7 Secrets of Food Photography Preparation Food for thought when plating for photographs

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As any good restaurateur will tell you, we eat with our eyes first.  This is not anything new as the idea has been kicking around since Roman times.

Whilst visual appearance is very important when prepping for eating, when it comes to plating up food for photography it is even more so.

Here are 7 things to bear in mind when you are preparing for food photography.

1. Food Styling for Photographs

This is the main thought which underlines all that follows – if you are plating your food for photographs, bear in mind that it is not going to be eaten. 

Although this sounds obvious, for a chef it can involve a whole new approach to cooking.  This leaves you free to solely focus on the visual styling and allows for a few tricks that you would not get away with if you were serving a to a customer.

Take a step back and look at the plate from all angles – is it artistically pleasing?  Does it need more height? Is there enough colour and contrast to the presentation?

All these factors can be adjusted and not necessarily in an edible manner (to add a little height to emphasise the main part of the dish, for example, it can be subtly propped up from beneath with a cocktail stick).  If you need a dash more colour, you can add a garnish that will do this, even though the flavour combinations don’t make sense. Just for once, you may need to allow yourself to think a little bit outside the culinary box if it’s needed.

2. Size & Symmetry

Size does matter!  Studies have repeatedly shown that the apparent size of portions affect how appealing food is, and this needs careful consideration for food photography.

What are the photos going to be used for?  Are you trying to emphasise economy (larger portions maybe) or finesse?

Apart from the portion size itself, size appearance is also affected by presentation, serving dish size, other items within the shot… essentially, anything else that is going to be in the photo.  You need to consider what accessories you want to have in the picture (more on this later) and this is certainly something to discuss with your photographer.

Another point to consider at this stage is numbers.  If you are staging a photo of several similar pieces in a serving (as in the image below) bear in mind that an odd number of items is photogenically better than an even number.  Even numbers are symmetrical and look complete in themselves, whereas odd numbers give the impression that there is something more to see. They capture the attention and force you to focus on each item.  They create visual interest and therefore are also more memorable.

So think odd!

3. Photographed Food must be Fresh Food

When staging food for photographs, never forget that you only have a limited window of opportunity to take the shot!

For food to look fresh in a picture, it must be fresh.  Therefore, when you are planning a photoshoot you need to plan your prepping schedule around it.

Cooking a dish and leaving it on the side for a few hours before you have the photos taken will result in flat and bland photography.  Your need the shots to be vibrant and alive, with colours standing out.

Having said that, if you really cannot go from cook to camera within an ideal time, there are a few tricks you can have up your sleeve in case you need them:

  • Undercook the food a little (it’s not going to be eaten, remember?).  It will help make it look brighter and fresher for the photos.
  • Brushing a little hot oil onto hot food will also freshen it up for the camera, especially if the food has been allowed to cool.  Don’t overdo it though – a light brushing only.
  • Apart from undercooking, any greenery will look greener and fresher if you soak them in ice cold water a few minutes before the photo is taken.  Shake dry and you are good to go.
  • Don’t use excess dressing on salads, they will look limp in the photo.  Less is definitely more!

These tips may help, however cooking and serving fresh is always best. 

4. Accessorise

Staging food for a photo session is exactly that – staging.  You need to think outside the plate.

But let’s start with the plate.  Or serving platter.  Or slate? Food doesn’t have to be restricted to the dish you would normally serve it on if you are staging for a photo, so get creative.  We are only concerned about the visual effect, not the practicality of eating. Never stage the food on something just for the sake of being different as it will look odd, but if it adds to the shot – go for it.

 

Consider the image above; take a look at what is being served, then what it is being served on and then finally what else has been added into the picture to give it context.

A restaurant wouldn’t serve breakfast like that to a customer, but every element of the photo makes sense, adds something to the image and makes the food more appealing.  The scattered ingredients suggest freshness and authenticity and the serving slate is full, suggesting a generous portion (point 2 above). It shows colour and contrast, but the colours complement each other, including the plate, cutlery and accessory food.

5. Consider an Action Shot.

Food is usually static – it stays on the plate and tends not to move that much – so how about introducing some action into your photographs?

This needs care (and planning with your photographer) but a food serving with a sauce being poured (if done right) is a great action shot.  Or a dark chocolate dessert with sugar being sprinkled from a height, catching the light – these suggest movement in the photo and add unique interest.

There is a time and a place for this of course, but if it is appropriate to what you are aiming to achieve from your photographs – then give it a try.

6. Tell a Story.

OK, so sometimes, you just want a straight shot of a plate of food, but when you need more, take your accessories one step further and develop a story into the photograph.

This is taking staging to the next level, where the food is not the whole photo but a part of the photo.

The image tells a story of an afternoon tea, a special occasion or celebration, and time spent being shared with someone.  It conveys an experience with the food being the focal point of that experience. And it looks incredibly appealing!

So take time to consider if your food tells a story; if it does, can it be told in a photograph?

7. Photographing Drinks.

Before we finish, we mustn’t forget about the drink!  Whether the drink is the subject of the picture or an accessory, here’s a couple of final tips about drink photography:

  • Use creative glassware.  If the drink is only background staging, then an ordinary glass will do, but if it is the subject of the photo, then avoid generic tumblers and tall glasses.  Using interesting shapes will make the drink look interesting.
  • If you pop the glass into a freezer for 5 minutes before the photo is taken, then you should get some great condensation droplets forming on it – they translate an impression of freshness into the picture.
  • If the drink is the photo subject, use garnishes!  They add colour and character. Just don’t overdo it!
  • One final tip for beer – sprinkle salt across the top for extra bubbles just before taking the photo!