Our little food blog had humble beginnings, starting off with a WordPress.com account, Lia’s iPhone 3GS and a desire to share. A year later, it needed a bigger home. When I first wanted to start a new food blog, I looked around for resources for food bloggers but most of what I found wasn’t really relative to what I needed. Much if not most of it was out of date or told me to join food blogging “networks” that generated pretty much no traffic. As far as food photography went, I was on my own to discover what I should buy, how to learn to take good food photos, etc. Despite being a pretty smart guy, I wasted a lot of time with trial and error and way too much research.
This guide is born out of that research and is a culmination of my experience with web hosting, blogging software and amateur food photography. I’ve done all the legwork for you and all you have to do now is go for it. These days it’s never been easier to start a food blog. The only hard part is finding your voice, your hook, your niche. And of course a blog name.
Our goal with this guide is to educate you on blogging platforms, free vs paid blogs, domain names, hosting options, WordPress themes and plugins, getting traffic for your new blog, camera and lighting equipment for the newbie blogger and more. Please note that many of these links are affiliate links and we get a small amount of commission on some of these links if you purchase anything through them. The money we make from them is not significant but helps keep us in eggs and flour and pays for our website hosting fees. We only link to products we have thoroughly researched or actually own and use and love.
Much of the advice I’m giving here holds true for starting pretty much any kind of new blog regardless no matter what your subject matter.
Table of Contents
Blog Names & Domain Names
Paid Hosting Services
Increasing Traffic For Your Blog
Food Photography On a Budget
Lenses For Food Photography
Other Photo Accessories You May Want
Photographic Lighting Equipment
You have two options for your blogging platform: use a free hosted service like WordPress.com or Google’s Blogger or Typepad, or sign up with a website hosting service and install your own blogging software there. If your budget is close to zero or your technical skills are close to zero, going with WordPress.com or Blogger will get you up and running in no time. You don’t even have to go for a custom domain name if you don’t want to and indeed many of the most popular food blogs do just fine without a custom domain name (whatkatieate.blogspot.com, for example).
Another free option is Tumblr. While not a traditional blogging service, the ability to easily post pictures, video and whatnot to Tumblr quickly and easily makes it an attractive choice as well. Some very popular bloggers have their blogs on Tumblr. You can also use your own domain name with them and use custom themes with unique and attractive layouts available at many of the common theme sources (I’ll get to those later).
If you are a techie and have a budget that allows for it, you will probably opt for a self-hosted installation of WordPress.org for your blog. I’ll only mention WordPress because in my opinion it’s the best self-installed software out there for a food blog for a few reasons, the least of which is the number of excellent plug-ins, widgets, SEO, custom themes and frameworks and the underlying support community for all of the customizations. In my book it can’t be beat. It’s also what I’m most familiar with after many years of use, so yeah I’m a little biased, but not without reason.
Your next stop after deciding which path to take, is a domain/blog name.
Blog Names & Domain Names
Your blog name is your brand. It is essential that you have your blog’s name figured out if/when you register your domain. This will be how people recognize you online so you need to make sure it’s a name you won’t be tired of in six months. For that reason, I recommend it be relatively short and memorable. Make it personal. Make it relate to your life in some way. Sugar & Snapshots works because Lia bakes sweet things and I take photos. Finding your identity can be easy or it can be really hard to decide, so give it some time because you might change your mind a dozen times.
Once you figure out a name, you need to register your domain name or (sign up with your free host to claim your subdomain like oatmealisawesome.blogspot.com). While many web hosts offer a free domain registration with a hosting plan, I strongly advise against doing this. Web hosting companies do not typically have the best tools for domain name management and going through them can result in a general pain in the ass experience if you have to change any of your domain’s settings. This may not be true for all hosts, but in my experience it’s been less than favorable.
