If you follow my blog The Green Creator you know my food photography journey started from absolute zero. With no formal education, it took me years of shooting every day before I figured out composition. I realize now that I would have benefitted greatly from studying composition tips and techniques earlier in my career. Knowing what I know now, composition is an art form, and it has the power to elevate your pictures to the next level.
Perhaps you have a natural knack for composition, or maybe composition is an ongoing struggle for you. Regardless of your level, it’s always valuable to get a fresh perspective. In this article, I’m going to share 5 tips for great food photography composition to help you turn good photos into gorgeous ones with just a few small adjustments.
What is composition?
Composition is the arrangement of all the elements in a photo that form the final product. A good composition guides the viewer’s eye towards the most important subject in the photo. Great composition can turn the most boring recipe into a superb picture, but a very bad composition can make the subject look dull and unappetizing.
Just like styling, composition is a difficult topic to explain. There is no definite right or wrong way to compose, instead, good composition is marked by a viewer’s emotional response to an image. Although there are no fast and hard rules, there a few guidelines for composition. Like anything, you don’t need to follow these rules to be a good composer. I believe all rules in any creative field only serve as a guide to help improve your work.
#1: Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is based off of an invisible grid on an image that divides the total area of a picture into nine equal squares. An image is usually believed to be more interesting and eye-catching if the subject is in focus in 2/3 or 1/3 of the image. Even though the focal point is usually in the middle, this doesn’t mean that a picture with the subject right in the middle is the most interesting. In the example above, I composed my green smoothie image so that the subject was positioned in 2/3 of the image.
There are some exceptions to this rule. One of them is exhibited in the image below where I centered the salad to make the salad the focus of the picture. Although I love these types of pictures, this composition choice can make it harder to tell a story.
Don’t let the subject of your picture occupy more than 75% of the frame. And make sure that, the 75% is not in the dead center of the frame. This gives an image contrast and focus, and keeps the eye from being overwhelmed or stagnant.
As I mentioned above, the Rule of Thirds is usually a safe rule to follow, but it doesn’t apply to everything. If you don’t want to follow the Rule of Thirds, you don’t have to. There are other rules, such as the Golden Ratio, that give guidelines for other composition choices. Always experiment, and know that even if you don’t use the Rule of Thirds, you can still make a stunning image.
When it comes to food photography and composition, there is a general rule that an odd number of items often make a better picture. So three items generally make a better picture than two items. Of course, just like the Rule of Thirds, this is a guideline, not a must. While I myself have taken many pictures with 2 or 4 subjects, I have to agree that odd numbers typically make a better picture.
That said, if you only have two matching bowls or you made only two puddings, don’t let that hold you back from taking a picture. After all, ‘The worst picture is the picture never taken’. Here is an example of when using an even number of items worked. This is a picture of a Valentines Day recipe. The fact that there are only 2 puddings might actually be the rule of composition for this photo, illustrating the romantic nature of the picture.
Just like in landscape or architectural photography, it’s important to keep the lines of a picture in mind. When styling and placing your dishes and food props, try to see the picture in diagonals and think of the lines in the picture. Straight lines such as the ones in the second picture below will often make a picture look stagnant. The lines interfere with the flow of the picture and make the picture ”stop”. It’s almost as if you are telling the viewer to look no further than the bowl. Slanted lines, on the other hand, will push your eyes through and around an image in a more natural way. You can see an example of this in the first picture below.
In the first picture, the plate is tilted, which makes it already more pleasant to look at. The image is void of harsh vertical lines, and looks soft and welcoming. Your eye is guided through the picture in a natural way.
You can also create drama in a picture with diagonal lines and movement. Compose your scene so that dishes and props appear to be cascading down the frame.
#4: Use Negative Space
It doesn’t do any justice to a picture if you’re shooting your food too close unless it’s absolutely necessary to show specific details. It’s far more pleasing, realistic, and tells a much more descriptive story if you back up and build negative space around your subject. Negative space can add color and drama to a picture.
You’ve heard me mention, “telling a story” through food photography. Styling and shooting a food picture is all about trying different things and seeing what works in that moment with the food props, light, and dishes you are working with. These guidelines I’ve outlined in this blog can all help you use the elements in your picture to tell a story, and take a better picture. The most compelling food pictures have a story to tell. Through images of a gorgeous styled table where you can almost see the guests arriving at the table, or the aftermath chaos of a kitchen post-cake-baking with the end product proudly displayed in the center, storytelling is a powerful tool that makes viewers feel connected to your work. Do you always need to tell a story? Absolutely not, I believe the best food photography images are the ones that either tell a story or make your viewers hungry
The Food Photography Rule That Really is a Rule
Although all the other rules can be broken, there is one rule that really is a rule. No matter, what you do or which approach you follow or decide to ignore, the biggest trick with great composition is to make it look effortless and seamless. The best compositions are the ones that look like they happened organically. If a viewer can tell in a picture what the photographer was thinking or trying to achieve, the focus is taken off the food and put on the perceived control behind-the-scenes.
I wish I knew these rules when I began my food photography journey. Knowing them now has helped me take better photos, taking my business to new heights. When I shoot, I taste the food, I have a vision what I want to shoot, and I know the story I want to tell (oftentimes before I even pick up my camera). Then, I keep these rules in mind to compose the shot I visualize.