Phoodtography. Whatever you want to call it, the ability to snap a shot of a beautifully delicious looking, consumable culinary creation to share with the world is the goal for many a blogger or Instagram foodie these days. I see some bloggers/photographers who have them mastered (not talking about myself here). There are others out there who are always looking to improve their skill; if that’s you, read on my friend. Whenever I have food in the frame of my camera I look at it like a work of art. At least, that’s what I’m shooting for haha 🙂 So what gives a food photo that magic that says; “I’m delicious and you can’t go another day without eating me???”
Color and Design + Food Styling + Technical Camera knowledge = Magic Food Photos
Knowing a thing or two about food styling and the technical know-how of camera equipment are part of the equation for a great food photo. These elements I’ll talk about at length in future posts. This post focuses on the first, and most overlooked, of the three elements for what I call ‘Magic Food Photos’.
Food photography has become an art unto itself; much like creating a still life, a great food photo should be thought of as a piece of art. I’ve seen some great bloggers/photographers try to explain how they make their photos look so good with props, lighting, and food styling without any knowledge of color and design. Often they’re using principles of color and design in their photos without even knowing it! And if you don’t happen to know what they are it can be difficult to describe.
Having the art background that I do, I feel I needed to share what exactly that missing puzzle piece is. The very basics of creating an artistic masterpiece, or the best kept secret to creating beautiful food photos are an artist’s principles of color and design.
If you’ve never taken an art class before, learning all the principles of Color and Design can be overwhelming. There is soooo much to learn. In this post however, I’ll make it easy and just share the principles I use the most in my food photography. First we’ll talk about color.
Principles of Color.
1. Contrast creates visual interest.
Memorizing the color wheel is important when it comes to taking that special food pic. You’ll have the ability to create mood, and decide how much contrast you want when you can visualize the color wheel in your head. I personally like most of my photos to be very colorful, so I try use opposite (contrasting) colors on the color wheel or as close to as possible in my shoots. Contrast is a way to create visual interest and keep the observer’s eyes moving around your picture. This is a good thing! Notice how yellow and violet are exactly opposite on the diagram above? Now see how the photographer used very similar colors in the photo below? Think of the colors of (or in) the food itself you’re trying to photograph, and then try to incorporate contrasting color into props, garnishes, backgrounds, or even the food itself by going back and changing the recipe if needed. Sometimes using a red bell pepper instead of a green one can make a huge difference.
2. Create mood by using a monochromatic scheme.
A fun way to create mood (light or dark) is to create a ‘monochromatic’ scene~ ‘mono’ meaning one hue (color) blended with varying shades of gray (can go all the way to black and white also). Here’s an example pic:
See how there’s only one major color with lighter or darker shades of itself in the picture? The Reflections of the glass and water create many shades of orange blended into the white and various shades of grey created from the shadows. Here’s another one with the color brown:
Besides the color variance, did you notice all the triangles and rectangles in the photo above? (Remember this one, ‘cuz we’re going to talk shapes in just a bit.) Color is actually a form of light, it’s just different wavelengths bouncing off of objects and into our eyes. This is why lighting is so important in a food photo. Always make sure you correct your white balance in editing your photo so the rest of the colors in the photo look their best.
Flowers are super on trend right now for food photography, and they’re a great way to bring in some contrasting color for your food if you’re lacking some.
The more contrast you have in your background medium surface (wood, cork board, marble, cloth, whatever) the brighter those colors will visually look. White or black gives the most contrast and will make the colors in your photograph seem brighter and give more visual interest. An art professor once told me that black is better than white for making colors look brighter, and I have seen some amazing bloggers who have adopted a black/dark grey background style with beautiful results. I’ve also seen some who use a bright white backdrop that are also amazing. The wonderful thing about creating art is that it’s an expression of you~ find your own style and brand by using the principles of color.
Principles of Design.
