From Tantalizing Tarts to Picturesque Pies: 14 Tips for Dessert Photos

We asked eight talented food photographers to discuss their tricks for capturing mouth-watering dessert photos. Here are their top tips.

This year, amid coronavirus lockdowns, baking became the world’s favorite hobby. From brownies to lemon bars, people around the globe took to their kitchen to whip up creative, Instagram-worthy confections, while sharing their best #quarantinebaking photos on social media.

To meet the growing craving for desserts, sales of bakery items—fresh and packaged alike—boomed. According to one report, many of us started buying more comfort food than we had in previous months. Meanwhile, online searches for banana bread recipes soared, and people celebrated their birthdays with homemade cakes.

By August, as part of The Shot List, Shutterstock had named “junk food is comfort food” as one of their trends, with customers searching for images of everything from donuts to chocolate snacks. Let’s see what delicious, home-cooked images these eight inspiring food photographers have in store for us.

1. Play with Natural Light

Use Natural Light
Whenever possible, use natural light. Image by Timothy Atkins. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 II USM lens. Settings: Focal length 57mm; Exposure 1/60 sec; f8; ISO 100.

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“Natural light is always best for food, so I try to use the light that is available and manipulate it to give a feel for the different seasons,” London-based photographer Timothy Atkins explains. “You can block out light with a bit of card or use diffusion material to soften, color correct, and spread light more evenly. I’ve used Rosco diffusion roll, light fabric, bubble wrap, and plant foliage to create dappled light.”

2. Light from the Sides or Back

Lighting Food
For the best food lighting, try lighting from the side or back. Image by Liesel Böckl. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, 50mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/60 sec; f4; ISO 400.

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“I used to think it was best to light something from the front, but that’s actually the worst light for food,” London-based photographer Liesel Böckl explains. “Instead, opt for side or backlighting. Side light is great when you have some height. The light wraps around the food gently, showing off the details.’

“Back light is great for a more dramatic look with more contrast. It’s also great if you have transparent or translucent textures. I suggest finding a space by a window, setting up a table, and just playing around with different directions. Try different times of day and see what works the best.’

“When I shoot at the window, I block out all other windows with boards for a more dramatic look with shadows. I love shadows and really think they add depth and beauty to images. Japanese architect Kengo Kuma said, ‘There is no light without shadows,’ and that’s so true for photography, as well.”

3. Incorporate Rich Tones

Rich Colors and Good Lighting
Make the dessert more enticing by experimenting with rich colors. Image by Evan Sklar. Gear: Canon 5D camera, 50mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/4 sec; f5.6; ISO 400.

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“Colors that are rich, dark, and saturated look more ‘delicious,’ so my advice is to avoid gray and tans,” Brooklyn-based photographer Evan Sklar explains. “Aside from that, beautiful light can make almost anything look pretty. Photograph real food in real light in a real setting. If the food looks beautiful and you have nice light, then you are ninety-five percent of the way there to having a great picture.”

4. Add a Pop of Bright Color

Add a Vibrant Color
Add some energy with a splash of vibrant color. Image by Timothy Atkins.

“Props are just as important as the food, as they give a platform for the food to sing or make a statement,” Timothy Atkins says. “I try to use neutral tones in propping, light tones for the summer, and darker tones for autumn or winter. This lets the food stand out if it has any color. If the food doesn’t have vibrant color, on the other hand, I would use a bowl, plate, or napkin with color to lift the food and give it more energy.”

5. Finesse Your Compositions

Lead the Viewers' Eyes
Lead your viewers’ eyes to the focal point of your composition. Image by Sonia Monagheddu. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, Canon EF 24-105 mm F/4.0 L IS II USM lens. Settings: Focal length 60mm; Exposure 1/3 sec; f13; ISO 160.

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Before your shoot, it helps to plan or sketch out an idea of the composition you have in mind. “The most important advice I can give emerging food photographers is to think about what you want to say with your photos,” Italy-based photographer Sonia Monagheddu explains.

“You should lead the viewers’ eyes through the composition and to the focal point(s) of the picture. How can you achieve this? One easy way is to include an element in the foreground, one in a central position, and (obviously) a background. That way, you can obtain a good depth of field. Another option is to use the grid on your camera and add other elements—like ingredients and/or props—to catch the eye.”

6. Get Messy

Add Imperfections
Create an enticing image—add a little messy goodness to your dessert. Image by Evi Abeler. Gear: Canon 5D Mark IV camera, Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens. Settings: Exposure 1/100 sec; f11; ISO 100.

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“I’ve noticed that I get the most compliments about a food photo if there is some kind of melting, sprinkling, or oozing involved,” New York-based photographer Evi Abeler tells us. “People love seeing a dripping ice cream cone, a nice pour of chocolate sauce, or a smear of honey.’

“When you set up your next dessert shoot, start with a clean, perfectly-styled scene, and then gradually layer in some action, drizzle, take a bite, and make a sexy mess. Go all the way! There might even be a great shot in the aftermath.”

7. Take a Bite (or a Slice)

Create a Sense of Aroma
Convey a sense of aroma with the addition of fresh fruit or aromatic plants to your image. Image by Jordi Calvera. Gear: Canon 6D camera, Canon 24-105 4.5 lens. Settings: Focal length 60mm; Exposure 1/100 sec; f10; ISO 250.

