To edit food photography it requires a bit of a different approach than you might take with other types of photography, like portrait or landscape. The objective is to keep the food looking as fresh and appetizing as possible, which can take a subtle but considered hand.
Although there is always room for style and artistry, the more real your subjects look, the better. Lightroom is the program of choice for most food photographers. It’s intuitive and relatively easy to use and offers most of the tools required to make great food photos.
For this article, I will walk you through how I make global adjustments to a food image in Lightroom’s Develop module. Workflow is something that is individual to each photographer. This is how I approach editing my food photography, however, you may opt to do things differently. Hopefully, you will find some takeaways that will help you edit your own images.
I’ll be editing this image of an apple pie. This is the shot straight out of the camera. Like all RAW images, it lacks contrast and needs a bit of pizzaz.
It’s important to have a basic understanding of the histogram in order to make adjustments to the exposure and tones in your image. The histogram is one of the key tools available for analyzing your image. It provides a graph of the density values of a given image. The histogram shows the relative quantity of pixels at each density value.
The far left point of the histogram is pure black and the densest, and the far right point is pure white with no density. A big peak in any of these regions means that the image has a lot of pixels at that particular density. An open gap in the histogram means that there are no pixels at that density.
The distribution of these tones will tell you about the overall exposure of the image. Most images look best if they contain both dark and light values. Generally, without some dark and light values, the image may lack contrast and look flat.
If you have a strong peak at the black or white end of the histogram, your image could be under or overexposed. However, it really depends on the individual image and the desired aesthetic. For example, blown out whites has become a “thing” in recent years. A dark and moody shot will have a lot of pixel density at the dark end of the spectrum.
Before you can start making global adjustments to your image, it makes sense to crop and straighten it first. One tip is to shoot a bit wider than what you want for your end result so you can tweak your composition in post-production. You also may want to crop it to a certain aspect ratio – say 4×5 or square for Instagram.
First, make sure that your horizon line is straight.
My horizon line in the apple pie image was already pretty straight. I used the crop tool to check it and also brought the crop in slightly on the left-hand side to cut off a little bit more of the pie. To access the Crop Tool in Lightroom, click on the grid symbol under the Histogram in the top panel (or just hit R, the keyboard shortcut). This will allow you to crop your image by bringing in the corners with your cursor.
While this tool is activated you can click “O” for the shortcut to bring up several compositional overlays like the Phi Grid or Golden Spiral to help you get the most out of your composition.
The Lens Corrections options fix optical distortion caused by the position of your subject in the frame, or where your camera is positioned relative to your scene. Lightroom supports a variety of lenses to automatically calibrate with this function.
I always check off Enable Profile Corrections before I start making adjustments to my image. Checking this box automatically brings up the camera profile for the lens used to create the image, in this case, the Canon EF 24-70mm.
I recommend setting your White Balance in-camera or shooting with a gray card and adjusting it in post-processing. This removes incorrect color casts and ensures that your whites and colors render accurately.
You can correct your White Balance in Lightroom by taking the eyedropper tool (circled in red below) and clicking on an area in the image which appears neutral. This will the adjust the color temperature in the whole image, and you can tweak afterward if it’s not quite as you desire. It’s not as precise as the other options but can work well for food your food images.
Also, in food photography, White Balance can be used creatively, depending on your image. I tend to favor a cooler approach to my food photography. Cool colors give a crisp and fresh feeling to the image, which means I tend to edit more towards the blue or cyan.
Keep in mind that the goal is to make the food look as fresh and appetizing as possible, so you don’t want the food to look blue. Food photography looks best when there is a balance of tones. I keep my surfaces and props on the cool or neutral side and work with my food subjects individually to keep it as realistic looking as possible.
When composing my apple pie image, I chose a vivid blue background to complement the golden tones of the pie. Not only does this create a balance of tones, blue and yellow are opposite on the color wheel and are a great combination of colors for food photography.
Exposure and Contrast
The next slider is Exposure, which affects the brightness of the range of tones in your image. To see bright or dark details, pull the Exposure slider to the left, or the Blacks slider to the right. If the bright areas look muddy, or the shadows still need more light, move the sliders to points where the image looks good overall.
I often make this adjustment initially and then may scale it back once I have made some other adjustments.
Contrast can be boosted in the Basic Panel or in the Tone Curve panel, which I will get to in a moment. It’s important to add some contrast, as RAW digital files are flat by nature.
Highlights, Shadows, Whites and Blacks Sliders
This panel is where you may end up doing a lot of tweaking before you settle on a look that you’re satisfied with. It will give you a more precise balancing of tones than simply relying on the Exposure slider.
In my shot of the apple pie, the highlights were too bright, and the shadows too light for the look I was aiming for, which was a darker mood. My style tends to be dark and moody with bright food. I brought the highlights down and boosted the whites, while also bringing down the shadows and blacks to create the ideal balance for the aesthetic I was going for.
Clarity, Vibrance, and Saturation
Clarity is a most important slider in Lightroom when editing food photography. Clarity gives your image contrast in the mid-tones (edge details more specifically) and adds detail. You probably wouldn’t edit a portrait with +50 clarity, but you can easily do so with food photos. Keep in mind that overdoing the clarity can make food look dry and unappetizing. For this edit, I put my clarity at +42.
Vibrance is also an important slider in food photography post-processing. It’s a better tool for your edits than saturation because it’s is more subtle. It tends to adjust the less saturated colors without intensifying the ones that are already saturated.
