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10 Essential Food Photography Composition Techniques

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Composition is crucial for food photography. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all guide that works for every image. We’ll show you all the techniques you’ll need!

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1. Read the Image to Arrange the Elements

To make the most use of compositional theory, we must understand how our eyes move through an image.

In the Western world, we read from left to right. That means the viewer’s eye travels through an image in the same way. We move towards the most significant point of interest and work our way around the scene.

People also tend to focus their eyes on the brightest and most colourful elements in the frame. So you should also keep that in mind when creating your food composition.

Understanding this concept will help you better arrange the elements within your image.

Olive oil being poured into a bowl

2. Use Angle and Orientation to Compliment the Food

In food photography composition, your camera angle and orientation are crucial. They not only affect how you present the dish, but they also shape how people perceive your image.

The main camera angles for food photography are 90 degrees (overhead), 45 degrees, and straight-on.

The type of dish as well as the props often dictate the angle you choose. So choose the perspective that supports the appeal of your main subject.

Tall foods like burgers look best using a straight-on angle. It not only emphasises the food’s height but it also shows its layers.

In food photography, the overhead view is a popular angle because it creates visual order. It also helps you minimise height issues when there are several elements in the image.

Of course, that’s as long as you’re not dealing with several layers of elements on your table that may not be visible if you’re shooting from the top.

I shot the mussels below overhead instead of capturing it in a bowl to show the breadcrumbs and garnish.

Ovrhead food composition of mussels graitnee on blue plate on an indigo background

Viewers react best when you shoot your food photos at 45 degrees. Why? Because it replicates how they usually see their meal when eating on a table.

Now, how about orientation in food photography?

Professional food photographers use both portrait and landscape orientations all the time. In most cases, they prefer portraits when working on magazines, ads, and cookbooks. Why? Because their pages tend to be vertical.

In this burger image, I chose portrait orientation to emphasise its height and ingredients.

lamb burger on cutting board

3. Improve the Composition With a Focal Subject

Whether your photography food style is minimalist or not, it is best to only use one item as your main subject.

Of course, you can have more than one main subject. In general, having one point of interest makes your composition much more coherent.

Use one primary subject and a couple of supporting elements when composing your shot. Your main point of interest should also dictate the placement of the other items in the frame to create depth in your composition.

Furthermore, include props that have different sizes, so they counter-balance each other. This concept also applies when portioning your food.

Pouring syrup onto a stack on pancakes

How To Create a Focal Point to Emphasise the Main Subject

The focal point refers to the specific spot on your focal subject that you want to emphasise. You can create focal points with light, colour, isolation, or contrast. It could be anything from a raspberry on a cake or even the tip of a knife.

You’re free to have two or three focal points within the grid. One must be more dominant than the others.

In most cases, it would help if you make sure that your main point of interest is the sharpest part of the image. You can do this by widening your aperture which consequently creates a narrow depth of field.

A delicious cake with a strawberry on top creating a focal point
Notice how the sharpest point of the image is the strawberry on the top, creating a focal point.

4. Use Negative Space to Provide Balance

Positive space is the area your food and props take up. Meanwhile, negative space is the area where your eyes can rest.

It provides balance, a bit of breathing room, and emphasis on the subject. Because it’s mostly blank, it brings your attention to the details in the food.

In food photography, there is a tendency to shoot with a lot of empty spaces to create a spot for text placement. You’ll notice this a lot in magazine shoots, product packaging, or ad work. When there is too much going on in an image, the viewer is unsure of where to look.

If you want to use negative space, use patterns or backgrounds that complement your subject. That way, your main point of interest will stand out more.

5. Visualise the Composition with Crop Guides

Crop guides help you fix your composition when post-processing food photography.

You can find crop guides in Lightroom, Photoshop, Capture One, or even on your phone! Use them to help you visualise your composition.

You can easily imagine your focal point on a phi-grid. But visualising a golden spiral ahead of time can be much more challenging.

It can take years for a photographer to master composition rules only by imagining the lines. These crop guides are invaluable by showing us exactly where to place our main subjects.

They can even speed up the process of learning to compose intuitively, which is the ultimate goal.

Do you shoot food photography with your camera tethered to a computer? Then use the Live View function on your computer screen to help place your main subject. You can use your mouse to click on the element you want to be sharp. Your computer then sends a command to your camera to focus on that specific point.

Once you take the image, check how it looks with the crop guide of your choice. You can then make adjustments to your composition.

Food photography composition using a grid guide
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

6. Use the Rule of Odds to Create Balance

When photographing a group of objects, use an odd number of elements in your image.

Odd numbers create a sense of balance and harmony. Of course, it also provides a resting point for our eyes. An even number of objects can divide our attention and compete with each other.

In food photography, the aim is to have three or five props. Of course, you can have more than five items. But the result will be different and not bring the same compositional effect.

