The Complete Guide to Holiday Food Photos

A Step by Step Tutorial to Telling Holiday Food Stories

Complete Guide Holiday Food Photo Cover

Holidays... when the spirits are up and celebrations are in the air. Everywhere in the world, holidays and festivities are associated with one thing.

Food. Lots of it. All around.

October brings celebrations all over the world. For US it's Thanksgiving, it's Diwali in India and then Hanukkah and Christmas and so much more. And there is a lot of food... 

Whether it's Eid or New Year or any other holiday around the world, capturing food in holidays with your camera is an assignment that’s always fun. Capturing the energy and celebrations that are in the air... in one frame. That’s quite a task.

What’s different between a holiday photograph and one that’s not? How do we capture and tell the story?

That’s what we will discuss in this guide.

So let's begin..

Photo by Simone van den Berg

What Makes Holiday Food Photography Special?

Holidays are about people. Gatherings and celebrations. Capturing holiday photos not just makes a great photographic challenge, but also creates rare opportunity of telling the story of food, friendship and togetherness. 

What are some words that come to mind when you think about holidays? For me, holidays mean celebration. Festivities and warmth. Togetherness with family and friends.

Depending on what holiday you have in mind, the words are different. If it’s Christmas you are thinking about, the words that come to mind will be different, than say if you are thinking about Diwali.

What words come to your mind for the word festivities?

Those are the words that you should try to capture in your food photos. The discussion then needs to be how will we use the creative elements that we have to capture this feeling and document these words using photograph.

How will you document festivities? Warmth? Togetherness?

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Step 1 – Start Storytelling (and How to Decide the Story)

Holidays are about warmth and celebrations.

There are few common food photo concepts that you can find during this time of the year. These photos tell the story of a holiday food easily.

Telling the Holiday Story

Holiday photos are all about stories. Stories of friends coming together or stories of that cake you baked. Stories of a royal festival like Diwali or a gulab jamun that you have created.

Holiday food photos are intentional. When you decide to photograph food and tell the holiday story, you have a thought or an idea.

You don’t randomly end up shooting holiday without giving it a little thought. You don’t start with a summer photo and organically end up shooting Christmas food for instance.

Common Holiday Food Photo Concepts

There are some concepts of food photos that immediately tell a story about holidays and the food that comes with it.

These few concepts, when executed correctly, tell this story to the audience.

If you are planning to tell the holiday story, here are some stories or concepts that are common. Let’s take a look at them one by one.

Story 1 - The Food Hero at the Dinner Table

This is a story of Food Hero with all the elements of the dinner that make it complete. The story here is about the main dish and elements around it complete this story.

In this type of shot, the main dish is typically the main focal point or attracts the eye significantly more than any other element.

If you have seen the Thanksgiving turkey photo that is supported by different elements of food, this would be that photograph. Festive cake with bokeh light is another example of this type of shot.

This type of shot is most useful when the story is about the main dish. The cake, for instance, or roasted turkey for Thanksgiving do well with this type of concept.

There is another way to tell the story of holidays... here’s what that looks like.

Story 2 - Dinner With Friends

This story is about togetherness and epitome of festivities. This is the story of friends and getting together to celebrate.

This shot is typically overhead shot of friends having dinner. Dinner/Meal is the main hero. This is not about a dish or two, this is about the whole scene from top view. In this shot, you have the dishes and food and a hand or two in the scene.

You’ve probably seen this type of shot. Top view with friends gathered around dinner table. Food of all sorts on the table. Wine glasses and wine bottles. But what makes this photo a holiday dinner photo is the togetherness of holiday elements. What are those? We study them in next section.

This story, unlike the previous story is about the togetherness and celebrations and less about one particular dish. This is about all the dishes together with the people in this photograph.

Story 3 - Preparing the Holiday Food

This is primarily a prep shot. Food prep for the holidays. This is a story about preparations and in-the-middle-of.

In this story, the dish is being prepared.

For instance, cookies dough being shaped in a holiday shape and then made ready to go in the oven. Cookie monster being sent to the over to be baked. Or a christmas tree shaped cookie.

This works most when the prep shot can capture something iconic about the holiday season. If this was a shot for Diwali, the chakali and the “gadget” used to make chakali is an icon of Diwali.

