Local food is a key selling point of pretty much every destination. In fact, food plays such an important part in our experience of a new place that it should be on every travel photographer’s shot list!
However, capturing good travel food photography can be incredibly difficult. In conventional food photo setups, the photographers work with stylists to prepare the food, then they light it carefully to ensure each item looks both natural and appealing. But as a travel photographer, you don’t have the luxury of professional stylists or studio lighting. You have to work with ambient light and photograph the food as it’s served!
Fortunately, there are still ways to capture great shots of food while traveling, and that’s what I share below: My top 10 favorite tips to help you create on-the-go food photos!
So whether you’re a beginner looking to enhance your travel shots or you’re an experienced snapper seeking that extra edge, you’re bound to find something helpful in this article. Let’s get started!
1. Shoot as soon as you receive the food
This might seem obvious, but it’s an essential travel food photo tip: You should always capture a dish as soon as you receive it – when it’s still looking nicely prepared – not after you’ve eaten. And even if you’re not yet planning to eat, don’t dawdle; if you want the food to look fresh, it’s important to get started shooting right away.
Of course, if you want to show what’s inside the dish, you can always take photos along the way, but a freshly prepared dish will almost always look more appetizing than one that has been eaten!
2. Use natural light, not flash
The biggest mistake people make when photographing food on their travels? Using the flash on their camera. While professionals often use flash in the studio, they make sure to modify it heavily and work from different angles – whereas the flash on your camera will look harsh and far too intense. If you do try to use your on-camera flash, it’ll wash out the beautiful colors and textures of the food, and it’ll ruin the ambiance of the venue, too.
So instead of relying on flash, keep things natural. Make sure your camera’s pop-up flash is turned off, and try to sit near a window (or, even better, sit outside!). Do your best to avoid bright sunshine on the food, however – this light is too harsh and will create strong shadows.
If you’re shooting outside on a bright day, position the plate in the shade, or even under an umbrella, to avoid direct light. In my experience, cloudy days are best for photographing food outdoors as the soft, diffused light will evenly illuminate the dish. I captured this next image on an overcast day:
3. Keep your compositions simple
The subject of your photos should always be the main dish, so do your best to avoid cramming too much into each food photo composition. Make sure you include plenty of negative (i.e., empty) space so the viewer’s eye has somewhere to rest.
If you do wish to include other elements in the photo, such as a drink or other dishes, they should be very much secondary. Use a wide aperture to blur out these elements so they don’t clash with your subject, or carefully place them around the main dish to ensure a thoughtful composition.
You also need to think about the background; a simple wooden table is much better than a shiny metallic surface! If you have the time and the space, it always pays to position your plate of food in a few different spots until you find the background that looks the best.
4. Think carefully about the camera’s orientation
If you plan to ever sell your food photos, it’s important that you consider whether you’re shooting in landscape or portrait orientation. Different publishers and outlets will have different requirements and needs; for instance, a magazine may need portrait shots for front- and back-page covers, as well as a mix of smaller and larger landscape and portrait shots for its main content.
In general, it’s safest to shoot in portrait mode, but I’d really recommend capturing a few different photos in a variety of orientations to be safe. Note: If you don’t have time to create a handful of photos, you do always have the option to crop (though because cropping does shave away pixels, it’s best to get it right in-camera).
5. Keep your subject sharp
In my experience, one of the toughest parts of travel food photography is nailing the focus while also preventing blur. This generally comes down to a combination of your shutter speed and your depth of field, with slower shutter speeds leading to more blur and greater depth of field producing images that are in focus throughout.
Choosing the right settings can be tricky here, but I’d recommend that you keep your shutter speed above 1/60s or so to avoid blur to camera shake (and 1/100s is safer if you have the option). If you find that you’re struggling to reach 1/60s without underexposing your photos, increase your ISO – but be aware that the higher your ISO, the more noise that you’ll get in your photos.
As I mentioned above, you should also consider your depth of field, which is determined (at least in part) by your lens’s aperture setting. If you want more of the image in focus, you’ll need a narrower aperture, such as f/8. On the other hand, you can use a wider aperture, such as f/2.8, to blur out the background; this is riskier, as it gives you less of a buffer if you misfocus, but it can also look very flattering.
6. Shoot in RAW
Yes, it’s common advice, but that’s because it’s so important: If you want to get the best results, make sure your camera is set to its RAW format.
You see, if you’re photographing food outside the studio, one of the main things you need to watch out for is color casts (which are caused by restaurant lighting, light reflecting off the walls, and even umbrellas). Compensating for color casts while shooting can be inconvenient, but if you shoot in RAW, you can correct for it easily in post-production.
On the other hand, if you shoot in JPEG, you’ll have a much harder time neutralizing color casts while editing, which is one of the reasons why so few professionals rely on the format.
Be aware, however, that RAW files are much larger than JPEGs, so make sure your memory cards and computer storage drives have plenty of space!
7. Shoot at an angle
Here’s another compositional tip for travel food photography, and it’s a big one: Do your best to avoid photographing food dishes directly from above.
In my experience, photographing directly downward often makes the dish look flat and uninteresting. Instead, aim to shoot from an angle – 45 degrees is generally good – or even at eye level to give the dish a different perspective. It can often be helpful to shoot from a variety of different angles; when you’re done, you may even be able to display the images as a series.
The exception, by the way, is when you’re photographing a dish with symmetry; in such cases, a view from above can look quite stunning!
8. Frame the food carefully
Remember: When you’re photographing food, you don’t always need to show the entire plate. It’s okay to go in close, especially if the dish contains some details you want to highlight.
Don’t be afraid to crop out some of the plate – or even to get extremely close so as to show the viewer the textures, colors, and ingredients. The key is to think about the main ingredient or hero of the plate, and then compose your photo around that.
You can always try a few different crops and see what works best in post-production. (Bear in mind that if you want to capture extreme close-ups, you will need a macro lens.)
9. Look beyond the plate
One of the best ways to showcase food is to capture the preparation of the dish. Not only will this diversify your portfolio, but it will also give your food photo a much more interesting story, especially when displayed in sequence or as part of a series.
Therefore, whenever possible, try to capture the chefs making the dish! While this may not be allowed at some restaurants, it’s always worth asking if you can capture a shot or two.
Pro tip: If you do get the opportunity to photograph the chef, watch out for camera shake. Kitchens can be very dim, so keep an eye on your shutter speed and make sure you boost your ISO as needed.
10. Visit street markets
Travel food photography doesn’t need to be limited purely to restaurants, cafes, and food trucks; street markets are a great place to capture beautiful food shots, too!
For one, you can spend time photographing all of the fresh ingredients. And because most markets are full of vendors selling food, you can often capture images of the food being prepared right in front of you!
In my experience, if a vendor isn’t busy – and especially if you’re buying something – they’ll be more than willing to have their photo taken. Just make sure you ask (or gesture to your camera), and wait for approval before proceeding.
Travel food photography tips: final words
Capturing top-notch travel food photos can be very challenging, and it often isn’t done very well. It takes some creative flair and real technical skill to get right.
However, the best food photos can look incredibly vibrant and help communicate the essence of a place, which makes them a travel photography staple.
So remember the tips I’ve shared above, and the next time you’re traveling, make sure to capture the food! With the right approach, you’ll achieve some mouthwatering results.
Now over to you:
What are your tips for photographing food? Share your thoughts – and images – in the comments below!
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