Food photography is essential in selling and promoting your online food and beverage business. People can’t touch or taste your products through the screen. You could make the most delicious snacks in the world, but if your imagery is flat and unappealing you can’t expect people to feel tempted to buy.
I make a living photographing food for brands. So in this post, I’ll walk you through seven steps that’ll generate desire from your images and get customers raving about your products. Whether you’re a marketer taking shots for your brand, or you’re a photographer in need of a little inspiration, these tips should help you create better images. Plus, I’ll show you real-life examples of two small businesses that increased their sales through clever food photography.
How to make your food photography look great
Ready to start shooting some fantastic food product shots? These tips will have you sorted. 🙌
Step 1: Pick three words that sum up your brand personality
First things first, what do people feel when they look at your food online? The emotion you evoke through your food photography can also speak to your wider brand personality and USPs.
Let’s say you sell homebaked goods like tarts and brownies. Your brand personality might be one that’s warm, homely and comforting. But without transferring those emotions into your photography your food is just… food. Your images need to inspire people and get them to crave your products.
Take these Portuguese custard tarts for example from a cafe, Moka, based in Epsom. They look pretty dull lying on a plate.
But if we think of the words and feelings we want a potential customer to associate with them it’s easier to create a photoshoot to capture that. Let’s go with what we’ve already mentioned: “warm”, “homely” and “comforting”.
Tada! That’s better. These darker, woody tones make the image feel homely and the hot chocolate in the background is warm and comforting. Who wouldn’t want to sink their teeth into these delicious treats?
So ask yourself: what kind of emotions do you want to stir with your food photography?
💡 My top tip: Before you begin taking photographs, it’s best to decide what feelings you want to evoke when people look at your products. To make sure you stay consistent with your brand, identify the three words that sum up your brand personality and use them to inform the look and feel of your images.
Step 2: Use backgrounds and backdrops that complement your products
If you’re struggling to think of good backdrops and backgrounds for your images, start by looking at the colours in your food. Using complementary or contrasting colours can really help your food stand out—like this lemon meringue cake I shot.
Of course, you also need to be mindful of your brand colours too. They’ll likely play a huge part in how you set up each shot. For multiple photographs, stay consistent so the colours are dominant in every image.
💡My top tip: Choose backdrop colours that contrast or complement your food whilst being mindful of your brand’s colour palette. Use a colour wheel to find combinations that complement each other.
Step 3: Use props that bring your products to life
Once you’ve got your emotions and colours down, you can decide on what props you want. That’s things like plates, cutlery and napkins, as well as any complimentary props like flowers and related food items.
Different props add a different feel to the image and help bring your products to life through context. For example, including a cooling tray and baking paper when taking an image of a cake sends the message that it’s homemade and freshly baked.
If you’re working on a budget, I’d recommend scouting your charity shops, car boot sales, antique markets and house clearances for props. Alternatively, you could buy from online shops and marketplaces like Dunelm, TK Maxx, Ebay, Etsy or Flying Tiger.
💡 My top tip: Pick props that help you tell your brand story and bring your products to life. I always recommend using small plates and pinch bowls as it makes your food look more abundant and it fills the plate. Large plates generally don’t work well because it’s really hard to photograph anything else around the plate.
Step 4: Master the composition of your hero
There’s one key technique to help you compose your shot: knowing the hero of your shot! ⭐
This is by far the most important part of food photography. You don’t want your main product to get lost with the supporting cast. If the main act gets lost, it’ll be confusing for viewers. Their eyes won’t be drawn to your product and they won’t buy.
So let’s look at tips on getting your hero to stand out.
Make it big, bright, bold and clear
You want your hero to stand out against any background props. You can do this by making it:
Bigger: Bring the hero product closer to the camera
Brighter: Use a colourful plate or place it in the light
Bolder: Use a bright napkin to draw the eyes in
Clearer: Move the props away from the hero, so it dazzles ✨
Placement of your hero
Before you set up the shot, you need to establish if the hero is right in the centre of the image or if it’s offset to the side. For example, a cake with a piece taken out is likely to be offset, whereas a stack of pancakes will be centred.
