Creating great food photography relies in part on the application of compositional theory. Although we can refer to these tools as the “rules of composition”, they may be thought of more as guidelines. The word “rules” implies that you can’t break them but this is not true because art is subjective.
Compositional tools can help us make better images most of the time. However, not each tool will work for each image. Food photography is a process of deliberate building and assessing, not capturing a decisive moment.
We don’t look at images passively. We look for message and meaning, even though we’re not necessarily conscious of it. Before you begin to shoot, know the goal of your image.
What is it that you want to convey? What is the mood? Is there a story you want to tell? What is the purpose of your shot and how will it be used?
Thinking your concept through and approaching your photography with intention will help you take better photographs.
Good food photography evokes the viewer’s emotions. Composition is one of the main tools that helps us achieve this.
Reading an Image
To make the most use of compositional theory, we must understand how we read visually and the way our eyes move through an image.
In the Western world, we read from left to right. This means our eyes travel through an image in the same way. We move towards the greatest point of interest and work our way around the scene, while other elements of visual weight vie for our attention.
Understanding this concept will help you better determine the ideal placement of the various elements within your image.
Angle and Orientation
Your camera angle and your choice of portrait or landscape orientation will affect your final composition and direct your placement within your food composition.
The main camera angles are overhead or 90 degrees, 45 degrees, or straight-on. Your subject will often dictate the angle you choose. Tall foods like burgers and stacks of pancakes look best shot straight to the camera, to emphasise their height and show their layers.
Overhead view is a popular angle for food photography because it provides a graphic element and puts textures and heights on a level plane. It can also help you minimise height issues when there are several elements in the image, or if you are trying to get many elements into the frame.
Pro food photographers use portrait orientation most often because magazines, ads, and cookbooks tend to be vertical. When shooting a scene in both orientations, you can’t just change the position of your camera.
You must recompose the image to best apply compositional principles.
In this image of the burger, I chose portrait orientation to emphasise the height and layers of my subject.
The mussels below were shot overhead instead of in a bowl because they were baked with breadcrumbs and garnished. They were styled according to a recipe for baked mussels, so photographing them from above made sense.
Think about the angle that will make your main subject look its best and arrange the other elements to support the story.
The Focal Subject
Whether your style is minimalist, or busy and propped, you need one main subject. You can have more than one, but in general one item will be the star, or what we call in food photography, “the hero”.
This focal subject will dictate the placement of the other elements in the frame.
A great approach is one main subject and a couple of supporting elements, which ties in with the Rule of Odds, which we will get into in a moment. These objects should be dissimilar in size, so that they counter-balance each other.
The Focal Point
This is a term used by visual artists to refer to a specific area of visual emphasis that falls on–or close to–one of the interesting lines of the Rule-of Thirds grid.
You can have two or three focal points, but one must be more dominant. Focal points can be created with light, colour, isolation, or contrast.
Be careful to not overstate a focal point, as the eye will not be compelled to move around and explore the rest of the image.
In the image below, the focal point is the lightest piece of mushroom on the toast. Because of the way the lighting falls and the placement of the mushroom on one of the focal points, it draws the eye and creates a pause.
Line is the most basic element in visual composition. They lead the eye through a photograph to key focal points and elements and keep the viewer’s eye focused on the image.
Lines can be found inherently in food subjects as well as props. These happen naturally, but other lines will be created through placement.
There are a couple of things to be aware of when working with lines. When using lines to direct the viewer’s eye, they should point to the main subject, or into the frame.
Lines should also never point outside of the frame, as the eyes will be forced to leave the image. This weakens the image and can cause the viewer to lose interest.
For example, the line in the left image below is incorrectly placed. Besides the fact that you should never have a knife pointing at your viewer for obvious reasons, it leads the eye out of the frame instead of into it.
Rule of Odds
The Rule of Odds is one of the most powerful tools in your composition arsenal. This rule states that when photographing a group of objects, having an odd number of elements in the frame is much more visually interesting than having an even number of elements.
This rule is one that applies less to say, wedding photography, where we would understandably have groups of two. In food photography, the aim is having three or five elements.
Of course, you can have more than this, but the end effect will be different and not pack the same punch compositionally.