I highly recommend using Hover.com for finding and registering your .com or .whatever domain name. I’ve registered several domains with them and transferred a few more to Hover from GoDaddy and they offer unbeatable service. Hover has a very clean and easy to use interface, they offer free Whois privacy (meaning the registration of your domain is private) and Hover offers an excellent email service to go along with your new domain name if that’s something you desire as well. If the simplicity of their site alone should tell you domain names is pretty much all they do and they do it well.
Paid Hosting Services
Assuming you didn’t want to go with the free option or you want more control and flexibility with your site, you’ll need a place for your blog to set up shop and serve those wonderful recipes to the world. While there are a lot of good hosts out there and everyone will tell you theirs is the best host ever, I’d like to give you handful of options.
First, I’d like to introduce you to Squarespace. If you’re thinking you want total flexibility of a self-hosted blog but don’t have the technical know-how, Squarespace is probably exactly what you’re looking for. While I don’t have a blog here, I’ve done the 14-day trial recently and I was very, very impressed. In fact I was so impressed that I’m seriously thinking of going here as my next host/platform of choice. S&S 2.0, maybe? Hmm :)
Squarespace uses their own custom platform to offer you all the flexibility you want without the hassle or learning curve that comes with a WordPress blog. You can have your own domain name, there is a 14-day trial (with NO credit card required!), you can import your old blog from all the big software platforms, auto-publish to social media is built right in, mobile layouts are built right in to every theme, powerful comment moderation and spam filtering tools, real-time statistics, search engine optimization and more. Beautiful pre-made templates as well.
Their plans are also very affordable and comparable with every other web host, starting at $8 a month which is a bargain for what you get. There is even a 14-day trial that doesn’t even require a credit card, just an email address! They even have their own mobile apps so you can edit on the go! You can’t get much more awesome than that. Go look a the pretty templates, take the 14-day free trial for a ride, and see what you think.
If you do have technical knowledge or already have other WordPress sites in existence, you may want to look at BlueHost. BlueHost is WordPress.org’s most recommended host since 2005. BlueHost’s reputation as a host for WordPress blogs is rock solid based on their high-performance, reliable and affordable WordPress hosting service and award-winning technical support.
Bluehost offers free domain names for life, 1-click to set up WordPress sites, unlimited WordPress sites allowed on 1 account and 24×7 100% US-based technical support with holding times that average less than 30 seconds. WordPress page loading time of sites hosted with BlueHost average less than 1 second widely that is up to 180% faster than the average number of all the other WordPress hosts. If you have multiple WordPress sites or think you might in the future, I highly recommend moving them to BlueHost. Also, if you sign up through our affiliate link you can get your hosting for only $4.95 a month, which is $2 off their usual price of $6.95 a month! How awesome is that?
An even more affordable hosting option is A Small Orange, where you can get a variety of plans with different bandwidth and disk space options that also feature unlimited databases, unlimited email addresses, unlimited subdomains, and more for as low as $35/yr ($2.91/mo) for the most basic and insanely cheap plan. They have a great 45-day money back guarantee and you get two months free when you sign up for annual billing! Two months! Incredible!
With A Small Orange also features daily backups, single-click WordPress installation, green hosting, and a phenomenal reputation for their customer service. In fact, if you’re transferring your blog from another service they may be able to do it for you for free.
I’m including Flickr here as an option to consider for image hosting, especially for large images. Many food bloggers keep their photos here rather than uploading to their blog host due to limited storage space on some free hosting platforms or paid hosting plans. Also, its just plain convenient to upload to, link from, and use as a storage place in case of catastrophic blog failure.
Flickr also pulls double duty as a traffic source because you can submit your images to many of the foodie groups and if you have a link or something in your photo’s description, people will be sure to come visit. If you do become part of some of these groups, you’ll also discover other foodie photogs and bloggers so it can be pretty rewarding. Since it’s also free, there’s a lot of incentive to sign up even if you’re not using it to just host your images.
Let’s face it, you’ll need a nice theme if you’re hosting your own WordPress blog. You don’t have to be elaborate and have all kinds of tricks, but you do need something with a nice clean layout that doesn’t distract from the content and ideally has sufficient space for ads if you choose to go down that road later. If you are smart or dangerous enough you can write your own theme like we did. Most likely though, you will probably want to start off with a free theme from WordPress.org’s theme repository.
