We get loads of questions from our readers and followers about how to photograph food. The good news is that people think we take good food photos, and that’s a compliment. But, it made me think it was time to share some of our top food photography tips when traveling. Now, we might not take the best food pictures every time (and I’ll explain why), but over the last few years I’ve figured out some tips and tricks on how anyone can take better food travel photos, without being into “professional” food photography.
My goal here is not to offer advice on how to become a professional food photographer, or how to start a new business. Instead, my goal is to provide sufficient advice, on what food camera to use, and how to use it, to capture tasty food images when traveling.
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Food Photography Versus Food Travel Photos
Before I share our tips, I want to define what is food photography, and how it compares to food travel photography, because there is a big difference. And, it’s the main reason why I don’t necessarily take the best food pictures every time.
Check out some of the best food pics on the internet, perhaps from some of the top food bloggers, ones who write a lot of recipes or offer recommendations on cookware to purchase. Generally, the food glistens. The light is natural looking, and maybe a little too perfect. There is a spray of flour, or a couple of blueberries that ran away.
When traveling, this is almost impossible. First, you can’t control your environment. You are stuck with the plate and the lighting the restaurant chooses. Second, you want to actually eat the food and not spend 45 minutes capturing the best food photos. Because the best part of traveling is the food!
When traveling, it is more of a food shot than a food shoot, if that makes sense. Think of it as being similar to the difference between capturing a photo of a friend when you are out to dinner, versus setting up a proper photography studio in the home to capture professional headshots. A professional food photographer is more of a food stylist, who worries about things like food photography lighting, setting up a home studio, and food photography backdrops. They might use props and additives like glycerin to make food sparkle.
A food travel photographer is much different. Often times they take the foods as they are, whether it’s capturing some street food photography, or taking a food photo of dishes as a chef plates them. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to take delicious food photos, it’s just more creative food photography skills that are needed.
Learn more tips here: Food Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots
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Challenges of Taking Good Food Pictures When Traveling
Often times food travel photos are not necessarily the best food photography. There are a lot of challenges that arise. There are challenges with dark food photography. Many restaurants are trying to adjust their lighting to make dishes more “Instagrammable.” But, when dining out at night, taking a great food photo is a big challenge. We try to arrange important meals as lunches, and try to sit near a window for natural light, rather than worrying about not having a food photography lighting setup in a restaurant.
Because that really is the biggest challenge, you don’t have much control over the food photography setup. You take the street food or fresh food market as it comes just like you take the restaurant lighting and plating as they come. You need to do with it what you can, but you can’t expect the same results as a professional food photographer who sets up a studio in their own dining room or kitchen.
All is not lost, though, there are a few tips to keep in mind when traveling for food to help improve your food shots.
Want to learn more about food photography from one of the top photographers in the business? Check out this course from Creative Live on Food Photography, by Andrew Scrivani.
Top Food Photography Tips When Traveling
Let’s get down to some of our tips on how to take food pictures when traveling. These food photography techniques focus mostly on composition and styling, as well as lighting. These are the things travelers can control in their environment. And, these are food photography tips for beginners, as well as for people who want to fine tune their skills.
Food Photos Tip 1: Food Photography Backgrounds
Composing a photo means arranging the elements of the food photo in the most appealing way, to make the image more interesting, and in this case more tasty! To capture the true nature of the food in the photo, it’s important that your composition is fairly simple.
In general, the dish should be the centerpiece of good food photos. Minimize clutter in the background, or surrounding the dish, unless it adds something to the story. Look for simple, clear backgrounds, like clear walls.
Try taking the photo in both horizontal and vertical versions. For food blogs, and food travel blogs, I recommend using horizontal food images. For Instagram food photos, photos will be cropped into a square, so a vertical image could work well.
Thinking about Starting a Travel Blog?