Rule of odds
In photography, it’s more aesthetically pleasing to take shots of items in odd numbers. Working in odd numbers ensures it looks artistic and adds interest, whereas even numbers can make the photograph appear more formulaic and functional.
Personally, I usually start with three. If that doesn’t work, I go to five—making sure that nothing looks too ‘placed’. The exception might be if you have loads of random pieces of food scattered around, in which it’s okay to break the odd rule. (See what I did there? 🤓)
A leading line is a prop which is purposely placed to draw your eyes towards the hero.
We can be savvy in food photography because we have some great little helpers that fit naturally into the photos. For example:
- Pouring liquids
Here’s an image I shot for Planty, an online food delivery company.
You’ve set your shot up and the food is looking gorgeous. To do your food justice, you need to choose the right angle to take your shot. These are the three common angles for food photography I’d recommend, and when to use what:
- Straight on/eye-level: Great for food with loads of detail inside it such as a loaded burger, mille-feuille or sandwiches.
- 45 degrees: A go-to for recipes in a bowl or products that have detail on the top and inside such as cakes and salads.
- Flat lay: Perfect when the main detail is on the top such as pizzas, quiches, and soups
You can determine what angle you need by looking at how much detail is in your food. And if it’s a flat lay, set it up on the floor so you are not hanging off the ceiling to take the image!
Step 5: Use photography to tell a story
Use your food images to create a story and bring your products to life. You could show how your products are made, what ingredients are included and how it’s cooked. If you sell beverages, you could shoot different foods to accompany the drink in a lifestyle shot.
A good approach is to think about what experience you want to convey first, and then build your set around it. For example, you might want to create a lifestyle shot of two people on a romantic date. In this case, you may include a bottle of champagne and position the table in a quieter spot.
The experience below, for instance, could tell a romantic story of two people out on a picnic.
Remember: one image can convey so much more than the words. It could be the make or break of someone stopping to read what you offer.
Here are some things to ask yourself:
- What’s the experience you want to convey?
- Where is your scene taking place?
- What would the people in the scene be doing?
- What props need to accompany the story?
- Are there any extra scene setters to make it feel seasonal?
💡 My top tip: Think about the experience you want to convey and build your scene around it.
Step 6: Add authenticity to your brand with shots behind the scenes
To add some extra authenticity to your brand’s story, think about shooting ‘behind the scenes’. Customers are more likely to form an attachment to your brand if they can see how your products are made and the people who’re involved in making them.
Here are some ideas for behind-the-scene photographs:
- Formal or casual shots of the team
- Photos of you or your manufacturer making the food
- Photos of people packaging the food ready for dispatch
- Photos of people eating (and enjoying) the food
- Photos of you photographing the food (I know, it’s very meta)
💡 My top tip: Go back to the three words you chose to represent your brand and products—this will give you the framework of what to show behind the scenes.
Step 7: Set up your lighting to show off your food
This is where so many mistakes happen. If you don’t light your food correctly it will look yellow, congealed and unappetising—not a good look.
It doesn’t matter so much what you use to light your food. It’s all about what you diffuse the light with to avoid your food looking yellow.
You could use artificial lighting and diffuse it with a softbox. Or take advantage of natural lighting and soften it with a voile across a window. This approach also means you don’t need to buy lots of fancy equipment.
To break it down, let’s look at two techniques for your food photography lighting.
Place your light to the side of the food at a 90-degree angle. This might be artificial lighting or you can place it to the side of a window for natural lighting.
This gives beautiful shadows, dimension, and texture, as well as depth under the food—this stops your food from looking like it’s magically floating in the air.
💡My top tip: Use a bit of foil to bounce the light back in on the side without the light. It looks natural and lifts the shadow.
Position your food in front of the light such as in front of a doorway or window.
