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A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Food Photography: History, Niches, Tips, and More

A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Food Photography: History, Niches, Tips, and More

Food photography is one of the most powerful expressions of the human condition. The right snapshot can inspire sensations of hunger or make you subconsciously reach for your wallet.

Creating such instinctive reactions with your art is a hard-earned skill you can learn. Powerful food photography contains many staples such as an eye for composition or deep understanding of color theory. However, this niche also contains a few unique details that separate it from other fields. Whether you want to start a hobbyist food blog or take up a new side gig, you need more than surface level knowledge to stand out.

Food photography is a highly influential form of art. If you’re a beginner photographer looking to build a hobby or start a career, my guide will give you a crash course in this delicious niche.

Source Image: Pixabay

Table Of Contents:

  1. Introduction 
  2. What is Food Photography?
  3. A Brief History of Food Photography 
  4. Popular Food Photography Sub Niches to Consider
  5. The Basic Tools for a Food Photography Set Up
  6. Popular Angles and Settings for Food Photography
  7. Must-Have Details for a Beginning Food Photographer
  8. Great Sources of Inspiration for Food Photography
  9. Conclusion: Food Photography is a Fascinating Niche Just Waiting For Your Unique Touch

an example of food photography showcasing a freshly made taco with a side of salsa on a black table

Source Image: Pixabay

What is Food Photography?

Every time you pass by a restaurant or pull up your local grocery store app, you’re witnessing food photography in action. Food photography is a popular niche that showcases delicious food for artistic or promotional purposes.

Food photography is so ubiquitous with everyday life, it’s hard to name an industry it doesn’t show up in at some point. Billboards, magazines, television commercials, online advertisements, and packaging design are just a few examples. Even a t-shirt can remind someone to return to their favorite smoothie stand for another drink.

When getting into food photography, you’ll come across similar disciplines that help your work shine in the eyes of the viewer. One example of a similar field is the food stylist.

What’s the Difference Between a Food Stylist and a Food Photographer?

A food stylist and a food photographer may have superficial overlap, but they’re still different disciplines. A food stylist arranges food to look presentable for the camera, including special effects to make the samples seem even tastier. 

These special effects are essential to getting customers drooling. For example, a popular technique for the pizza industry is to put glue inside a pizza to make the cheese appear extra stretchy for the camera. Other duties for a food stylist include setting up in-person meetings to promote food to possible businesses. 

While a food photographer will sometimes arrange food – especially if they do travel photography – they usually focus on the photography end. That means someone else cooks and presents the food while they focus primarily on snapping photos.   

What’s the Difference Between Food Photography and Product Photography?

An easy way to make the distinction is that food photography is a form of product photography, but not all product photography involves food. The fundamental principles of taking photographs with the intent to inspire an action apply here, but food photography still has unique details. 

an example of a fruit still life with a blue pitcher surrounded by grapes and pomegranates on a shiny brown table

Source Image: Pixabay

A Brief History of Food Photography

Food photography evolved rapidly thanks to technology as well as the shifting tastes of the public. Understanding the history of food photography will help you see what has – and hasn’t – changed over the years. 

Before photography was invented in the 1800’s, food was celebrated either in the moment or through the careful hand of an experienced illustrator. Some of the most famous classical paintings are based on food’s beauty, such as Caravaggio’s brilliant ‘Basket Of Fruit’ or Jacob Van Es’s ‘Still Life with Fruits in Porcelain’. While the mediums may change, the fundamental principles do not – showcasing food to inspire certain moods or reactions.

Here we get into food for promotional purposes. From centuries ago to the modern day, artists portray food to help businesses sell fresh produce and hot meals. Food photography takes many cues from classical work by arranging food in a way that tells a story. 

Food photography actually started out a little straightforward, often showcasing what meals look like in everyday settings without much polish. Nowadays there are entire cultures based on the aesthetic of food, such as ‘food porn’. 

Regardless of the medium or the type of food industry, the same principles apply across the board: what do you want the viewer to do or feel when they see your food photos? 

Understanding the perspective of the viewer on a deeper level will help you create art that resonates. Enter the power of the subniche. 

a close shot of a person using chopsticks to hold a piece of fresh sushi

Source Image: Pixabay

What is a Food Photography Subniche and Why Does it Matter?

While you can always pick a middleground – I have several subjects I like to take photos of – narrowing your focus helps you grow as an artist. A subniche is a smaller niche within a larger niche: in this case, food photography. 

A subniche helps you develop a specialist’s eye, giving you a level of insight and polish not often found in generalist photographers. 

Seeking out a specialization will help you grow in the following areas.

Help You Track Your Progress

Just starting out in the field of photography can be daunting. Between all the different tools at your disposal and all the artistic skills you need to learn, some people quit before they begin.

