Food photography composition can sometimes feel really overwhelming. You’ve made this really beautiful dish or cocktail, found a bar top, table or counter—grab your phone to try to capture it … But, seemingly no matter what you try, your photos simply aren’t doing justice to what’s in front of you.
You feel like your images look pretty good, like you might actually be rocking this whole mobile phone photography thing. Then, you get ready to share your images on social and quickly realize that—while you’re proud of what you just captured—you’ve still got a way to go if you want to stand out, in the endless sea of mouth-watering photos, on social media.
The truth is, it’s 100 percent not your fault that social media abruptly demanded your photo skills be on par with our good friend Ansel Adams.
It is however, 100 percent your responsibility to continue to adapt to the fast-paced nature of the digital world we live in. If your marketing goals include growing brand awareness, increasing your audience and, last but not least, getting that audience off of social media and into your restaurant, then you my friend can’t ignore the one simple fact that, “content is king.” A statement made by Bill Gates.
While I don’t have enough time in this article to teach you everything you need to know to take better food photos. I can give you three very simple techniques to use in your food photography composition, that when practiced, will move you closer to that ever-elusive end goal of captivating your audience enough to turn them into a paying customer.
First thing’s first, the most important ingredient to making great photos— especially on your phone, is lighting. Let’s discuss food photography lighting. Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to spend a dime on fancy photography lighting equipment. I am, however, going to ask you to move yourself and your main subject into a naturally lit area and to turn off your overhead lights. If you missed last month’s article, “The No. 1 Cause of Bad Food Photography,” I explained why this is SO important. If you missed it be sure to pop back over and check it out, you can thank me later.
(And, if you’re wondering … “Should I buy that Lightbox for Food Photography?”
The short answer is, nope and I’ve got a few short videos addressing exactly that, you can find them down below).
Next, the “Rule of Thirds,” but first let’s address the iPhone camera grid. (OK, Samsung Users, Pixel Camera Phone’s & all Android users are welcome, too) After that I can cover, what is the rule of thirds, cool?
Camera Grid iPhone:
Open your iPhone Camera App, if you don’t see these grid lines, then your grid is not turned on. If you do see these, nice work, you can skip ahead to the next section, everyone else follow the steps below:
- Close the camera app
- Navigate to your iPhone settings
- Scroll down until you see iPhone camera settings
- Once you open the settings about half way down you’ll see the camera grid, flip that on and you are good-to-go.
- Android users, when you’re in your native camera app navigate to the settings menu, about halfway down is the option to turn on your camera’s grid.
Now that you’re technically set up let’s dive into how you can begin using your camera’s grid for your food photography compositions.
The rule of thirds grid divides your frame up into nine equal parts or three total sections and the great thing is it works in all three formats, vertical, horizontal, and square.
Where the lines meet in the frame are called intersections and these are the most powerful points of interest in your frame. Placing your subject on one or more of these intersections will create a more interesting photo and allow you to eliminate the guesswork.
A good rule of thumb is to try to stick to using only two of the intersections when you are composing your image. If you were to put something strong on all four intersections of the photo it would overwhelm the image and the viewer will not be able to absorb what you’re trying to show them.
As opposed to this image, where I’ve used two opposing intersections to compose my shot. Which allows me to introduce the third technique for today and that is the use of negative space.
Negative space in photography are the areas where little to nothing is happening, not a lot of detail, texture or color. Positive space is the part of the photo where there is visual interest, our main subjects, supporting subjects, colors textures etc.
When we look at a photo, our eye moves through the image trying to make sense of what’s there. It will quickly disregard the negative space and move to the space with the most visual interest.
Take a look at this photo one more time and pay attention to how your eyes move through the image.
Notice yourself looking at the photo and pay attention to how your eyes are wandering, they’re not spending a lot of time in the negative space areas. They immediately go to the eggs, that’s because without something intriguing, something for your eyes to feast on, your eye will move to a more interesting area.
That’s the power of using your camera’s grid, it allows you to intentionally build your food photography composition, using the rule of thirds and negative space, to reinforce the important elements in your scene, creating purpose, intrigue and importance.
Quite simply it allows you to direct your viewers eye, exactly where you want it to go.
And to take it one step further—because under-promising and over-delivering is always a winning combo—here’s one more tip you can add to your smartphone food photography tool belt.
Sticking with our egg example here, what if I really wanted to draw my viewer’s eye into that top egg with the beautifully broken shell, any ideas on how I could do that?
Insert the oh-so-famous Portrait Mode (iPhone) or Live Focus Mode (Android). Those shooting modes were built to digitally mimic professional camera’s capability to create a softer background which is called a shallow depth of field.
I’ve got a love-hate relationship with this shooting mode for two reasons. First it fails pretty regularly because it’s basically a digital filter trying to guess what you want blurred as opposed to you, the photographer, being able to control it.
Second, because 99 percent of people who use it think it was designed solely to blur out the messy background. Like sweeping something under the rug, it creates the false sense of the ability to take a great photo. As opposed to understanding that it can be used, intentionally, to direct the viewer’s eye and create more visual interest in your images.
Allow me to get off this high-horse real quick, so I can teach you how you can begin to properly use this shooting mode in your food photography. Just like our friend, negative space, a shallow depth of field allows you to highlight and direct your viewer’s eye to what’s important in your image, your main subject. When you highlight a single point and softly blur the rest of the composition you create more significance in your photograph.
In order to achieve this, I used thin, two spherically shaped tubes, (small perfume bottle and lipstick tube) to lift the main egg up from the plane that everything else was on. Which then allowed me to activate the portrait mode setting and use it intentionally to capture the shallow depth of field I was looking to create.
Also, as you can see in the example above, when you choose to defocus something, it can add more intrigue to your image piquing the viewer’s interest and make them wonder more about it.
I’ll bring this to a close with one final tip, because it just so happens to be in the images we’ve been working with all along and that is allowing some of the elements you’re working with to partially exit the frame.
When you build this into your composition it allows the viewer to feel like they’ve landed into a small portion of a larger overall scene. In turn, sparking curiosity about the rest of the story or igniting the viewers imagination to further develop the scene beyond what they see.
That’s where I’ll leave you today, to recap we covered:
1. Moving to natural light and I turning off your overhead lights
2. Turning on your cameras grid and learning how to use it to compose your shots with
- The Rule of Thirds
- Negative Space
3. And closed out with two more tips to help you have your hero stand out and create more impact with your visual storytelling by using
- Depth of Field
- Having items of your story intentional exit the frame
Knowing something is quite different than physically practicing what you’ve learned. The next time you’re ready to shoot that perfectly plated dish, I encourage you to use one (or more) of these tips as inspiration to build your image, taking note of how much of a difference is made in your final image. (… And, don’t be afraid to give me a tag on instagram to show me the results @TheChefShots!)
YouTube Photography Lighting Basics Playlist: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJasjJt5zafAW_K2tkSSz7FyxUlDBmlap
If you enjoyed this article and you’re interested in learning more about cell phone food photography, I invite you to join the Chef Shots Community. We’ve got a completely free resource library with, rule of thirds templates that you can use to get you started.
Leigh Loftus, a 12-year Professional F&B Photographer and the founder of The Chef Shots, an online curriculum teaching the culinary world how to master their smartphone camera, create “drool-worthy” content and captivate their audience.