Story 4 - The Offering

This is typically common in a religious holiday where offering food to the Gods is a of cultural significance.

In this story, the key elements are the food that’s being offered, but also the fact that the food is offered. This story is as much about the dish as it is about the offering. These type of shots have food that the main focus but also the hint of offering becomes a key piece of information.

Step 2 – Setting The Holiday Scene (and How to Choose Props)

Once you have developed the concept, the scene needs to be prepared to tell the holiday story. You can set the scene by including elements that leave hints about the story and holiday.

Props play a big role in leaving these hints. Props, in simple terms, is anything that supports the story but is not the main hero. So essentially everything that’s in the photograph is a prop if it’s not the main hero. That’s how I define props. 

So what are some tips on using props?

Prop Styling for Holidays

An essential part of prop styling is learning about the cultural elements that support the story and then identifying these elements and evaluating whether telling story using these elements will be effective.

The next step after doing this is bringing appropriate elements to the scene such that these elements support the broader story that is being told.

While each holiday and each celebration will have different elements, there are some that are common in most cases.

Holiday Food Photos - Cookies

Photo by Aisha Yusaf

Common Holiday Props

What's the first object that comes to mind when you think of holidays?

Holiday lights? Light series or series of light?

While most holidays differ from culture to culture there are some common elements that can be used as props. Let’s look at the one by one -

  1. Lights - Holiday lights or light series or string lights are common in most holidays. Whenever you see them as a bokeh in photographs, don’t you automatically relate to holidays. So, to tell a holiday story, light series becomes an important prop to use.

  2. Candles or Diyas - Another example of light but these candle lamps or oil lamps are default symbol of holidays in some cultures. For example, in India, during Diwali oil lamps (called diya) are lit in every house and this diya becomes a direct connection to Diwali.

  3. Iconic Dish - It’s that one dish, that shouts holidays - loudly. You don’t have to say a word and the story is still told, just by these dishes. Does this remind you of some dish? Here’s the list of some of them -

    1. Pies

    2. Cookie Monster

    3. Ginger Bread

    4. Chakali

    5. Each culture has a dish that signifies a holiday or is iconic of the holidays. 

  4. Iconic Symbols - Similar to iconic dishes there are some symbols that just tell the whole story. Just like the dishes, you don’t have to tell the story, these symbol just complete it for you. Some of these include -

    1. Peppermint sticks
    2. "Snow"​
    3. Ornaments
    4. Diyas

How to Choose Props for Your Photo Shoot

While all kinds of props are available for you to chose, how to choose them to tell the story is a topic in itself. Light series for example comes is several different colors. A purple and orange, spooky light series, in the background will not work for Christmas photo as much as it will for Halloween.

Other props, like the background or silverware/flatware or surface needs to be chosen such that it holds the story together.

Choose the Right Color

Prop color plays an important role in telling the story.

A Christmas cake may use white “snow” as a hint, while some other Christmas dish may have red and green.

A Diwali dish for instance means royal colors like dark maroon or colors that define “royal”. Royal is often associated with golden color.

Once again, what are the colors that define the festival or holiday you are shooting? Are there colors that symbolize the festival?

Choose the Right Styles

Props also come in various styles - some are modern, some are vintage, some other communicate fine dining.

Choosing right style of prop is important as much as choosing the right color is. Similar to the color, make sure the style of your props, silverware/flatware, dishware and every elements creates a cohesive image.

For a festive photograph, the background or the plates and flatware you use needs to be.. well, festive. A royal photo needs royal dishware. You can’t have a royal dinner in a cheap acrylic plate...

3 Essential Prop Styling Tips For Holiday Photos

In addition to the normal prop styling tips that apply to food photography shoots that are some that are specific to holiday food shoots here they are -

  1. Find the Right Color - Making sure you're using the right color a color that you can relate with holiday is important. for example Christmas is red and green and white for the snow so you can use these props if the support your food or the main dish.

  2. Use Ethnic Props - If the holiday is about a specific culture, for example Diwali, then using props that are more ethnic will help you tell the story.

  3. Give Subtle Hints - Use props such that they give subtle hint but do not overpower the main food. You can do this by making sure that the main focus in the frame is on the main food or the hero or the subject.