So what do I mean by ‘design’? Without getting too technical here, design is about basic shapes, lines and patterns and how you arrange them in your frame. If you squint long enough, you can see these very basic shapes in almost any work of art. Example: in food photography, bowls of stew, slices of oranges, or hamburger buns become circles/ovals. Pastas, silverware or chopsticks become lines. Toast, rectangular serving platters, garnishes, wontons, become squares/polygons with sharp angles. Texture can be anything from mirror glazes on cakes to dish towels to crumbs. Design is how you group or place these shapes within your composition to create Visual Interest. That’s what makes shooting food with a DSLR camera visually appealing to so many, because the ‘out of focus’ areas, or ‘bokeh’ reduces the background to simple shapes and textures that our eyes find appealing.
Have a focal point.
Ideally, to create Visual Interest you want to have an initial Focal Point (the place your eye looks at first) in your photo, then have your viewer’s eye move around the composition, looking at other interesting things. The focal point is the point where the most contrast is happening or the area in sharpest focus; so either the brightest or lightest colors and darkest colors are closest together. To get the viewer’s eye to move around the photo, you can use one of the following elements of design:
Having one design element can be boring; but if it’s repeated the eye will notice it, either consciously or subconsciously. In the photo below, just one of these meringue popsicles by itself wouldn’t be very interesting. The photographer chose to display several, some in the foreground and others in the background, creating repetition and varying sizes. The Matzoh crackers are also a nice contrasting design element that break up all the smooth texture and round shapes, further creating Visual interest. Remember the chocolate cheesecake photo from above? Great use of repetition by placing that little piece of square Lindt chocolate as a garnish!
Having repetition of a shape or texture is good, to vary their size (again like the photo above) is even more interesting. One important thing to note: if you have any corners (like square plates, silverware etc.) just touching the edge of your frame, this subconsciously causes tension for the viewer. In other words our brains want to fix it. Either give it more space away from the edge of the frame or go the other way; have a portion of it definitively cut off and out of frame. In case you were wondering, the photo below is an ad for the the plate, and I cropped the photo just as an example 🙂
Textures are great for creating visual interest. Ever wonder why food photographers love those great wooden or marble tabletops to display their culinary creations? The have great textures that create additional visual interest. In the photo below you can see both repetition of texture (granola and berries) and contrast (smooth shiny nutella and spoon).
You may have heard of the Rule of Thirds~ This rule applies to all photography, whether it be portrait, landscape, or food. Most of the photos I’ve included in this post follow that rule. It basically means that you should try to offset your subject from the middle of the frame. Have it be closer to the bottom, top, side or corner of the frame. Even the photo above follows this rule because there is more black space (negative space) above the smoothie bowl than below. When you group objects together and leave some negative space, this creates visual interest.
Notice the spoon above? See how some of it is cut off by the frame? The brain wants to finish filling in the missing pieces of the spoon where it ends. This engages the brain in a good way and gives additional visual interest. I’ve seen some bloggers call this ‘anchoring your photo’.
By applying a few principles of Color and Design to your food photos, you’ll be able to add that ‘magic’ that will help you create beautiful and powerful photos that can engage your readers. I would highly recommend that you apply these principles just one or two at a time for each future photo shoot, so you can slowly master them and avoid becoming overwhelmed. When I get ready for a shoot, before I even prepare the food I try to imagine what it’s going to look like on a plate. What are the main colors? What props and garnishes do I want to use? Often I’ll set those things out before I start cooking. Then as I shoot I’m taking lots of different angles, making sure that the food isn’t in direct center of my frame. Practice, practice, practice! Don’t get overwhelmed in planning your photoshoots. I am moving stuff around the whole time, looking for more interesting groupings and angles. I have tons of room to improve, and I’m on a very tight budget so I don’t have a lot of props to work with (I’ve hit up the local Good Will with little success.) But I’m slowly accumulating them and learning something new with every shoot. So good luck on your photography journey, I’ll be right there with ya 🙂
Here are some great resources I recommend for more in depth study. Enjoy!