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How To Read Food Photos To Improve Your Food Photography + A Case Study!

Learning to read food photos is one of the crucial things that help you grow as a food photographer. Whether it’s your own photos or other people’s work, learning to observe what’s going on in a photo helps you understand how to create beautiful eye-catching images.

Today we’ll be touching a very delicate topic about how you can look at someone else’s work and learn what they did to make a food photo so drool-worthy. The same goes for your own food photos. You might find that some of your photos are awesome and beautiful but some might not be so great. I find it super important to revise both the photos that you like and the ones you’re not so keen on.

If you’re like me, you L.O.V.E. to see behind the scenes of a food photography (or any other) process. I’m literally obsessed! But we don’t get that with every single photo there is and you might stumble upon a photo where you wished you had a bts shot, but there’s no such thing.

Let me tell you, reading a photo can reveal so much of what’s going on behind the scenes. And you can learn so so much from that!

So I’m saying you should read photos instead of books now?

Well, not literally.

What, we’re focusing here today, is how to observe what works in a photo and what doesn’t. Reading theory is one thing but actually recognizing all those things in real life is a whole other story.

We’re all tempted to scroll through Instagram or Pinterest or wherever you find beautiful food photos and feel either inspired or overwhelmed. If you happen to stop and think about what’s really going on it the photos, congrats to you! You’re really taking in the content instead of just glancing it. If not, let me show you how you can do it!

So, how do you read food images?

If you’ve ever read any photography book, you’ll know that most of them are structured in a pretty similar way. They have chapters about light, camera settings, composition and so on.

You can approach reading photos in a similar way.

What you do is observe all these topics separately and think about what it is about that particular thing (eg. light) that makes the photo beautiful. There are a few questions you can ask yourself that will help you determine just that. Let’s start!

1. Camera settings

I know, except if you can somehow really get the camera settings, you can’t know all of them exactly, but there are a few signs that can tell you what settings were used.

The most obvious setting is usually the aperture setting. The focus area is either narrow, wide or anything in between. Different dishes and different angles will look better at different apertures. You can ask yourself, what’s the focus area and why is it so? If it’s very narrow does that help the food stand out? Does it help tell a story?

The second setting is the shutter speed. This is not very obvious when the food is still. But it gets really important when we’ve got an action shot. You can see it mostly from the fact that the moving object is either blurry or sharp. No setting is right or wrong, but you can ask yourself why was the shutter speed set that way?

a photo of a chestnut pie on moss for arcticle How to read photos so you can improve your food photography by Anja Burgar from Use Your Noodles blog
From seeing that the pie is in focus while the other parts of the photo are out of focus, we can determine that a wider aperture was use so that there’s only a part of the image in focus. Let me tell you a secret. To achieve that I placed the pie onto a cake stand so it’s much higher and the effect of a wider aperture can really be seen.

2. Love the light but how did they create it?

Here are a few questions that will help you determine how the light was created and why it works?

Is this a bright or dark photo? What’s the subject or story and does it match the lighting situation?

Where is the light coming from? The best way to determine that is to look at the shadows. Light is coming from the opposite side of the shadows. So it’s quite easy to read if it’s sidelight, backlight, or if there’s an angle to the light source. Why is the light coming from that side? Is it to emphasize something in particular (like texture)?

How are the shadows? Are they deep and dark or are they somehow less obvious? This will help you determine whether the photographer used a white or a black fill.

a photo of a chestnut pie on moss for arcticle How to read photos so you can improve your food photography by Anja Burgar from Use Your Noodles blog
The light is coming from the upper left corner, which we can determine from shadows that are on the bottom right side of objects. The shadows are quite dark, so we can guess that no fill or a black fill was used. This creates a moody effect and adds warmth and coziness to the image.

3. Reading composition as a pro

The composition is such an important aspect of food photography but it’s also very easy to read.

First, you need to focus on the main subject. Where in the frame is it positioned? You can draw imaginary lines on a photo, like for example lines that follow different rules like the rule of thirds, centered composition, golden ratio and so on. Once you’ve learned where the main subject is positioned you can determine where all the supporting elements fall. How many are there? Is there a negative space and where is it located? Why does that work?

a photo of a chestnut pie on moss for arcticle How to read photos so you can improve your food photography by Anja Burgar from Use Your Noodles blog
The grid here shows the golden ratio. The cake is placed in one of the four interest points (cross-section points). The bowl with chestnuts is placed on one of the lines, while the other two bowls are placed in the center of two of the nine sections created by the lines.

4. What are the colors?

Blah, blah, blah, color theory. Who cares? I’m joking, I care a lot. It’s such a powerful tool and observing colors will give you ideas to which colors work well together and which don’t. Sure, there’s so much theory on the topic, but observing the colors in actual food photos is so much more powerful. So I suggest you both read color theory in well… theory and in food photos. This will give you the idea of how to actually use it in practice.

And remember, rules are meant to be broken, so when it comes to creating your own food photos, don’t be afraid to go outside the box and experiment. You might be surprised!

a photo of a chestnut pie on moss for arcticle How to read photos so you can improve your food photography by Anja Burgar from Use Your Noodles blog
Since the main subject is brown, vibrant colors were added to the scene. Bright orange is close to brown colors so it doesn’t distract from the scene and the green acts as a natural contrast element since browns and greens are often found together in nature.

5. How about styling?

Food styling is such a broad topic. Each dish has a lot of different ways in which it can be styled. While there is no universal question to ask yourself when it comes to reading styling in a food photo, there are some ways you can go. You can ask yourself, is the styling simple or is it very complex? Does it look very natural or staged?

One of the most important styling techniques is layering, so it’s a good strategy to focus on learning how many layers does the photo have and how are they helping to achieve focus and interest in a food photo.

a photo of a chestnut pie on moss for arcticle How to read photos so you can improve your food photography by Anja Burgar from Use Your Noodles blog
Looking at texture, we can see lots of layers here. First is the background, which is out of focus (layer 1), then we have a plate under the pie (layer 2), then the pie filling with a swirl on top (layer 3), a chocolate cream on the sides (layer 4) and hazelnuts and chestnuts on top (layer 5).

A quick exercise for you to do today

No, I’m not grading this task, thank god! 🙂 But I want you to put all the above stuff in real life.

I want you to take one photo that has inspired you lately and go through all these steps. Write it all down, don’t just make a mental note. Writing makes you really think and focus on what you’re doing. Then if you’re feeling really brave pick one of your own photos that you feel just doesn’t work and do the same. Compare those two and see what you can do next time to nail the food photo just like that inspiring artist did!

One short note: This works best if you were trying to achieve the same mood and maybe a similar dish in your ‘not-so-great’ photo as in the inspiring photo you reviewed first.

Let me know in the comments if you found this helpful and what have you learned.

If you happen to wanna learn more about light you can enroll in my Free 3-day Master Of Light E-Course.