Step 3 – Lighting the Scene

Light... everything about photography is defined by light. While telling the story you need to decide how will you light your set.

Quantity of Light

If it’s a story about rich festive food, would you light it bright or would you keep it dark? For Christmas, you may decide to keep it bright and light the set accordingly - that is you are telling the story of Christmas in the day time.

For festivals like Diwali, where main events happen after the sun goes down, royal and darker photo works well. So in this case, a more calculated light will be needed. A bit dark and warm light will work well.

Quality of Light

In this context, quality is more related to right temperature and type of light. If the story is about indoor dinner, warmer light will make more sense than cooler light.

White Balance will play an important role in shooting a dinner story. White Balance should be set to the right level before starting the photo shoot so that there is minimal adjustment needed in post processing.

Intentionally thinking about how should the scene be lit to tell your story is helpful in designing the light for your table/scene.

3 Lighting Tips For Holiday Food Photos

  1. Understand the Triangle - Exposure triangle is the single most important lesson you should learn. ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture (or f-stop) make the triangle. Understand how changing one impacts the other element of this triangle is the first step to learning to shoot indoor.

  2. Do Not Use Flash - This goes without saying, but don’t use flash when shooting indoors. Specially without diffuser and directly on the subject. Flash washes every detail with it is used directly on the food and all you get is a hot, white area that just kills the photograph.

  3. Don't Mix the Light Source - When shooting inside it is easy to have two or more different light sources around you. This makes it difficult to capture the right color in the camera. That's why when you're shooting inside use only single type of light.

Step 4 – Creating The Photo

So far, we have talked about the concept of holiday food photo, how to set the scene, and how to light the scene. Now, let's start talking about how to create the photograph that will tell the story of holidays.

When creating a food photo for holidays, the decisions you will make with camera in hand will be important.

In previous section we looked at four different concepts of holiday food story - how do you capture these concepts, that is the question we are trying to answer.

Composing The Story

If it’s a story about rich festive food, would you light it bright or would you keep it dark? For Christmas, you may decide to keep it bright and light the set accordingly - that is you are telling the story of Christmas in the day time.

Shooting The Story of The Food Hero at the Dinner Table

The first concept was food that was the main hero and the other elements were supporting the story. In this case the main dish or the main food item should be the focal point and so how would you use your camera to tell a story.

In this scenario it would be helpful to isolate the main food hero from the other elements. in other words here here's a place where you would use shallow depth of field.

Shooting The Story of Dinner With Friends

This is story about togetherness. This story is about friendship and getting together to celebrate.

Since in this story, dinner or one dish itself is not the hero and the main subject is the feeling of being together, isolating one dish does not help here. For the story the camera angle that is going to be overhead or top down view. This camera angle helps to tell the story of togetherness and everyone sitting at the dinner table.

Also, by using this camera angle we are giving equal importance to all the dishes but then the subject becomes the togetherness.

What differentiates this holiday dinner story from usual dinner story is the props. The use of props in this scene will help us to communicate that the story is about holidays and food for holidays.

Similarly for the other stories that are discussed in the previous section, you can make decisions for capturing the photograph by keeping the main concept in mind. You should decide the camera angle, the depth of field, the framing and everything that goes into the decision of making a photograph.

Getting the Holiday Bokeh

Bokeh is essentially blur light series that is captured using shallow depth of field.

The bokeh can be captured by making sure that the light series or the string lights are in the background and making sure that your aperture is small. This will blur the lights and create a bokeh. 

Lot of tutorials are available online that go step by step on that specific subject. ​

3 Photography Tips For Holiday Food Photos

There is lot going on during holidays. Taking food photograph and capturing emotion and story of these times takes lot of effort. Below are few photo tips to create the best image possible.

  1. Have a Plan - With so much to capture you can easily get distracted if you don’t have a focused plan. Create a plan well in advance and think about how you will execute this plan.

  2. Prepare Your Gear in Advance - You don’t want to run out of battery in the middle of your shoot. Get a second battery. Make sure you have backup plan.

  3. Enjoy the Holidays - Above all, immerse in the holiday spirit and enjoy the time. Don’t be stressed if you miss a photo. This is time of the year when you should pause and take a breath.

