An Amateur’s Perspective on Food Photography – A New Series

by Jenn on January 8, 2011

in Gluten Free,Photography

_PAG1449strawberrysalad Bleu Cheese Stuffed Burgers

Welcome to a new series on Jenn Cuisine!  I know most of you are here for great gluten free food, which is definitely here to stay.  In fact, after 2010’s success posting completely gluten free recipes for the entire year, I’ve decided to make this site full of all gluten free deliciousness for 2011 too!  But I have also started to get questions regarding the photography on this site, and so decided to start a little photography series here on Jenn Cuisine.

As a gluten free blogger, I think it is especially important to show how appetizing gluten free food can look.  When cooking GF you not only are overcoming the hurdle of cooking without gluten, but also have to overcome the mental hurdle in many people’s minds that anything gluten free won’t taste as good, even though in several cases I feel that gluten free can taste better than the conventional methods (dark chocolate hazelnut brownies, anyone?).  However, one cannot give flavor directly to the reader on a blog.  One can only do so by the words with which one writes and the photos/videos one displays.

Over the almost three years that this little blog has been on the interwebs, I’ve been able to improve my photography significantly, and hoped that sharing some of the things I’ve learned along the way may be useful to others – to see photography from a complete amateur’s perspective, who started from knowing absolutely nothing: nothing about light, any settings outside of auto, or even styling (ok I still know nothing about styling really…).  I’m not claiming to be an expert, nor even really know what I am doing half the time.  I, am learning  – always :)

That being said, nearly everything I have learned about photography I have learned from:
A) reading my manual – good to know what all the buttons do!
B) fiddling around with settings – just playing to see what happens when I change things
C) online tutorials (I keep a collection of links so I can always refer back to them)
D) helpful kind people willing to critique my work and give me tips & suggestions
E) taking LOTS and LOTS of photos – it’s not too late to try a project 365, perhaps?
F) looking at beautiful photos of food.
G) looking at not beautiful photos of food.

As someone learning about food photography, I think all of these seven things are important.  However, a lot of people tend to overlook part F when they are first starting out.  I’m an avid reader of several people who publish food blogs with beautiful food.  I follow groups on flickr like Food stylism which is a gorgeous collection of photographs taken by many different people.  Every time I thumb through my favorite food/recipe magazines, I’m always looking at the pictures as well.

Being able to look at a photo and get something out of it that I can take away and apply to my own photos can be a bit tricky though.  I started just by asking myself, what makes this photo beautiful to me?  I try to imagine in my head how it looked on the table, where the photographer would have been standing to see the frame that got published on the page.  I think about what angle the photographer chose to take the picture, why each element in the frame is positioned where it is, and where the color is.  Are there shadows? How does their presence/absence help the photo?  These types of questions.  I don’t always have the answers, but just bringing to my mind the types of things I want to look for in a photo is often helpful – if for nothing else but to remind me of these things when I am trying to make my own pictures of food.

The counterpart to part F of course is G, being able to look at photos that need improvement, and understanding what improvements need to happen.  Just as it’s important to look at gorgeous photos for inspiration, it’s beneficial to be able to look at your own work with a critical eye as well.  If you can identify concrete changes that need to happen to better a certain photo, then you have just started to create for yourself a strategy plan for improvement.

For example, three years ago I was visiting my parents and cooked them a special dinner.  I thought this photo of pan-seared prosciutto wrapped scallops on pasta was totally awesome, and I boasted about it proudly to my friends (even if I was a bit more modest on the actual post, ha!):


While this dish was incredibly tasty, I think you can say that the photo is a bit of a train wreck.

Why? Well let’s just evaluate this photo quick.

