2011 at 8:00 am

That is one of my favorite times for taking photos as well! Glad you are improving Barbara!!

Lana January 27, 2011 at 3:06 am

I like to plan ahead for everything else in my life. So why haven’t I ever thought of planing a photography shoot of my dish?
Getting better photos is my New Year’s resolution, and I will incorporate your advice. It makes so much sense and, as you said, alleviates stress.
Thanks, Jen!

Jenn January 27, 2011 at 8:01 am

Ha yes, planning helps a lot :) Have fun with your photos!

torviewtoronto January 27, 2011 at 3:12 am

thank you for sharing

Jenn January 27, 2011 at 8:01 am

You’re welcome

Liz the Chef January 27, 2011 at 4:26 am

This is priceless info…I will reread all of it – thank you so much!

Jenn January 27, 2011 at 8:01 am

Great I hope it helps! If you come up with questions along the way, feel free to ask!

Cristina January 29, 2011 at 8:55 am

I’m enjoying your series. You are so creative and have such an eye for composition. Thank you for sharing your tips. Lovely lighting coming in from that window.

Jenn January 29, 2011 at 9:33 am

Aww thank you! Yes on a sunny day it is rather lovely light. The quality is nice on a rainy day too (like this one – you can see the rain on the balcony in my pullback), but there just isn’t enough of it – these exposures were upwards of an entire second!

Molly February 4, 2011 at 6:51 pm

You know, in all the time I’ve been taking pictures of my food, it never dawned on me to set up shots ahead of time when possible. (*smacks forehead*) Thanks for the tip!

Jenn February 4, 2011 at 7:18 pm

It took me a while too actually, funny how such simple things can be so elusive!

Jenny @ Savour the Senses March 10, 2011 at 7:58 am

These posts are awesome. I am semi-new to the blogging/food photography world and am always looking for help. This information is really good for me. Thanks so much for you help!

Jenn March 10, 2011 at 8:05 am

Thank you so much!! I’m really glad this is helpful for you!

debi January 19, 2014 at 3:16 pm

a HUGE lightbulb moment. In the last week alone between you and another blog I have found TONS of mistakes I was making. Setting the scene has now become a priority for me. Thank you for your kindness in sharing.

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