This light is great for illuminating liquids. It makes them glow and gives them a beautiful, subtle, soft light that’s cast over your food.
💡My top tip: If your light is too harsh, use a white voile, shower curtain or baking parchment between the light and the food to soften it.
Here are some things you should avoid when lighting your food:
❌ Don’t use the kitchen spotlights—they will turn your food an icky yellow
❌ Don’t shoot from the same direction as the camera, your food will look flat
❌ Don’t use on-camera flash it will make your food look yellow and flat!
How real-life food brands increased sales with their photography
Now you’ve got some top tips to help you create beautiful food photos, I’ll show you how I helped two small businesses increase their sales with better images. Let’s get into it.
Delightfully Decadent was able to communicate their product’s worth
Delightfully Decadent sell gorgeous brownies and fudge online and at farmers' markets.
However they were struggling to sell on their website. They realised they could do more with their photography, so they asked me to help with an image revamp ready for Christmas.
- When I went onto their website I noticed that the bakes and fudge weren’t a true reflection of the products in real life.
- The brownie snowflake looked like it had lard on the top which wasn’t a true reflection of the product’s texture
- The white chocolate and gin fudge also looked like pieces of lard—this isn’t a desirable look for any food product.
- The colours of the food were ‘off’ so it didn’t look very appetising
It was clear they needed to think more deeply about the story of their products. I worked with Karen, the owner, on steps to create better images. Here’s what we did:
- I stood the snowflake up and sprinkled icing sugar on it, so it ‘felt’ festive and snowy
- The white lumps of fudge are actually Belgium white chocolate infused with Silent Pool Gin—so we showed both brands together to highlight the product’s USP
- We lit the food correctly so the colours were true to the real product
Don’t they look so much more appetising? In fact, having clear, quality images means you’re able to truly show the value of your product which gives you all the more reason to put your pricing up. This is what Karen did, and it paid off!
“With Emma’s help, I increased my Christmas Snowflakes from £15 to £25 each, which was a huge difference in my profit over Christmas.”
Mel’s Marvellous Cakes started booming after she updated her images
Mel is a small business owner who loves wearing 1940s clothing. This feeds into her brand, Mel’s Marvellous Cakes. She wears her vintage clothes whilst serving afternoon tea out of her blue campervan at the local farmer’s markers. And she delivers her online orders locally on her old vintage bike. She is her brand, as much as her products.
However, when I saw the images on Mel’s website, all the components of the afternoon tea were shoved into a box—tea bags and all. There was no story and it was hard for customers to imagine what it’d be like eating her decadent afternoon tea.
So we immersed ourselves in creating an old-fashioned tea shop. The first thing I did was get everything out of the box and use Mel’s vintage tea cups, saucers, teapots, doilies, vintage chintzy tablecloths and paraphernalia to create that 1940s feel.
We also dismantled Mel’s conservatory and rebuilt it into a ‘Cath Kidston meets the 1940s’ style backdrop. We added wallpaper and ornaments in the background to provide an on-brand backdrop to all of Mel’s new product shots.
Mel now uses all these photos on her website and socials. She’s always in front of the camera because she’s part of the brand. She even gets hired for corporate events where she brings her caravan, crockery, seating and bunting to cater for hungry business folk.
This is what Mel said about her new imagery:
”Customers are attracted by the photos before the text they read. Professional-looking images present a professional service. Emma has patiently guided me through this and my business has gone from strength to strength.”
Create better product images for your brand
If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this post, it’s this: please don’t damage your brand with terrible visuals. Because, as you’ve seen, carefully thought-out photography can increase sales. Poor photography will only hold you back.
With that in mind, here’s a summary of my top tips you can start implementing right away. ✨
- Pick three words that sum up your brand personality
- Use backgrounds and backdrops that complement your products
- Use props that bring your products to life
- Master the composition of your hero
- Use photography to tell a story
- Add authenticity to your brand with shots behind the scenes
- Set up your lighting to show off your food
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