When creating the setup for our food images, there is no universal wisdom that could solve it all. As many images, concepts, dishes you shoot, as many endless possibilities you have to do it right or wrong. In this episode of the ‘Let’s Talk About…‘ post series, you will learn more about the core point of our images, which is definitely the composition.
If you are interested in learning more about camera angles, manual settings on your camera, and food styling tricks and tips, you can visit all episodes of this post series by clicking here.
Are you ready to improve your photography and styling skills? Let’s do this together!
What takes a hero to win?
When thinking about creating a composition, the best way to start is to decide on the hero, grab a piece of paper and start planning the frame by sketching the elements, arrangements, layers, shapes, colours, leading lines…. You don’t have to be an artist or create those artistic fashion-designer-like sketches that could automatically sell themselves on the market. These sketches have to be part of your planning process, maybe only you will see them, maybe you include them into a pre-production meeting with your client to make it easier to visualize the end result… regardless: everything starts on paper or digital board 🙂
When we put one subject to the center of focus, the viewer of our picture can understand the relation between the elements on the photo, identify and clearly separate the most important element of the frame in relation to the props and ingredients, and last but not least: our composition will be well organized and more coherent.
Choosing the orientation of our images depends on multiple factors: client’s preference, end of use, shape and of the hero, props. Normally the portrait orientation leaves us more space for creativity and styling, but the less popular, landscape orientation can be also utilized perfectly for our setups, we only need to plan around with the level of layering and complexity of the composition around the hero.
When trying to draw attention to the hero, the easiest way to do so is understanding the importance of visual weight. The largest and/or brightest point of the image will be the first element of the frame that our eye will discover, then you can direct your viewer through the whole image by using a certain shape, flow, leading lines, hands or actions.
Choose the camera angle that compliments your hero dish the most. To learn more about how to find the hero angle and maximize the potential of the most popular camera angles, make sure to visit the previous posts of this series: 3/4 angle, head-on and flatlays.
Another way to make the hero stand out in the composition is to create and enhance the focal point of the image, by making it light, isolated, highlighted by a certain colour or to have more contrast or texture. Chose one focal point that overrules every other, and make this to be the sharpest.
Negative space is not only a great technique to provide space for text overlay or a logo, but it can also provide visual balance to our images, so they look less crowded and won’t appear overwhelming for the viewer’s eyes. Utilize the pattern of your backdrop or the bokeh of the environment as an area of the frame where the eyes can rest after processing the information.
The rule of odds working quite well in food photography, and it is easy to create visual balance by using odd numbers on our images, but at the same time, the even numbers can create beautiful symmetry and interest for example by partially cropping our certain parts of the plates and serving dishes.
Use grids and custom overlays, lines, images as a guide while creating your composition. I highly recommend tethered camera setups preferably with live view, so you can perfect the scene before hitting the shutter.
Include a human element to make your photo look lively. A well-placed hand instantly directs the attention to the subject it holds, and if you manage to arrange the fingers naturally in a way that they are slightly pointing towards your hero, you already created the flow of movement for the viewers’ eyes. If you need some nifty tips on how to add a human touch to your photos, make sure you read this post!
Exercise: Create compositions using different grid overlays + only one dish
Practice the creation process by setting up a scene using the listed grid overlays and composition techniques as listed below, but to make it more interesting, let’s use the exact same hero for all setups.
Rule of Thirds and its variation, the Phi-Grid
Download and print your free workbook. If you are a Creative Tribe member, check July 2021’s newsletter, alternatively click on the banner below.
Chose ONE hero.
Use a pencil to plan and sketch the compositions. If you enter my July 2021 Instagram challenge, make sure to share it in your stories/posts + tag me.
Set up each scene and capture them. If you enter my July 2021Instagram challenge, share at least one of these images as a post + tag me.
Make sure to tag @rekacsulak when sharing the results on social media, so I can see your creations! In July 2021 you can submit the photos from this exercise to my monthly Instagram challenge, and win different educational sessions with me! Please find the entry rules in my CHALLENGE Instagram Story highlights.
Your free workbook also contains a custom page, that you can use and integrate into your planning process and workflow.
I invited a professional photographer friend to process this topic by digging deeper into the stylistic and technical considerations about creating amazing food photography compositions. Welcome Rachel Korinek on board!
Who are you and what is your photography specialty?
Hey friends! I’m Rachel Korinek, an Aussie food photographer. I work as a professional food photographer for clients and brands. I’m also a trained teacher and left teaching high school to become a photographer. So it was only natural that I fell into teaching food photography!
I’d say my style focuses on the beauty of real food. I love to bring out the texture and layers in my photos. My speciality is post-production or editing, lighting and more and more cocktail and beverage work too.
I’m fascinated by the world of mixology and what art form it is. It’s such a delight to shoot drinks because your composition, lighting and editing have to be strong and I enjoy that challenge.