Choosing a food photography niche is a little less nervewracking since you’re starting simple with a specific subject. You can also keep track of your progress better instead of trying to master everything at once. For example, if you focus on drink photography, you can more easily track areas of improvement such as how well you capture reflected lighting. 

Does that mean you should never branch out? Far from it. Once you grow a little as a photographer, you can more confidently add another niche or two to your roster. Starting simple establishes a stronger foundation with which to build new areas of interest.

A Strong Grasp on Specific Cultures or Aesthetics

Choosing a niche gives you a stronger grasp on specific aesthetics that might not be accessible to photographers with surface level knowledge. From cultural cuisine to historical dishes, you’ll have an edge. 

For example, let’s say you want to get into Japanese food photography. Someone with basic knowledge of the country may think it’s artistic to stick chopsticks straight up into a bowl of rice. Someone with deeper knowledge of Japanese food – and by relation, Japanese culture – will know that chopsticks standing in a bowl of rice is a funeral ritual. Not a good idea for a trendy Instagram story! 

Expand Your Business Opportunities

Do you want to get into food photography as a business? Picking one or two niches may give you an edge over photographers that don’t specialize in any given area – think of the saying: jack of all trades, master of none.

Specializing gives you the ability to deeply understand the ins and outs of food photography. You’ll not only be comfortable with establishing settings or editing challenges, you’ll also have knowledge not easily available to someone with surface level knowledge. Think about hiring a plumber to fix your malfunctioning toilet. Would you want someone with basic knowledge who’s owned a home for a few years…or an expert with twenty plus years of specialized plumbing experience?

Keep in mind this suggestion is not a hard and fast rule. There are some photographers who get good work branching out into multiple niches. In fact, they can be extra flexible in terms of assignments they qualify for. 

an example of travel and food photography showing roasted pork belly and vegetables on a white platter on a blue table

Source Image: Pixabay

Popular Food Photography Sub Niches to Consider

Food photography is a niche with many subniches – these are smaller areas of focus that, funnily enough, actually expand your artistic horizons. 

Below are a few subniches you can start out with.

Drink Photography

Drink photography is a wonderful place to start developing a food photography background thanks to its straightforward approach. This field generally focuses on generating feelings of thirst or feeling refreshed.

Drink photography has heavy overlap with culture and history, particularly with drinks that have been around for a long time. These drinks can include:

  • Beer
  • Wine
  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Soda
  • Seltzer
  • Sports drinks

Cultural Cuisine Photography

Are you deeply familiar with Mexican food? How about Indian food? Cultural cuisine is another niche to consider, whether you have personal experience or have a new passion.

Your photography will resonate much more deeply with a viewer when you pick up on little visual nuances or avoid insensitive territory. Food photography doesn’t begin and end with your camera – you need to have an understanding of the history, culture, and hard work that goes into your subject matter. 

Cultural foods you can consider focusing on include:

  • Mexican 
  • Indian 
  • Japanese
  • Chinese
  • French

Stock Food Photography

Not every career has to be a financial gamechanger. One way you can make a little extra money is through stock food photography – I’ve used free stock photography from Pixabay to better illustrate this article, after all!

It’s important to remember that you likely won’t earn much money through stock photography. It’s a highly competitive niche with a wealth of options already available for buyers. If you’re interested in a little passive income, though, this niche could still be a decent option.

Travel and Food Photography

If you’re someone who loves to travel and try new foods, you literally have an entire world of opportunity available to you. Travel and food photography is popular because it lets viewers experience the world from the comfort of their home.

This niche frequently combines landscape photography and wildlife photography to create a full experience of wherever you visit. Alongside snapping photos of food, you can showcase the temples you visit or beautiful birds native to your location. 

The tools for food photography are mostly the same across the board, but your subniche may require an exception or two. 

an older digital camera resting next to a white coffee mug on a brown table

Source Image: Pixabay

The Basic Tools for a Food Photography Set Up

The tools for a beginner food photography set up are similar to general photography, but have a few key differences. These differences are usually distinguished by the demands of your subniche.

A DSLR or a Smartphone Camera

You can create compelling photography with either a DSLR camera or your smartphone. Some photographers may even switch between them depending on different jobs. 

Each camera comes with positives and negatives. Starting with the DSLR camera, you’ll have the greatest amount of variety when it comes to shutter speed, focal length, and aperture. You’ll have finer control over your subjects and will be able to create some impressive variety in your portfolio. Improving your DSLR photography comes with time and dedicated commitment, but you’ll be impressed with what you achieve.

The downside of DSLR cameras is their learning curve and price point. You’ll need to take some time to practice swapping out camera lens or learning about f-stops. While this knowledge is absolutely worth the investment, hobbyists may find the learning curve a little much. You’ll also need to have a little extra money for essentials such as memory cards, lenses, and extra batteries.

