Nine Things That Make a Food Photo Look Natural

Nine things that make a food photo look natural

I’ve studied food photography for a long time now and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out just what it was that made a food photo look natural or look fake. It seems like I can tell a mile away which photos were actually shot at a real location and which were shot in a studio. I guess my goal has always been to make my photos look as natural as possible so that they looked like they were shot at a real location and not shot in my Pittsburgh studio. Sometimes it’s really hard to tell location from studio shots, but there are some subtle clues that give a viewer’s subconscious the information it uses to say to itself real or unreal. I’ve come up with a little list of things that I think tell the viewer if the food photo is real or not.

1. Perfection

Perfection is probably the main thing that tells me that a photo is shot in a studio or not.   If everything in the photo looks too good then it’s probably not real. Real photos have things wrong with them. There might be a little crumb out of place, or there might be a fold of the napkin that looks little bit funky, or there might be high like that shouldn’t be where it is. All these are things that make the viewer think that this photograph is real and not fake. Think things are usually perfect. So if your goal is to make your food photograph look real, then you want to add a little bit of intentional imperfection.

2. Horizons

In food photography it’s a real pain in the butt when you have to create a background be on the table surface. So many photographers, including myself prefer, not to have horizon in the photo unless they really have to. And that’s usually a mistake.   Having horizon in the photo is something that helps the viewer feel as though the photo is real. Of course there has to be real props beyond the table to make the shot look environmental real . If you can see a window, a chair, or some kind of piece of furniture that will usually helps to sell the realism of the photo.

3. Tonal Undulation

When a surface is not evenly lit, I call this tonal undulation. A lot of food photographers like to use large soft boxes, which give the food photos and very even overall lighting effect. That even overall lighting effect is something that makes a food photo look fake. Sure, in reality, there are areas that are evenly lit, but usually there are lights coming from all kinds of directions and that creates unevenness in the lighting effect. So, as a food photographer, what I like to do is create total undulation every chance I get. What that means is that I like to put shadows or add lights to areas to make large expanses of surface, unevenly lit. This adds interest areas that would normally be boring, and it also makes the food photo look more realistic.

4. Minimum focus

Minimum focus is another technique I used to make my food photos look very realistic. Out of focus things look less realistic. When things are out of focus, the things in focus become important in the things out of focus or less important, So that there are fewer things for the subconscious to analyze and find fault in. It almost works like peripheral vision. If you have fake looking things in the background, they become less obvious.

5. Color Temperature

A lot of food photographers try to make the color temperature of my food photo absolutely neutral. In my opinion it’s usually better to go warm. That makes the food photo will look more dreamlike and less fake. There’s something about a “cool” food photo that tells the subconscious it’s not real. I think that might have something to do with the fact that when we eat dinner the tungsten lights are usually on and that warm feeling from the lights gives us a positive feeling. “Warm” is definitely better than “cool”, in most situations.

I even like to use mixed color temperatures on occasion. Having a blue light coming in from one side often time’s gives the impression that there’s a window over to that side. This doesn’t always work but it’s a good way of making the food photo look natural.

6. Colored Highlights

If you can add colored highlights in your food photo, I think it helps to make the photo more believable and realistic. You can do this by changing the color temperature of the light that is reflecting into certain things. For example, you may have some silverware in a shot and the silverware is reflecting into something. If that something is a different color, then you get a slight imperfection. This is another example where imperfection adds to the believability of the photo.

7. Multiple Highlights

If your at your dinner and you look down at your plate, you’ll see highlights in your silverware and in the dish. Non of his highlights come from the main light sitting over top of your table. You’ll see highlights that come from the kitchen or from a window off to the side or from the lamp in the family room. All those little highlights make the shot look environmental and real. Most food photographers try to keep those multiple highlights to a minimum. To me, the highlights add to the realism.

8. Cropping the Subject

Especially when you’re a novice food photographer, it’s easy to make the mistake of keeping everything in the frame. By completing everything in the frame, it makes the photo is though it’s not a slice of life that you’ve edited out of reality, but something you’ve created from scratch. To me cropping something in the frame is important way to make the food photo look real.

9. Shadows From Out of the Frame

When you’re creating a food photo, it’s really easy just to be concerned about what is in the frame of your crop. One of the things that I find that really helps make the food photo look natural is to have shadows coming into my frame from something outside the frame. That makes it look as though there is an environment outside my crop. That helps sell the idea that this is a real photo and not something created in a photo studio.

There you have it, nine things that will help make your food photos look more natural. If you can think of any other things that will help make a food photo book natural, please leave a comment in the section below. I’d love to add it to my list.


  1. Hector · April 8, 2015

    Another very informative article. Thanks!

  2. Amruta Karnik · August 25, 2015

    Great article 🙂
    Very helpful while composing

  3. Memory Potifa · December 2, 2016

    Great article and helped me a lot as I am shooting for a student cook, I want my photographs to look as natural as possible


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