If you’re looking for higher quality options though, a lot of great WordPress blogs are built on Thesis. Thesis is a framework, meaning other themes are based off of it. The advantage of Thesis is that it is optimized for search engines and has some powerful features that make blogging life easier and fix some of the inherent flaws and quirks of WordPress. You’ll have to find a child theme to use with it but there are plenty of free child themes around for you to find via Google, and many excellent premium themes as well.
The Genesis Framework is another WordPress theme framework with a large following. It’s no wonder over 75,000 online publishers trust Genesis to provide a solid foundation for their sites with its optimization for search engine ranking and ease of use. It has a lot of areas that you can place widgets aside from just the sidebar. It also has a large support community behind it so you will never be lacking for answers if you need assistance. There are lots and lots of nice themes for Genesis so it’s really worth checking out.
These plug-ins for a self-hosted WordPress installation make blogging life easier all around. Plug-ins offer many benefits but can also cause problems if you use too many of them so be careful. Here’s some of the better plug-ins we use.
WordPress SEO – If you’re not using a pro theme, you are probably lacking in search engine optimization. If you want your posts to show up high in the list in searches in Google and Bing, you should be aware of SEO. This plug-in will help you along quite a bit with getting your rank in searches higher through keywords, meta tags, good post titles and keywords in your post text.
W3 Total Cache – Nobody likes slow websites. This handy plug-in will turn your dynamically-generated WordPress posts and pages into flat files to serve up to your viewers and that will speed up your page view time.
Akismet – This plug-in comes standard with every WordPress install to catch spam comments and it works pretty damn well.
Limit Login Attempts – You can’t be too careful these days. By default, WordPress allows an unlimited number of failed attempts to log in to your blog. This plugin locks out any IP address that has had too many failed attempts. 24 hours after installing this we had two lockouts from IP addresses we traced back to two known bot-nets from the Ukraine that were probably trying to brute force their way in. I hate to think about how long that had been going on in the last few months since we opened shop.
Executable PHP widget – For placement of php code and HTML in your widgets, this plug-in makes life so much easier.
JetPack by WordPress – I’ve found this plug-in suite to be especially useful because it covers so many bases for your blog. It’s really useful if you are migrating from a WordPress.com blog to a self-hosted as it allows you to retain a lot of the same features you may have gotten used to. (If you’re not coming from WordPress.com you will have to make a blog there of some sort to connect JetPack to WordPress’s services). It has site stats, social buttons, some useful widgets, etc.
WordPress Backup to Dropbox – This plug-in works with your Dropbox account to make a scheduled backup of your WordPress blog that you can just set and forget. Best of all, it’s free! If you don’t have or want a Dropbox account, there are other options similar to this one but I like the automation so I don’t have to worry about it and access to my backup is as simple as opening my Dropbox folder on my Mac. Highly recommended.
LinkWithin – You know how at the bottom of so many blogs’ posts, there’s 3-4 little pictures of other posts with the title links under them? This is that widget. Trust me, those thumbnails are like candy and people will keep clicking on these links and bouncing through those related posts. Great for driving page views. Works with just about any blog platform.
Sharing is Caring – Social media buttons are a necessary evil these days. If you’re not using the JetPack suite, this plugin will set you up nicely.
WP to Twitter – Every time you publish a new post, this plug-in will tweet it for you. Simple!
Increasing Traffic For Your Blog
Increasing traffic to your blog can be easy but frustrating at the same time. If the photos of your food are great, chances are you won’t have much trouble getting them up on the foodie sites like Foodgawker and seeing a nice fat spike in traffic. If you keep getting rejected, then it might be necessary to take the time to learn how to take clean and tasty pictures.
