In this era of Instagram, taking pictures of food is everyone’s favorite past time. From adolescents with drive-thru burgers to DIY gourmets with their latest homemade masterpieces, social feeds everywhere are clogged with foodies and their photos.
But just because everyone does it doesn’t mean they’re any good at it.
Professionals know that taking appealing and appetizing photos of any subject matter requires skill, creativity and practice. Food photography calls for a soupcon of something extra—an eye for staging, lighting and capturing the personality of an edible and a brand. The ability to bring out the unique flavor of each bite using nothing but its visual assets.
A good food photo will make your mouth water. A great food photo will show off your product and your business, giving viewers a sense of the brand’s personality as well as your culinary know-how.
Each photo is a chance to tell your brand story. Here are a few tips that can help you approach your food photography with confidence.
Rustic, Refined, or Something Else Altogether?
Before you even think about taking or publishing photos of your food products, you need to have a crystal clear concept of your brand. Are you going for a clean, corporate look? The bare elegance of haute cuisine? Messy, casual pub grub? Homey, hearty and unadorned?
Every detail of the photograph should reinforce the brand. The background, the lighting, the lens, the flatware and utensils (or lack thereof), even the arrangement of the food itself. What’s included in the frame—and what’s excluded—tells a story, and it needs to be the story your company wants to tell.
Take this photo that we took for Les Trois Petits Cochons for example. It’s at once rustic, clean and organic.
The natural wood, including the “imperfection” of the knot in the grain, reinforces the simple, unembellished quality of the meat. Bias-cut slices, arranged neatly but not in rigid lines, shot head-on and lit so as to let them shine, without any stark shadows or hot spots creating a specific focus.
You can almost see the centuries of craftsmanship behind the food, and the sense of care in its preparation is close to palpable, yet there is also a lack of fuss—the quality of the food speaks for itself, and tells the full story without the need for ornamentation.
And that, of course, is precisely the story this brand is going for.
Different lens, different lighting, different arrangement and you have a different story.
This food photo for VooDoo BBQ & Grill is similar to the last in that its staging and lighting appear relatively simple and straightforward, but it tells a very different story.
The food fills almost the entire frame, with some bare table visible only at the limits of the out-of-focus background. There’s a sense of abundance; hefty portions of plainly-served comfort food just like Mom used to make. The angle of the shot, too, seems to suggest the supply stretching on and on. The BBQ is placed front and center, the sauce shimmering as an enticement to the eye, while the sides are set as an array of options that fade out of frame.
Your average viewer might not break this image down quite so consciously, but the photograph tells the same story viscerally, instantly and unmistakably.
A different story, a different brand and a different approach to food photography.
Sometimes you want a photo that looks immaculate. Sometimes a few crumbs and a drip or two of sauce are needed to convey your message.
Whether your brand is high drama or low-key, there’s a right way to tell your story. And if you tell the wrong story, well…
A Bad Picture Is 100x Worse Than a Blank Page
Ever heard the phrase, “better to be silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt”?
The same principle applies to food photography. A bad image can do a lot of harm to your brand; you’re far better off not publishing or using a photo at all than using a bad picture of your product.
It’s really easy to make even the most delicious food look completely unappetizing with the wrong photograph.
This is far from the worst photograph out there, but it definitely doesn’t show this homemade tomato sauce in the best light. Muddled colors, uneven lighting, spattered stovetop, odd angle…it’s a snapshot, not a professional food photograph, and it shows.
If this were a picture on your packaging, in your menu, or in your marketing, you’d be telling customers that you’re somewhat careless, inexperienced, and that you don’t even recognize the difference between great food and “meh.”
With a story like that, who would trust you enough to try your product?
Good or bad, a picture produces an instant, visceral response in the viewer. No matter what else you have going for your brand, a bad photograph in a place of prominence will turn people away surprisingly fast.
Even a good photo could be wrong for your brand.
That’s a tasty, decadent-looking serving of ice cream. And the restaurant we created it for saw an uptick in dessert sales when it was added to their window clings, posters, and other signage.
But if you’re a straightforward mom-and-pop ice cream shop, this picture—with it’s neat swirls of whip cream, the glazed nuts resting gently on top, the perfectly sliced banana—isn’t going to speak to your ideal customers. It’s fancy, sculpted and precise, and not simple and laid back.
It all goes back to telling your story. It can’t just be a good photograph, it has to be the right photograph.
Otherwise, you’re creating expectations you’re not going to deliver on, and that’s never good for business.
It’s Isn’t Just About the Food
One final note: props matter, too.
While food is at the center of food photography, most food photographs contain more—utensils and dishes, most often; napkins, tablecloths, and other accoutrements; candles, picnic baskets, flowers and more.
The list of potential props to perk up your food photos is endless. Less is often more, and there may not be any props needed at all, but if it helps tell your story and supports the personality shown in the food itself, the right non-edible additions can be a big boost to your food photos.
You can check out more examples of our food photography here—what stories do you see?
Jeremy Ballard, Director of Design