When there are more than five elements in an image, it becomes difficult for the mind to register the number. For this reason, it’s a good idea to compose many elements into groups of odd numbers whenever possible.
Odd numbers create a sense of balance and harmony and provide a resting point for our eyes, whereas even numbers of objects can divide our attention and compete with each other.
In this image of the gin grapefruit cocktails, the position of the three glasses form of a triangle (another attractive way to compose your elements) and gives the image symmetry and balance. This is a lot more pleasing to the eye than two or four glasses might be.
Positive space is the space taken up by your main subject. Negative space in an image is an area where your eyes can rest. It provides balance, a bit of breathing room, and emphasises the subject. It brings your attention to the details in the food.
Negative space can portray movement and give context to an image. It may also give the viewer the idea that there is a story beyond what the eye is seeing.
Items like chairs or serving bowls placed on the edge of the frame can give the idea that there is a story of a larger table setting than appears in the image.
In food photography, there is a tendency to shoot with a lot of negative space due to text placement, particularly when it comes to magazine work, product packaging, or ad work.
There is a trend particularly on Instagram towards busy compositions, as seen in some images of tablescapes. Some of these images do not make use of negative space and can feel a bit claustrophobic and cluttered.
When there is too much going on in an image, the viewer is unsure of where to look.
Repeating elements also add interest to an image. Repetition can occur spontaneously in the subject, or can be created by added elements such as props and supporting ingredients.
Sometimes patterns can become monotonous, so breaking up a pattern can create a stronger photograph.
There are various ways to create a break in pattern, such as with a break in color, shape, size, or texture. Where you place this break is crucial; you want to place it in one of your focal points or along intersecting lines.
In this image of muffins, the placement of one of the muffins on top of the pan creates a break in the pattern of the placement of the rest of the muffins, thus creating additional interest.
Colour as a Compositional Tool
Colour is an important part of composition. It evokes emotions and creates a sense of mood within an image.
Cool and dark colours such as navy blue and black recede, while light or warm colours like yellow bring objects forward.
Backgrounds and surface colours that are too bright can detract from our subject; they should be chosen with respect to the mood you are attempting to create, as well as in harmony with your chosen elements.
It is usually best to stick with neutral or cool tones such as blue, grey, brown, black, and white. However, there are times when colours can really enhance a story.
Anything with an orange tone will be magnified by the camera and looks really unappealing next to food. So put away that warm wood cutting board and stick to something more neutral, like a deep espresso tone.
Colour combinations can be monochromatic, when they are tonal variations within a single hue. This approach has its place, but utilising complementary colours is a particularly wonderful technique to apply to food photography.
Complementary colours appear directly opposite each other on the colour wheel, such as red and green, or blue and orange.
The colour scheme you choose to work with will in part be dictated by the food you are shooting. For example, the desserts in the image below had a golden-orangey tone. This is why I chose blue backgrounds and enhanced their warmth in post-processing)
Your colours should also be balanced in terms of not having too many colours in a frame, which will appear chaotic.
Ever notice how in movies the characters’ outfits never clash? They are not chosen randomly but with careful consideration of creating harmony and balance in the service of the cinematography.
Same goes for choosing colours for your food pictures.
Texture as a Compositional Tool
One of the best ways to add interest to your photographs is with texture. It adds contrast and detail and is crucial to enhancing food subjects.
Texture occurs naturally in your food subjects, but can also be used effectively in your backgrounds and surfaces, and your props and linens.
In the image below, a floor tile used as a surface adds subtle texture to the image of the Indian Spiced Prawns.
In the image of Chinese Pork Ribs, the edge of the slate board and the frayed linen add texture and interest, as does the sprinkling of black sesame seeds.
Be careful not to add too much texture to images. Lots of texture in the food, linens, and backgrounds composed together can look too busy and overwhelm the viewer.
Putting It All Together
When approaching a shoot, take time to think about which compositional tools will best serve your story.
Creating a storyboard or drawing your ideas out beforehand can be a great way to clarify intention without stifling your creativity.
Just remember, rules will only take you so far. The key to developing your style is to shoot as much as possible. Studying these guidelines is helpful, but the way to really grow as a photographer is to practice, practice, practice.
Not only will you improve your work overall, you will internalise the principles of composition until they become second nature.