Check out our guide on How to Start a Travel Blog in 5 Easy Steps
Food Photos Tip 2: Rule of Thirds
This is another big one for food photo composition, the rule of thirds. This is one of the most important tips for food styling and photography, even without a lot of styling. The rule of thirds refers to the placement of the subject of the photo within the frame. Imagine a grid on your phone or camera, three lines across, and three lines down. Where the lines intersect is where your subject should be. Generally, that means that the subject, or the dish should be towards the left, or right, rather than in the center.
The wine bottle and wine glass, above, is set in the rule of thirds. As is the soup bowl farther up, and this tropical drink in Jamaica. Using the rule of thirds can make an image more interesting, and dramatic, and help to bring the eye into the image where you want it, the dish itself. This grid is on most digital cameras and even most mobile phones, making it easier than ever to compose a food photo within the rule of thirds.
Food Photos Tip 3: Food Styling Tips & Food Photography Props
Just because food shots are not taken inside a professional studio, it doesn’t mean food styling photography tips aren’t worth while. It’s a great idea to use what you have on the table to bring some action to the food shot. Use forks, spoons, and even chopsticks. Or, use a napkin, glass of wine, flowers on the table. The list of potential food photo props is endless.
But, make sure that the props you use add something to the image, otherwise it’s just noise. I love using chopsticks on photos, but perhaps take some food photos with the prop, and without, to see which one is better. When using spoons, or large knives, watch for reflections of yourself in the back of the spoon.
Food Photos Tip 4: Food Photography Lighting
Restaurant food photography can be a big challenge, and sometimes, when traveling, you need to just admit defeat, stop taking food photos, and actually enjoy your meal! Because the best lighting for food photography is natural lighting, which is often lacking in many restaurants. I took this photo at El Celler de Can Roca, one of the most amazing meals, but a real struggle for a food photographer. I did the best I could, through composition and after the fact editing.
Do not use overhead lights, or your built-in flash, or your friend’s mobile phone light. These just don’t work. The food just doesn’t look appetizing. The flash and artificial lighting creates a glare on the food that just doesn’t look right. Plus, it annoys the people sitting around you. First and foremost, you don’t want to ruin other peoples’ dining experiences.
It’s also quite popular to take food photos from directly above, but watch the shadows. If there is a light above your table, the shadow across the dish could be harsh.
When dealing with harsh lighting, try taking the food pic from a few different angles. Try the photo from above, and at table height (90 degrees) as well as at 45 degrees (in between) to see what looks best. Of course, try to do this all before the food gets cold!
Last, even with natural light, be careful about too much natural light. Try to grab a seat in the shade, so there are no harsh glares or shadows.
Food Photos Tip 5: Depth of Field
The most important food photography camera settings include adjusting the depth of field. But, what is depth of field and why is it important?
Depth of field means that in the image the background is blurry, and out of focus. This helps to make a food photo more tasty looking because the attention is drawn to the dish itself and not the distracting background. Obviously a clear background helps, but if that’s not possible, a short depth of field is better.
It’s possible to create a short depth of field in four ways.
- Use a wide aperture, which means lowering the F-stop on the DSLR or mirrorless camera.
- Use a fixed prime lens. A 50mm fixed prime lens like this one can help create this effect.
- Use the “food” setting or the “selective focus” setting on a newer Samsung mobile phone.
- This effect can be created in some of the simple editing apps like Snapseed.
This takes some practice, to ensure you have the right part of the image in focus. Don’t be afraid to practice at home before a trip.
We use the Sony SEL50F18 50mm f/1.8 Lens for our Sony mirrorless camera to help take great food photos with a short depth of field.
Bonus Food Photo Tip: Simple Food Photography at Food Markets
Don’t forget that a good food photography portfolio from a trip doesn’t just include photos of the final dishes. A good food travel trip includes a visit to the local market. The local market can create amazing food content to help understand where the ingredients come from to make the dishes. And, they can offer great, colorful images. One of our favorite food markets in Barcelona is just such a place, with amazing colors and lighting. But, even more authentic food markets, like the Chau Long market in Hanoi, can really help tell a story.