Below is a list of the places we like to use to promote ourselves. While it can take quite a while to throw your latest and greatest photos of your food to all the sites, the traffic you gain from getting a submission accepted can make your heart fill with pride. It’s not uncommon to see 500 – 1,000 or more people visit your blog in a day if you get a submission featured on the right site(s) at the right time and the subject is right. Trust me when I say that you will notice which foods tend to get the most eyeballs – chocolate being one obvious ingredient that gets a lot of click-throughs. Traffic from these sites tends to be highest on the weekends, so plan your photo submissions accordingly.
Foodgawker – Foodgawker is one of the first foodie sites you need to be throwing your photos at. I find that it’s a double edged sword in that it won’t take too long to have your photo moderated and either accepted or rejected but also the traffic surge doesn’t last very long due to the rapid amount of updates. People seem to only go a few pages in before moving on. Much of our traffic from FG comes in the form of searches for particular ingredients or recipes so there is still some life beyond those first few pages and in the long run that can add up as you have a wide variety on here.
Tastespotting – Similar in concept to Foodgawker, Tastespotting has a somewhat slow update cycle so we’ve noticed that our photos end up sticking around in the first few pages longer than Foodgawker which has a pretty high churn. Sometimes it can be so slow that you can be on page one for up to four days, which is actually awesome for traffic. As such, your traffic from Tastespotting will taper off gradually which is a nice counter to Foodgawker’s spikes. Tastespotting used to be notorious for their standard of quality so photos that were accepted could often be rejected by Tastespotting.
Pinterest – Pinterest is an obvious one that you may already be on. Food is one of the big draws on Pinterest so make sure you’re pinning your photos to one of your food boards (and be sure to make it your first board). Your followers will see your new pins and hopefully spread them around a bit. Make sure that you have a Pinterest button in your post so other Pinterest users will pin your photos when they come swooping in from one of the foodie sites.
What makes Pinterest so damn appealing in the long term is that it isn’t reliant on being on the first few pages like Foodgawker or Tastespotting to get good traffic. We see traffic coming from pins that were made months ago on very old posts, so not having to rely on being on a front few pages of a foodie site is a very good thing. Be sure to give your photos an accurate title in WordPress or your blogging platform of choice so that when a photo is pinned it will have an accurate description already in it.
And on a final note, Pinterest is a fantastic source for food styling inspiration. Look through our Sunday Snapshots posts for fellow Pinterest users that we follow who have good boards full of attractive and delicious photos and recipes. And remember that when you’re pinning things on Pinterest (especially food), make sure the link goes back to the food site it’s from if you can. Unfortunately there are awesome things you find that end somewhere within the labyrinth that is Tumblr and it can’t be helped, but at least give it a try. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to view a recipe and it goes nowhere but Tumblr with no source link!
Tasteologie – This foodie site is lesser known than the other two heavy hitters so the traffic is a mere shadow of those two but eyeballs are eyeballs and so it is still worth submitting your photos here. Submissions work the same way as FG and TS and updates are pretty regular. They also have a sister site specifically for drinks as well worth checking out.
Flickr – Remember when I mentioned Flickr earlier? I’m mentioning it again so you don’t forget to look for those foodie groups and add your photos to them.
And here are the runner-ups. Your mileage may vary with these, but they’re worth checking out and figuring out which are worth your effort:
If you play your cards right you’ll have a nice roller-coaster-ish looking stats page for your blog in Google Analytics. You WILL notice which days are the best for submitting pictures and publishing new posts. The frustrating flip-side of this image-submission-coin is that much of the traffic just bounces right off of your site. Expect a bounce rate of about 75-80% because often most of your visitors are looking for more pretty pictures. You will gain returning visitors over time, so don’t give up.
Everyone was new at some point and the return traffic takes a while to ramp up. Remember that you’re building a readership and good recipes and writing will convert those curious click-throughs to RSS and email subscribers. Post often (at least a couple times a week), even when you don’t feel like it. Don’t let writers/bakers block get you! Dust off some recipe books and pick something and go for it if that ever happens.
