Food Photography Tutorial – Food Styling for Product Packaging



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Jennifer's Garden Italian Blend Food Product Photography

Over the years I’ve dabbled in professional photography. And by dabbled I mean that I never really made it a personal to goal to become a professional photographer but that didn’t stop me from actively working on improving my photography from a very young age.  So since I wasn’t looking to do it professionally, most of my gigs were circumstantial by nature.  Being in a band and well versed in the emerging Bay area punk and metal scene in the eighties and early nineties lead to me shooting those bands for the occasional magazine or promo piece.  My love of live music and a desire to get up close to my favorite bands (and some free tickets) led to some semi-regular work as a concert photojournalist. Currently, my focus on package design has promoted me to the position of food photographer and food stylist.

In the past I’d direct a photo shoot at someone else’s studio to make sure that I got the shots I needed for the package. Lately though, time restraints have necessitated the need for me to take over the whole process.

Food photography for product packaging is often different than food photography for menus, reviews and recipes. In those uses, decisions about natural light, place settings, silverware, napkins, and accessories come into play. For menus and recipes, or for product packaging where you need aspirational end use imagery, setting the mood and creating a sense of time and place is important.

However, with package photography you’re often looking for a super clean, evenly lit, mouth watering money shot of the product. And since you will most likely be masking out the background, what it’s sitting on or what’s behind it is irrelevant.

You don’t really need an expensive rig to get a print quality shot of your food. A basic pop up light tent and three professional quality lights will do, but you will need a decent professional camera , and more importantly, a great lens. Your shots are only good as your optics, so a low end lens will take low end photos even on a $5,000 body. So don’t skimp on the lens, even if you have to rent that one for the day.

For this tutorial I’m going to walk you through the process of shooting the hero images for the line of Jennifer’s Garden Frozen Fruits and Vegetables.

Shooting is fast an easy. Just click, click, click. However you’ll spend hours shopping for and selecting the very best product examples, prepping the food, styling the food, and then editing the shots.

It’s important to note that I had already FINISHED  designing the bags and had done crude mockups of the product using stock images and plates. So I knew exactly the type of shot I needed to make maximum use of the space.

So let’s get started.

1. Selecting Your Flatware

Don’t leave this until the last minute. But if you must, Cost Plus is a good place to go to get affordable, easy to work with bowls, plates and cups. And make sure you buy at least on piece for every product you shoot. So if you’re going to shoot four kinds of soups, buy four bowls. The reason is that once you stylized the food you don’t want to clean up until you are absolutely certain you got all your shots. So if all your soup is sharing one bowl, it makes retakes very time consuming as you pour out your current soup, and then clean the bowl, just to pour the previous soup back in.

world market buying plates and bowls for product photo shoot

Short on time and budget is tight? Then go to Cost Plus.

world market buying plates and bowls for product photo shoot

World Market is a great place to find affordable plates and bowls for product photo shoots.

selecting plates bowls food photo shoot

Buy as many setting as you have products to shot. You don’t want to be cleaning and re-cleaning a bunch of plates and bowls while shooting.

2. Shopping for The Product

Don’t shop too early as food spoils. If your product is a prepared food, like brownies, make sure the client sends you a huge assortment to choose from. When I shot the images for the DoGoodie packaging, they shipped us 2’x 3′ trays of brownies for each flavor. This allowed the food stylist to cherry pick the perfect slice.

With produce, upscale markets like Whole Foods and local farmers markets are best. Keep everything refrigerated until it’s time to prep. It’s best to prep the day of the shoot but many vegetables can be prepped the day before.

For the Jennifer’s Garden shots I needed everything from berries to spinach. Unfortunately  the peak berry season had already passed so the stores and the farmers market’s we’re a bit low on quality. Fortunately though there was one farmer at the Cabrillo College Farmer’s Market who carried usually magnificent strawberries, raspberries and blackberries – the three berries I needed. But it being the end of the season, there selection was looking a bit tired. So I explained my situation to the owner. I don’t care about eating, these are for a photo shot, so I need all the berries to look fantastic and uniform.

He said if I gave him 15 minutes he’d have his crew hand select me a flat.

I came back twenty minutes later and they handed me the best looking set of berries I’d ever seen. So don’t be afraid to ask a farmer for a hand selection of his or her best produce. Thrown in a big tip to show your appreciation. Then after the shoot is over drop off some print outs of the package design with their produce. They will be very grateful.

On the Italian Blend, the mixture called crinkle cut zucchini cut into fourths. Now, I didn’t have a device to make crinkle cuts, but I know someone who did. So I headed over to my favorite Thai food place, Sawasdee, and asked them for a favor. Would they sell me a bag of prepped zucchini? It was the evening rush hour so they had to check in the back to make sure they could spare some. They brought me out a bag of perfect, crinkle cut zucchini. I reached for my wallet and they said no charge and sent me on my way.