When I shot these gin grapefruit cocktails, I used three glasses instead of four. I also arranged them to form a triangle. Doing so created harmony and balance in the image.

three grapefruit gin cocktails

7. Place Main Elements Using the Rule-of-Thirds

When learning about food photography composition, you will come upon the rule of thirds.

It’s a grid that divides the frame into nine equal sections. The crucial elements in the scene fall along the grid’s lines, or at the points where they intersect.

The rule-of-thirds helps you figure out how to place the main elements in your food photos.

A stack of cookies with rule of thirds composition grid overlayed

8. Create Interesting Compositions With the Phi-Grid

The phi-grid is much like the Rule-of-Thirds when it comes to food photography composition. Both grids look almost the same, but the centre lines of the Phi Grid are closer together.

Fruity food photography composition with phi-grid overlayed

9. Make Creative Choices With the Golden Ratio

The phi-grid follows the Golden Ratio, which is 1:1.168. This ancient mathematical concept creates a balanced and pleasing composition.

You can find the golden ratio anywhere from nautilus shells to the petals in flowers. It even appears in the human body as well as DNA molecules! Perhaps that’s why we gravitate toward it.

Nature aside, we can use this knowledge in our food photography composition. Incorporating the golden ratio in images helps our brains process the visuals easier.

Now let’s discuss a variation of the golden ratio which is the Fibonacci Spiral.

The Fibonacci Spiral is a sequence of numbers that make up the golden ratio. You can use this numerical pattern to draw a series of squares, as pictured below.

a diagram of the fibonacci spiral for food photography composition

If you draw an arc from one corner to the opposite corner in each square, you create the Fibonacci spiral. Mind-blowing, isn’t it?

So how can the Fibonacci Spiral help you with your food photography composition? By putting your subjects along a curved line rather than a straight line. Doing so creates flow and movement, guiding your viewer’s eye around the image.

This composition technique works very well for overhead shots. It also creates balance when there are several elements in the frame.

For the picture of the curry below, the placement of the chilli peppers leads the eye to the bowl. It then moves to the top part and, finally, to the focal point, which is the green leaves and prawns on the top.

Notice how the focal point uses colour contrast as well to lead the viewers’ eye into the spiral. The contrasting colours of red and green pop out next to each other. Plus, they also get separated from the orange background.

You can flip or turn the spiral when arranging your composition depending on whether you’re shooting vertical or horizontal. The direction of the flow is not crucial.

What’s important is that your focal point falls in the smallest part of the spiral. You should also place other essential elements along the curve.

Use this food photography composition technique to help you create more minimalistic images. Or even to keep flat lays or tablescapes from looking too cluttered or disjointed.

a diagram of the fibonacci spiral overlayed on a food photography composition

10. Use the Golden Triangle to Draw The Viewer’s Attention

Another powerful approach for food photography composition is to use triangles. These shapes keep the attention of the viewer within the frame. Why? Because they make the eye move from one point to another in a continuous loop.

You can divide the frame into 4 triangle shapes to guide the viewer’s eye to different details on the picture.

Food photography with golden triangle grid overlayed

Why are triangles powerful composition tools when creating food photos? Because horizontal and vertical lines suggest stability. It works great for some compositions. But for others, adding a sense of flow and movement has more impact.

It also helps that triangles have three points. Odd numbers provide a sense of harmony and balance.

So how do you use triangles in your composition? First, draw an imaginary diagonal line across your frame. Then create new ones from the other two corners so they’d meet the long line at right angles. It should look something like this:

Flatlay food photography with golden triangle grid overlayed

Your points-of-interest should be where the lines meet. Placing your main subject in one of the intersections draws the eye to the focal point.

Overhead of fresh tortellini with cream sauce in triangle composition
The bowl, the glass and the smaller dish creating a triangle

Another way to use this concept is to imply triangles within your composition.

In the image below, I placed the corn cakes and dip in triangles. It gives that sense of movement and pattern.

When you repeat elements in a frame and them in triangles, the eye will follow them naturally. The plate is in the centre of the frame. But the image still carries tension due to the triangles.

kale and corn cakes food photography placed in groups of triangles
Corn cakes and the dip placed in groups of triangles

Conclusion

Becoming a better photographer involves studying your work. Always think about the various composition tools to help you improve your food photography.

Apply the crop guides to some images you have taken and analyse them. Make sure you place your subject where the eye will naturally gravitate. You can use triangles to place your elements in your scene. You can even set your focal points on the intersecting lines of the Phi Grid. Or perhaps include some negative space.

Ultimately, the point of the composition is to create balanced dynamic images and guide the viewer’s eye. The stronger your composition, the better food photography you create.

Eager to improve your food photography shots even more? Then check out our articles on food styling tips or tools!

For all the best food photography tips, read our eBook – Edible Images, today!

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