food photography

food photography post production – VIDEO POST!

January 1, 2011

Post production often seems like a dirty little secret. I know some photographers that don’t like to talk about it. Others swear it is the devils work, and only for those photographers that cannot take good shots.

I call bullshit to that last statement.

Post Production should be considered any work you do to a photograph after you take it. Some call it “Photoshopping”, but that is rather package specific, and often implies some gross adjustment or head/body replacements that we all love to do to those photos of friends.. It isn’t the devil’s work. It isn’t for photographers that cannot take good shots. It isn’t only for people that don’t know how to setup lighting properly.

Pretty much every photograph you see today has gone through some post production work. Some might be very slight, others might be very severe (thinking about those before/after shots of Madonna that went round the web a while back..). Back when I worked in the film industry, every shot went through post production – and that had many stages to it including color grading and so on. It is the same with photography.

We can argue that digital photography has made us sloppy photographers, that modern day cameras lack the contrast and color grade of film, and that now we need post production more than ever. I am not the one to say whether this is true or not. What I can say is that I utilize every tool available to me to get the best shot I personally can. That includes post production software.

Post production can seem overly complex and like some odd black art. It really shouldn’t be seen that way. There should be a good personal process behind it (more on that later) and it shouldn’t be seen as stabbing away in the dark until you get something you like.

What I want to do in this post is outline some tips on how to approach food photography post production, as well as give a full video demo of how I personally develop a tricky shot. So lets start by a list of suggestions for getting the best out of post production:

Food Photography setup

1) Get it right “on camera”

I am sure it seems strange to talk about post production but then the best piece of advice I can give is to get the shot right before post production. The artistic term “polishing turds” meaning to give some sparkle to an otherwise badly done scene, comes to mind. Something that is never going to look fantastic, because no matter how much make-up you apply you are still dealing with a swamp donkey.

(does that make sense?)

So the best piece of advice I can give is to spend time getting a shot perfect through the lens, before it hits post production. Work hard on composition and lighting. Make the food look as beautiful as possible on the plate. It looks more natural when you don’t have to tweak so much later. It sure as heck is easier later on too when you sit down in front of that shiny computer. I also believe it makes you a far better photographer and helps develop “your eye” for a good shot – which is money in the bank.

2) Know your process

This might seem like a strange one too, but one that is absolutely critical. It is often something that people don’t think about, but everyone has a process to everything – from washing dishes to developing photographs. Once you know and understand your process you will start developing a personal style to your work. Your post production will look better, your shots will have a similar feel. The work also goes by much faster. Which gives more time for reading blogs, and twitter….

Even if you think you don’t have a process, you do. It can be hard to think about at first, but once you really get it down, it makes post production a breeze.

To help – here is a rough outline of my post production process. Depending on the shot it might not need all these stages, but this is the way I work – I start with large, gross changes and end with small detail work (if required).

crop/straighten. white balance/color grade if required. whole image exposure work. individual color saturation control. local area exposure work (boosting/reducing exposure in some areas of an image). spot removal, image cleanup.

So give some thought to your post production process (as well as your photography process).

3) stay away from store bought “actions” or “presets”

Sure those actions that make your shot look like an old Polaroid camera are fun, but in the end they can make your work look generic and at worst gimmicky. Personally I like shots with true to life colors. I would prefer to spend my time working on a color palette for a shot (linen colors, wood colors etc) rather than giving some strange color shift in post production.

There is nothing wrong with some color work in images however – but make it your own. If your work has a naturally desaturated style, perfect! Make YOUR OWN presets to get your images half way there, then work the individual shots further.

4) Know the look you want to achieve before you even break out your camera

When I start a shot I try to plan out in that large hairy noggin of mine the look I am going for. That doesn’t mean that your plans cannot change and evolve, but start out with an idea in mind. This helps keep your process focused, and actually aids in creativity – you have a starting point to develop from.

The shot of the hanging lamb prosciutto that I am demoing in this post for example – I knew that I wanted strong wide bright light on one side, and dark, soft shadows on the other. I had been looking at some Caravaggio books that Danika has, and these gave me inspiration for this one. So that is how I started. I knew that the garage was going to give me pretty much the light that I wanted – since it is a dark room, with a lot of light just at one end.

5. Think Natural

This is personal preference really, but I like to try and let my colors be accurate and true to life in my photography. I am not a huge fan of large hue shifts in images, funking around with split toning and all that jazz. Personally I think it can do food a great disservice unless you wield those tools with a very, very gentle hand. So when I develop my images I try to do what I can to make the colors as spot on to real life as I can, and any color adjustment I do on an image is just to get it looking real.


So as promised here is the video.. It is a little long, but apparently that isn’t a bad thing. It covers my process of taking a RAW image from a camera, and developing it in to a final shot for my blog (or where ever).

