Food52 Life

James Ransom's 5 Essential Photography Tips

July  9, 2014

You might not realize it, but you know James Ransom -- he's the photographer behind many of the photos that make Food52 such a beautiful place. Today, we asked him to share five essential photography tips that will make all of your food look better.

Beet Tart on Food52

1. Keep things clear.
I try to use daylight as much as possible in my photography. That means I’m often at the mercy of the weather and the seasons; it gets dark really early in December and January. If you're using a window as your main source of light, the first thing you should do is turn off all of the lights in the room, as well as in any nearby rooms. Daylight and ambient (household) lights show up as different colors in your camera, so when they mix together it can get ugly -- think about that time your picture came out really yellow. Turn off all the lights in the room to isolate your light source, and you’ll be surprised how nicely the image comes out.  

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Spicy Shrimp on Food52

2. Hold steady.
I recommend mounting your camera on some sort of tripod. When using daylight indoors (i.e. light from a window or a doorway), the exposure is usually long enough that you can’t hand-hold the camera without getting a shaky, blurry image. Even if you’re just using the “auto” setting on your camera, getting it to stay really still will go a long way.  

3. Set up your lighting right -- like this:
Here’s an example of a typical lighting set up that I use: I have the plate of pasta on a linen on a table, and I’m aiming the camera from directly overhead. I have a big window to my left that has a white, translucent sheet of fabric covering it to make the light softer, and I’ve blocked off all other light sources in the room with sheets of black foam core. This enables me to get strong, dark shadows, and bright, saturated colors.

Marcella Sauce on Food52

4. The Biggest Mistake to Avoid:
Every photographer is different, but for me, the number one lighting no-no is using the lights in your house as a main light source. This light usually comes from directly overhead, which gives you strong, funky shadows that you can’t control, and the color of the light is usually really warm, or green, depending on what kind of lights you have. Without making sort-of-complicated changes to your camera’s settings, there’s not a whole lot you can do. So try to use natural light, or if necessary, use a flash -- even if it’s the one built in your camera.

Fennel, Onion, and Orange Salad on Food52

5. The Makings of a Great Picture:
Despite everything I’ve said about lighting so far, I think the most important part of taking a good picture is its composition. A good composition is visually balanced and keeps your eye moving around the image. You don’t look at it and feel like something or someone is going to tip over. You can tell when a photo has great composition when you spend more time looking at it than you realize -- it’s pleasing to the eye. If you’re photographing a person or an object, pay attention to everything else in the photo (like that tree coming out of someone’s head); you’ll be surprised at how much better your photos are just from concentrating on this one tip. 

Folded Stacks by James Ransom on Food52

On a trip to India a few years ago, I got to stop and take pictures at a laundry facility near Kochi. This still life of clothes being folded is my favorite picture that I’ve taken so far; I just love the light and the bright colors of the fabrics, as well as the color and texture of the wall. A lot of the work that I do is styled and set up, but finding natural beauty in my surroundings is what really fuels my passion for photography.

Tell us: What are your biggest challenges when it comes to food photography?

All photos by James Ransom


See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Caryn Struttman
    Caryn Struttman
  • Barbara
  • FreehandKitchen
  • LaNae Ross
    LaNae Ross
  • JCCraves


Caryn S. December 16, 2016
Hi James - for the picture in the laundry facility, did you need to use any props or assistance from a light bounce, etc?

Lovey photos. Thanks!
Barbara October 15, 2015
Love his work. Thanks James and Food52 for the great advice.
FreehandKitchen April 2, 2015
I've been learning and playing with food photography. It's obvious daylight is easy to work with, but it is so impractical to depend on that, such as if you have a day job. I've read books, searched online...virtually every source either ignores, avoids or decries using indoor lighting or how to do it instead of natural light. It's frustrating for someone trying to get started who doesn't have the luxury of already being a full-time photog or food blogger setting their work schedules with the sun. What can one do? I know it isn't impossible to get great pics at night, just would love to learn how! Someone should write a book or blog about only working without natural light. They would be a hero and appear way more advanced than those who have it easy with sunlight!
priya April 2, 2015
My thoughts exactly!
LaNae R. July 27, 2014
JCCraves July 10, 2014
Gorgeous photos and spot on advice. I sometimes feel like a broken record, imploring iPhone photogs to turn off that flash! I'd rather see no photo than an unappetizing washed out food photo.
Minimally I. July 10, 2014
As you said, natural light is key! Even though I have strobes and enjoy shooting with them from time to time, I always opt for natural light for my food photos whenever possible.
slothful S. July 10, 2014
I'm like you: my entire blog is powered by the natural light from my apartment (and on an iPhone 5s, no less — I don't have a 'real' camera). the biggest challenge for me has been adjusting my surroundings to accommodate for different times of day, since not all natural light is created equal.

my three best tips for as an evening-only cook:
1) I save and reconstitute leftovers. if it's 9pm on a Thursday or 5pm in the Chicago winter (and usually it is), I just keep the spare stuff, reheat, plate, and shoot it in the morning before work. Then I eat it for breakfast.
2) I always shoot at least three versions: one very far out, one with the composition I think I want, and one that's closer up than I could imagine using. I have been very surprised at which ends up being the most appetizing in the end.
3) for iPhone users, the VSCO cam app and Snapseed app, using manual adjustments, have proven invaluable to upping the style quotient of pictures after they're shot.

these the only reasons why no one can tell outright that I don't own a DSLR.
Two T. July 9, 2014
Nice tips! Any tips for taking a complete night-time indoor photo with no natural light options? I try to avoid it but sometimes you want to capture something that came out of the oven at 9 pm!
Debbi S. July 9, 2014
I would have loved to see the setup shot. How far away from the window was the food and how tall are the black foam core boards
Karen July 9, 2014
You don't always have to use the kitchen window. Check out the natural light from each of your windows at different times of the day. Found this invaluable
Will G. July 9, 2014
Great read, thanks James!
Panfusine July 9, 2014
THank you so much for those amazing tips, My problem is that my kitchen has 2 huge skylights that makes it very difficult to get good photos with natural light from the window in the afternoon. I try to make do by blocking as much light as I can with a rickety trifold Poster board covered with a black woolen shawl. This gives me a very narrow window between 4:30 - 5:30 pm.. getting dinner ready before that.. Phew!
I'd like your opinion to diuberts question as well.. whats the next step up to a basic DSLR?.. Thanks again!
em-i-lis July 9, 2014
My biggest challenge is that half of what I cook is made after I get my kids in bed. That means very little natural light.
em-i-lis July 9, 2014
This is really well done. Succinct, helpful, easy-to-take-away tips. Thank you, James!
Gibson2011 July 9, 2014
I think finding the time to photograph is really difficult. My time to shoot typically comes when my toddler is napping, though my lighting options might not be the best. Consequently, I usually feel very rushed.
Tamara July 9, 2014
Thanks for the great tips. I do try to focus a lot on natural light but living in London it's often very grey outside and the light doesn't always give the effect I'm after...any suggestions!?
Alexandra S. July 9, 2014
For ages I lived in a super dark apartment with absolutely NO natural light (or even overhead light) in Brooklyn. It really made my photography and blog suffer!

I'm finally back west where the days are longer and I have access to natural light, I can't wait to take my food photography to the next level!
dieubert July 9, 2014
what kind of "professional" camera do you suggest that is a step up from a point and shoot?