Guerilla Food Photography in Class

Depending on the chef instructor, we are assigned a portfolio project, due at the end of each semester. The portfolio must contain all of the recipes we created in class, with accompanying photos.

While some students groan and gripe about the project, I think it’s a brilliant idea. Not only do you have a wonderful diary of everything you learned in class, but you also have something tangible to show potential employers when you’re trying to convince them to hire you with little to no experience.

I had big plans to self-publish a hard cover cookbook this semester, until I started going through my photos the other day. While my photos are fine for documentation purposes, they’re by no means cookbook worthy. Even with my flash off, the stainless steel work stations and overhead lights are far from a food photographer’s dream studio, causing harsh shadows, hot spots and odd reflections in the photos.

Next semster, I’m putting together a mini food photography kit so I can knock out some gorgeous photos and make a proper book. You can do the same thing with the following tools and tips:

Tools you’ll need:

  1. Two pieces of white foam board: 18×24″ preferred, but no smaller than 11×17″. These will be used as your bounce boards to bounce the light around and eliminate harsh shadows. Bounce boards should be placed close enough to the photo to bounce light, but remain out of camera range. You’ll need to prop these up, or ask another student to hold them in place while you photograph.
  2. An interesting surface for your food: An old wooden table, pieces of white washed wood, a simple table cloth or place matt — anything that will be a great foundation for your plate, but won’t compete with the food can be used.
  3. White plates and vintage silverware: White plates act as the perfect frame for food, and always highlight the food as the main focal point. Vintage silverware is wonderfully worn and dull, eliminating glare and reflections that shiny silverware produce. Head over to your local antique shop or garage sale and pick up a couple of forks, knives, spoons and any serving pieces. They don’t have to be sterling silver, but they do need to be dull.
  4. A digital camera with a decent zoom: Interesting photos need a fairly substantial depth of field, which means that objects you wish to highlight are in focus, and the rest of the image area is blurred. To create this effect, you’ll need a decent zoom on your camera. You don’t need a huge lense by any means. Any standard digital camera that will allow you to zoom up to 3x and offers a close-up option will work perfectly. To achieve depth of field, stand a few steps back from the food and use your camera’s zoom to focus on one area of the plate.


  • Take all photos outside or near a window to take advantage of natural light. Photos will always appear true to color, texture and brightness when natural light is used. If natural light isn’t an option, use two lamps with light bulbs that mimic sunlight. Other bulbs will cast a yellow tone that is virtually impossible to fix, even in Photoshop or similar photo editing program.
  • Photograph your food from every angle possible; overhead, from the sides, at table level. Then pick the best photo from the bunch and save it in a separate folder on your hard drive.
  • Look at other food photography online. There is no shortage of food pics on the Internet, and places like and are great resources for ideas and inspiration. These sites invite professional and hobby food photographers to submit their photos under strict acceptance guidelines, making them a quick study guide for coposition and lighting techniques that work.
  • Implement some food styling tricks. When photographing real food, especially outdoors, wind, bugs and temperature can quickly ruin your shot. Keep two spray bottles handy; one filled with water, and another with an inepensive oil. The water will keep raw vegetables, herbs and flowers hydrated and fresh looking. The oil will keep cooked foods from drying out in the wind and sun, and will also keep them looking as if they were just prepared. Keep an eye out for curious insects, or debrit that the wind may have blown onto your food or plate. If you notice something, carefully remove it with a cloth or a pair of tongs or tweezers, being careful not to move the food.

Before and After: below is a photo I took of the lamb chops we made the other day. The plate was sitting on the school’s stainless steel counter, without any bounce boards or props. The “after” photo was taken just outside the loading dock doors on a cutting board, no larger than a piece of paper. The natural light made a huge difference in the quality of the photo.

Do you have any favorite food photo tips you’d like to share? Post them below.

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