Tips for the Beginner Food Photographer: Part II (Composition)
In Part I, I talked about natural light, the value of having a DSLR camera, and the Holy Trinity of aperture, shutter speed, and IOS. Today, we'll be talking about composition and composition only. I had originally planned to discuss two other topics, but then I started writing and realized I had so much to say about composition!
So, here are some tips to improve your composition for food photography.
4. Composition is a Craft
Good composition--the arrangement of elements in a photo--can transform an average photo into a great photo. The goal with composition is to guide your viewer's eye to the focal point of your photo and, in some cases, to tell a story with your photo.
Try to keep these tips to keep in mind when you are framing a photo. Don't try to use all of these techniques at once, just FYI. For one, it will take an hour just to set up your photo. And more importantly, some of these tips contradict one another.
Visualize your composition before you take the photo
Before you snap your camera, think about what dish you are photographing, the best angle to photograph it from, and which elements you want to be the focus of your photo. Visualize all of this first and then set your camera up. If you just start shooting without thinking about the arrangement and layout of food and props, you'll likely end up with a photo that confuses your viewers or simply falls flat.
Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds is one of the most fundamental rules in all types of photography. It states that when you compose a photo, you should visualize it being divided in thirds, both vertically and horizontally (i.e., like a tic-tac-toe grid), and place your focal point along one of those lines or ideally, along one of the intersection points. Human eyes are naturally drawn to these focal points, so placing your food along this grid will help your viewers better understand and relate to your food.
In this photo of soup, the focal point is the bread being dunked into the creamy soup, so I placed that portion of the photo along one of the intersection lines.
Or, rely on symmetry
You don't always have to use the Rule of Thirds. I certainly don't because I am a rebel and I like to break rules. Just kidding, I love following rules. I was a notorious teacher's pet in school. Embarrassing, yes, but it's also something I'm proud of because I have literally no shame.
When your photo is square cropped for the 'Gram, placing your photo directly in the center of the grid--as opposed to at the intersection of one of the grid lines--can produce a very visually pleasing result. Just make sure you have equal space on both sides of your photo and that your lines are straight. Nobody likes a sloppy square crop or a crooked horizon in a #basic sunset photo.
Step back from the food!
Unless you are taking a macro shot with a macro lens, don't place your lens up close and personal with your food. Doing that can result in a composition that is too tight and doesn't give any context to your food. For instance, taking a very close-up photo of granola will probably just look like crunchy dog poop. Instead, back away and show other elements of visual interest, such as a bottle of mylk in the background or a mason jar half-filled with the granola.
Know your angles
Know which angles work best for particular types of food. For instance, foods such as pizza and smoothie bowls photograph best from an overhead angle so you can clearly see all of the toppings. In contrast, vertical-oriented foods like burgers, parfaits, and ice cream cones photograph best at table view. And many foods photograph nicely from a three-quarters angle, which is basically just a mixture between overhead and table view. Whenever you have the time, you should shoot your food from multiple angles to see which angle looks best for a particular dish, especially when you are starting out. Maybe you'll find that a three-quarters view of your pizza does look really good. After all, rules are meant to be broken, even by rule-loving teacher's pets like myself.
Except don't take photos at weird slanted angles. You may think this is creative, but it rarely works and usually just makes your viewer dizzy.
Less is more (sometimes)
I am by no means a minimalist photographer. Quite the opposite. I'm always looking for the perfect food prop. However, sometimes less is more, so don't be afraid of using negative space. Framing your food in one corner and including empty space next to it can create drama in a very interesting way.
Even if negative space doesn't work for your style or your particular photograph, never clutter your scene too much. For instance, if you bake a batch of 48 cookies, don't try to fit every damn cookie in the photo. After the 8th cookie, your viewer knows what a cookie looks like! No need to inundate them with cookie overload.
And be thoughtful about which props you include in your photos. You may have just bought a beautiful antique cake server that you're dying to show off, but it doesn't belong anywhere near a photo of ice cream. Unless it's ice cream cake. Similarly, you may want to fill up the empty space next to a dish with herbs or fresh fruits, but if these aren't ingredients in the dish or appropriate garnishes, the photo will look like it's trying too hard. Like wearing overalls and platforms to Coachella.
Create depth, movement, and drama
One of the main objectives of good photography is figuring out how to present our 3D world in a 2D medium (photography). To give more visual interest to your photos, you can use composition to create depth, movement, and drama. One easy way to do this is to include a foreground, a middle, and a background element in your photo.
Another way to bring life to your photos is to create movement or dynamism in your photos. Start by placing your main focal point along one of the grid lines. Then, use elements (food or props) to lead your viewer--to the next focal point, around the frame, or out of the photograph.
For instance, in the ice cream photo, the half-eaten cone is in the foreground, the cone in the jar is in the middle, and the pan of ice cream and third cone are part of the background.
And in the photo of the hot cocoa, I've used both food and props to create movement. The main focus is the mug in the front. However, after you see that mug, your eyes are directed to the bits of crushed candy cane to the right. Those candy cane bits form somewhat of a "trail," which leads to the next focal point, the second mug in the back. From there, your eyes move left to the other elements next to the second mug--the candy canes and cocoa sifter. At least that's what my eyes do. Like snowflakes, everyone's eyes are unique so I have no idea what your eyes actually think!
Did you find this primer on food photography composition helpful? I'd love to hear from you, so please leave me a comment below. It helps me figure out what kind of content you find useful :)