Good food photography is important. While there are some subjects that are best captured candidly and without affectation, food photography is something that requires a little more. It’s not a matter of styling and editing the photo to make it something that it is not. The fact is, this Thai Wild Rice Salad tastes exactly the same in both of the above photos, but only one of those photos makes you think YUM!
Ideally, you can set up a shot with a little practice and take food photos with natural light that look yummy right out of the camera. Sometimes that works. Other times, like right now in the middle of January and its dark days, the pictures, despite my best prep work and photo skills, end up looking dull, shadowed, and uninteresting. Editing food photos in Photoshop can turn a boring food photo into something that actually captures the vibrancy and flavor of a great recipe.
In this tutorial I will show you my step by step process for editing a not-so-hot shot, like the BEFORE image above, in Photoshop. My process is certainly not the only way to edit food photos and I will tell you up front that it may not even be the best way. I am a self taught photographer and I’ve been figuring out Photoshop on my own for years. So while this is definitely a way to transform your photos, I make no claims to expertise here – this is just what works for me.
I have also learned that is worth my time to use Actions. Sure, I know how to polish a photo manually in Photoshop, but if an action can help me drastically simplify my workflow then that makes more sense to me. I’m keeping it real in this little demo.
So with all of my disclaimers out of the way, I’m ready to show you behind the scenes of this Thai Wild Rice Salad and how I edit food photos. I hope it helps! Let’s get started.
Step One: Adjust exposure in CameraRaw
I shoot RAW, so the first step I take is to open the image in CameraRaw and adjust the exposure. The idea is to brighten the photo without over-exposing any area of the image.
As you can see below, I increased the exposure value until the image looked brighter, then I adjusted the contrast and blacks slightly so that the actual salad didn’t look washed out at all. Don’t over do it here. The change is subtle, but there’s still more work to do.
Step Two: Adjust the White Balance in CameraRaw
I shot this image on a gray January day on my front porch. I didn’t adjust the white balance in camera (because I shoot RAW, I rarely adjust the WB in camera), consequently the image has a blue tint.
To give it a more natural hue, I used a custom white balance. I adjusted the temperature until the image had a warm glow and I slightly adjusted the tint to bring out the natural colors in the salad. See below.
Step Three: Open image in Photoshop and Adjust Levels.
To open Levels, hit CTRL + L
Using Levels you can adjust the brightness, contrast, and tonality of the image. You can get really fancy in here, and sometimes I do more manual adjustments here, but more often than not I just hit “Auto” and let Photoshop give me something to work with first. If the Auto Adjustment doesn’t look quite right, I will fade the levels and see if that does the trick (see below).
In this case, Auto Adjustment did a good job of increasing the contrast in the image as you can see below.
However, the image still looked too dark, so I opened Levels again (CTRL + L) and selected “Lighter” from the drop down preset menu. That did the trick, see:
Step Four: Adjust light and shadows
The best way I have found to adjust light and shadows in photos is to use the Totally Rad Action called “Yin, Yang”.
The Yin, Yang action gives you a brush to adjust the light and the dark in an image. There are other ways to do this, but this is by far the simplest!
In this image, using a large brush at 25% opacity, I brushed light into the salad and background. Then I brushed dark into the foreground of the image to bring out the lines in the piece of marble tile I was shooting on.
Now the light looks just right to me so I’ll go ahead and flatten the image before I move onto the next step.
Step Five: Adjust Saturation and Contrast
Again, there are other ways to do this, but the fastest and simplest way is to use an Action. I really like Totally Rad’s “Oh, Snap!” action and I use it often in my food photography. It bumps up the contrast, defogs the image, and increases the saturation. I almost always decrease the opacity of the action so the effect is a little more subtle, but it’s the fastest way to take a photo to the next level.
Step Six: Tweak the colors
To really bring out the colors in the food and brighten a dish, I often tweak the hue and saturation of specific colors.
To do this I first created a new background layer. Then I opened the Hue/Saturation dialogue and select one color at a time to adjust. In this photo I adjusted the yellows and the greens.
When the yellows and greens looked like I wanted them, a little more vibrant, then I used the eraser at 95% opacity on the background layer copy and erased everything but the yellows and greens (see below).
You can also adjust the opacity of the background layer copy until the adjustments you made look natural and the overall color scheme of your image looks right.
Step Seven: Put the finishing touches on by cropping and sharpening the image
I cropped the top of the image to eliminate the distracting upper left corner. Then I resized the image for my blog, which is 600 pixels wide. After resizing, I used another Totally Rad Action, “Sharpen for Web” and with one click I had a perfectly sharp image ready to post.
To review, I started with this:
And after about 10 minutes in Photoshop, with the help of some actions (all actions are from Totally Rad’s collection TRA1 The Original Mix- The Workflow Basics), I ended up here:
I shared the recipe for this Thai Wild Rice Salad with Salmon because it is incredibly delicious. After a little editing, I had a picture that looked as delicious as the recipe actually tastes!
More Helpful Info:
- I am shooting with a Canon 5D
- I almost always use my Canon L Series 24-70 f.28 lens for food photography, it’s my favorite!
- I use Photoshop CS6 – I have a monthly subscription.
- I highly recommend the Tasty Food Photography E-Book for a more in depth look at food photography styling, lighting, and editing.
- You can find the Totally Rad Actions that I mentioned here.
And that is how I do it! I hope this has been helpful. Let me know if you have questions or any photo tips of your own!
There are affiliate links in this post but only for products I own, use, and love.