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As humans, we often experience the world through our eyes first — and food is no exception. As visual creatures, we judge based on looks; when it comes to restaurants, this means that our restaurant food photography has to be top-notch, as customers determine their dining decisions based on food photos. Great restaurant food photography that portrays your menu in the best light (pun intended) is crucial for social media marketing, unifying your restaurant’s messaging, and more.
Hiring someone for food photography can be costly, but it shouldn’t stop you from creating beautiful photos. Read on below for useful food photography tips and techniques — from food photography backdrops to lighting and more, you can have professional photos in a cinch.
Tip #1: Use Indirect Natural Lighting (And Please, No Flash)
Here’s our first tip for great food photography lighting: free, abundant natural light! However, you’ll have to work quickly to shoot your menu, as the amount and strength of natural light varies throughout the day. Nonetheless, with a little planning and preparation, you can utilize the most sought after resource for restaurant food photography. Natural, indirect light that comes from the back or side usually creates the best photos—you want to avoid any glares or strange bright spots that direct light can cause. Indirect light diffuses sunlight evenly, creating beautiful, well-lit photos without harsh shadows or highlights.
On a similar note, never use flash. “Flash photos of food create harsh reflections and glare as well as funny-looking fall-off — your food looks like it's floating in space,” according to Serious Eats.
As you can see below, these Mamak dishes from Azalina's in San Francisco look gorgeous in indirect, natural light.
Here’s another example — Elsie Rooftop in New York City uses abundant indirect light to showcase their colorful cocktails:
Tip #2: Add a Bit of Oil or a Spritz of Water
We know your ingredients are fresh, but that doesn’t always translate perfectly to the camera. To make your salads or vegetables look fresh, add a splash of oil or spray with water to give them a slight glimmer. The oil or water will highlight them in all the right places to show off the freshness. In the photo below, MeMe’s Diner in New York City tosses their salads in an oil-based dressing, and the oil on that crispy chicken cutlet gives it that “fresh out the fryer” look:
In this shot, water is added to the spinach leaves to add a fresh look:
Tip #3: Incorporate Simple Photography Techniques
Some of the most basic principles of photography come in handy when talking about restaurant food photography and techniques. Depth of field and rule of thirds are two that come to mind.
Depth of field refers to the range of distance that is in focus in a photograph. It is a commonly used photography technique, as the eyes are naturally drawn to the important areas of a photo. This technique is used when you want to highlight a specific focal point in a picture. They’re great for showcasing details and textures, like this cake, also from MeMe’s Diner in New York City:
The rule of thirds is another important concept in food photography. Photos are more appealing when the subject is not directly in the center of the photograph, but instead in one of the “thirds” of the shot.
The best part about rule of thirds is how simple it is. To start using this technique, simply divide the photograph up into three horizontal and three vertical sections. The subject (or main focus) of the photograph should be placed in one of the intersections of divisions, outside of the center (similar to the photo below).
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Tip #4: Mix up the Angle of the Photo
Not all foods are created equal — it’s why some foods look better shot from certain angles over others.
According to the Digital Photography School, “some dishes look great when you shoot from right in front of the food, and others are best suited when you are looking down from directly above the table.”
For flat food, try an above shot (like the pizza below from Posto Boston).
Burgers look better from the side, as customers can better see all the toppings. Check out this example from LA's Fire Burgers.
Drinks, on the other hand (like this one from MeMe’s Diner), look good from 45 degree angles.
Tip #5: Make Sure Plates are Clean
This might go without saying, but the cleanliness of the plate goes a long way in food photography. Any slight smudge or stray ingredient can detract from the main focus of the image. It’s why some of the most famous food photographers use tweezers when handling and placing food on a plate.
Tip #6: Keep the Background Tidy
Plain backgrounds are best used so there is no distraction. The most popular food photography backgrounds are dark backgrounds, light backgrounds, and wood. A neutral background doesn’t have to be completely plain, but it shouldn’t detract from the main subject of the photo.
For example, this fall salad from Clay Restaurant is shot on a simple, neutral background — the gray marbling on the plate provides some visual interest, and the white background lets the food shine.
Tip #7: Show Off Your Restaurant
One of the great things about food photography is that many rules can be modified to suit your specific needs. Do you want to show off your restaurant’s design? Try incorporating elements of your restaurant in photos, so that customers have a better sense of your decor and overall vibe. In East Harlem, Alison’s verdant, beautiful outdoor space serves as a beautiful backdrop for brunch.
Tip #8: Play with Your Plating
And speaking of modification, here’s another tip for food photography — choosing how you’ll photograph certain foods is a great opportunity to rethink plating certain dishes. Guests love to snap pictures of creative garnishes and presentations, so don’t be afraid to experiment! Kopitiam in New York City is a great example of this — neat bowls of noodles or rice topped with bright sauces, proteins, and cucumber makes this beautiful photo a no-brainer for social sharing.
Tip #9: Garnish Your Foods
Some delicious foods like soups, stews, curries, or any dish with a healthy amount of liquid and/or sauce don’t always photograph as well as they taste. This is where a little embellishment is useful for photography and presentation: a dash of fresh herbs, vegetables, or any element that provides color and texture helps. In this picture below, Thai Diner in New York City shows off their Khao Soi Curry, which is topped with herbs, chilies, pickled red onions, and fried noodles, which all add brightness in flavor and color, plus great texture.
Tip #10: Try Shooting Close Up and Further Away
Since we’re experimenting with angles, placement, and backdrops for your restaurant food photography, another food photography tip is to play around — try shooting your food close up or away from the camera! If your dish has interesting textures or an element you want to highlight, try taking a picture up close, like this eggs dish by MeMe’s Diner:
For dishes involving multiple items, or if you want to incorporate interesting food photography backdrops, try positioning your camera further away (it’s one of the most common food photography techniques). This picture from food photographer Clay Williams for Fuku Restaurant is a great example:
To learn more about food photography, check out this free, incredibly informative slideshow by restaurant writer Helen Rosner.
Post Your Great Photos on Your Social Media
One of the more popular trends in social media is for people to post pictures of their food—who doesn’t love looking at amazing, droolworthy dishes? For social media users to easily scroll through feeds of similar concepts, hashtags are the way to go. Incorporating hashtags is important if you’re trying to grow your follower base. Below are the most popular food hashtags, and be sure to include hashtags that match up with your city, the cuisine you serve, and the dish being photographed for highest visibility.
#foodie (47 million images); often paired with #picoftheday
#foodporn (140 million images)
#instafood (163 million images)
#foodstagram (87.3 million images)
#foodphotography (75.7 million images)
The foundation of any restaurant is excellent food and service — but attracting customers to experience your restaurant requires professional-grade restaurant food photography. With some simple and effective food photography techniques, you can achieve this for a low-cost, or even for free! Plus, these pictures don’t just serve as social media content or for menus — they can be repurposed for online POS systems and delivery apps as well.
Food photography is essential to any restauranteur’s marketing plan. Make it a part of yours, and you’ll see the payoff much sooner than you think.
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