Refocusing Your Approach To Food Photography In The Age Of Social Media

Craig Moyer

Craig Moyer

Senior Copywriter

Once upon a time, brands only looked at their food like this. Precious. Beautiful. Romantic.

Today, thanks to social media, leading food & beverage brands have to start seeing mealtime like this too.

But let’s back up a second. Traditional food photography is part art, part science, part artifice. It’s often slow, expensive and complicated. But the rise of social media has changed the way consumers see food. In the age of Instagrammed meals, it’s helpful for brands to take a second look at the way they show food online. We put together a handy guide to make things a little easier.

1. Get Real. On Social Media, Authenticity Reigns.

Tabletop food directors (and some photographers) use tricks like steam machines, acrylic ice cubes that never melt and motion-control rigs that can send a donut tumbling through a wall of sugar to make food look as mouthwatering as possible. Food stylists might sift through 50 or 100 hamburger buns, chicken wings or crab legs to find a few that are camera-ready. This is fine for a quarterly or monthly special with a long timeline and large TV marketing budget behind it. But when you have to stretch your budget across a content calendar and create dozens of posts each month, you have to think, act and market in a way that’s more down to earth.

The rise of social media has taken food off its pedestal. Our Facebook and Instagram feeds are flooded with images of real meals, imperfections and all, from our friends and neighbors. As a consequence, marketers have to walk a fine line. Food needs to look enticing, but it can’t look too perfect – or it’ll appear out of place on social media. Embracing authenticity doesn’t mean you have to show a lopsided, misshapen piece of food. It means bringing out the beauty in the typical breakfast sandwich, bunch of bananas or pot of boiled crawfish.

Another important way social media is changing the nature of food photography is the rising popularity of in-process shots. Users have become fascinated with the cooking process. For example, you might see photos of a one-pan salmon dish while it’s still sizzling in the pan, rather than perfectly plated. Furthermore, on social media, authenticity means celebrating the human element in cooking and enjoying food, rather than hiding it. Scan popular social media sites and you’ll find food photography and video that often includes hands doing the work, holding dishes or silverware. Adding small touches like these can help shots feel more spontaneous and less staged (even if they are).

Sanderson Farms_Food Photography
Source: Sanderson Farms

2. The Fundamentals Of Photography Are More Important Than Ever. Use Them.

On social media, brands have to do more with less. Less time. Less money. Less retouching and post-production. By mastering the fundamentals of photography brands can make their food look enticing despite these limitations.

Find Your Subject’s Best Angle

What about this food are you trying to showcase? If it’s a slice of layer cake, for example, photographing it from the side highlights all those tasty layers of filling. If you’re shooting an expensive latte with a heart poured in the foam, you’ll want to photograph it from above.

Set The Scene

Think about the mood you’re trying to create. Ask yourself how this impacts what you’re trying to showcase. Choosing the right setting and surrounding your hero food with the right props can really bring a scene to life. For instance, a cookie dough brand might want to include a rolling pin and a vintage potholder in the background of a photo of freshly baked cookies cooling on a rack. This can give your food a personality, as well as reinforce your brand’s story.

One of the easiest ways to reinforce your brand’s story is by using freshness cues – this means surrounding your food with real ingredients that indicate the product is fresh and authentic. In the case of Zatarain’s Jambalaya Mix, touches like a leftover clove of garlic next to a pot or green onions sprinkled on top of the completed dish not only add visual interest, they add to the brand’s credibility.

Sanderson Farms_Food Photography
Source: Sanderson Farms

Use Color, Lines And Depth Of Field To Direct The Eye

Want to make your food the star? Choose backgrounds and props that highlight your subject’s best features, rather than distract from them. Showcasing a plate of fresh strawberry tarts garnished with white chocolate? Don’t photograph it on a red and white checkered tablecloth. It’ll stand out much more if you take the tablecloth off and photograph it directly on, say, a hardwood table. But suppose your restaurant is known for its famous checkered tablecloths. Then you could use a napkin to direct the eye toward your plate of strawberry tarts, or better yet, use a very shallow depth of field to keep the food in focus and leave everything behind it blurry.

Zatarain's_Food Photography
Source: Zatarain’s

Find The Right Light

There’s a reason many photographers prefer natural light to the run-of-the-mill fluorescent lights in your office. It gives off a natural warmth that’s hard to match. In fact, some professional Instagrammers will only shoot food during the day. But even direct natural light can create harsh, unflattering shadows. Fortunately, a cheap diffuser, or even a makeshift one like a bed sheet, can minimize this effect. But if you’re in an environment that doesn’t offer a lot of natural light, you can purchase what’s known as a “Hot Light” setup. This includes a light stand, a soft box and a white silk to diffuse the light. Sometimes you’ll want to add light to brighten up a shadow in your shot, or highlight a texture by reducing the amount of light reflected off the background. To accomplish this, you’ll want to use white and black cards, respectively, which you can easily and cheaply make from foam core.

3. Use Filters And Photo Editing Apps, Just Don’t Overuse Them.

The goal with social media is to make things feel human and relatable, not staged and forced. You want to post the cake people want to eat, not the cake that’s too pretty to eat.

4. If You’re Using Video, Think Faster.

Red Lobster and other chain restaurants have long relied on gorgeous slow-motion hero shots of their food. On TV, cooking shows last for a half hour or more. On Facebook and YouTube, Tasty recipe videos often last about a minute. That makes perfect sense given shorter attention spans online. Interestingly, online recipe videos from places like Tasty and BuzzFeed have their own visual language, marked by locked-down cameras shooting straight down on the cooking area. Much of their footage is time-lapse, and comes from this vantage point. But it’s still punctuated with shots that romance the food. In short, think faster online – just not so fast that people don’t have time to fall in love with your food.

5. Above All, Be True To Your Brand.

Online or off, don’t forget about the cultural cues that make your food or beverage brand unique. Think about your product’s history, its ingredients, the occasions people consume it and its biggest fans. If you can include a nod to one or more of these in every piece of your marketing, it’ll go a long way towards bolstering your brand.

For more Peter Mayer Insights on food and beverage marketing, click here.

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