Three mistakes I am making as a rookie food photographer

One crucial aspect of being successful in any field is the ability to foster a healthy mindset of perseverance, motivation, and growth. This mindset propels us forward in our learning journey, while acknowledging the place we are in right now, in a non-judgmental and accepting way. Growth happens when we periodically take stock of our progress and identify any obstacles that might delay success. So today, I wanted to share with you the three biggest mistakes I’m making right now as a novice food photographer. And they have nothing to do with the technical stuff! Does any of this resonate with you? Let me know in the comments!

It took many months of practice to create sourdough bread like this

No.1: Comparing myself to others

When I decided to pursue food photography seriously, the most damaging and self-defeating behaviour I had was to look at other photographers’ images, and think “Ugh, I’ll never be able to create images like those!” I would see my own work as falling painfully short of the beautiful images I saw, and I would get de-motivated even before I picked up my camera to shoot!

One day, I received a perfectly-timed newsletter from Agnes Gallhagen, the talented photographer and author of the beautiful Cashew Kitchen blog. She wrote about the disappointment of comparison, and how, if we wanted to compare, we should be fair to ourselves and measure our skills against the early images our photography heroes took. When I followed her advice and dug around a bit on my favourite food blogs, the truth became quite obvious: everyone had started in a place of less skill, and through perseverance, patience, and practice, they had moved forward in their creative journey.

There is another, bigger problem with comparison: always looking at others’ images left precious little headspace for creating my own. They say that winners focus on winning, losers focus on winners. I lived this truth in my own journey; as long as I was obsessing over the work of others, I experienced very little improvement, and my images remained uninspired. But once I consciously switched the focus to building my own skills, I saw progress in my images and came closer to defining a personal style.

Getting closer to defining a personal style for my food photography

I have to be honest though: resisting the urge to compare does not just disappear once you rationally unravel the unfairness of it (because why do we never compare ourselves to those fellow creators with less skill?). “Am I good enough?” remains a tiny question in the back of my mind that pops up occasionally, especially after a particularly difficult styling session. But I make an effort to be compassionate and patient with myself, and to remember that failing is part of learning. It is not always easy to maintain perspective, but if I can coach myself out of feeling deflated, I can pick up my camera the next day, and do better!

Take-away: use other photographers’ work for inspiration, not comparison. If you feel the negativity building, take a step back, and refrain from checking someone’s feed, if they make you feel badly about yourself. Sure, you still have some learning to do, so focus on getting better compared to where you are now. If you need another reminder, look at images you took a couple of years ago; mine always cheer me up because I can definitely see progress between then and now! And that is a great feeling!

Tend to your own garden, and the fruit of your labour will soon ripen

No.2: Wanting ALL the stuff

The immediate gratification mindset that most of us are living with these days made me think (mistakenly) that I can “buy” my way into better food photography, by purchasing ALL the gear and props I see in the hands of photographers I admire. The most expensive camera. The unique (and pricey) ceramics. I though if I could just buy all this, surely my photos would be better! (Never mind skill, practice, or patience.)

Of course, this is false. There is no shortage of great iPhone pictures, which goes to show that all one really needs to take a picture is a camera – virtually any camera. Sure, more expensive models will give you more artistic freedom in what you can accomplish visually. But you become a better photographer by using a camera, not just by buying one. More on this under point no.3.

Vintage props

And what about props? The reality of food photography is that some tableware, flatware, napkins, and backgrounds are necessary. One can rent these from prop rental companies, or one can purchase them. There is nothing wrong with buying props, so long as we (and I mean “I”) realize they will not be the photographic “silver bullet” us novices hope for!

I’ve since tried to train myself for another approach: to first look at what I already have for the shot I want to create. I’ve found that keeping props very well organized is key; I sorted tableware and napkins by colour, vintage cutlery now stays separate from contemporary, enamelware has it’s own shelf and pitchers are all lined up on another. Just like for cooking or baking, I wanted to make it easy for myself to succeed and find the right pieces.

Although I look at props at investments, I now take a gradual approach to buying new items. I set myself mental limits (say, $35) when I walk into a store, lest I get tempted to purchase everything I like. I also maintain an ongoing list with things I am genuinely interested in: a small white soup pot, a vintage pie plate, a wooden tray with handles for a “breakfast in bed”-type scene (although, judging by the images I see on instagram, linen sheets -preferably pink – are also a must for this one!). If I happen upon one such piece, then I seriously consider buying it.

Here’s some more do’s:

  • I also take pictures in stores, and not *only* to annoy the staff. I look at whether the item photographs well, and always consider whether it fits with my overall aesthetic. I try to think how I would use it in a shot, and if I can’t come up with an idea quickly, I move on.
  • I look for neutral colours and matte glazes in ceramics, good drape and softness in napkins, and a mostly cool (in terms of colour temperature) palette, because I found that these shades look best with the warm browns, oranges, yellows or greens of food.
  • I try to DIY backgrounds, sew napkins out of linen yardage, and check out thrift stores for great deals.

