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Food Photography:

When Food Looks Perfect, It Doesn’t Look Good.

Article by
Charlie Hopper
Principal, Writer
Young & Laramore
Placeholder Image? 9cf100861ec91063ca2d6c7965fbe8c6bacff2f7 1620

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.

Charlie Hopper, Principal, Writer at Y&L

Over the past 30-something years, Charlie’s played many roles at Y&L, including writer, principal, general enthusiast and creative director on Steak ’n Shake during its heyday at the agency. He is also the author of Selling Eating: Restaurant Marketing Beyond the Word “Delicious.”