Good Food Bad Pictures

Joined Apr 3, 2008
I've been thinking alot about plating and pictures as they have been discussed on other threads.  My feeling is that in order to make something look good in a picture you have to be a food stylist.  And from what I understand food stylists don't always use food in their pictures.  They use all kinds of tricks to make the food appear delicious.  There's no way I can achieve that at home because I am neither a food stylist nor am I a photographer.

Take this dish for instance that we made for dinner just yesterday.  This is Giouvarlakia, which are a pork/beef meatball made with onion, rice, parsley, and mint.  They are then boiled in chicken broth and made into egglemon broth.  It was by far the best giouvarlakia I've ever made.  The meatballs didn't fall apart, there was just enough rice and mint in them, the broth was really flavorful, and the egglemon didn't separate.  However when I look at it in the picture it looks so unappetizing.  The meatballs are pale, the broth looks flat and if I saw this picture on a menu I would skip it. 

Then there is the yellow split pea puree with boiled dandelion greens that is so fresh and flavorful.  But in the picture the dandelion greens look dark and menacing and the fava bean puree which is lightly drizzled with evvo just looks like there is a puddle of grease on the bottom.  Can't win!  I swear these dishes are delicious but you'd never know it by looking at them.


Staff member
Joined Jun 11, 2001
Put the fava beans in a smaller dish.  Use a spoon to indent the top and then drizzle the olive oil over.  Then shoot it closer or crop the picture.

Same with the meatballs.  Put them in a smaller dish to make it look more abundant.
Joined Oct 2, 2010
KKV, you're a little too hard on yourself concerning posting pictures here. At least you do post pictures and I enjoy them.

Also, I suppose it's greek food which should be served as simply as possible. Same goes for Italian food and many others!

One thing to improve the picture quality is to not use the flash lightning on your camera. Digital cameras can shoot good pictures without a lot of light. They will be a little dark, but, lighten them up a little in any image manipulating software program and you're good.

I always use a simple Canon Powershot A610 camera wich makes pictures at 5 megapixels only! Most of my pictures are also taken with very few ambient light, then processed in Photoshop CS3; mostly reducing files to 600 x 800 pix often only using part of a picture, then tweaking colorbalance and taking the sharpening just a little higher. There are many simple image manipulating software programs that can do exactly the same thing as Photoshop does.
Joined Nov 6, 2004
I've been thinking alot about plating and pictures as they have been discussed on other threads.  My feeling is that in order to make something look good in a picture you have to be a food stylist.  And from what I understand food stylists don't always use food in their pictures.  They use all kinds of tricks to make the food appear delicious.  There's no way I can achieve that at home because I am neither a food stylist nor am I a photographer.
    Hi Koukouvagia,

     You don't need to be a food stylist to take good food pictures.  Just look at the plates RPM would post in this forum.  Many times we got to see when two of his interest met, cooking and photography.  I believe he did use some minor photo manipulation (slight adjustment of contrast, colors) with software like photoshop, or one of the far lesser versions.  Even much of the free software that comes with digital cameras nowadays would do the job.  Then you also have to have just a little bit of talent to put it all together with good lighting.

    This being said, I've got the software, a decent camera and many of the pieces needed to take good food photographs.  However, I can't!  It just doesn't seem to come together good and most of the time.  Catching the interior color of meat is especially difficult for me, among other things.

   I have got no working knowledge for manipulating photo's.  But here are both of your pictures with minor changes using only windows photo gallery.


I'm sure others will be along to help you...but you're not alone.

Joined Feb 1, 2007
KK, I think you're needlessly frustrating yourself. Ask yourself a fundemental question: Are you oriented towards producing good-tasting food for your family; or towards taking pictures of it?

While not mutually exclusive they do reflect differences that can effect the final result.

Take the Giouvarlakia. I wouldn't presume to tell you how to improve the taste. But to take a great picture would require some changes.

Right off, let me say that your camera angle is perfect. Could be slightly lower, but that's not a major issue. So let's look at the composition.