Take-away: more stuff does not mean better photos. More expensive stuff also does not mean better photos. Take your time to accumulate gear and props gradually, keeping in mind your future needs, and meanwhile do the ONE thing that WILL help you take better pictures. Want to know what that is? Read on!

Pick up your camera when you see something beautiful in your kitchen

No.3: Not practicing enough

I’ve saved the best one for last. The single biggest mistake I am making right now is not practicing enough. All that time spent comparing my work to others’, or spent distracting myself with prop shopping, is time spent AWAY from my camera. And I pay for that: time is (not money, but) skill.

How much practice is enough? For you, you decide. For me? I want to pick up my camera daily; and if I do, I feel like I’ve achieved something that day. It really comes down to being consistent and showing up every day. It can be something simple like taking pictures of a box of beautiful tomatoes, or a fresh batch of cookies. Ideally, it is something more intentional, like a dish I shopped for in advance, then cooked, styled, photographed and edited. This is a more involved process, and I try and schedule something like this maybe twice a week. Sometimes the images are mediocre, but these are the times I learn the most, so it is completely worth the time and effort put into it.

I learned some lessons with this shoot – trying to capture water spritz on a kale leaf

Take-away: bust that camera/smartphone out every chance you get! What can we learn when we practice on the daily?

  • how to see and understand light. Shoot at different times of day in the same spot to see what’s the optimal time window for that spot. Move your set around your home to find the ideal time and location for creating the best food images.
  • camera settings. Shoot anything beautiful that comes through your kitchen that day, playing with aperture to get a feel for your depth of field at different apertures, and the other settings like shutter speed and ISO to obtain correct exposures, or to create different moods with light. Shoot all angles to find which works best. If you have a zoom lens, play with the different focal lengths to understand perspective.
  • composition and styling. Plan to cook or bake something when you have a little time to yourself, and while the food cooks, start laying out your scene with the empty plates and other props. Or buy ready-made food, if you’re busy. Use some “dummy food” to practice the camera settings and subject placement, and only bring the food into your scene at the last minute, so it’s fresh. Pimp it up with garnishes, and then shoot away! This is a great way to practice camera angles, composition, subject placement, perspective, and prop selection for creating a specific mood.
  • how to capture action shots. Obtain something pour-able (maple syrup, vinaigrette, coffee or tea, etc.), and some food or vessel to pour it on or in (pancakes, salad greens from the store, a nice mug); then set your camera’s self timer to 10 seconds, then hurry to your scene and start pouring. This way you’ll learn to manually focus, use your self-timer, get comfortable using your tripod and not knocking the whole setup over as you rush into your scene!

There is so much to learn! Every time I practice, I pick up something new, like “these plates do not look good on this background,” or “if my shutter speed is slower than 1/125th of a second, my hand pouring the maple syrup will look blurred,” or “drops of dressing from a salad will look colourful on a white plate, but will be lost on a dark plate.” And so on. There are SO many little details that can never be written down in a manual or a blog post, and these little tips and tricks are acquired through practice. I would love to shoot together with other photographers, because all of us have valuable tidbits to share – everybody wins! #communityovercompetition every. single. time!

Do you identify with any of this? Are you aware of any mistakes that are holding you back in your photography journey? Please share in the comments, friends!

Until next time!



9 thoughts on “Three mistakes I am making as a rookie food photographer

  1. Thank you Diana for these great tips! Now that you mention it – I do see my mistakes and will take your advice. You are so inspiring and your photo and food styling skills are incredible. I have to confess …. I spend countless hours in thrift shops, and kitchen shops always searching for those perfect accessories. My husband is going to have to build me more shelves and a new space to accommodate my ever-growing collection! I can’t practice without lots of accessories in many shapes and colours right? In your article the photo of your vintage accessories is stunning and really shows off your beautiful collection.

    1. Rita, such a sweet comment, thank you for your kind compliment! We have to go thrifting together sometimes, and there is an antique market I like visiting every once in a while. Maybe we’ll find some gems, eh? 😉

  2. I agree with all of these Diana! One of my favourite quotes is “comparison is the thief of joy” — I use it to keep reminding myself not to get into that comparison game. Love all the images you included in your post — the moody, dark atmosphere is so alluring! Great post!

    1. I love that quote, Kris! We look at food images so much on the daily, and sometimes I find it hard to not compare. For me, the key was to become aware that I was/am doing it, and then to switch my mental chatter from “I can’t do it,” to “I wonder how I can achieve that.” Still a work in progress, heheh. 🙂

    1. Becky, thank you! Honestly, comments like yours really make my day and motivate me to keep writing and sharing. I figure, even if I only help one person, it was totally worth it. Much gratitude!

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