Do you have a smartphone? You already have the ability to take striking photos. Even older phone models can have useful features such as image stabilization or night modes. Their price point is also lower because you likely already have a phone or access to an affordable upgrade. 

The downside of smartphone cameras is their relative lack of variety. They won’t have the same variety in focal lengths or settings that a DSLR camera will. 

Lighting Tools

Essential gear for any photographer should include at least a few lighting tools. Well-lit food will show more nuances in color and a higher level of detail than a dimmer setting.

A popular lighting tool for food photographers is a studio lamp. These tall lamps are easy to position so you can get the perfect angle for your shot.

Another useful and affordable lighting tool are bounce cards. Photographers place these shiny little cards outside the frame to exaggerate the light around an object. 

Tripod or Selfie Stick

Give yourself the ability to capture food from any angle with a tripod or a selfie stick. These tools are indispensable when you’re faced with the physical limitations of holding a camera manually.

A tripod not only helps you get angles that might be harder on your own, they also stabilize your shots. This useful feature reduces annoying blurring caused by shaking hands or windy weather. 

If you prefer to use a smartphone camera, a selfie stick offers a similar result. Some selfie sticks come with stands that function as a tripod. 

Weather Gear

While indoor photography won’t have this problem, travel and food photography must have weather protection. The last thing you want while collecting a photo reel of a food stand is your camera from getting wet from a sudden downpour.

A waterproof camera sleeve will keep the worst off of your equipment. Afterwards, you can dab up any droplets that might’ve made it onto your lens. 

Napkins or Rags

Some food photography comes hot off the heels of trying a meal out for yourself. If you like to snap photos in-between meals, make sure you have something to wipe your hands off with. 

Greasy, messy hands can mess up your camera. You can accidentally smear the lens or create mold build-up through moisture exposure.

an example of focal length in food photography of freshly baked bread in rows

Source Image: Pixabay

Popular Angles and Settings for Food Photography

While experimenting is a must have for any food photography hobby or career, there are popular techniques you can start with. Photographers of all skill levels love these angles and settings because they provide reliably crisp, dynamic shots. 

 an example of narrow depth of field showcasing a platter of lavender and gold macarons on a white and pink table

Source Image: Pixabay

Focal Length

A popular focal length for food photography is the classic 50mm. The reason you see this number in photography so often is because it closely resembles how the human eye perceives the world.

This image of tea and macarons is a stellar example of narrow depth of field, a technique to sharpen an object in the foreground. With just a few tweaks of your aperture and f-stop settings, you can create a dazzling sense of depth.

The 50mm also provides a more balanced shot with very little distortion. While distortion can be useful for dramatic shots, it can also overexaggerate a food’s size or detail. Depending on the result you’re going for, use your discretion when changing focal lengths.

If you want to experiment a little, consider ranging between 50mm and 80mm. 

an example of an overhead shot showing chocolate muffins in white cupcake sleeves

Source Image: Pixabay


Learning how to shoot different angles will increase your ability to capture different moods or personalities to food. An angle can be how high, low, far, or close you are to your subject. 

Picture the following scenes. A plate of colorful cupcakes with a few decorative edible flowers tumbling off the platter. A hearty bowl of stew arranged with old-fashioned spoons on an ornate table runner. All of these descriptions and more are easily captured by the overhead shot, a beloved angle in food photography for how it transforms an everyday scene into a painting. 

Another popular angle is the straight on shot. As the title implies, you take a snapshot of food similar to a portrait – straightforward and simple. 

an overhead shot of a peach cake with blueberries and nuts on a white table

Source Image: Pixabay


Food photography tells a story using not just the food and cutlery, but the very setting itself. Let’s take a look at two similar subjects back to back – the staging of this peach, blueberry, and nut cake is elegantly simple and crisp. 

The table is smoothly painted and free from crumbs or even cutlery, keeping the carefully decorated pie front and center. This is the kind of sleek, professional approach you’d see in a food magazine or a restaurant poster. At just one glance, this photo suggests culinary expertise or perhaps expert help on creating five-star food from the comfort of your kitchen.

an overhead shot of an unbaked apple pie on a brown table surrounded by apples and raisins

Source Image: Pixabay

Compare the first approach to this one. Despite also being a similarly-styled baked good, this food photography goes for a more rustic, everyday approach.

The pie isn’t baked yet, complete with artfully ‘random’ apples and raisins scattered about as if the baker temporarily got distracted. Even the table looks different from the first photo, patchy and crooked instead of symmetrical and smoothly painted. This photo doesn’t make you think of glamorous food magazine tutorials or ads, but lazy evenings in grandma’s kitchen.