First, look outside the bowl (just as an aside, I love the bowl. Interesting in its own right, but it doesn't impose itself in a way that detracts from the food).There's part of the label of a beer bottle. No other "props." But anytime you show a whole-plate there should be other elements to help provide interest. Even a place setting would help. Or, perhaps more germane, Pour the beer into a pilsner glass and have it show in the photo.

What I'm saying here is that filling the frame with a plate of food is almost always disappointing. You have to either open up the scene, or close it down.

However, close is almost always better than far. Come in tighter on the bowl, showing only part of it, with at least one of the meatballs only partially on screen. For instance, you might just shoot the top two thirds of the bowl, from a lower camera angle, with some appropriate props included.

I would also get some additional color. Something that doesn't detract from the dish, but which adds visual appeal. Perhaps a sprig of mint? Or finely chopped parsley sprinkled on each meatball. Or...... but now we come close to changing the recipe to suit the camera.

Next, the reason stylists use those tricks and techniques is because the camera does not see the same way as the human eye. So, meatballs that were appetising when you ate them look pale and incipid when the camera looks at them. Which merely means you would have to do something to darken them up---and that might mean changing the nature of the dish.

The greens & puree shot suffers from the same outside the plate problem. But it has some of its own.

The main problem is lighting. That's why the greens look so dark. The other problem, from a photographic point of view, is that the plate is out of balance. There is far too much puree compared to the amount of greens. Again, this may not matter to the eater. But it does to the camera.

The way the lemon is sliced is visually boring. I'd have either gone with a couple of wedges, or cut the large piece with a serrated edge. Something, on other words, to provide a textural break.

BTW, contributing to your dissatisfaction is the fact the photo is out of focus. This makes the puree look like a pile of paste. If the onions were perfectly in focus, the whole thing would pop.

Personally, I would have plated that differently. The puree would be alone on the plate  with the greens in a separate bowl. If possible I'd go with a boat-shaped bowl, rather than round or square. And, again, I'd have composed it so that most (but not all) of the main plate, and only a part of the secondary plate, were in the frame. I would probably lay down a curved row of sliced red onions, with the puree mostly covering them, for additional color contrast.

Now we talk about a major change. To enjoy the dish, you drizzle evoo over and around it, as you did. But, as you discovered, the camera isn't happy with that. Instead, this is when the spray oil comes out. That would apply just enough oil to provide some sheen, but avoid the puddling effect.

Please understand that I am not criticizing what you did. What I'm trying to do is show you why food photography and good eats aren't always the same, and if you want good food photos you may have to resort to some of those tricks and techniques.

Incidentally, I don't know how it works with digital cameras. But with regular cameras your choice of lens can have a major effect on the final frame. F'rinstance, I often use a 200 mm lens for table-top pix, because of the way it "sees" partial plates and the like. Until you've actually tried it you can't appreciate the difference in a final shot between using a long lens, from a distance, vs. moving closer with a short lens.
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Joined Oct 30, 2010
I agree that there are lots of "less then spectacular" food photography out there. It dosn't come form using "real" food instead of fake. I find that it is becouse people just take a "snap shot" of the food.  There is lots that goes into makeing great photography. Each type of photography also has it's own little tricks to it.

I really do like your photographs. They don't make my head hurt because it is in focus.  combine this with it being fairly evenly lit, and you you have  some good photographs. So far doing very well.

As to the meatballs, if you want to make my darker color you can try browning them in the oven under the broiler.  This will give them a nice browned look. Making the broth  just off the stove and still steaming would help it look less flat.

The lighting in the second photograph looks like the white balance is a little bit off. I'm saying this because the plate looks like an odd color, and I suspect it was supposed to be white. This could also  help the colors in the dish. Decreasing the saturation of both the yellows and greens would probably help a little. Adjusting the luminescence could probably help as well.

One  thing about the visual arts is that what is included is just as important as it is excluded. Everything that goes into a photograph has to have a reason to be there, and improve it. I personally am really really bad at doing this. But now what to watch for, they can avoid having hairdryers, pets, shoes, makeup, photography supplies, and the next thing on the list to take pictures of, in the photograph.