The rule of thirds and the diagonals are the first composition techniques we hear about. What other techniques work well with food photos and how to get the best results by using them?
Composition techniques range from simple to more intricate. You might think that the move advanced a technique, the better it will be to compose with. But what I have found is that it’s more about how you as an artist use composition and how you use your secret sauce.
I find that exciting because that’s where the secret lies in discovering your style.
A few composition techniques that I think are complementary when composing food are:
The Rule of Odds
Unity and Proximity
You might be surprised to see ‘shadows’ on the list because that can feel more like part of your lighting, but how you use shadows is important in revealing textures and directing your viewer’s eye around the frame. Pay attention to adding shadows to our frame in such a way that communicates the texture of your food and ingredients.
The Rule of odds is such a good technique to use when decided how many subjects to add to your frame. And yes, this composition technique is exactly as it sounds. For best results, play around with adding an odd number of subjects to your scene.
Unity and Proximity help us tie and unite subjects together to help tell a story. This is important as a lot of the time we are telling a food story where we want the viewer to envision themselves at that moment. How closely (or far away) you place subjects can give a cosy and warm gathering feeling that we want to be a part of. Play around with how close subjects are to each other for an organic feel.
Don’t be afraid to make subjects touch each other!
Do you have a personal favourite composition technique or specific arrangement that you keep using?
The concept of layering is something that I use with every shoot. No matter how simple or complex the composition. No matter what the food subject is, I will always think about, plan and compose using layers.
Layering to me is thinking about the number of ‘layers of interest’ around your food or hero subject. I always ask what’s interesting about the food or composition. That could be the food or ingredient details, the dish once it’s assembled or the propping and composition.
Say for example I am taking a shot of a cocktail in a glass. There are no other props in the photo. Just one glass is an almost clear liquid. How do I make it interesting? It’s with layers.
What was interesting to me in this shot? The zested salt rim, the garnish and the reflection on top of the liquid. Those things help to make the viewer stay for longer.
I love this beverage shot because there are lots to keep us interested. From the unexpected garnish to the bubbles and the outline of the ice cubes.
What things can make or break a composition?
The goal of composition is to connect our viewer with our food story. It’s about telling a story around our hero food or hero subject.
The thing that can break composition the most is when our scene is confusing, their viewer doesn’t know where to look and they miss the impact of the hero. This can be things like:
Too many subjects with no clear hero subjects, so the viewer doesn’t know where to look.
Incorrect visual weight that throw off the story and hero.
Too many colours that feels overwhelming.
You’ll know if your composition feels off. Most likely it’s that there isn’t a clear hero.
We know that choosing the right camera angle is not only a creative choice but certain subjects have their matching “hero angles”. Could you mention some matching “hero composition techniques” for certain food photography subjects?
Composition is about how you arrange multiple objects together to create a visually pleasing image that tells a story. So I’d say composition techniques are used more to help you arrange subjects together for specific looks.
But definitely, there are composition techniques that will be flattering or complementary to certain food subjects.
The most obvious would be colour theory. Food is so colourful and we are drawn to the different shades and hues we find in ingredients. When photographing fresh produce, monochromatic or analogous colours are a great technique to utilise.
I have mentioned drinks or cocktails already, but this subject can shine from using layering techniques.
When we tell food stories, we often use multiple subjects to simulate a gathering of friends and family. Using repetition can be a pleasing and simple way to organise a lot of subjects. This technique works well for produce flatlays as well.
Many photographers who are just starting their creative journey often face difficulties when trying to create a strong composition. Do you have any handy tips that would help them during this creative process?
Composition in still life or food photography is hard! We have to create an entire scene from nothing. That’s a lot of responsibility and it takes a lot of time and practice to work out what to put in the frame and what to leave out.
My biggest advice would be to trust yourself. Trust that with time, dedication and passion that your style will emerge and composing a scene will become easier and more enjoyable.
Here are a few tips to help you –
Use a narrow focal length to reduce the amount of space you’re creating with. Sometimes less space can help us feel less overwhelmed and lessen the need to fill that space. This could be 85mm or 100mm/105mm macro on a full-frame. Or a 60mm macro on a cropped sensor.
Then you can focus on the food itself and making it as strong as possible. Just like this soup, which was shortlisted in the Pink Lady Food Photographer Awards of 2021.
Shooting overhead is easier to compose if you’re just starting food photography as it’s a very visual and graphic angle. It can help you to visualise composition concepts and see how the composition is coming together.
Portrait orientation is also easier to compose than landscape orientation. A lot of new photographers are so used to taking landscape shots of their family and travel that they bring this habit into their food photos. As food usually has more height than width, it’s easier to compose a portrait shot in a way that has organic movement.
If you’d like to learn more about composition with me, check out my Composition Essentials masterclass. We cover everything you need to know to style, compose and photograph your unique food story.
Make sure you check the website, courses and other beautiful images of Rachel, by visiting her