One of my most essential food photography tips is to internalize that no food photography angle, focal length, or setting is better or worse. They’re simply different techniques to suit different needs.

an example of plating presentation in food photography showing a latte next to a cake surrounded by leaves

Source Image: Pixabay

Must-Have Details for a Beginning Food Photographer

The unique field of food photography has certain details that will make your work truly shine. While food photography of yore was more straightforward in its approach, a little artistry today goes a long way in telling a story. 

 a plate of roasted salmon surrounded by lettuce, avocado, and a lemon slice on a white table

Source Image: Pixabay


Food photography isn’t just the food – everything from utensils and plates play an important role in the final presentation. Although plating is usually handled by the chef or the food stylist, it’s still important to understand how it works. 

After all, you may find yourself taking photos of your own home cooking or baking escapades on your way to becoming a food photographer. 

 a bowl of deep red stew on a green checkerboard tablecloth next to a spoon and slices of bread

Source Image: Pixabay


Strong lighting will ensure every angle of the food is brought to the viewer’s attention. Colors are not just richer, certain details are impossible to see with lower lighting. 

The above photo of a hearty soup with a side of bread is a lesson in well-lit photography. If the lighting was dimmer, subtle details such as oil droplets or sprinkles of seasoning would be lost.

frosted star cookies on a brown table surrounded by cinnamon sticks and pinecones

Source Image: Pixabay


Quaint accessories can add more style and flavor to food photography, such as a vase of flowers or a pretty table runner. Instead of a utilitarian approach, these accessories complement the main subjects and create a stronger atmosphere.

For example, the above photo could have been a simple snapshot of just the frosted star cookies. When placed alongside cinnamon sticks and pinecones, the entire image becomes a snapshot of autumn. The viewer fondly thinks of cozy evenings by the fire or getting together with friends over cider and cookies. 

a vegetable and herb pizza spread out on a table next to garlic and a pizza cutter

Source Image: Pixabay

Artful Messiness

Part of the delight of good food is enjoying it to its fullest. This enjoyment can result in smudges on your plate or leftover crumbs – instead of just being messy, this artful messiness can resonate deeply with viewers. 

Artful messiness makes food photography more appealing and ‘alive’. Flecks of loose flour or a smudge of chocolate on a knife suggest a story happening off-camera. The photo above is a stellar example of using artful messiness to set up a scene. With the recently grated cheese flecks and leftover basil leaves, you can imagine people about to sit down and have a delicious, gooey slice. 

two people standing in a kitchen and chopping vegetables together to make pasta

Source Image: Pixabay

Great Sources of Inspiration for Food Photography

What better way to create food photography than to learn from the professionals? You have thousands of inspirations to help you build your new hobby or potential career.

Instagram is Chock Full of Inspiration for Foodies

If you’re a foodie or a home cook, Instagram will be one of your go-to inspirations. This social media platform is image-heavy and well-known for having a lot of food and beverage-related content. 

A few incredible Instagram accounts you can check out are:

YouTube is Wonderful for Food Vlogs

Since food photography overlaps heavily with filmmaking and video editing, check out YouTube food channels. You’ll have plenty of food vloggers and home chefs to keep you inspired for a long time. 

My personal favorite channels to follow are:

  • Mark Wiens, a well-known global food vlogger
  • Binging With Babish, a home chef who recreates famous fictional recipes
  • TabiEats, Japanese food vloggers who specialize in smaller businesses

Food Magazines Will Provide Professional Inspiration

Last but not least, no beginning food photographer should be without a few food magazines. If you’re thinking of pursuing this field as a career, these magazines provide much-needed crossover inspiration.

You’ll not only learn how food photography is portrayed in publications, but you’ll also get access to advertisements that frequently appear on billboards or online ads. 

two stacked cheeseburgers on a table next to french fries

Conclusion: Food Photography is a Fascinating Niche Just Waiting For Your Unique Touch 

Food photography is an ongoing evolution of culture, technology, and a hearty appetite. While you may be a beginner now, you can develop a unique touch to contribute to the field.

Becoming a food photographer involves understanding the function of the niche – inspiring specific moods or actions from the viewer. This field originated from classical art such as still lives or illustrated food magazines. Nowadays technology has made it easier for anyone to pick up a camera and start snapping shots. 

While choosing a food photography subniche isn’t required, it gives you the ability to specialize and grow more effectively as an artist. This specialist knowledge gives you access to more subtle details such as cultural or aesthetic know-how that might be difficult for a generalist photographer. 

As you think of what to have for your next meal today, you’re already demonstrating first-hand knowledge on what drives the average food photography viewer.

Want to learn more tips and tricks to improve your photography? Check out the posts below: