Who doesn’t love looking through enticing food photography on Pinterest or while browsing recipes? But there’s a lot of thought that goes into creating a gorgeous food photo that sells. Lucky for us, we have Shell Royster, an award-winning food photographer who’s clients include Kraft, Oprah’s “Oh That’s Good” foods, Moe’s, Cinnabon, Land O Lakes, and Carvel, sharing her food photography secrets and lighting setups with us!

Here’s what Shell Royster has to say about creating the perfect food photography. Try not to drool on your keyboard.

1. Find your inspiration

I do a lot of research prior to setting up a photo shoot. I often set aside time to stroll through a botanical garden or park, peruse some art books, cookbooks and magazines, browse antique stores and of course, go on Pinterest. Once I have a general idea of what my inspiration will be, I narrow down my art direction. I choose one to three concepts and work from there to determine my final vision.

2. Create a well thought out concept.

Once I have my inspiration, I begin fleshing out my concept by collecting tear sheets from magazines or making copies from pages of old books. I collect objects from nature and ephemera from antique stores, whatever inspires me. Then, I study my mood board and start thinking about the subject matter and how I can best achieve the visual language, and the story I want to tell.

Nuts and ice cream arranged for a food photo by Shell Royster
Wild berries arranged for a food photo by Shell Royster

3. Use props to tell the story.

Once you’ve decided on a subject, found your inspiration, and have a sense of direction, you should start to think about your props. Props should never be an afterthought. They are an integral part of storytelling and can greatly enhance food pictures.

The important thing to remember about propping is that there is a central theme based on your creative direction. Stick to your mood board and select complementary colors and textures.

If your theme is rustic, keep patterns and textures in mind to enhance that theme and use burlap, old linens, old pans, etc. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if the theme is modern, use on trend, bold colors (paint stores and brochures are an excellent resource for color trends), graphic patterned linens, and modern serve ware and dishes.

Shell Royster food photographer's favorite props
These are some of my favorite props for food photos.

Where to find props for food photography:

  1. Vintage stores, thrift stores and garage sales. I have found fabulous mixed china patterns, silver plates and cutlery, retro glassware and other gems at these types of stores.
  2. Auctions. Look for antique finds, like old doors, that you can use to create tabletops.
  3. On the street. I once found an old metal cart on the curbside in New York. I rolled it home, took it apart and had a beautiful gray metal surface to work with. You never know what you’ll find once you open your eyes to the possibilities.
  4. Big-box stores, like Anthropologie, CB2, Target, Michaels, World Market and West Elm are good for modern linens, kitchen accessories, faux flowers and more.
  5. The Tile Store, Home Depot and Lowe’s are great places to look for surfaces and backdrops.
  6. Online. Search out custom ceramics, homemade and hand dyed linens, one-of-a-kind flatware, wooden objects, etc. from vendors across the globe.

4. Guide the viewer with your composition.

As the composer of your image, you are responsible for guiding the viewer into your scene and eliciting a response from them. You’ll need to decide how you want the image to be structured, including the main elements in your story as well as those along the periphery. Here are four things to think about when you’re choosing a composition for food photography:

1. Place your subject off-center.

I believe in placing the main subject slightly off center (unless I am shooting product advertising) as I believe it is more natural and feels more organic.

2. Decide if you should use the rule of thirds or not.

The rule of thirds is the standard composition in photography, guided by the principle that the human eye wants to perceive things as balanced. It is a grid of nine squares, with the premise that your subject should land at the intersection points of the lines in the center of the grid.

While this rule holds true most always for landscape imagery, if often times doesn’t for food photography. You can create a composition full of harmony by leading the viewer in a different pattern around and back to your subject without always using the rule of thirds.

Experiment to see what best works for your personal vision.

Rule of thirds for food photography

3. Use leading lines to draw in the viewer.

Leading lines are a great way to present the viewer of your image with a more detailed scene, almost creating (no pun intended) an appetizer before the main course. Use food and props in circular motions, or graphic patterns leading to your subject. You can even experiment with placing some objects that are not central to the story around the edges of, and cropped out of, your frame.

4. Use the edges of the frame to help tell the story.

The edges of the frame are an important piece of your composition. You are setting the scene and ambiance for your main subject. The edges of the frame can hint at a process, or a potential or previous action.

If it is a recipe-based photo you are working on, the edges of your frame can anchor the final product by placing recipe ingredients at the perimeter. If it is a process step, use the edges to hint at or show parts of the tools needed for the recipe.

For a plated food photo, you can use the edges to indicate that there are people present.

Food photography secrets - winter soup composition
Food photography secrets - winter soup composition

5. Lighting is central to your image’s story.

Lighting styles and trends tend to wax and wane, but consider how you want to portray your subject; base your lighting decision on that. Do you want your subject to be softly lit with smooth transitions from the light to the shadows or do you want hard, dramatic light and strong shadows? It’s helpful to refer back to your concept and the story you’re creating.

Food photography secrets - an image of berry cake by Shell Royster

Light tells a story.

Think about the mood of your subject and the reaction you are trying to elicit in your viewer. Here are some questions to ask about your food photo story to help you determine what type of lighting to use:

  1. What is the weather like outside? Are there clouds in the sky, bright sunlight or shade?
  2. What time of day is it? Whether it’s high noon, morning, late afternoon or golden hour will determine the direction of the light you should use.

If you have never thought about the hours of the day and how the light varies from one time of day to the next, keep this in mind as a practice so that you can have mental reference for every shoot. Go outside on a sunny or cloudy day and observe the color of the light, the direction, what is being illuminated and what isn’t. Notice the shadows — their size, length and width — are they short, long or somewhere in between? These details will shape the way you work on light and lighting patterns.

Clients often come to me with a general reference for lighting, but will say something like, “I want bright light, I want the shadows to be long, and I want a warm quality to it.” From this, I know almost exactly what time of day I need to replicate to meet their vision.

Soft light v. hard light

Soft light has an ethereal quality about it, with smooth transitions between light and dark, and is universally flattering. But sometimes soft light can appear dull and flat, which is not always the best light for food photography.

Hard light is bold and dynamic. It brings out all the details and creates strong transitions between light and dark, but can also be harsh and unflattering to subjects. Hard light will illuminate every flaw on the skin of a fruit or vegetable, but it also brings about beautiful textural qualities in your subject. Hard light can be technically challenging, as it is easier to clip or blow out highlights in your imagery, but the merits can outweigh the technical challenges once you’ve mastered it.

Cherry turnover photographed with hard light
Hard light
Cherry turnover photographed with soft light
Soft light

Shell’s hard light and soft light setups:

Here I shot two different lighting set ups using Profoto Pro light heads. You can replicate this with natural light based on the weather and lighting on a particular day. If you are comfortable with on-camera flash, strobes or continuous light, you can also adopt these lighting styles. The important thing is to find inspiration by different types of lighting.  

Hard light Setup: Profoto head with magnum reflector

Food photography lighting setup for hard light
Hard light setup
Vintage drinks photo by Shell Royster, food photographer
Hard light

Hard lighting pro tip:

Expose for your main subject, not the highlights. I don’t mind if a section of the frame is starting to clip. It can create some interesting effects on your imagery. Just ensure you are not clipping your main subject or blowing out the scene as a whole. Or you can bracket your shots to ensure you don’t lose information in the highlights. A few highlights clipped (like those on the bottom of the glasses) don’t bother me and I actually embrace them.

Soft light setup: Profoto head with rectangular softbox

Food photography lighting setup using soft light
Soft light setup
Vintage drinks photo by Shell Royster, food photographer
Soft light

Soft lighting pro tip:

If you are shooting natural light from a window or other source and it is too harsh, use a lightweight white sheet, or white linen as a diffuser. You could also use a roll of frost or wax paper to create a softer light effect. If you want to minimize shadows even more, place a white card opposite your light source to bounce light back onto your scene.

Images by Shell Royster

Shell Royster headshot

Shell Royster is an award-winning food and travel photographer based in Atlanta, GA and New York City. She was trained at ICP in New York City and has worked in the photography industry as a studio manager, producer and editor in the beauty, fashion and entertainment industries. She finally decided to start shooting after producing a food shoot for a large retail client in New York.

She loves the creativity involved in culinary photography, working with food stylists and art directors, chefs, and food artisans across the globe. She enjoys the shared camaraderie of food and how it brings people together.

Her range of clients include, but is not limited to: Kraft, Oprah’s “Oh That’s Good” foods, Moe’s, Cinnabon, Land O Lakes, McAlister’s, Carvel, and Schlotzsky’s, as well as editorial clients including national and regional magazines.

You can see more of her work at www.shellroyster.com and follow her on Instagram @sbr2photography.