 Like I said, you're doing a good job of taking photos. with time it will become easier to get great images. It took me a whole two months just to get an in focus image. 
Joined Apr 3, 2008
Dan my photos look much better this way, thanks for taking the time to do that.

KY, thanks for saying I have the most boring slice of lemon in the world.  Just kidding though, I know what you mean.  It's hard to balance what the camera wants to see and what I want to eat.  That's really the only amount of lemon I required for the dish and just didn't think of it being cut any other way.  My bad.  I definitely don't want to plate things pretentiously, I want to plate them the way that they are going to be eaten at home and in that way I was true to my dishes.  I could stand to learn a lot more about photography especially since I've been photographing my food more and more lately.  I would benefit from a Photography 101 course for sure.

I'll see if I can start playing around with photoshop a bit and also taking more adventurous pics.  I'm not doing too bad though, at least I've started coming in from an angle lately rather than bird's eye pics.  Thanks for all the tips.
Joined Feb 1, 2007
It's hard to balance what the camera wants to see and what I want to eat. 

Precisely the point I was trying to make.

Why are you photographing your dishes? Because you want a record of meals you've prepared? Or because you want to produce great photos? That is the fundemental question.

If you're only creating a record for yourself, do the photographic flaws really matter? Yes, from a visual standpoint, your lemon is boring. But so what? You're goal isn't to produce art; just a record. And whether you cut it the way you did, cut it in wedges, or even sit down and carve it into a fanciful shape, it won't change how the lemon juice contributes to the dish.

On the other hand, if you want to produce art, you have to sacrifice your normal approach to food prep; sometimes radically so. But I don't think that's the direction you intend going.

One nice thing about digital cameras is that you immediatly see what you've done. And can make adjustments that jump at you. If you mess up with film, you don't know it until it's developed. And that can mean redoing the whole shoot.

If you're serious about learning photography your first need is to understand light and shadow as it applies to imagery. Get yourself a high-intensity desk lamp, and boil about five eggs. Pile the eggs in a decorative arrangement, and draw a circle around them. You want he circle to be outside the frame. Set the lamp on the circle and turn out all other light sources.

Now then, take a photo with the lamp in the, say, 3 oclock position. Then start moving it, stopping at every "hour" on the clock to take another picture. Then sit down and interpret the changes caused just by a change in directional lighting. Try it again, but make the light source higher or lower. Then try it with an overhead light on, as well as the directional lighting. And then repeat the whole thing, changing the cameral angle.

You'll be surprised how how quickly your compositions improve just by understanding the light/shadow thing. Just ask Rembrandt!

Another problem is that we all tend to think of food as being somehow different. But the fact is, everything on the plate (and the plate itself) is merely a graphic element. If you want to learn more about food photography the first thing to do is learn about graphic design. Really, that's all your plate of food is; a graphic design. Forget the food, and ask yourself whether the design pleases you. If it does, you're good to go. If it doesn't, no amount of manipulating the image will make you happier. So change the design before clicking the shutter.
Joined Jan 27, 2010
Actually, those pictures are not bad or maybe i'm not a professional to determine what is bad. /img/vbsmilies/smilies//smile.gif
Joined Oct 11, 2010
Here are a couple pics of a local chef's competition at our farmer's market in August that I took photos for.  I had good lighting (it was an outdoor event under shelter) and the plating was done by the chefs. 

I have a nice camera and a developing eye.  The more I practice with the camera, the better I get.  I used to attribute good photos to a good camera.  Then a photographer friend of mine said, "That's like complimenting a chisel for making a gorgeous ice sculpture".  Sure, it helps to have a good quality tool, but the finished product is a collaboration of things (skill, will, practice, etc.). 

My photography skills are underdeveloped.  My plating skills even more so.  I'm learning by observation of talents greater than mine and practice (with both plating and photography), and I've been able to see noted improvement. 