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  • Phoo-d January 1, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    What an excellent post production video. Thank you very much for putting this together and sharing it! Lots of helpful tips and a gorgeous final shot. Have a Happy New Year.

  • zenchef January 1, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    You demystified lightroom for a lot of us, Matt. I’m gonna start playing with some of the controls i’ve never used before. Thank you for this great tutorial. You’re a real pro!

    Happy New Year to you and your family!

  • Prerna@IndianSimmer January 1, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    This is exactly what I wanted! Thanks for sharing the process since I’m new to Lightroom this is gonna be a great help!
    Wish you a very Happy 2011 !

  • Liz January 2, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    This is great inspiration to spend those extra few minutes editing. Thanks for the informative video!


  • saltyseattle January 3, 2011 at 1:49 am

    swamp donkey and polishing turds will forever be emblazoned upon my cerebellum. thanks Matt. oh, and the rest of the post was genius, though i think you have to have some inherent talent like you do instead of just being a crazy person like the blind photographer in Pecker like I am. cheers, linda

  • Trissa January 4, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    I have booked marked this page – and have added your blog to my RSS feeds – your tutorial is invaluable – thank you very much for the frank write up (makes me feel better about using lightroom)… will certainly be back for more tips!

  • sam henderson January 4, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    I am so glad to have stumbled upon your site. I see that I have hours of browsing to do. I can’t wait to put some of your techniques to use. Thanks!

  • laura January 5, 2011 at 2:03 am

    I have to say that I appreciate what you have to say. I hate the ‘I’ll photoshop it ‘ generation. If you get it right then have to tweak it it is fine. But having to ‘FIX’ each and every shot isn’t what a real photographer should do. With film we did have to dodge or burn areas and process them but going overboard gets annoying. I use some shortcuts but I always work with the photograph.
    Thank you for the nuts and bolts of photography reality.

  • Ray January 9, 2011 at 3:20 am

    I really appreciate your tutorial there on Lightroom. I am a big user of this software and a big fan of post production. To me post production is a part of the whole process of being a good digital photographer; without it, we might as well go back to film photography. Thanks again Matt!

  • Tara January 9, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    FABULOUS tutorial! It was so helpful to me to see how to use some of the Lightroom functions that have mystified me! Thank you! Makes me want to re-edit so many photos. Going forward I’m sure that I’ll enjoy post production much more! I must admit, though, to one benefit of not understanding how to correct much in Lr: it makes me wants to master photography even more, so that I’ll have less to worry about correcting for!

  • Helene January 11, 2011 at 1:46 am

    I appreciate that you take time to share your knowledge with us. I will take your advise and try to improve my pictures this year. Sometimes I am in a hurry to take a shot and don’t always have the time to set up properly. I should try to change that habit. Will be back to watch the video. Thanks again and Happy New Year!

  • justyna January 21, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    you are officially my new favourite person in the food blogosphere.. thank you so much for all your help. I have been “PLAYING” around with food photos just for “FUN” but I am ready to start learning and taking it to a more professional level. Thanks for the inspiration and teachings. I will def be coming back to this site for further resources.

  • Cathy/ShowFoodChef February 3, 2011 at 6:26 am

    That was SO helpful, thank you for your generosity and your talents! I’ll be using the term “polishing a turd” often, probably after my own early morning makeup application 😀 I just got Lightroom and have put off opening it from intimidation, and now I’m just plain excited.

  • Veronique February 26, 2011 at 8:44 am

    Thank you so much for doing this! it’d be wonderful if you could do a 101 vid – i love your blog so much. i’ve just started food photography with a Canon Rebel/EOS400D (gift from a friend). There’s so much to learn. I’m trying to self-teach (googling everything…)… starting at F-stops, etc. Wish I could make it to your workshop. If there’s any other online resources you could direct me to i’d be really appreciative. Thank you.

  • Sandy Fagina April 12, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    I wish i had read this along time ago would have make my life a bit easier

  • Lisa April 27, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    Thanks so much for doing this! I’ve used LR for most of my processing for over a year, but I’ve always stayed away from the curves function, because I had no good understanding of its use. You’ve demystified that for me.

  • Atria May 2, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Thank you so much for your post! I’ve used Lightroom in a very limited way but now you have showed me a lot more opportiunities! Nevertheless I still believe that a good shot is a basis and Lightroom is just a spice to make it more tasty!:)

    I just love your site and one day I’d like to buy your book (a bit too expensive for a student:). Nevertheless thanks for your passion of sharing knowlendge!

    Greetings from Poland,


  • Heidi / foodiecrush mag May 12, 2011 at 6:15 am

    I love, love, love seeing how others use editing software and checking out their workflow. Thanks for sharing your mad skillz, I’ll share with my art peeps and I’m sure some of your tricks will be making their way into our LR workflow.

    THX again and GORGEOUS pix!