Photo Fridays: How I Set Up, Style, and Shoot

in Photography & Props, Tips

Homemade Sriracha

I’m going to walk you through how I setup, style, and take a standard shot, start-to-finish. What you’ll see below is an accurate representation of how I shoot a recipe photo – especially the missing prop – with maybe 5-7 minutes extra to account for the extra stop-and-start points. Oh – the recipe for the subject, a homemade sriracha, will be posted next week.

But you probably want to move along and find out why I did what I did. And why I didn’t do what I didn’t… so let’s get started!

9:31am I push the coffee table over to the window and grab the following items from our-coat-closet-turned-my-prop-closet:

  • 2 boards – One will be the tabletop for my shot, the other simply a surface that I can prop up against a box and clamp on a poster board background. These tabletop/boards are super easy and affordable to make, you can find instructions here.
  • Black poster board
  • 2 clamps – Purchased at your friendly neighborhood home improvement store for ~$3 each
  • Reflector – Read more about using the “bounce and fill” technique here.

Homemade Sriracha

I already have a picture in my head of what I want the shot to look like. Now it’s time to get that image out of my head.

I also already know the color palette of the food that I’m working with and I use that to decide which color linens (if using) and tabletop to use. Because the sriracha is such a beautiful red-orange, I wanted to shoot “dark” so that the richness of the vibrant color really came through. I also went neutral/white – basic – on the rest of the objects in the image so as not to distract from the hot sauce.

9:43am I’ve just wasted 10 minutes searching for a beat-up, little shallow tin dish that belonged to my great-grandmother. Can’t find it anywhere. But I’ve gathered everything else I want for the shot from the prop closet and kitchen:

  • Homemade sriracha in a reclaimed Central Market jelly jar
  • A few “consolation prize” white dishes to replace the missing tin dish (at this point, I haven’t decided which to use)
  • Tea spoon
  • Neutral linen found in the remnant bin at the fabric store
  • Coarse twine
  • Scissors
  • Tepin chiles from the plant in our backyard (because I used them in the hot sauce)

Homemade Sriracha

Originally, I was going to cut a small square of fabric to use as a “coaster” for the jar. After I got started, I changed my mind and put the fabric away.

9:51am I’ve now washed my hands 4, maybe 5 times. You can ask my 2-year-old – these chiles are NOTHING to play around with. I’ve cut chiles, composed the shot about halfway or so, and then stop to take a top-down picture to check exposure and to look at the shot on my camera.

Homemade Sriracha

Thanks to some of the fabulous instruction I’ve gotten from some of the greatest food photographers anywhere, this is also where I stop to ask myself:

  • Am I heading in the right direction to get that super fab “this should really be in a magazine” (ha!) image that I had in my head?
  • Does the shot and styling make sense? Am I showing you homemade chicken noodle soup that I’ve poured into a carafe that I usually use for margaritas? Or am I presenting it to you in a way that you would actually recognize and serve the soup yourself. Or did I actually just put a knife and fork next to that stack of chocolate chip cookies.
  • Is my eye drawn to the food or is it distracted by all 15 of my props?

Then I move on to the finer details. I do spot a few things in the photo above that I don’t like: the spoon placement is awkward and the leaves of the pepper between the jar and round dish are facing the wrong direction and not catching any light.

9:53am Composition is mostly done, problems spotted 2 minutes ago are now fixed… but the spoon is still a problem and I find the twine shooting out of the top of the screen a little odd.

Homemade Sriracha

9:54am But first, I walk to the kitchen and take another pullback shot.

Homemade Sriracha

9:55am I like the exposure, the tweaks to the composition, but that spoon is still bugging the crap out of me…

Homemade Sriracha

9:56am AND THIS IS WHY. Scale. My tea spoon is far too big for the jar and the shot. By shooting overhead, it wasn’t so clear that I have as much spoon sticking out of the top of the jar as I do jar. (Sidebar: don’t be afraid to cut those pretty little paper straws down a couple inches so you don’t have 5 inches of straw sticking out of a tiny glass of milk.)

Homemade Sriracha

9:57am I run over to my little utensil box to grab a new spoon. And just like that, I’m a happy blogger. I take the final shot and the picture is in the books.

Homemade Sriracha

9:58am I reach into my camera bag for my USB cable and I find an open tube of blue Toy Story toothpaste in its place. Typical.

10:12am I am my worst critic. I’m staring at the photos in Lightroom, seeing a couple of teeny tiny things that I wished I had noticed before. But because I made the rookie mistake of cleaning up already and the details really are minor, I click my “The Usual” preset and export the photos. For more information on how I edit, check this out.

The stats:

  • 26 minutes – That’s a little elevated, due to the extra stopping and trying to figure out what I needed to shoot after I got started. I’d say that I usually spend 15-20 minutes photographing each recipe post.
  • 21 photos – That’s nearly double what I’d take for a standard recipe post, my goal is no more than 12. I’ve wasted far more time than I like to think about in the early days of this blog… taking 40 shots of a recipe, only to waste even more time sorting through the nearly-identical pictures.
  • 1 recovered USB cable – found it in my daughter’s toy box.
  • 1 missing prop – still haven’t found it, but it’s definitely not where it belongs nor is it in my daughter’s toy box.

You can check out my Photography page for a collection of tips, tutorials, and FAQs to get a little more information about the photography that you see on this site.

So for those of you that has asked to see my setup and want more information on how I style a shot… did that kinda sorta help at least make things a little clearer? Even just a little?

35 comments… add one
  • Thanks so much. I always admire your styling & have never tried black background personally but want to give it a try.

  • Thanks so much! As soon as we move out of my teeny 1 bedroom apartment and have a square meter of unused space- I plan to put all this into action!! Bookmarked and waiting!