The main tip here, particularly in Europe where there are big privacy issues, is to make sure the person gives you approval to take photos of them, as well as their goods. If language is a problem, just smile, spend a moment admiring their stall, and point to the camera and nod, to ask for their approval.
Find out where the local market is, and it’s hours. Often times it’s better to get out there early to get the best shots. Just don’t get in peoples’ way. This is either their workplace, or their local shopping market, so be mindful, patient, and polite.
Best Camera for Food Photography While Traveling
There are a lot of considerations when choosing a camera for traveling, and some of the same considerations apply when selecting a food camera. There are three main options when choosing a camera for food photography: DSLR, Mirrorless, and Smartphone. I do feel strongly that you should have something more than a simple point and shoot camera. There are so many options to take great photos, even on a lower budget, that point and shoot cameras are no longer needed. We haven’t traveled with one in years.
DSLR vs. Mirrorless
We used to have a DSLR, which we bought more than 10 years ago. We had a Nikon, with a telephoto lens. It would be most similar to the Nikon D5500, which is often sold with an 18-55mm lens and a 70-300mm lens. We had both of them.
But, traveling with a large DSLR, with a telephoto lens, particularly when we weren’t taking landscape or action photos, seemed a bit much. I wanted something that took great photos, but one that was also compact. I didn’t want a large camera bag or camera backpack. And, I wanted something I could throw in my purse for an evening out. As a result, about five years ago, we switched to a Mirrorless camera. We started with the Sony NEX-F3 Mirrorless Camera. And, I loved it. It was lightweight and easy to travel with.
Currently, we have a Sony Alpha a6300 Mirrorless Digital Camera. It’s slightly larger than our first Sony, but also has a lot of great features. It has WiFi, is much faster, and shoots 4K video. It’s a great all around travel camera.
When it comes down to it, though, the most important thing is choosing a great food photography lens. We have the Sony 50mm f/1.8 lens, which I think the best lens for food photography. Using a fixed 50mm lens allows the most control over the depth of field in order to capture the tastiest food pics.
DSLR/Mirrorless vs. Smartphone
With advances in smartphone technology, it’s becoming increasingly easier to take great foodie photos with a smartphone. We noticed a big difference in the quality of our food photos when we switched from an iPhone to a Samsung. The switch was a little painful at first, considering we are Mac users, but we got used to it. And, it was worth it because the quality of the camera on Samsung really is out of this world.
At first, I was happy with my Samsung Galaxy S7 (and Eric still has one). It takes great photos, particularly in low light settings. There is even a “food” setting, which helps adjust the depth of field. I figured this phone would last me awhile longer, and I had no complaints.
But, when my Samsung S7 was stolen I was forced into an upgrade. I currently have the Samsung S9, which truly is amazing! There is a food setting, similar to the Samsung S7, but there is also selective focus, which is similar, but allows more editing functions after the fact. And, there is a “pro” function, which allows a lot more control over how to take food photos. Settings allow food travelers to adjust the white balance, and to increase and decrease the depth of field, just like a “real” camera.
This is a great option for food travelers because there is no need to carry around extra equipment. It’s also an option for someone with a smaller budget because you have a smartphone that takes photos, rather than having a phone, plus a camera, plus a lens for food pictures.
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Taking a Food Photography Course
Choosing the right food camera, and learning the top composition rules for food photography really can improve anyone’s food travel photos. But, there are other ways to learn more food photography tricks.
The tough thing here is that many food photography courses focus on professional photography and often have an end goal of finding food photography jobs. And, this can, of course, be a noble goal. But, it’s important to find the best food photography tutorial for you, your skills, and your budget. The most important thing here is to challenge yourself.
CreativeLive has some amazing courses, from some of the most famous food photographers. I’ve purchased a few of their courses to help improve my own photography, and to help set up a home studio for food photoshoots.
The most important thing here is whether you take a food photography course or not, don’t forget to practice! Set yourself a goal of taking a certain number of images each month, edit some of those, and see how you do.
