3 Ways to Shoot Food Photography on a Shoestring Potato Budget

By Ken Spera

There’s a certain level of anxiety when it comes to getting quality images and videos of food. We’ve all seen the horrible menus and window signs with grey, unappetizing food photography. How do you avoid that? I’ll start by suggesting you go with a professional if it’s an option. You’re right to be a little intimidated by the thought of doing a food shoot on your own. It’s not easy. That’s why food photographers exist. And that’s why they’re not cheap.

But let’s say you or your client just don’t have the budget. What do you do? Stock? Not specific enough. Illustration? Not your brand. AI? Forget it. So, what then? Is there any hope of pulling off a food shoot on your own that will represent your menu’s true charm and flair? How do you get shots that will have your guests salivating when they scan your website?

There are many tricks that will improve your chances of success. Here are a few that will get you started on creating appetizing and inspiring food photography.

Tip 1. Use Natural Light

We’ll start with lighting because, above all, it’s the single most important aspect of shooting food photography or video. (It’s true for any kind of photography or video.) Light can shape and enhance your food. It can put dazzling highlights on pepperoni, sultry steam rising off broccolini, and rich depth to your reduction sauce. But it can also blow out your potato salad to a white lump and cast unappetizing shadows that hide the perfect texture of your brisket. Having enough light is a constant challenge to the inexperienced and under-equipped photographer. But before you grab every desk lamp from your office, consider the ultimate source of light. The sun.

It sounds simple but shoot your food near a window. You can control the intensity by how close you get to the window and the directional quality of the light will add dimension to your subject. Be careful. That big ball of gas can overpower your shot and you’ll end up with a blown-out mess. You can even stretch a white bedsheet between the window and your subject to diffuse the light. Experiment with what time of day gives you the nicest light. It might be sunrise or sunset when the light looks great.

Tip 2. Style it.

Plating food is certainly an art but give yourself some credit. Most restaurant owners and chefs have a good idea on how their food looks best when served. You think the way the fries “bloom” out of a McDonalds fry holder is an accident? So, take the time to arrange the food beautifully on the plate. A little extra drip of sauce can suggest flavor. A little overflow of a side dish can suggest abundance. Make sure to avoid using a huge plate that can make your food portions look tiny. Additionally, try shooting at a low angle to make your food look massive.

Always start with your main item and then surround it with the complimentary sides. If you are shooting food with no sides, make sure to enhance it with a garnish or topping. Some of the best burger shots I’ve seen have the top bun askew so we can see the pickles and tomato stacked on that juicy patty. Hungry yet? Me too. The point is to arrange the food in your viewfinder in a way that shows off how good it will taste. Don’t hide those sautéed onions under a bun! Think like a hungry customer.

Tip 3. Use my phone?

So, you don’t have a Sony A7 IV or a Red Cinema V-Raptor XL ($4K and $44K respectively). Can you really shoot quality photography with your phone? Let’s be careful here. Expecting professional grade images and video from your phone is unrealistic. But in the right hands, phone photography and video can be extremely successful. I get it. Your phone is the only camera you have, and it has a damn good camera! Then, the answer is yes. Shoot it on your phone, although set realistic expectations.

If you are determined to move forward this way, it’s even more important to use the right lighting and styling techniques. Have plenty of light (not too much) so you can experiment with different photo settings on your phone camera. Did you know that the iPhone portrait setting that makes your photos look like a wedding photographer shot them can make your menu items feel just as alluring? The portrait mode focuses on the main subject while everything else is softer. It’s a great effect and it makes a fancy cocktail or plate of oysters look great! Invest in a tripod with an attachment that holds a phone. You can find them at Walmart, Target, and Amazon if you want to avoid camera stores. It is important to realize, the steadier the camera – the sharper the image.


In summary, if you can afford a pro, hire one. If you can talk a pro into working with your small budget, by all means, hire them. (And feed them.) You make great food. Photographers and videographers make your food look great.

If hiring a pro is out of the question, get smart about doing it yourself. Look at examples of great food photography and video and try to mimic the things that make it successful. Make sure you have lots of light, great plating, and take advantage of all the features on whatever camera you end up using.

Lastly, if you still don’t feel up to doing it yourself, please give us a call. Redroc can help you at a surprisingly affordable rate. Drop us a message at [email protected]. Happy shooting!

Ken Spera is the Executive Creative Director at Redroc Austin. His groundbreaking work on iconic brands like GEICO, Mazda, and Serta have landed him on the Madison Avenue Walk of Fame and The Advertising Icon Hall of Fame.

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