How to Make Your Food Look Better than It Actually Is

Everybody knows the breakfast joint on Garfield and Bushard, Papa Z’s. I like to eat there on most Mondays, and I see many familiar faces from school whenever I do. The restaurant serves all sorts of traditional breakfast meals such as omelettes, pancakes, and breakfast burritos. You wouldn’t call their food particularly spectacular, however. I eat at Papa Z’s because breakfast there costs less than $10 and the dishes are simple, yet plentiful. You can’t complain about the taste, but you won’t relish it either.

But if you have never heard of Papa Z’s in your life, and you saw the picture above, you would be convinced that is was some four-and-a-half star place that serves brunch. That’s what my friends and followers thought when I posted this picture on Instagram. Many who knew about Papa Z’s were surprised that their pancakes looked this good. It turns out that a great picture can do much to trigger the senses.

Besides people, food is my favorite thing to take photos of. Like people, there are so many kinds and variations of dishes out there. Unlike people, they don’t care about their “good side” and look appealing all of the time. It’s very easy to take pictures of food, yet it takes years to master food photography. There are so many possible angles and lighting situations to take your meal’s picture with. But one thing is for sure – the photo defines the dish.

It’s possible bad food look great as much as it is possible to make fine cuisine look bad. This is where the picture is important. Many times, photos help you decide between different items on the menu. If you’ve never been to a particular diner before, you might look it up on Yelp and peruse the pictures of their food before you decide whether to go there for lunch or not. Fast food chains have the same rationale as they pay tons of money to have their product look more delicious and nutritious than it actually is. Here are some tips on how to do foodography:

1. It’s all about the depth-of-field

The food is the only star of the show. In fact, it’s the only thing people want to see; everything else has to fade into the background (or foreground). You want at a lens that can shoot at a wide aperture, from f/1.8 to f/2.8. I recommend a lens that is 35mm or more to compress the depth and bring out the silkiness and unique textures of every ingredient. Producing a shallow depth of field is important to blur out the background and keep the focus on where it really matters – the meal. Just think, “How can I make this meal look better than when I’m looking at it with my own eyes?” Depth-of-field answers that question.

2. Even though it’s blurred out, good background is very necessary

Even though the background will be blurred out because of depth-of-field, the colors and lighting in the background can make a big difference in the overall tone and composition of the picture. Back light, when the light is hitting the subject from behind, is the type of background lighting that you want to avoid when it comes to food photography. Look for anything in the background that can take attention away from the food as well, such as a used napkin or even the salt-and-pepper shakers.

3. Take your time

While it is embarrassing to continue taking pictures of your food for more than three minutes, it’s also equally as embarrassing to get a bad photo (at least in a photographer’s world). Allow yourself the time it takes to get multiple angles of the same dish and different backgrounds whenever possible. Sure, people will snicker at you while you are turned away, but at least you have stellar pictures that they don’t. You’ll be happy that you left with more than just one good photo in the long run, trust me.

4. Get soft lighting when you can

Food should look delicate and appetizing, and soft lighting gives that look. Whenever you can, place your dish next to a window shade where the light is even. Harsh shadows bring out the oiliness and pastiness of food, so avoid that as much as possible. I generally try to get seated indoors for good photos, but if the lighting outside affords you some good photos, then eat outdoors by all means.


While it’s key to practice these guidelines, it’s also very essential to get out there and try all different kinds of food. A foodographer can’t take pictures of good food if he doesn’t also eat good food. Look around the town and visit places you wouldn’t normally eat at. A great food photograper is a foodie first, and a photographer second.


One thought on “How to Make Your Food Look Better than It Actually Is

  1. Thanks for those tips on food photography Tue! Harsh lighting was a problem for my pictures about chocolate chip cookie cupcakes so I’ll make sure to avoid that and go to a nice shady window next time.

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