  • Yes, they should be in a magazine! I have started using the backgrounds as per your suggestion, and I am loving doing so!

  • Sara

    This was so incredibly helpful. I’m not a blogger, but I occasionally have to shoot some of my recipes for a project I’m involved in, and frankly I just love to cook and am lacking photography skills. By the way, first time commentor…longtime reader. Love your blog…your recipes reflect the way we love to eat. As in Oklahoma girl, your recipes really resonate! Beautiful beautiful work. 😉

  • This is brilliant! I am a terrible photographer, and not super interested in improving, but I think just reading this has made me better at photographing my food! I love your blog and your recipes are amazing. Thanks for sharing!

  • Thanks for posting this! I am just starting to focus more on my food photos and I often find myself shooting 40 photos for each recipe then sorting through a bunch of near identical shots to find the right one. I’m going to follow your lead and try for no more than 15 photos of each recipe.

  • Great post! Pictures are the part I struggle with most with my blog, so this was great to read!

  • Amanda

    This is awesome!

    I’m also very excited about the sriracha recipe. I’ve been resisting the temptation to buy some, but I don’t think I can resist the temptation to make some . . .

  • Chelsea

    Thank you for this post! I’m trying to work on my photography for my blog but have no clue what I’m doing! I will definitely have to try the idea of clamping up a poster board background. Just to clarify, what did you clamp it to to hold it up?

    • I’ve clamped the black poster board to a second tabletop – similar to the brown wooden one that you see as my “table.” It’s propped up, slightly leaning back against a box.

  • Awesome tutorial! Thanks so much!!!

    P.S. Looking forward to the sriracha recipe too!

  • Such a great post. I really enjoyed your thought process and the mindful way you approach your shoot. It would come as no surprise to anyone who has seen my blog that I whip out my iphone just before handing off the dish to a hungry hubby or son. =D

  • Oh. This made me depressed. 15 – 20 minutes and 21 photos. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I spend two hours on pictures for just one post and take 200 pictures and only get a few decent ones. Clearly I need to take some classes.

    I loved seeing how you set up! Very interesting. Thanks for making this post. 🙂

    • Well, the photos you are getting are fantastic. The pancakes especially are gorgeous!

      • You made my day. Thank you. 🙂

        Now if I could just cut down on some of the time it takes! I guess only practice will help that.

  • Your pictures are amazing. As much as I read tips and use Photoshop, I seem to be unable to take pictures that are approved by Tastespotting, Foodgawker, and other similar sites. Hopefully your tips will help. Please keep sharing more 🙂

    • I once had a 100% rejection rate from TS 🙂 Keep working on it. If I can get better, anyone can!

  • I always love posts like this and hearing about other people’s mental process when taking their photos! Photography is one thing I ALWAYS want to improve on, so it’s always fun to learn more. Can’t wait to hear about that sriracha.

  • I love these behind the scene glimpses. I’m impressed your goal is so few shots to sort though. I wish I had the ability to do that. I end up sorting through easily 30+ per recipe most times.

  • Lesli M

    What a difference a spoon makes! I like reading your thought process and your summary. I’m almost always disappointed in my food shots — don’t like the props, don’t like the lighting, forget to take pics of all the steps.

  • SO helpful! Thanks Shawnda 🙂 That made for one gorgeous photo!

  • These blog posts are so incredibly helpful! Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing the tips and tricks you’ve learned and helping us newbie food bloggers. Can’t wait to greatly improve my skills 🙂

  • Shawnda – thank you so much for this series! I love your photos and one day hope to improve mine. It’s sad because I KNOW how to take a good photo, but I just don’t devote the time to it. I do have a question though – with your LO running around, how do you work blogging in to your schedule? I know you’ve mentioned that you do a lot after bedtime and during naps, but do you do pretty much everything then? My son just turned 1 and I’m finally getting him on a better schedule, but I’m trying to work my blogging in to it as well. Unfortunately I work during the week so I have to do most of my stuff at night or weekends 🙁


    • Now she goes to preschool two days a week so I try not to waste all the time on those days cleaning and doing laundry 🙂 My husband runs crowd control if I’m shooting just before dinner – usually she’s more interested in the food on her plate than on my coffee table when that happens. I usually do it in segments though. I might stash away an extra serving at dinner, photograph it the next day while she’s at school (and then eat it for lunch!), and then write the post after she goes to bed… sometimes up to a month later. It really does vary, though.

  • hey! awesome tips and i love that custom board. loved this post. how is the food groom and toddler doing?

  • Wow! That’s a great tutorial. I’ve never used a black background, but I kind of want to try it now. I’ve been using mostly white dishes with an old cutting board, but I kinda want to branch out a little. Thanks for sharing!

  • I love your photography posts. Such great information. Thanks for sharing!

  • Great post Shawnda. I’m loving your dark backgrounds by the way. The color of that siracha is just gorgeous.

  • Great tutorial! I really appreciate you posting this.

    Any tips for someone who doesn’t have great access to windows? I live in an apartment that is partially below ground, so my windows are tiny and almost at the ceiling.

    • What about a lightbox? I know a few bloggers who rely on their DIY lighbox during the winter months. There are a few variations, all seem to be quite inexpensive to make – just google “diy lightbox instructions.” And I know a couple of who have invested in Lowel Ego lights and are happy with them.

  • Foodiebride, You truly are gifted with your photos – they are all so beautiful & inspiring!

  • I am so happy I’ve just come across this! Such a great tutorial, thank you for the advice!

  • Melissa E Earle aka Mee

    I just love this so so so much. Your insight and your personality are humorous and so relatable, thank you.

  • Ruth Gladwell

    I’ve wanted to try food photography for ages but felt intimidated by it. You make it sound easy and fun. Didn’t know what to do today. You just solved my problem. Thank you.

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