Uncover the secrets of showcasing this favorite world-famous Mexican cuisine with eight tips from pro food photographers.
Image by Funkyfrogstock
Although the exact origin of the taco remains a mystery, the much-loved dish may date back all the way to the Mexican silver mines of the 18th century. Visit Mexico City today, and you’ll find them in high-end restaurants and street stands alike. Whether you have $100 or $2 in your pocket, chances are you’ll find a delicious taco within a block.
For photographers, tacos pose a unique set of possibilities, from bold pops of color to traditional tableware and settings. We asked six expert food photographers to share their tips for capturing tacos in their best light, whether they’re working in the studio or on-the-go. Not everyone can hop on a plane and fly to Mexico City, but thanks to these photos, we can all get a taste of some of its extraordinary flavors.
Image by Playa del Carmen
1. Know your history.
If you want to photograph tacos, you first need to learn about their heritage and meaning. “Tacos are a cultural symbol, so they need to be approached with sensitivity,” Peter Marik explains. “After living in Mexico for seven years, I’ve learned to respect real Mexican tacos. A taco in a restaurant in Europe or the US might have all the colorful bells and whistles, but it won’t have that Mexican soul.”
Stay away from clichés, and aim for authenticity.
Image by Marik Peter. Gear: Nikon D500 camera, Tamron 24-70 f2.8 G2 lens. Settings: Focal length 32mm; exposure 1/800 sec; f3.2; ISO 100.
2. Hit the streets.
If you are lucky enough to be in Mexico, don’t stay in the studio the whole time! Visit street vendors, and take a peek at some of those historic restaurants. “This specific picture of mine came about serendipitously when I visited a century-old restaurant in Mexico,” Marik explains. “When we entered the building, I felt immediately that something special was on the way. Before the food even arrived, everything from the interior design to the traditional pottery caught my eye.”
Still, Marik’s photo wasn’t purely the result of good fortune. In fact, he took extra steps to ensure a great result: “The staff wanted to seat us inside the restaurant, but I did not like the flat lighting, so I asked for a table on their porch—next to a big white wall in the shade. I also used a black menu card right next to my plate to create some dynamics and depth.” When in Mexico, think on your feet. Your best photos could happen where you least expect it.
Image by etorres. Gear: Nikon D7100 camera, AF-s Micro Nikkor 60mm f7/2.8G ED lens. Settings: Exposure 1/100 sec; f9; ISO 100.
3. Select the right props.
Of course, you don’t always have to be in Mexico to create a beautiful taco photo, but you do need to pay homage to this rich cultural legacy in some way, shape, or form. “My first tip is to get to know traditional taco recipes and the traditional crockery associated with them,” Tiffany and David, the duo behind etorres photography, explain. “We do a lot of research and read a lot of blogs to help us find the best ingredients, materials, and props.”
Image by Carolina Arroyo. Gear: Nikon D7100 camera, Nikon AF DX 18-140 VR lens. Settings: Focal length 1400; f11; ISO 400.
4. Choose the freshest ingredients.
This rule holds true for all food photography, but especially for tacos. “I always use fresh ingredients bought at local markets,” Carolina Arroyo tells us. “Old or bad quality tortillas will crack and make the staging of the photo more difficult, so it’s better to use fresh and warm tortillas. Most meats used in tacos benefit from heat to get a shiny look. Additionally, tacos are rarely eaten without salsa and limes, so in order to make the photo more authentic, I’ll also include these elements.” When shopping, make sure you pick up ingredients with a variety of colors and textures to give your photo more depth.
Image by Funkyfrogstock. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, Canon 40mm STM 2.8 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f5.6; ISO 100.
5. Stage your photo carefully.
When it comes to tacos, one of the most important things to capture are those different layers of ingredients. It’s all about that color, texture, and volume. At the same time, your composition should be intentional and deliberate.
“Tacos are delicious, but they have an amorphous shape, so it can be challenging to get a good composition,” Alex Salcedo of Funkyfrogstock explains. “In all my pictures, I always try to make the scene look clean. The trick is to only include the elements that are absolutely necessary. Remember: less is more. When I’m working with a chef, as I often do, I sometimes ask for a smaller quantity of food. That allows the ingredients to breathe. You have to be able to see what you’re going to eat!”
You might have to try out a few compositions and layouts to find one that works. A few of the photographers in this story also mention one easy, practical tip: keep plenty of toothpicks on hand. They’ll help you keep your taco perfectly in place, and they’re easy to edit out in post. Win-win.
Image by Sofia Felguerez. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, 50mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f8; ISO 400.
6. Be prepared to work quickly.
“I normally shoot in casual, family-owned restaurants and even food trucks, so speed is always important,” Sofia Felguerez explains. “Food always looks better when it’s warm—and tacos can get soggy in seconds—so I always set everything up before actually asking them to bring me the plate.” That means her lights are all good to go, her props are arranged, and her composition is in place before the food even hits the table.
Image by Sofia Felguerez
7. Remember the details.
Tacos come with their own set of rules. For one, you’ll want to hold the sauce until the last possible moment. Felguerez works with an assistant who pours it out very slowly; that way, she can capture just the right amount without ruining the whole dish.
You’ll also want to pay special attention to colorful ingredients and vibrant garnishes. “Some tacos come open with soft tortillas and others, like ‘tacos dorados,’ come in hard closed shells,” Felguerez continues. “If the tacos are soft, fresh cilantro leaves and chopped tomato always help to add some color into the shot. In the case of tacos dorados, I use sour cream.”
If the sour cream doesn’t have the right density, Felguerez might swap it out for wood glue, though she prefers the real thing whenever possible. The one thing she always carries, no matter the type of taco? Olive oil. “I brush it on to make the meat or the shell look shiny and fresh,” she says.
Image by Playa del Carmen. Gear: Nikon D7000 camera, 18-55mm lens. Settings: Focal length 18mm; exposure 1/200 sec; f9; ISO 100.
8. Get creative.
As Shutterstock Contributor Playa del Carmen explains, food photography isn’t necessarily about introducing people to something new. It can also be about evoking memories, especially with a familiar food like tacos. Telling an emotional and compelling story in a single photo starts with understanding the history of tacos (tip #1) and ends with adding your own creative edge.
“Everybody knows what tacos look like, so you need to give them a fresh twist,” Playa del Carmen continues. “I love to explore new things and find the best ingredients with the most interesting color palettes. This is where research comes into play as well. In Mexico, we have different tacos in each state. Some tacos are for the morning and others are only served at night. That kind of knowledge helps with creative staging and composition ideas.”
Top image by Carolina Arroyo.
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