The first thing I look at is the lighting.  I remember taking this, I can tell you there were fluorescent lights on over head in the central part of the kitchen, and incandescents on just above the stove.  It was also daylight out too – early afternoon I believe.  That’s a total of three different light sources, all of which combined together to create different colors on different parts of the photo – see how the left side of the plate is red? That’s from the stove light.  Those shadows are also being cast from the stove light.  The right side of the bowl is almost green/blue, partly from the flourescents and partly from the daylight coming in from the window behind/left of the bowl.  All those different colors of light mean that no matter how much I play in photoshop (and play I did to get this pic above), without some master artistic masking/painting skills, it’s going to be next to impossible to remove all those different hues.  Those direct lights also made a lot of glare spots on the prosciutto.  Last I checked, prosciutto shouldn’t be that shiny…

Speaking of lighting, how was the exposure?  To me it looks a bit dark.  The white plate is no where near white, and the shadows in the poorly chopped basil hide parts of the dish.  But I was in auto, on a point & shoot, and at that time had no idea I could actually have some control over such things (guess what, you do have control! even some control with a point & shoot!).

Now I look at the background, because here it’s kind of distracting. I think it’s pretty obvious to tell that the bowl is sitting on the counter, partly on a cutting board, and it’s next to the stove on the right.  That drop of sauce that fell on the counter in the bottom left as I was plating? ha – definitely not the most attractive thing to have in this photo.

How is the angle? I was almost directly overhead which makes the dish look a bit flat.  The way I have plated the dish doesn’t leave me with many options though.  Yeah the plating is atrocious.  The pasta is every which way with ends poking out in odd directions, the scallops look like they were just thrown on to the plate, and that basil too – wow.  This was before I knew the technique called a chiffonade, an elegant way to cut up basil that doesn’t bruise the leaves so much.

And the composition? The main focal point of this pic was supposed to be dead center (it’s actually a bit below).  To me, being so centered looks boring.  I might have done better to move the plate a little off to the side a bit, and keep things from being so symmetrical.  Symmetry can be pretty, but not in this case.

I’m sure you can find other things wrong with this old photo of prosciutto wrapped scallops & pasta.  I only pointed out some of the biggest flaws that stand out to me now.  If I had done this little self-ciritique then, I probably wouldn’t have felt as great about that pic.  But I would have known much sooner things that I needed to fix.  Such as to only use one kind of lighting, and to take the time to learn what types of customizations to shutter speed, aperture, and ISO I can do with my camera.  Or to have a background to a photo that doesn’t distract so much.

Figuring these things out helped me to take the photos at the top of this post a year and a half later in the same exact place on my parents’ countertop next to their stove – obviously these photos still both have issues with them, but you can’t argue that it’s not an improvement (in fact both the salad and the burgers got on the illustrious Foodgawker!) – I thought more about my background, used a more pleasing angle, and stuck with only one overhead lighting that was much easier to then correct for in photoshop.

My first tip of my amateur’s food photography series is to look at lots of photos – your own, photos of others, both beautiful and terrible.  Look at them with a critical eye, and try to figure why you feel a certain photo rocks or turns you off from it.  Look at the lighting, exposure, focus, how everything is arranged in the pic, choices of colors in the frame, the background, even how the food is plated.  It will help you a lot in figuring out what you need to do to improve your food photography!


Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite January 8, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Jenn this looks like it will be incredibly helpful – I look forward to the rest of the series. I often look back at my early photos (I have not been blogging nearly as long as you and my learning curve is much more since my first photos are worse than train wrecks) to remind myself how far I have come. I still have a long way to go but at least I am seeing some progress. Thank you for breaking it down like this!

Jenn January 8, 2011 at 9:01 pm

Thanks Mardi, I hope it is! Yes, I love looking at my early photos for the same reason. It’s always good to remind yourself of how far you have come :)

JulieD January 8, 2011 at 4:48 pm

I’m so glad you decided to do this series. I can’t wait for more. You give solid advice and I’ll be back for more…because I need the help! :)

Jenn January 8, 2011 at 9:02 pm

Thanks Julie! I’m looking forward to publishing the other parts as well!

Tonya - What's On My Plate January 8, 2011 at 5:05 pm

Great post! I’ve been blogging for over 3 years now and it’s fun to go back and see when I learned new techniques or tricks about photography. My early photos are horrendous but I’m slowly getting a lot better. Looking forward to your series.

Jenn January 8, 2011 at 9:02 pm

Thanks! Yeah it’s always a bit of a slow process I think :)

Rosa January 8, 2011 at 5:30 pm

A great article! Very well written and thoughts. Everything you said is right. I also have developped my photo style over the years (I am far from being a great photographer, though as I lack material and knowledge – I am not a geek and that’s a problem ;-P).



Jenn January 8, 2011 at 9:03 pm

Thanks Rosa! Your style is so unique, I can always tell that a photo is yours :) I’m still working on figuring out my style…

GFree_Miel January 8, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Jenn, this is such a great idea! I have always loved your photography and will eat up any tips you can share. This is great!

Jenn January 8, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Thanks Miel!

Valerie @ City|Life|Eats January 8, 2011 at 6:29 pm

I am really looking forward to this series as I love your photography and can’t wait to hear more of your thoughts and advice on the subject :)

Jenn January 8, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Thanks Valerie, I hope you enjoy it!

Lana January 8, 2011 at 6:42 pm

I am excited that you are doing a series on photography. I just finished a class, and I am looking forward to putting it to practice. Every little tip helps, and your photos are pretty wonderful. Just like Rosa, I am not a technology geek and it takes time to learn every step. But it is so rewarding.

Jenn January 8, 2011 at 9:06 pm

Thanks Lana! I’ve never had the chance of taking a class yet, what a cool experience! Ha, I am a technology geek and it still takes me a lot of time to learn each step, I think it’s normal :)

Wendy @ Celiacs in the House January 8, 2011 at 10:02 pm

Great tips Jenn and mistakes all of us make starting out and when we are hurrying to do photography before serving dinner. Taking the time to get it right may mean I shoot leftovers the next day when there is better light. One of the great things about blogging is having that historical record of our growth. There are plenty of ‘train wrecks’ photo-wise and recipe-wise, but there is a pleasing visual record of how we have learned and changed over time. Here’s to learning and growing in photography with your help. Also heartily agree with making gluten-free food look fabulous.

Jenn January 8, 2011 at 10:15 pm

Thanks Wendy! Taking my time with a shoot was a hard lesson for me to learn. I also take a lot of photos with leftovers!

Sara January 8, 2011 at 10:38 pm

Thank you thank you thank you thank you. I need all the help I can get!

Jenn January 8, 2011 at 10:58 pm

You’re welcome!

branny January 8, 2011 at 11:03 pm

I’m looking forward to this series. Very well written and organized!

Jenn January 8, 2011 at 11:17 pm

Thanks Branny!

Heather January 8, 2011 at 11:22 pm

I’m so excited about this series. I’m just a beginner and need all the help I can get. I’ve always admired your photos. I love the idea of shooting leftovers. The Husband will be thrilled with that idea too. How many times have we had this exchange? “Can we eat yet?” “Almost done, just one more picture.”

Jenn January 8, 2011 at 11:26 pm

haha! Often times I make a “pretty” serving and an “ugly” one – if it’s something I can’t photograph later (because there isn’t enough or it really needs to be fresh like if there’s seafood), I’ll often give my husband the non-styled dish so he can start eating and then he doesn’t have to wait on me so much.

Christine January 9, 2011 at 12:04 am

I’m also really looking forward to this series – you’re so practical and honest and it’s wonderful!

I know for myself, I’m sometimes unwilling to critique my own work as I don’t really want to go back and re-do the photos. I think that learning to ask “what can make this better?” will really improve my photography! Thanks for the tips!

Jenn January 9, 2011 at 12:33 am

Thanks! I usually don’t go back and re-do photos, but sometimes I will – I’m making a second batch of cornbread tomorrow, for instance, because 1. It’ll be good to take with lunch to work and 2. I need a fresh uncut batch to try again with…

Christine January 9, 2011 at 3:09 am

After reading this, I went and got my tripod and retook pictures of the pizza I had last night for dinner. I’m much happier with them than the originals. Sometimes I’m just so stubborn about things like that it’s silly.

Jenn January 9, 2011 at 9:02 am

haha – yeah I don’t even put my tripod away anymore. It just lives permanently next to the dining table, and I’ve just had to accept this fact, because I will always need it until I get myself some nice lights.

penny aka jeroxie January 9, 2011 at 12:22 am

Thanks for the lovely tips… start to get clicking!

Jenn January 9, 2011 at 12:34 am

You’re welcome Penny!

Zoe January 9, 2011 at 12:49 am

Great post, Jenn! I always enjoy reading food bloggers’ posts on how they do their food photography. (One of my faves is Smitten Kitchen’s.) I’ve written a bit about my experiences with taking pictures of food but not yet an entire post solely devoted to it, so I look forward to future installments in this new series. 😀 Plus, your photography really is stunning, especially when you do HDR photos of the Swiss and European landscapes.

Jenn January 9, 2011 at 8:49 am

Thanks Zoe! Yeah Deb’s advice is great – one of the first food photography pages I ever read! I’m hoping this series will help me as well, make me think about certain issues more too…

Maggie January 9, 2011 at 2:39 am

Jenn you read my mind! Just today I was looking at one of my pics, which is decent, but definitely too bright, and I thought “I should ask Jenn for some tips.” Voila! Here you are. I am going to love this series, I think it’s a great idea because your pictures are always incredible – no evidence of toddlers running around your feet while you’re trying to snap a shot :) Thanks for the tips Jenn.

Jenn January 9, 2011 at 8:50 am

haha Maggie, too funny! Ha that’s because there are no little ones running around in our house (not even puppies or kitties)…just a hungry husband…

Kim - Cook It Allergy Free January 9, 2011 at 3:26 am

Yay! So excited about this series!! Your photos rock, rock, rock!! I cannot wait to see what goes on here and I so look forward to the photos that will be coming from Jenn Cuisine in 2011!!

Jenn January 9, 2011 at 8:51 am

Oh thanks Kim!!!

Barbara @ VinoLuciStyle January 9, 2011 at 4:11 am

Can you tell you’ve hit on something that people are hungry for besides food? The truth is, most of us would look at your first picture at one time and be happy with it. But what I was once happy with is past and I’m excited for you to share and learn from your experiences too. Fabulous idea; thanks in advance!

Jenn January 9, 2011 at 8:58 am

I think you are right. I was really very happy with that picture at one time too… It’s good to change your standards for yourself as you grow though :) I hope you enjoy it Barbara!

nicola @ gfreemom January 9, 2011 at 7:42 am

Love your honest approach and your description of the pic. Looking forward to more of your insights, great that you are sharing your learning curve.

Jenn January 9, 2011 at 9:00 am

Thanks Nicola! Yeah I’ve had quite the learning curve, and I’ve still got a very long way to go too – but maybe this way what took me three years to figure can help others in a little shorter time :) And as I learn new things I can share as well!

fooddreamer January 9, 2011 at 1:31 pm

As a fellow amateur food photographer, who’s pictures have improved immensely in the past few months, I love reading this sort of thing. Any tips I can get are so helpful!

Jenn January 9, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Great, I hope it’s useful!!

InTolerantChef January 9, 2011 at 8:08 pm

OK Jenn, I’ll read the instruction manual for my camera! Even though it;s a little point and shoot, there are buttons there that will probably make a difference. Great tips and advice ,thanks.

Jenn January 9, 2011 at 8:11 pm

When I actually sat down and read through my manual, I was actually really surprised at how much my camera could do that I never knew about before! Manuals are dry and boring and often use more tech language than everyday words, but there’s often really important info in there :)

CherylK January 9, 2011 at 8:08 pm

This is going to be a great series…am really looking forward to your posts. I’m going to take some photography classes through our local park district but they won’t be food focused. And thanks for the online links!