Check out some of the top food photography courses from Creative Live:
- Andrew Scrivani’s Food Photography Class from $129, covers the basics on composition, lighting, styling, and more. Some of it is a bit more advanced, covering how to set up a food photography studio, but still incredibly educational.
- Steve Hansen’s Food in Motion from $79, covers how to take amazing pictures of food while moving, great for home food photographers, but also can help food travelers. It’s more advanced than just covering food photography basics, but some of what he does is way cool!
- Ben Willmore’s Photoshop for Photographers from $129, covers all of the essentials of how to edit travel photos that can also be used for how to edit food photos as well.
Using a Food Photo Editor
Now that you’ve chosen a perfect food camera, learned about professional photography rules, and focused on improving composition, there is one more thing that you can do to improve food photography when traveling. This is particularly important if you want to improve your Instagram food photography. It’s important to learn how to edit food photos to make them super tasty.
I use Lightroom, which is an Adobe photoshop product. It’s easier to use than Photoshop. You can upload your photos, organize them by category, edit some of the most important things, like white balance, and more. I’ve been using Lightroom for years and love it.
When on the go, it’s a little more difficult to use Lightroom, which is downloaded on my MacBook. To edit photos and then upload them directly to Instagram, or other social apps, it’s helpful to have a photo editing app on the phone. I use Snapseed, which is a free editing app available in iTunes and on the GooglePlay store. It doesn’t edit as well as Lightroom, but it does a pretty good job. VSCO is similar to Snapseed, but I’m a Snapseed girl.
The most important thing is to avoid using filters, particularly the filters in the Instagram app itself because those filters are not meant for food photos. It’s tempting to apply filters the same way people apply them to other travel photos. But, when in food photography, it’s important to keep it real, and let the food shine. It’s better to be natural and simple than filter. Instagram filters tend to make food a lot less appetizing. Avoid them!
Purchase Lightroom Today to Learn How to Edit Food Photos
More Resources for Good Food Photos
It takes awhile to learn food photography, and it’s even more of a challenge when taking food photos when traveling. This is a pretty in depth guide to food photography tips when traveling, but there’s so much more to learn. I can share our best food photography tips and tricks, but it takes more than that to create tasty images.
First, don’t be afraid to be inspired by others! This is how I’ve gathered food photography ideas and improved my own photos over the last 5 years. Subscribe to a food photography blog, or two, as well as some good food travel blogs (including this one!) for inspiration. Feel free to buy a food photography book, or for more inspiration a food art photography book. Now, most of these won’t provide food travel photography tips, but they will provide inspiration.
Most Important Tip on How to Take Good Food Pictures
My number one tip, more important than any others above is to have CONFIDENCE! Remember, I am not a professional photographer. I am a trained tax attorney, probably one of the farthest things from being a photographer. I took a photography class in high school (donkeys years ago, and way before digital anything). But, I learned how to be a photographer by taking pictures of food. By being inspired by others who took good food images. Through online courses. And, eating lots of food! My waistline might not appreciate it, but I enjoy taking photos of food and figured out a way to make it work for me. I didn’t start with the most expensive food camera out there, or by buying a ton of food photography equipment. I just learned how to take good food photos, and you can too!
Check out this great Food Photography Course from Creative Live
FAQs – Other Tips for Beautiful Food Photography
- Is it helpful to have a tripod for food photography when traveling? We’ve never really traveled with a tripod for food photos. We do sometimes use a small one to take video, but, remember, can you set up a tripod at a nice restaurant to capture your meal? Probably not. That said, a table top tripod that can be used for a camera as well as a mobile phone is probably best. This is similar to the tripod we use.
- What is the best artificial light for food photography when traveling? I really am a firm believer that natural light food photography is really the best path to good food pics when traveling.
- What is the best camera for food blogging? I love my Sony Alpha a6300 Mirrorless Digital Camera with 16-50mm Lens – Black (ILCE6300L/B) and it is great for travel. But, for more professional food blogging, a DSLR is probably the way to go. The Canon Rebel T6 is a good place to start.
*This post contains compensated links. Find more info in my DISCLAIMER.