When Food Looks Perfect, It Doesn’t Look Good.
Brains are funny. Workin’, all the time, hard to fool (until we make them think too hard) and quick—they analyze and reach conclusions on an unconscious level and never bother to let the logical, conscious, wide-awake brain know a decision has been made. It happens every time you look at a photograph of food.
Before you even realize, your brain has declared, “Nope” or “Doubtful” or “Hey, remaining four senses—would you-all find out more about that thing we just saw? The pleasure center representatives and biological survival crews up here are kind of interested in seeing what we’d have to do to negotiate a piece of something that looks like that.” It‘s the latter reaction, of course, that your food photographer is going for.
Here are some attributes of food photography that will make your quick-to-judge brain interested in finding out more.
1. The food is not fake-y.
Okay, it can be beautiful and perfectly lit and well photographed, but the food itself should have a realism that makes it seem like it could be eaten. With utter symmetry, squared-off corners and surgically sliced meats, our brains are immediately suspicious of something that seems artificial.
Consider This Next Time: Crumbs, sloppiness on the sides or a little drip that couldn’t be controlled included in the final shot.
The brain takes these cues as proof that what we’re seeing is real—a little chaos in the salad or the toppings matches our actual experiences with the best food we’ve had. A completely controlled, rigid presentation can be beautiful, but it isn’t natural. Brains trust a little imperfection.
An Exception: I’m thinking of an old poster for the “Got Milk?” campaign that shows a cupcake on which every aspect of the icing and cake has been presented as overly stylized perfection, and it looks reallllllly good. Generally, those early “Got Milk?” billboards had food photography that made you want the peanut butter sandwich or cookie or brownie, despite being idealized.
2. The food has context.
A couple of current TV commercials from the QSR world use contextual clues well. Arby‘s wants to be thought of as the expert on meats. So even with the most minimal of backdrops, they include a hand-model outfitted as a (cleaned-up) butcher-type character and a cutting board. KFC is showing its food in all kinds of nostalgic settings—a modified TV console, an old serving tray—to recapture the glory of the Colonel’s heyday. Over in casual dining land, the pubs are still making things as neutral and unidentifiable as possible: a few clumps of uncut vegetables to one side, a pepper mill, a tablecloth, knives flashing and flames crackling. Everything blends together.
Consider This Next Time: What does your restaurant truly stand for that makes it different? If you can’t answer that, maybe you aren’t ready to prop your photo shoot. What makes the eater understand what’s great about you? Brains constantly scan for hints and any number of props can be appropriate to the food, but ultimately everything needs to fit into a larger brand story.
An Exception: In the right place at the right time—point of purchase, for example, or a coupon with handy phone number—a beautiful pizza, burger or bakery item works. “Yeah, that. I want that,” is enough if your food is closest at hand when the customer is ready to slap down a credit card.
3. The food is revealed by light and shadow.
Whether it‘s a spider web covered in dew or a portrait of your pug asleep in her chair, good photography shares certain attributes: nothing distracting from the center of interest; authentic color appropriate to the setting; a sense of place and history, as if the subject truly existed before and after the photo. Even a feeling of motion can help. That’s one advantage of showing people eating: a feeling of motion suggests action and freshness. Unfortunately, that was discovered many decades ago, and now tends to be too cliché, too posed and fake. Still. Is the food just-served? Maybe there‘s a server.
Consider This Next Time: Directional lighting. There are photographers who tend to light up every part of a piece of food to show it off, “just to be sure you see it all clearly.” But to make it look natural, try lighting it with a source that’s coming from a definite direction, like the sun or a lamp, so there are natural shadows that show the contours and shapes inherent to whatever it is—whether it’s a piece of just-sliced chicken or chocolate syrup.
An Exception: You‘re placing the food on a seamless background and lighting it gently overall so that it‘s more of an ambient feeling. Well, okay. But you‘ll still want to rely on select gleams and shadow to define the texture.
I just tried to watch a video preceded by an ad for a national restaurant whose photography always strikes me as artificial and unappealing. Their food is always lit so very flatly and there was no sense of reality.
I think the reason is lack of imperfections and no prominent shadows. My brain says, “Oh, yeah, no, that looks like it’s not freshly made, it looks like it’s taken out of a freezer and microwaved.” And I always listen to my brain. Even if I don’t realize I’m doing it.