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Joined Nov 5, 2007
Some interesting photos from the competition.  My favorite is probably the square plate with the round pile of food on it, with the two leaves heading off the plate giving a bit of visual interest.  I also like the octagonal plate - nothing really fancy, but it does look like something I want to eat.

The stuffed peppers on the white plate has a problem, in my opinion.  The juice running under the base of the glass detracts from the overall appeal of the presentation, it just looks messy.

Joined Oct 30, 2010
The photographs are good. 

But could you please watch what you put into your photographs? Every thing that doesn't have a reason to be there, is just getting in the way of a great photograph. 
Joined Oct 11, 2010
Teamfat - They actually only plated for the judges as presentation wasn't supposed to be a factor in the competition.  The challenge was to use ground beef (the 'secret ingredient') to make 200 samples for patrons in 1.5 hours.  The audience picked and winner and so did the judges.  The samples of the open-faced cheeseburger on the Dixie plates were the overall winners.  They finished early and I didn't get to photograph their judges plate complete with presentation.  In your pick, those were pineapple stuffed meatballs and they were delicious.

That's also the resason there's the corner of the trash can in one of the photos (and hands, people, etc.).  It was a timed competition and they were rushing around so I sort of had to get the photos when and of what I could.  People were already lined up at each station to get samples when they finally plated for the judges.
Joined Jul 14, 2010
Love the creativity.  The square black plate with what appears to be meatballs is my favorite pic.  It can be hard to learn a new art form like photography, and I think you are well on your way to taking some great pics.  

I agree with ChrisBelgium, you don't need to have very fancy equipment to take good photos.  I've had a chance to play with some of the fancy digital SLR cameras and I have to say that they are way too complicated for me to use (and I'm a tech guy).  I'm sure you could get good results with the camera you have and a little photo manipulation, but before you go out and spend major cash on Photoshop, there are a couple of free options you might want to try out.  Picasa is a good simple program that's available from Google.  Also lets you create online photo albumns.  

If you need something more advanced than Picasa, a full-featured, Photoshop replacement that is worth looking at is GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program).  There are versions for Windows, Mac, and Linux.  You can find out more about it here and download it from here.
Joined Aug 26, 2010
The black plate at the bottom is the kind of plating I like.  I want a plate with food on it.  The chef obviously took some extra time in the plating, but in the end, the food is the focal point.  The dixie plates are humorous. 
Joined Oct 23, 2008
Koukouvagia, there's a lot of good advice in this thread. I do think that when you are cooking for food to eat, and you have others that are interested in eating, you simply don't have time to shoot photos that are more than just "candid", however, using natural lighting and practicing on your composition can still produce really great shots. I actually wrote a blog post on doing food photography for "at home cooks", it's in my signature line if you are interested.
Joined Apr 3, 2008
Koukouvagia, there's a lot of good advice in this thread. I do think that when you are cooking for food to eat, and you have others that are interested in eating, you simply don't have time to shoot photos that are more than just "candid", however, using natural lighting and practicing on your composition can still produce really great shots. I actually wrote a blog post on doing food photography for "at home cooks", it's in my signature line if you are interested.

 That was a great blog post eastshores, very helpful!  Now all I have to do is get in gear and start experimenting a bit with light sources.  Well written.
Joined Jan 2, 2007
I often take pictures of my food but I don't care about the arty side of it, I just want it to look like I want to dive right in and eat it. I generally use a simple point and shoot Lumix and let the camera decide whether it needs flash.

Joined Apr 2, 2007
That is a great food shot Indianwells. Sometimes it just doesn't have to be arty. Eastshores I read your blog and it is very helpful, for those of us who work in catering it is good to be able to promote our work through photography such as DIY websites and flyers. I know the big guys pay for bespoke websites including photography be we can't all afford to go to that expense. 
Joined Feb 1, 2007
Doesn't have to be expensive, Bazza.

F'rinstance, if there's a college nearby that has photography classes (the art department is often the best place to check), the students can be a great resource. For a meal and a couple of bucks they'll bend over backwards because they're more interested in the credit line than the cash.
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