Case Study 1 - Holiday Cake by Katie Quinn Davies

Black Forest Cake by Katie Quinn Davies

This photograph of Black Forest cake, by Katie Quinn Davies, is a great example of Holiday Food Photo.

Notice the elements. You can see the bokeh and the typical Holiday-time berries and the white snow.

The Story​

What do you think is the story in this photograph?

It is certainly about the cake. The elements we discussed above makes this a holiday photo.

​Use of Props

What are the props used in this photograph?

  1. Holiday lights that create the bokeh
  2. The cake stand
  3. The napkin
  4. The aged surface
  5. ​The knife
  6. The "snow" and berries

Let's look at a different example and analyze how the elements we discussed in this guide were used in the next case study. 

Case Study 2 - Festive Dessert by Simi Jois

Diwali Photography

Mysore Pak by Simi Jois

This photograph of Mysore Pak, an Indian festive dessert, is created by Simi Jois.

This photograph communicates the warmth and richness that Indian festivals bring with them. 

The Story​

What's the story here? What do you think?

For me, it is also about the dessert, and it also is about festivities and this special occasion of Diwali. 

Use of Props

If you observe this photograph, you start feeling festive. What are the props that are supporting that feeling?

  1. Background​ with golden "mirrors"
  2. The golden dish (box)
  3. The pair of diyas
  4. The dark red napkin

This photograph is for an Indian festival/holiday called Diwali and notice that the elements used to create this photograph and tell the story still remain same. 

It is about the background and the symbols and iconic props that are known for the holiday. 

So even if you are telling a story about a different holiday/festivities, you can create a photograph by using relevant elements and props​. 

Case Study 3 - Holiday Cake with Berries by Rachel Jane

Photographing Holiday Cake

Cake with Berries by Rachel Jane

Rachel Jane made this photograph. This is about preparing the holiday cake with berries. 

The Story

Can you guess the story? ​What hints do the props give you?

The bowl in the background and the finished cake in the front say something. Don't they?

Use of Props

We already talked about some of these props. What props do you see in this photograph?

  1. The bowl and knife
  2. The weighing scale
  3. The napkin
  4. The set of plates
  5. The white rustic surface
  6. The two pages from some book

​Do you see how the red currants become prop and add to the story?

Do you notice the camera angle? Do you think if the camera angle was more closer to 0 degree or straight front, you would have seen the same story?

Case Study 4 - Holiday Cake with Bokeh by Simone van den Berg

Holiday Bokeh with Cake

Chocolate Hazelnut by Simone van den Berg

In this photograph by Simone van den Berg, do you see what makes this a holiday food photo?

The Story

What is the story here?

The cake is cut in pieces and not a whole cake. Also I don't see the remaining cake, so some cake is gone.

So my question is, where is the party? ​This very much feels like a holiday party and cake is part of that story. 

Use of Props

What are the props that are used here?

  1. Light series that is creating bokeh
  2. Background that's rustic white
  3. White surface
  4. Cake stand
  5. Merry Christmas Ribbon

You can see the mood of the photograph. The light is little warm.

Do you notice how this photo is different from Katie's photo (Case Study # 1) even though both are about holiday cake. 

Case Study 5 - Festive Dessert in Top View by Himanshu Taneja

Diwali Dessert Photograph

Festive Diwali Dessert by Himanshu Taneja

Himanshu Taneja’s Rasmalai photograph is an interesting take on a well known Indian dessert.

This photograph blends India's biggest holiday with arguably India's popular dessert. 

The Story

My interpretation of the story is about the richness and royal celebration of India's favorite festival - Diwali. 

Using a dish that’s not necessarily a typical Diwali sweet, the story is told by using the iconic symbols of this festival.

Use of Props

Let's list the props used in this photograph. ​

  1. The surface
  2. The diyas and candle
  3. Cashews and almonds and pistachios
  4. The dark plate
  5. The red bag
  6. ​The ornament

What a creative way to use these props and turn a common dessert into a holiday celebration

Download the Bonus - 9 Tips to Photographing Holiday Food

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Download the Cheat Sheet of this Holiday Food Photography Guide. Download the 9 Tips to Photographing Holiday Food!