Sometimes you’ll need to do substitutes. The Italian Blend also called for Roma beans. Unfortunately they were completely out of season, and even if they were in season, I don’t think anyone carries them anyway out in California. After some research I discovered that Roma (Romano) beans looked just like a flat sugar snap peas with the tips cut off. Indistinguishable really. So by hand selecting the best sugar snap peas I was able to shoot an impossible to detect substitute for Romano beans.

Shopping for berries at the Cabrillo College Saturday farmers market for the photo shoot

Shopping for berries at the Cabrillo College Saturday farmers market for the photo shoot

Hand picked berries for photos shoot

The vendor was kind enough to have the crew hand pick a set of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries for me.

Hand picked berries for photos shoot

Oh yeah!

selecting produce for photo shoot

Upscale natural food stores are the best place to shop for produce.

3. Setting Up the Photo Studio

There are many affordable light kits available on the web. One of the best places to buy light kits is B&H Photo. For under $500 you can get a basic set up that will help you take take pro shots. A tried and true set up is a light tent with three light stands. The lights shines through the white nylon material creating a nice diffused light, and by positioning the kit with two sides and one top light you get a perfect even illumination. Normally this is a no-no for artsy photos, but for a hero shot on a bag of vegetables it’s optimal.

Keep the room dark so you have total control over the light sources and to keep the light temperature the same so you can get a proper white balance.

If you mix sunlight, incandescent and florescent bulbs you’ll get weird shots where one side of the product is blueish and the other is yellowish, and you will not be able to convincingly fix it in post.

If you’re shooting anything that shows reflection, like a glass bottle, make sure to zip up the front of the tent so only the lens peaks through. Otherwise you get a great series of photos with a reflection of a camera, a tripod and yourself in every shot.

jennifers_garnder_fruit_vegetable_product-photography-(8)

A classic home studio set up that includes three light stands and a tent.

4. Prepping and Food Styling

This is the part that will take the longest. The Jennifer’s Garden products had very specific recipes that not only spelled out the percentage of each vegetable that would appear in each blend, but also the type of cut and the width and length of each cut.

I knew broccoli, cauliflower, onions, bell peppers, green beans and carrots could be safely prepped the night before and still look fresh for the next days shoot. The spinach and water chestnuts I held of until the next morning.

Onions get wilted and slimy looking when cooked, so they stayed raw. Same with the spinach which gets wilted the second you put it boiling water. Cauliflower looks the same raw or cooked so that stayed raw. Same with bell peppers. However, green beans and broccoli take on a brilliant green with a quick blanching. So I kept a boiling pot on the stove and blanched them –  and then immediately tossed them in a cold bath to stop the cooking process – right before plating. They looked great.

Now, it’s tempting to start plating a pile of fruits and veggies by putting your favorite cuts first. But don’t do it. Keep these aside and build up your foundation with the ugly pieces and scraps. They aren’t going to be seen so they only have to provide a platform for the pieces that will. How wet you want your food to look it up the needs of the product. With the Jennifer’s Garden veggies and fruits I wanted  just enough surface moisture to look fresh, but not so much it looks like that were just rained on. So I gave each dry looking piece a rinse of cold water and then shook it off before plating it.

I plated each product with an eye for one optimal view. Once I got it, I stopped and moved the plate to the light tent. If it needed, it I gave it a quick mist with a spray bottle. You can also use watercolor brushes dipped in water, oil, Karo syrup, or glycerine to touch up dry looking food. You can also use some PAM cooking spray to create a quick overall sheen.

Prepping and food styling for product photo shoot

I prepped all my veggies the day before and then blanched and cold rinsed the broccoli and beans right before plating so they would have a bright green color. Prep way more veggies than you think you’ll need. Use the ugly pieces and scraps for the bottom of the dish.

Prepping and food styling for product photo shoot

Use a different plate for each presentation. The last thing you want to do is take down a perfectly good plate of food only to discover you need to re-shoot it later.

5. Taking the Shots

This part is easy. Use a low ISO setting (200 or less) for best clarity and sharpness and a tight aperture (11 or higher but I prefer 22) for a wide depth of field. This is why it’s best to have a lot of light so you can easily shoot with a low ISO and a tight aperture. Lack of light forces you to either up the ISO (adding grain) or widen the aperture (reducing your depth of field). If your light is not that bright, you can take the shutter speed way down and add a shutter release cable to compensate.With the cable you can shoot in mirror lock-up mode to reduce vibration. This just means that the first time you press the cable, the mirror swings up, and when you press it again, it releases the mirror and takes the shot. This helps reduce vibration blur from exposures longer than a 1/60th of a second.

Get a few shots and then quickly view them on your computer to make sure everything is good. Then go back and complete the shots. Start with your most preferred shot and then rotate the plate or change angles to try others. Keep shooting until you’ve exhausted all your options.

Then put that plate aside and don’t ouch it until you’re ready to break down.