Food Photography on a Budget
So you’ve decided that your iPhone isn’t doing it for you any longer and your point and shoot superzoom takes crap pictures too. You’re going to take the plunge and invest in that fancy camera with the detachable lenses. That’s great! Rather than give you a big list of the top X of X for food photography, I’ll just give you some sound advice that was given to me. I’m not going to give you a lesson in basic camera terminology here. That’s up to you to learn through study and learning.
Most likely, you will use this camera for more than just food photography. Also, you’re probably on a budget as most of us are these days, so you’re going to want something affordable under $1,000. You’re going to spend a lot of money but it’s an investment in more than just food photography.
Right away I’m going to suggest you go with an entry-level camera because they’re much more affordable than the larger pro cameras such as the much revered Canon 5D MKII or the new 5D MKIII and Nikon D800E. If you have too much money to burn, then by all means go for one of those but if you’re like me you will need something that’s not going to push you below the poverty line while you pay it off. Every camera maker has some great offerings in the entry-level class of DSLR. Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Panasonic, Sony, Fuji and several others make good cameras but I’m going to suggest a Nikon or Canon. Both makers have entry-level models that will fit your budget and there are so many lenses available for both current systems that you’ll have no problem finding one to fit your needs down the road. As of right now the cameras I suggest looking at are:
If buying those cameras new is still a lot of money for you, there is nothing wrong with buying used camera equipment. Look around on Adorama, Cameta Camera, eBay and Amazon for used equipment. Even locally in the classified ads and Craigslist you should be able to find a few good deals. Also, to knock the price down further look at just buying the camera body because…
Lenses for Food Photography
…you should be looking at getting a 35mm or 50mm lens for your camera as your first lens. Getting the camera body-only will offset the cost of this lens very nicely and honestly you won’t be missing much with the kit lens that most DSLRs come with. Don’t get me wrong though, there is nothing wrong with getting the kit lens too, its just that as soon as you put the 50mm that 18-55mm kit lens that came with your camera will be all but forgotten. In comparison to prime lenses like the 50mm, typical entry-level kit lenses are soft on sharpness and don’t have a large aperture so they don’t work well in low light. As such, they aren’t as versatile indoors as their prime cousins. The 50mm lenses are also very cheap and there’s no excuse to not have one, really.
For Canon there is the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Lens that can be found everywhere for just over $100. Nikon lenses are a little more costly but still a bargain for the new Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S. Part of this price difference is that Nikon’s lenses have a focusing motor built in because their entry-level cameras do not have one in the body of the camera. Even if you get a slightly better Nikon body with a focusing motor built in the 50mm 1.8G is still a great purchase. Another great Nikon lens is the Nikon 40mm f/2.8G AF-S DX Micro which is a macro lens so if you can get in some close and detailed shots and there is also the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G which is also very popular for general photo taking.
Down the road or right away you might want a lens with a longer focal length or zoom capabilities, or even a shorter one for taking wide angle shots. You can do your own research on those.
Other Accessories You Will Want
A tripod to put your camera on
A good camera strap for when you’re taking pictures outdoors
A LensPen to clean your lenses
A Remote Release Cord or wireless remote
A quality camera bag to put everything in
Photographic Lighting Equipment
The best light for food photography is natural light, often coming from the back of your subject. However, not everyone has huge windows that let in a lot of the right light or schedules that allow for shooting during optimum daylight hours. In the absence of good quality natural light, you’ll need a basic lighting setup. The quick and easy and affordable setup is this:
You will also need four 5500K 100-watt equivalent compact fluorescent light bulbs which you can usually find a Home Depot. The color temperature (5500K) is printed on the side of the lightbulb so be sure to look for it through the packaging. The above setup plus the light bulbs will cost about $60 total which is pretty good for the amount of light it will put out. It’s the same setup that I use for my food photography.
It would also be a good idea to look at getting a light reflector for bouncing and diffusing light. You can also go the cheap route and use some white foam board which you can find at most craft stores and covering one side with aluminum foil to give you options in the amount of light you want to bounce.