Jenn January 9, 2011 at 8:12 pm

Thanks!! You are lucky to be able to take some photography classes, I would love to do that – it should still be helpful even though it’s not food focused – the main issues of focus, exposure, and lighting apply to just about everything :)

Sanura January 10, 2011 at 4:34 am

With a new DSLR camera as a holiday gift, I now enjoy reading food blogs and sites that offer advice to taking better photos. There’s much to learn, and the new camera has taken pictures that has improved my site drastically. Before, I was using camera phone. I knew better, but when there’s a passion, one works with what they have.

Jenn January 11, 2011 at 12:24 am

There is definitely much to learn with a DSLR – hope you have fun learning with your new camera!

Deanna January 10, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Great tips, Jenn. I’m still learning – slowly. I need to get more creative and in tune with my camera. Little by little, right?

Jenn January 10, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Always, baby steps are how we grow in everything :)

Erin January 10, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Thank you so much for the list of links! Very helpful.

Jenn January 10, 2011 at 8:59 pm

You’re welcome !

Jessica January 10, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Wonderful tips! I will be following along this series for sure. I always look forward to your beautiful photography!

Jenn January 10, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Thanks Jessica!

Linda January 11, 2011 at 3:55 am

I’m looking forward to this series. I really want to take better photos, but it’s not an endeavor that excites me. I have made some improvements, but still have a long way to go. I do always appreciate other great photos, but I can’t say I take the time to analyze them. I need to do that more and with my own as well. As Wendy mentioned, I’m often in a hurry to take a picture before food is served. I’ll have to try using leftovers the next day, but in this house, there aren’t always leftovers! Great job Jenn.

Jenn January 11, 2011 at 8:37 am

Thanks Linda! Ha there aren’t always leftovers here either, I need to learn to make meals in bigger portions…. February 5, 2011 at 4:34 pm

Jenn~ Your photos are absolutely GORGEOUS and I look forward to following this series and learning more for my blog/site….

Thank you!!!


PS. I’m sure you’ve heard about the snow up here in the Northeast, another 6″ on the way! YIKES!

Jenn February 5, 2011 at 6:17 pm

Thanks Lisa!! Yeah I’ve heard about all of the crazy snow… it’s nuts!

Lyn @LovelyPantry July 11, 2011 at 6:00 am

I’m a little late, but I’m playing catch up. I think I have a photograph like that… with shiny prosciutto… lol! Well we all have to start somewhere and work our way up to awesome! 😀

Thanks for sharing.

Jenn July 11, 2011 at 7:30 am

ha! yep we def. all start somewhere :)

Megg March 3, 2012 at 5:58 pm

Haha… I laughed out loud at this. I have had the same experience with my own photos. I have so many ones I consider awful now that I remember being SO excited about… I showed them to everyone!

Jenn March 6, 2012 at 6:45 am

ha thanks! Glad i’m not the only one :)

Jodi June 7, 2012 at 3:47 am

Ha! ALL my photos look like your trainwreck photo! :) I love this post, and needed to read it! Thank you for sharing, must read further…

Andi (The Weary Chef) April 29, 2013 at 5:52 am

Hi, Jenn. I just found this series, and I am thrilled! I can’t wait to read every word and learn lots and lots. My food blog is only three months old, and I have so much to learn about photography. If I could get my photos half as good as your examples at the top of this post, I would be happy. I started out with just my iPhone, then moved to my terrible point and shoot, and just ordered a not-too-fancy mirrorless system camera that I have no idea how to use! I’ll be studying the manual and your tutorial closely :) Thank you so much!

Piotrek September 26, 2013 at 11:58 am

Great tips. I’m just starting with the food photo. Now my photos looks like in your example – prosciutto wrapped scallops. I’ve just started reading all your blog posts about food photo :).

debi January 19, 2014 at 2:23 pm

I just came across your blog and have already told my husband and kids they will not be hearing from me for the rest of the day! I have a healthy eating food blog myself and to be honest the pictures are not far from horrendous. Learning photography is extremely daunting and your site is nothing short of a blessing! Expect many comments from me today…. hee hee

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