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Everybody loves food photography. But oftentimes, taking compelling and delicious-looking images of food can be harder than the food-related hashtags on Instagram make it look. Food photography is more nuanced than many other types of photography. The beauty and the art of a strong food image is in the details. Everything matters, down to the last grain of rice, drop of milk or sprig of garnish. This makes food photography difficult, and at times, extremely frustrating. Unless, of course, you know a few tricks.

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1. As is true with all photography, when taking pictures of food, lighting is everything. And in the case of food photography, natural light is your best friend. The first mistake most amateur food photographers make is snapping a picture of their freshly made dishes under a cool, blue-tinged, fluorescent kitchen light. Suddenly the beautiful, steaming stir fry or fresh-baked apple pie looks flat, colorless and definitely not good enough to eat or show off to your friends.

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The first trick to taking stunning images of food is to set up a spot to shoot in front of a window, or in front of another natural light source. Turn off the other lights in the kitchen so that the natural light is the only thing illuminating the food. You should immediately notice shadows, contrasts and textures in the food that weren’t there when the kitchen lights were on. Using natural light will also help keep the colors of the food more true and vibrant than when using a general, overhead light.

2. An easy way to take your food photography to the next level is to place your food on a compelling background. For this, your options are endless. You can use colorful and patterned placemats or tablecloths for a vibrant pop. This is especially effective if your food is relatively colorless. You can also use a wooden cutting board for a more rustic or natural feel. Just make sure the cutting board is clean and dry before shooting the food. Any stains or water spots on the wood will show up looking messy and out of place.

If you’re shooting a solitary object, like a piece of fruit, place it on a mirror or another reflective surface. This will create an optical illusion effect with the reflection, and is an easy way to make a standard piece of food look more interesting in a photograph.

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3. When photographing food, it’s also important to always be aware of colors. One of the first things we notice about food, especially in photographs, is its color. If a piece of fruit is dull in person, the color will come across even flatter in a picture. One way to make the food really pop in your images is to make sure you’re placing contrasting colors next to each other, mixing cool tones with warm ones. This is something you’ll need to think about before the cooking process even begins. Are you making a vegetable stir fry? Use a variety of different colored vegetables. Are you cooking simple lemon and garlic rice? Place a fresh sprig of bright green cilantro on top of the colorless dish. Reds, greens and yellows really pop when paired together, as do whites and blacks.

4. Once the food is prepared, you’ll have to think about how you want to arrange the photo. This is very nuanced and will require a lot of trial and error. Think about what you’re taking an image of. Is it a steaming bowl of chicken pad thai? Cross a pair of chopsticks over the top of the bowl or place them on the side on top of a clean, white napkin. Did you just pull a batch of blueberry muffins out of the oven? Try stacking some of them in a pile, then split one in half, and place it in front of the pile. Sprinkle a handful of fresh blueberries around the base of the muffins for added detail.

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5. The best thing about food photography is that, when all else fails, you can just cheat. When your photos aren’t turning out the way you want them to, there are plenty of household items you can use to create the illusion of a delicious, ready to eat meal.

If your food gets cold while you’re setting up the shot, you can create steam by soaking a cotton ball in water and microwaving it. Then, just place the cotton ball out of sight of the camera and suddenly even the coldest food will look piping hot. If the milk in your photos is looking thin, blue and watery, use heavy cream or even glue. The thicker the substance, the whiter it will be in photographs, and the more it will look like milk. If the fruit you’re using is a little dull or is starting to go bad, just grab a can of hairspray and go at it. The hairspray will create a layer of shine on the fruit, making it look fresher and ready to eat. If you can’t get your food display to stay in place, you can use toothpicks to stabilize it. Toothpicks are great tools for getting creative with your displays. Stack cherries, grapes or another kind of berry on a toothpick to create a cohesive line.

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With just a little dose of natural light and a few household items, anyone can create stunning food photography. Have fun and get messy. Who ever said you can’t play with your food?

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