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Taking a bite or cutting into your dessert can also be a great way to bring your photos to life. “I always like to cut into a cake so you can see the filling,” Spain-based photographer Jordi Calvera tells us. “If I can’t do that, I might also accompany the dessert with raw ingredients or aromatic plants to evoke the taste or smell of the dish. For me, a great photo always conveys that sense of aroma. For that reason, I tend to use raspberries and blueberries a lot.”

8. Add a Seasonal Twist

Create a Thematic Mood
Create a thematic mood with lighting. Image by Lauren Miller. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, Canon 24-70 2.8 Mk II lens. Settings: Focal length 70mm; Exposure 1/160 sec; f16; ISO 100.

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“I think baking photos always do well around holiday campaigns—nostalgic foods, baking ingredient shots, etc.,” Toronto-based photographer Lauren Miller tells us. “One of the greatest tips I’ve ever gotten … is to think about the relationship between the light and the story the food is trying to tell, and this applies to seasonal desserts.’

“For example, is this dessert being eaten with afternoon tea? On a rainy day? Adding that layer of moody light to something cozy and wintery, or a streak of sunlight to something happy and summery, is what takes your photos from being nice to moving and memorable.”

Create a Mood
Create an autumn-themed mood with a dark backdrop and a pop of color. Image by Sonia Monagheddu.

Right now, Sonia Monagheddu is excited about autumn-themed photos. “This time of the year, I think people like to see traditional fall desserts: apple pies, pumpkin pies, chocolate cookies, etc. They have that warm and cozy feeling. So, any time I see one of these pictures, I instantly wish I were sitting in front of my (imaginary) fireplace, eating those desserts, and drinking a cup of tea or hot chocolate.”

9. Celebrate the Holidays

Holiday-Themed Desserts
Holiday-themed desserts are popular in stock photography. Image by Vitalina Rybakova. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, Canon EF 100 mm F2.8L Macro IS USM lens. Settings: Exposure 1/100 sec; f5.6; ISO 100.

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“In my experience, the three most popular ingredients in commercial dessert stock photography tend to be fruits and berries, chocolate, and ice cream, but I also find that holiday desserts are popular,” Italian photographer Vitalina Rybakova tells us.

“Now, for instance, photographs of desserts that are traditionally prepared for the holidays—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas—are selling well. These can also vary depending on your culture and where you live. Maybe it’s apple pie, gingerbread, fruit cake, decorated cupcakes, tarts with berries and fruits, or something else.”

10. Show the Process

Show Your Process
Show the viewers your process! Image by Dejan Stanic Micko. Gear: Canon 6D camera, Canon 100mm f2.8 Macro lens. Settings: Exposure 1/200 sec; f2.8; ISO 200.

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“I always try to capture as many different photos as possible—from simple, minimalistic photos to more complex ones—showing the baking process. One last thing I wish I’d known earlier, some dishes might need to be half-baked in order to get that mouth-watering effect in your photos.”

11. Play with Depth of Field

Use Depth of Field
Showcase the main item using depth of field. Image by Linda Hughes Photography. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, Canon 100mm macro lens. Settings: Exposure 1/160 sec; f4.5; ISO 100.

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“Remember to use depth of field to showcase the main item,” Washington, D.C.-based photographer Linda Hughes tells us. “For example, in this photo, I used depth of field to render the whole cake slightly out of focus but still recognizable, with the slice being the emphasis.’

“Beyond that, lighting for color and texture separates a great dessert photo from a good one. So, sometimes I’ll use a polarizing filter to reduce glare on desserts with a glaze. Another trick I wish I had known about earlier is to use fabric strips that go around cake pans to ensure evenly baked and flat layers of a layered cake. YouTube has a myriad of food styling videos which I have found to be very helpful. So, that’s a great place to start.”

12. Be Bold

Add Hard Light
Add a little hard light to your food photography. Image by Evi Abeler.

“I love the current hard-light, full-focus look in advertising photography that has also entered into the world of food photography,” Evi Abeler explains. “It’s a bright and powerful approach that I am very excited by. I am experimenting to see how I can merge that look with my own aesthetic and come up with a fresh point of view.”

13. Try Plant-Based

Incorporate Vegan Foods
Add some vegan options. Image by Lauren Miller.

Vegan foods are trending, and several of the photographers we interviewed plan to add some vegan desserts to their portfolios in the near future. “I’m plant-based myself, so I’m super excited about the emerging plant-based dessert trends, and I love seeing them photographed!” Lauren Miller says.

Get Creative with Ingredients

Experiment with New Ingredients
Experiment with new dishes. Image by Timothy Atkins.

Timothy Atkins is always experimenting with new dishes, making his portfolio timely and diverse. “These days, I’m a big fan of sourdough doughnuts, matcha soft serve, poached pears with vegan chocolate, and the idea of coconut yogurt (COYO) drizzled over toasted banana bread,” he tells us. “I also like desserts that challenge your mind to question whether it’s savory or sweet. I recently had an incredible tart with British gooseberries, turmeric, and pistachio frangipane.”

While staples like cake, ice cream, and fruit pies will always be in vogue, don’t be afraid to try fun, new desserts, as well. “Whatever you shoot, I think it’s great for the photographer to understand how desserts are made,” Atkins adds. “This will give you an understanding of the time frame in which you have to capture the imagery and get the best out of the ingredients on the page.”

Cover image by Timothy Atkins.

Take your food photography to the next level with these pro tips and insights: