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Jen Altman on the Best Tricks for Food Photography

October 15, 2014

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Today: Jen Altman lets us in on some of her secrets to gorgeous, simple photos that will make your food look as good as it tastes.

                         Jen Altman

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The title "food stylist" may conjure an image of someone who is hyper detail-oriented and uses tweezer to place single ligonberries beside a flawless smear of mango curd inside a hideously expensive light box. But Jen Altman is no such food stylist. She describes her aesthetic as "modest," and her photographs capture the realities of working with food; some greens stray to the edge of a plate and her subjects seem to be enjoying their meals with gusto. 

Jen has gained international acclaim for her culinary photography (not to mention her fine art, event, and portrait photographs) and has created a distinctive spare and pleasing style.  

Read on as Jen shares her photographer wisdom and some of her best tricks.

What is your biggest food styling pet peeve?
I’m not sure I have a pet peeve, as I try to appreciate the various interpretations stylists wish to execute. But it seems that the effort to showcase simpler and more authentic settings is often counterintuitive. I’m not a fan of over crumpled linens, excessively messy work spaces, and the addition of ingredients/garnishes that aren’t really relative to the recipe or dish. They can make beautiful photographs, but in my own work, I strive to keep things a bit simpler and more honest. 

What props are your secret weapons?
Vintage silver and old knives. I do love using silverware in most shots, so having a unique variety to choose from is great. Also, linens. They can be used in so many ways and provide texture to an otherwise flat shot.

What’s the best “find” you’ve ever gotten at a flea market or vintage store?
So many! But one of my favorites is a pair of galvanized baking sheets. They obviously look fantastic serving their original purpose -- layered with slightly burnt parchment and oozing berry tarts. But they make wonderful surface areas for smaller compositions as well.

Any tips for shopping flea markets?
I think that flea markets can be overwhelming without a plan of action. I remember when I first started collecting pieces for my modest prop closet, I would buy things just because I was utterly seduced by their beauty, not because I had any particular use in mind. I suppose one could argue that as a stylist, you never know what you may need for a prospective project. But I learned quickly the difference between those things I could use in my everyday life and as props, and those things that I could rent or buy for an assignment. All that to say, that you should have a mission in mind. Whether it be silver spoons, old baking sheets or vintage linens. Take a list and stick to it. You can always go back next week!

What’s one thing we can do to make our food pictures instantly better?
Shooting from overhead is a no-fail way to shoot food. But be mindful of your composition. Look for balance and flow; be aware of the way the colors of the food, dishes, linens, and surface work together. Don’t be afraid to move things to make it work for you. Try compositions that may be outside your comfort zone -- creating photos with a great deal of negative space for example. And of course, above all…natural light only!


What are your tips for lighting photos?
I shoot in natural light exclusively and believe with every fiber of my being that it's the only way to shoot food. Seek out flat, even light and it will change your life. If you are starting to shoot and style food at home, create a space near a window or door that can be your go-to area to shoot. Be mindful of bright spots, as you want light that is even. Understand how light changes throughout the day and how to manipulate it to your will. 

How does your website help you to showcase what you do?
I use Squarespace, and it allows me to showcase my portfolio in a clean, simple format -- and best of all, it's easy to navigate. 

Portrait of Jen by Kathy Cadigan, all other photos by Jen Altman

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • bobbe
  • Bridget
  • Mallory
  • Alisha Gridley
    Alisha Gridley
  • kasia burke
    kasia burke
Editorial Intern at Food52


bobbe April 1, 2015
When I photograph a meal it has already passed the perfection of taste and beauty and consequently, the delight of sharing delicious homemade meals. The photograph serves as a reminder of the moment of creation and the extras that pop up depending on what is available. I believe that natural light is part of the magic of the moment. Thank you for sharing your experience and love of what you are drawn to.
Bridget October 24, 2014
Great article.
Mallory October 24, 2014
100% agree with the natural light. I refuse to take food photos any other way!
Alisha G. October 21, 2014
I love the beautiful photos--you know what you're doing!!
kasia B. October 19, 2014
Thank you. I love food photography and yours is really beautiful. Kasia
Linn October 15, 2014
Concrete suggestions that can be tried and refined for my photos. Thanks.

Julie @. October 15, 2014
I am just learning food photography, and appreciate all the tips these amazing people give.
Kathleen T. October 15, 2014
Thank you so much for this! I just starting trying to take more purposeful food pic and I love your work. I can't wait to try some new things!
Agostinho R. October 15, 2014
Natural light, you must be right.
Julie W. October 15, 2014
Natural light is a great tip !
SeattleDee October 15, 2014
Jen's photos have a captivating misty quality, refreshingly different than the over punched, high contrast, ultra sharpened shots on so many sites.
AntoniaJames October 15, 2014
Agree. Food photography has become monotonous due to the nearly universal adoption of the style you describe. ;o)
Shannon October 15, 2014
Loved these last two articles on food photography! Thanks Food52!
Katherine October 15, 2014
I'd love to know how she edited that last shot! So beautiful :)
Dith October 15, 2014
I'd be interested to learn about what lenses she uses.