Nothing gives me a righteous case of the Why God Sighs like compiling media for local restaurant lists. In the same way that I Why God Sigh for information easily obtained (but ignored) via Google search, there’s just no reason anyone should still be posting shitty pictures of food anywhere on the internet.
All good food photography accomplishes one central thing: it should accurately portray your restaurant’s dining experience, and your food’s true color, texture, and portion size. Good hospitality experiences are a matter of matching or exceeding whatever your customer’s greatest expectation is, and all of those other factors (price, service, location, convenience, etc) hinge on the food. If it was the best meal a person’s ever had, they won’t mind spending more, driving farther, and waiting longer for it.
Let’s take the burger as an example. There are thick burgers made with wagyu served medium-rare with a cool center that’s made to be like a bite of steak tartare in the middle. I love that kind of burger.
There is also the smash burger: a fatty ball of ground beef slammed onto a super-hot griddle, flattened and crisped around the edges, cooked through and stacked several high. This is also an excellent burger.
However, if I go to a fancy bar and pay $15 for the same smashburger on a potato bun I’d get at Workingman’s Friend but it has fridge pickles and “aoli” on it and takes 30 minutes to hit the table, I would chalk that up as a less-than-great dining experience.
Your restaurant is not for everyone, and not everyone will like it. Use your photos to bring in the diners who will connect with your vision and your menu.
When people make the decision to try a new restaurant, it’s likely based on two factors: food and money. That’s it. So photos are essential to mitigating that expectation-to-reality transition so that it’s smooth.
Instead of throwing tons of daily specials and discounts and promotions and yadda yadda yadda, just consistently post high-quality photos with a clear call to action. That’s it.
Think of this as a visual guide to getting your media act together. Let’s begin.
COLOR & LIGHTING
In a perfect world, you’d only take photos of your food in natural light. When it comes to looking at food, the cues of color are especially important for making food enticing, and bad lighting fucks up all those cues that tell you “This looks like it will taste good.”
Let’s look at the ravages of crappy indoor lighting on food photos:
THIS IS NOT GOOD PIZZA. I can’t even begin to unpack the celery issue, but the real problem here is three-fold: this is in horrible yellow-toned light, it’s blurry and it’s WAY too close. The indoor lighting tends to override the natural tones of your ingredients, and while you might be tempted to bump up the yellow to get more golden in your “golden brown and delicious,” it just makes your food look like its liver isn’t working.
Let’s take a look at this similarly shitty photo, but with better lighting:
Still pretty bad! I agree! It’s still blurry as shit, but at least your brain can get an accurate read on the true colors of the ingredients. Progress!
FOCUS IN A BLURRY WORLD
Let’s look at a marginal improvement on that photo:
Better still! Not great, but a lot better. Indoor lighting, but direct overhead indoor white lighting with no or no tone boosting on the photo. It’s more focused, so the texture and the correct color of the vegetables are detectable by the lizard portion of your brain that still likes to be sure your food isn’t poisoned. Capturing texture and color accurately are 2 central pillars of food photographs that actually put butts in seats.
Let’s keep going along the continuum of pizza photography improvement:
Aw hell yeah! I’m into this one. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good — the entire photo is close-cropped with little plate edge or negative space, so it feels claustrophobic. However, the focus, exposure, and color saturation are true-to-life. I would probably use this as a list photo in a listicle about pizza, but not as the header. Let’s look at everything its got going for it:
- It’s well-lit and the colors are balanced and not blown out.
- The focal center of the photo is in focus and the true color and texture of the ingredients is visible and clear
- It looks real, ie the colors are not oversaturated and the shadows and highlights are balanced.
This is exactly how this pizza would look on the table in front of you (if you stared at it from 6 inches away, and I get that) and the photo is big enough to give a diner an accurate sense of what makes this business’s pizzas unique and delicious.
Is there something I would still change? Of course. I’d like to see more of the edge of the pizza or the dish it’s sitting on. This is less important with a pizza, but becomes huge when we look at regular plated foods.
Let’s look at this outstanding picture and dissect it:
There is incredible foreground texture in crystal-clear focus backgrounded with a flickering candle. This photo sets expectations: you will wait a minute for food, get a reasonable portion, pay a little extra, and have a quiet night of good service. A photo like this makes for an excellent header photo for Facebook and Twitter. The color and textures are so true to life that it feels like you could pluck one of those meatballs off of your screen — and you want to. And look where they placed their “Book Now” button in relation to this glorious meatball photo:
Um, yes I will book now, please. I will also use this as a header photo for a Thrillist article if I need to, and this announces itself as a “header photo”– that’s the photo at the top of the page that gets attached to the link on social media. That’s the most important and most-viewed photo of any article on the web, and if you want to attract the attention of listicle kind of spots like Yelp and Thrillist, you have to take a photo like this. Let’s review:
1. Good light, likely natural.
2. Clear food texture and true-to-life color and exposure
3. Visual depth & atmosphere cue (candle in the background)
4. Close enough to capture texture, at least 30% of plate edges visible.
5. Horizontal with enough unfocused space and focal depth that the picture “breathes” and doesn’t feel claustrophobic.
HOWEVER. THIS BREAKS MY FUCKING HEART.
WHY YOU GOTTA DO ME LIKE THAT?! Never shoot food in vertical. Never. Don’t do it. HORIZONTAL FOOD PHOTOS OR GTFO. Square is also fine. But this? Stop doing this.
It looks kind of OK on a mobile phone, but it’s not an enjoyable way to view it on a desktop, and it makes the frame feel stuffy like one cropped too close. Plus, it doesn’t match the dimensions of the plate, and it just makes you feel like you’re missing something.
Dining is a “horizontal” activity, in that the act of settling down at a table involves your eyes sweeping left and right, not up and down. So the feeling of sweeping your eyes up and down a photo runs counter to the way we use our eyes when dining out: looking down and moving your eyes horizontally along the visual plane (tabletop).
Here’s how to capture that light, as diagrammed on a piece of junk mail:
Here we are at the end of this, and I’m quite bored of the topic and I’m not getting paid to write this, but I think I’ve made my point.
If you want photos that put butts in seats and get your food featured on travel websites, they have to check at least most of these boxes:
Good texture (TAP YOUR PHONE SCREEN ON THE FOCAL POINT. LET TECHNOLOGY HELP YOU)
Depth of frame
30% plate rim visible — don’t crowd your photos.
Setting an accurate customer expectation with your photos
If you’re not sure whether your food photos suck, send me a few snaps in an email and I’ll let you know, and even recommend a photographer: email@example.com.