Falling food and foam-stuffed dishes: the unseen realities of professional food photography

Food photographer Yasmin Albatoul on the detail that goes into her delicious-looking images, her creative process, and the trade secrets that help her to achieve such standout results.
Mandarins arranged on a chopping board and tray on a dark wood table, one peeled with its segments spread out.

Canon Ambassador Yasmin Albatoul says this winning entry in Foodelia's 2020 International Food Photography Awards is also one of her favourite photos. "I'm not a fan of mandarins, but I wanted to ensure that anyone who sees the photograph would be tempted to eat one," she says. "The dark atmosphere gives it a warm feel – a reminder of winter evenings eating mandarins, an Algerian custom." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens at 1/200 sec, f/7.1 and ISO100. © Yasmin Albatoul

Food photographer Yasmin Albatoul combines natural imagery with elements of the surreal to transform everyday kitchen scenes into works of art. Often depicting food being prepared or poured, or even floating in mid-air, her images have a lightness which belies the painstaking effort that goes into every detail.

Since completing a professional photography diploma in 2017 – and encouraged by her growing following on Instagram – Yasmin has turned what was a hobby into a successful career, winning awards and collaborating with global brands. She currently works from her own studio – the kitchen of her home in Batna, Algeria. Here, she explains the work that goes into creating her incredible images and provides an insider's account of how to find success in such a competitive industry.

What does a food photographer have to do to get noticed in the first place?

"Food photographers must show their mood and their vision, rather than just showcasing products. They should stay informed of current trends but use them to influence their style rather than copying them. Trends should only guide the creative process. Photos should also express the photographer's personality and be unique to them. Sometimes people recognise a photo as mine, even without my name on it. That distinctiveness is the difference between a regular picture and one that truly stands out – that is what customers and clients like the most."

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How do you ensure you stand out in such a competitive industry?

"I try not to limit myself to a rigid style; I like merging techniques from different genres. I treat my subjects as models: I position the main product as the central element and take test shots to ensure the right settings and feel, gradually adding decorative elements in the same way a portrait photographer adds accessories. I use synthetic oils to make the food shiny and to highlight the parts of a dish that I want to stand out – similar to how a portrait photographer will draw attention to different facial elements.

"Remember, the results must be breathtaking. You must push boundaries and create something spectacular. My floating food effect adds a dynamic personal touch. I overlay multiple images in post-production to make them look like a single photo. To ensure they are identical, I use manual focus rather than AF, as I need the focus to remain in the same place from one photo to the next.

"After setting the focus, I use the self-timer on my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV or my Canon EOS R, programmed between five and ten seconds. I press the shutter release and have just enough time to drop the food to capture it falling. I repeat the exercise for each falling element, often over numerous takes, before stacking the images in Adobe® Photoshop® CC.

"The Canon Camera Connect app is helpful when using the self-timer to shoot flying objects: I connect my phone to the camera, and as soon as I touch the screen, the timer starts remotely, leaving my hands free to drop the food."

Sugar cubes, honey dippers and teabags suspended above two mugs of tea; splashes of liquid are frozen in motion above the rims of the mugs.

This image won first prize in an XPOSURE International Photography Festival #HomeCaptured contest in April 2020. It combines several of Yasmin's trademarks: a natural yet sophisticated composition, falling elements, vivid colours and motion captured in freeze-frame. ''It took almost five hours to take this photo," says Yasmin. Taken on a Canon EOS 600D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 850D) with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens at 1/160 sec, f/4 and ISO400. © Yasmin Albatoul

A dusting of icing sugar suspended in the air above pomegranate desserts baked in ramekins.

Yasmin works with two Canon Speedlite flashes attached to tripods and uses the Canon Camera Connect app to activate the camera shutter so she has a free hand to sprinkle falling objects, such as the icing sugar pictured here. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 100 mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/4 and ISO100. © Yasmin Albatoul

Are there any tricks used in professional food photography that outsiders might not know?

"I brush fruit and vegetables with oil to make the colours more vivid. This keeps food looking fresh – as if it's come straight out of the fridge or oven. I replace juices with thick liquids such as milk or cream, mixed with food colouring. Juice droplets would look translucent in the photo; using thick liquids ensures the colours appear sufficiently opaque.

"I use real ingredients in all my shoots, so to avoid wasting any food I never fill my dishes. When making a plate of spaghetti, for example, I stuff the bottom of the dish with foam to make it appear full."

How does a commission start off for you?

"The first contact is usually via email or Instagram. We discuss the client's needs, and I give them an idea of my rates. We always talk about the wider aims of the business, as I have to understand marketing strategy and brand identity. Usually clients allow me creative control – very rarely will they interfere. I then plan the final image, drawing a sketch or doodle of what I want to create.

"Once I receive the product, I familiarise myself with the ingredients or how it's used. I then check for previous photos of the same or a similar product. While the end result must be unique, I allow myself to be inspired by what's out there. If the product is a food, I research recipes. Usually, food photographers don't make the food themselves: stylists design the set and a cook prepares the dish. But there are not many specialists in those fields in Algeria, so the photographer does everything. I avoid overcomplicated recipes, to prevent wasting too much time.

"The day before the shoot, I buy the ingredients and select props and accessories. The final step is choosing the background colour. I always use backgrounds which emphasise the central element: contrasting colours, for example, to attract the eye and accentuate finer detail. I photograph each element separately to see how they appear on camera and if they complement one another. These photos provide my baseline, they suggest the results I can expect. I can then make adjustments, removing objects or altering the background as necessary."

A tall glass filled with a colourful iced drink and garnished with mint.