The difference between Vibrance and Saturation is that it affects the intensity of the colors. Red becomes redder, green becomes greener, and so on. Vibrance will first boost the saturation of the muted colors and then the other colors. It adjusts the less saturated tones without over-saturating the ones that are already saturated. Whether you use Saturation depends on the image and the look you are going for, but in general, a conservative approach is what works best when editing food photography.
It’s easy to quickly overdo the Saturation and make your image look ugly. If I use the slider at all, I might only nudge it up a tad to about +5 or +6. You’ll notice that I actually brought down the Saturation slightly in this image, so the blue looks a little less intense.
The Tone Curve is often challenging to new users, but it’s one of the most powerful tools that Lightroom has to offer. Getting in-depth with it is beyond the scope of this article, but let’s look at the basics.
The Tone Curve is a graph that maps out where the tones in your images lie. The bottom axis of the Tone Curve starts with Shadows at the far left side and ends with Highlights on the far right end. The mid-tones fall in the middle, in a range from darker to lighter. The tones get darker as you move lower, and brighter as you move up the axis.
Assess the mid-tones in your image. Are they bright already? If not, click on the middle of the tone curve and bring the point up. If they are already bright or too bright, bring the curve down slightly. Move on to the rest of your image. Typically you will find that your curve looks somewhat like a soft S (see screenshot below).
You can control the lightness and darkness of your tones by adjusting the Point Curve itself or by Region Curve. The Region has sliders for each part of the tonal range. As you drag each slider, the curve and the image both change.
To make adjustments with the Point Curve, click on the area you want to affect to create an anchor point at which to control the tone. Dragging the point up lightens that tone; dragging it down darkens the tone.
You will also notice that there is an RGB option in the lower-right portion of the point curve. This helps you to individually edit the Red, Green, and Blue channels. It performs the same types of adjustments to brightness and darkness, but on each separate color. This can be utilized if you want to edit a color individually, or give your image a certain type of color overall.
To choose tones directly from the image, there is a handy tool called the Targeted Adjustment Tool. This is located in the top left of the Tone Curve.
Click on it and move the cursor over the image. The tool shows you the tones under the crosshairs. If you click and drag it up and down the image, you will affect the tones like those under the crosshairs. For example, if you drag vertically on an area with light pixels, all of your image’s highlights will be adjusted.
If you’re getting started with learning the Tone Curve, play around with the Region sliders and take note of how the various sliders affect the curve. Whichever approach you choose, be sure to watch the histogram as you make changes, to ensure that you are not losing important detail.
HSL stands for Hue, Saturation, and Luminance. This is where you balance the colors in Lightroom. However, color adjustments are usually more subjective than tonal adjustments, as color gives a photograph a sense of mood.
There are two ways to make color adjustments in this panel; you can adjust them all at once under HSL/All, or each color individually under the Color tab at the top of the panel.
The Hue tab or section is where you choose how warm or cool you want each color in your image to be. For example, I find that greens almost always look off, so I slide the greens slightly more towards the left or right to get them looking more realistic. To add more warmth, that is, more yellow to your greens, slide it to the right. For a cooler hue, sliding it to the right will add more blue.
Whereas the Saturation slider in the basic panel adjusts the color of the whole image, the saturation sliders here adjust each color individually.
If you adjust a color to be more saturated, then it will affect the saturation of that particular color throughout the whole photo. Whether you’re working in the basic panel or the HSL panel, saturation requires a light hand.
In the image of the apple pie, I thought that the blue looked a bit more on the magenta side, so I slid it towards the left. This hue gave me a blue that worked better with the orange tones in my picture.
Lastly, Luminance affects the brightness of the color. I find these sliders more valuable than the saturation sliders and work with these first.
Working in Lightroom is all about balance, and the same goes when working with the Hue, Saturation, and Luminance adjustments.
Noise is the grain that can appear throughout an image. It’s not often a problem when you are shooting with artificial lights, but when working with natural light, grain can appear in your images if you are shooting at a higher ISO or you didn’t get enough light onto your sensor.
Working with the Noise slider in Lightroom will minimize the grain and give your image a smoother look. But, be careful not to push the slider too high, as it can result in a plastic look. For the apple pie, I set the Noise at +20, as it was shot in studio with a strobe.
Post-Crop Vignetting and Dehaze
If you are editing a darker, moodier image, Post-crop Vignette is a must. By darkening the outer corners of the frame, you draw the viewer’s eye towards the center of the image and your subject.
To darken, move your slider to the left. The midpoint slider controls how far in the dark edges get to the center of your photo. Feather controls how soft or hard your vignette will look. A softer vignette looks more appealing than a hard, “spotlight” effect.
Sharpening should be the last editing step. It adds contrast between pixels and edges, thereby adding definition and creating a more refined look.
NOTE: It’s not meant to make a blurry image look sharp!
Also, sharpening should not be applied to the whole image. In food photography, there is not much of a point in sharpening the props and the background, etc. The focus is on the food, therefore, this is what we sharpen.
To do this in Lightroom, mask out the image to select the areas of the image you want to sharpen rather than sharpening the whole image. You do this by holding down the Alt/Option key (it will show you where the sharpening is being applied, the white areas) while clicking on Masking in the Sharpening panel. Slide it to the right. The farther right you go, the less of the image it will sharpen. For my image, I left it at +76.
So here is the final image! Not drastically different than what I began with, but overall a more balanced and refined looking photo and consistent with my style of food photography.
When it comes to post-processing your food photography, the best advice I can give is that whatever your style, strive for a natural look for your subject. Ask yourself this question, “Looking at this image, do I want to eat that food?”
The answer should unequivocally be yes! If so, you’ve done a good job.
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