Studio Set Up for Shooting food products

Keep back up prepped food near your studio. You’ll be going back to it frequently to replace damaged or funky looking product. Keep some water or glycerine handy for giving a gloss and a knife for cutting. It’s also good to have Q-Tips, little paint brushes and a chopstick for reaching in to reposition some food before snapping our next photo.

Studio Set Up for Shooting food products - Taking the shots

Lay down some paper towels or plastic sheets if you’re going to be shooting food that stains easily.

Studio Set Up for Shooting food products - Taking the shots

Our paper towels saved our backdrops from permanent damage. No matter how careful I was, berries would roll right off the plate at the most inopportune time.

Studio Set Up for Shooting food products - Taking the shots

Take a few shots, then rotate the plate a bit to take some more. Each time you rotate you’ll need to make adjustments to the composition and fix, reposition, replace, or repair the food to make it look perfect. Repeat until you’ve exhausted all the compositional possibilities.

Studio Set Up for Shooting food products - Taking the shots

If you are shooting a series for a line of product, try to keep the compositions consistent.

Studio Set Up for Shooting food products - Taking the shots

Mango is the hardest thing I’ve ever shot. It’s very delicate and starts sweating and rotting the minute you finish prepping. You also have to cut up a lot of fresh mango to extract a small amount of usable cubes. So be prepared to snack on the rejects. Yummy!

Studio Set Up for Shooting food products - Taking the shots

When you are going for the “my cup overfloweth” look a lot of product will roll away. So lay down paper towel for protection. I shot several dozen photos from every angle possible on this one.

6. Editing The Images

Once you finish you shoot it’s time to select and edit your images. I used a culling process where I create a shortlist of contenders and then edit that list down to a few must haves. Adobe Lightroom is a very efficient tool for working with images, especially if you are shooting in RAW format. After I color correct, sharpen, un-crush the blacks, and back off the hot spots, I save them as PSD’s and then send them to a masking company. Currently I’m using Pay Per Mask. I used to do my own masking back in the day, but like a lot of other things, I’ve learned it makes much more sense to outsource repetitive tasks and spend my time on the value added services that are the core of my brand and business.

When the images are done being masked I download them from their server and try them out in the layout.  This is the real test and they’ll usually be one that clearly stands out from the rest.

mixed berries photo shoot final selection

Final selection of mixed berries photos. I build this plate of berries to look great from one angle and then after I got those shots, I slowly rotated it, touched up that side, took some more shots, and then repeated that process until I made a full circle. Many times the first composition is the best but sometimes you get a pleasant surprise when you try different angles.

full resolution mixed berries photo shoot

This is a full 100% resolution detail from one of the mixed berries photos.

Mixed Berry Stand Up Pouch Jennifers Garden

Here’s how it looked on the final Jennifer’s Garden Mixed Berries stand up pouch package design.

masked oriental blend

A masked PSD file of the oriental blend mix. If you’re masking out the final images, the background doesn’t matter. Just make sure your background doesn’t create any weird reflections or colors casts on the subject.

full resolution oriental blend photo shoot

A full resolution detail of the Oriental Blend shot.

full resolution italian blend photo shoot

A full resolution detail of the Italian Blend shot.  Notice the crinkle cut zucchini in the front.

Do you need a product package designer that can also do the photography or has experience working with other product and food photographers? Call  831-566-3046 or email me to discuss what great design can do for your sales and product positioning.

File Under: Food Photography Tutorial – How to Shoot Food – Food Styling Tips and Tricks

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3 comments


  • Clay-You are way generous in sharing your experience and it is much appreciated. May it come back to you ten fold, or more.

    I have spent the last 35 years in prepress and print production and have meandered down many of the same paths you elaborate on.

    I started off in fine arts (MFA in painting and printmaking), had a video & 3D animation business (remember the Amiga and Video Toaster? Lightwave 3D?) and have been illustrating, designing and building websites for a while. Taught myself coding, PHP, MySQL, javascript, jQuery in hopes of $$ but no jobs for old guys.

    What is refreshing is that you know of what you speak. From product shots to Illustrator vs. Photoshop…you just plain nail it.

    You are good and you give back.

    Thank you. jaxon

    PS. Loved your Inking & Coloring in AI tut. I’m working with it and the technique allows for real energy in the final pieces. It will take a while to get fluid with it but great stuff. Thx. Do you know VectorScribe @ astutegraphics.com? I just picked up some of their tools and they are kind of fun.

    September 15, 2013
  • Hello Clay,
    Love your blog. Thank you for the quick mention of our company. You are truly one of our treasured clients. It is always humbling to see our work(no matter how small portion) be seen on the final product. Hope to do more work with you.

    If any of your readers would like to try out our services feel free to shoot us some emails at alphamail@paypermask.com

    Again, Thanks for the quick mention and more power!

    December 2, 2013
  • Alex

    Great work you’ve done, thank you, will use in my daily work!

    December 1, 2014

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