Yasmin loves to experiment with colour and accessories. The vivid pink of this drink is complemented by a sprig of mint, foliage and green storage jars, all set against a neutral background. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 56mm, 1/200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100. © Yasmin Albatoul

Pink spaghetti falling into a pan suspended above a counter, in front of a black background and framed by bright green foliage.

Yasmin has used beetroot to colour her spaghetti a vibrant shade of pink and used a contrasting dark background and bright green foliage to make the colours 'pop'. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 67mm, 1/200 sec, f/7.1 and ISO100. © Yasmin Albatoul

How do you set up and arrange your sets?

"I adapt my sets to individual products and try to keep my presentation balanced. I'm not going to include more dishes than food, for example, and I don't want to clutter up the photo or stifle my main element. Once I am happy with the styling and everything is set up, I prepare my lighting. I prefer working with artificial light, as it allows me to better manage my time. I don't have to wait for the light to be right, and I can schedule shoots in the evening. I work with two Canon Speedlite flashes, setting them up on tripods and light testing to select the brightness and white balance.

"Then I move on to the camera setup. I start by setting up my camera on a tripod. I often need one hand to drop food for my floating effect and the other to trigger the shutter using the Canon Camera Connect app, or to hold a diffuser or reflector. My tripod is my third hand; it allows me to fix my frame in the same position for overlaying in post-production. I fix my focus and arrange backgrounds and accessories. Finally I tweak my aperture, ISO and shutter speeds, taking test shots until I get a result I'm happy with."

What happens on the shoot itself?

"The morning of the shoot, I cook and prepare all the items and equipment. I mainly use a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM or a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, paired with my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV; or a Canon EOS R paired with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens. The Hybrid Image Stabilizer (IS) system in the EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens comes in useful if I don't have a tripod, for example, when I have to travel or when I do an outdoor photoshoot. I avoid carrying too much gear and the lens IS ensures it will be unnoticeable that images were shot handheld. You shouldn't see any difference in quality between a photo taken in a studio and one taken outside. This is especially true in food and product photography. There should never be any flaws in photos for packaging, advertisements or cookbooks.

"I interact continuously with the client during the photoshoot, often sending photos from my phone to ensure I'm on the right track. My clients are almost always happy with the final result, and that's because I keep them up to date at every step."

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What happens after the photoshoot?

"I select the best photos for my client before progressing to post-production. When I started out, I would send over all the photos so the client could pick their favourites, but they would sometimes choose photos with flaws or that were rather difficult to retouch. I look for any technical faults: poor focus, under or overexposure, or blurring. I eliminate any images with obvious flaws – I won't edit a photo that isn't already pretty to the naked eye. This means I can use a more subtle approach when editing and focus on adjusting the colour and light. I simply shift shadows, giving the overall light a softer feel while tweaking the contrast."

A top-down shot of herbs, dried fruit and spices laid out on a rough black surface.

Yasmin uses her mastery of composition and colour to draw the eye towards the bottom left of this image. To enhance the effect further, she channelled artificial light into the centre to provide a natural feeling vignette. Taken on a Canon EOS 600D with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens at 1/160 sec, f/6.3 and ISO200. © Yasmin Albatoul

Liquid splashes upwards from a mug that sits on a dark wood board surrounded by dried fruit and autumn leaves. A candle is burning in the background.

The Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM used for this atmospheric shot is one of Yasmin's favourite lenses. "It's great for details in food photography," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV at 1/160 sec, f/4 and ISO100. © Yasmin Albatoul

What are the daily challenges of professional food photography?

"For a long time I worked with a studio where my only job was taking the photo. As a freelancer, I now cook all the dishes, in addition to setting up the shoot and editing afterwards, so I have to manage my time well.

"Travel logistics remain my greatest obstacle. I have a lot of equipment: cameras, lenses, a tripod, reflectors and diffusers. This complicates travel and has forced me to refuse contracts. The Canon EOS R has helped with this. Alongside the EOS 5D Mark IV, it's my favourite Canon camera. The EOS R's features mean I can often leave my tripod behind and travel light. The vari-angle screen means I can turn the camera in any direction and still view the result, which is particularly useful when shooting from above."

You've always had a passion for food photography, but has working in the industry as a professional changed that?

"I started photography when I was a psychology student. It was an escape, a moment of respite. From my first experiences in studios and working with other photographers, I knew I could make a profession out of it without sacrificing my passion. The dynamic energy of a photo studio instantly appealed to me, and I adored the mixture of technical skill and creativity involved.

"If anything, I enjoy food photography more now. It has opened many doors for me, teaching me about customer relations and marketing, and introducing me to a large community of photographers who inspire and assist me on my creative journey. Photography has allowed me to evolve and to surpass myself, whether it be for Instagram or as part of an international collaboration."

Katia Gaid

• Adobe® Photoshop® are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

Yasmin Albatoul's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs


Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

One of Yasmin's favourite cameras, with the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV you can be assured of uncompromising image quality and a thoroughly professional performance, no matter what you're shooting. "I bought this camera with prize money from a competition," says Yasmin. "It had been my dream to own one for many years."

Canon EOS R

With a full-frame 30.3MP sensor with impressive detail, ISO performance and Dual Pixel CMOS AF, the Canon EOS R offers the ultimate shooting experience. "The Canon EOS R is portable, and its features mean I can often leave my tripod behind and travel light," says Yasmin.


Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

A prime lens with excellent macro capabilities. "The internal stabilisation system ensures there's no difference in quality between a photo taken in a studio with a tripod and one taken outside," Yasmin says.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM

With the EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens you can easily produce more artistic and impactful photography thanks to a wide f/1.8 aperture that produces sharp focus on your subject and a beautiful blurred background.

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