Lowel EGO Lights also make a great tabletop light source option, albeit a rather expensive one. For a fraction of the price you can make one out of foam board and hot glue like this one I made for ~$35 USD. For more DIY softbox and lighting ideas, check out this contest on DIY Photography.
Now the fun stuff! Props! You’ll need things to put your food on. Look at your favorite food photos and see what kinds of plates, napkins, silverware and such the food is on. Look at the backgrounds especially. Great ideas for backgrounds include plain tablecloths, weathered wood or old reclaimed wood, ceramic floor tiles, old cutting boards, tarnished silverware… The possibilities are almost endless.
IKEA has a lot of cheap and stylishly plain flatware and plates and bowls that will get you up and running easily on a budget. Crate & Barrel is also decent for most budgets. Etsy and Pier 1 are also excellent places to shop. And let’s not forget second-hand stores like Goodwill and the Salvation Army stores and yard/garage sales as great sources of off pieces that you can work into a scene.
When you’re getting your photos off of your camera, they have to go somewhere. Some people just keep them in a specific folder structure on their computer, but I like to have a software program keep everything in order for me. Lightroom is one of the major software programs that most photographers use to catalog their photos and make some alterations that don’t require major photo surgery. Since I’ve been a long time user of Adobe products, Lightroom 4 is my weapon of choice.
Available on the Mac App Store or Amazon.com, Lightroom does a fantastic job of importing, organizing and doing a large number of essential edits to photos. With it you you tweak exposure, contrast, saturation, lights, darks, shadow, highlights, individual color saturation and vibrancy, sharpness, control color noise, rotation and cropping, spot healing… I could go on and on. Your photos are edited in RAW and changes are saved non-destructively so you can always revert back to the original or work off of virtual copies and work toward different results with the same photo. Once you learn the finer points of Lightroom you can transform good photos into mouth watering photos. Lightroom also has some great third-party plugins available to give them added features and editing capabilities, and some of them are very powerful indeed.
For more intensive photographic work like making collages, overlaying text, we have a couple of good programs to pick from. I’m not even going to recommend Adobe Photoshop because its price is prohibitive and far too complicated for a newbie food blogger. That’s where Adobe Photoshop Elements 10 comes in. Essentially a stripped down version of Photoshop for the less professional user, you can do the majority of tasks that most of us need and at only a fraction of the normal cost. It’s also available in the Mac App Store.
A fantastic alternative to Photoshop Elements (and regular Photoshop) on the Mac is Pixelmator. Pixelmator can do everything the average user will need and can do it for a fraction of the price at only $14.99 (normally $30) at the time of this writing. It’s so awesome that it was last year’s App of the Year in the Mac App Store. Highly recommended for Mac users.
Food photography is not like other kinds of photography. Sure, you still have all of the same general rules for photography to follow, but you also need to think about the food itself. You have to learn how to make your food look delicious. You have to light it different. You have to look at food objectively and learn how to invoke emotions of lust and longing, how to induce instant hunger in the viewer before they even read the description of your treat or meal. This requires specific lighting, angles, depth
of field and appropriate settings and props.
Learning the techniques you need to pull off the beautiful food pictures you lust for takes time and practice to learn. But you need to start somewhere, and some reading is just the thing you need to jump start your foodie photo skills.
These books will give you a tremendous amount of insight into photographing food and using light to get the effect you want. The two food books give you more great ideas for props and settings as well. All of my reading on the internet did little to help me along compared to the wealth of knowledge contained in the books above. I can’t recommend them enough to anyone who wants to learn to get the most out of their camera, whether it’s an iPhone, a point and shoot or a DSLR.
So there you have it! Now you should have all you need to start a new blog related to food (or anything, really). I hope this is comprehensive enough for most aspiring food bloggers and easy enough to understand. I always wished there was a resources for food bloggers guide like this but I never found one when I really needed it. Tips on monetizing your blog will come in a different post because this one is already epic enough! If anyone has any additional tips to add here, I’d love to hear them in the comments!