What makes food photography “remarkable”?

food photography - turkey sandwich

Do you like this food photo? Why? You need to be able to break the photo down into its component parts in order to analyze what its strengths and weaknesses are.

To me, the word remarkable means beautiful, cool, or unusual, in a positive way, beyond mediocre.  A “remarkable” food photograph” is one that you like so much that you want to share it with others or maybe keep it in your “swipe” file.

My theory on “how to create remarkable food photography” can be divided into two sections.

1. Food photographers should think of food photos in terms of their individual component parts or aspects. (Listed below)

2. The more of these component parts a food photographer can make “remarkable”, the better the food photo will end up.

When you see a food photo you like, you may think to yourself  “I just like it”, but in reality, you are usually responding positively to one or more aspects of that food photo.  My theory states that the more component parts of a food photo, that the photographer can make remarkable, the more remarkable that photo will be.  There may only be one aspect of the photo that you find exceptionally compelling, and thats why you fell in love with the image, but in general, the more “things” about the photo that are remarkable, the more you will like it.  And of course, all people are different. You may value some aspects of food photography that others value less, and that may cause you to like some photos that others do not.  In general though, I think you’ll find that the more of these photo elements that are remarkable, the better that photo will be received.

For the sake of discussion here, I’ve broken down food photography into eight different aspects, parts, or components.  Feel free to add or subtract any to suit your own ideas, but this is just how I break down and food photography, when I’m analyzing it.  It’s okay if your ideas differ slightly from mine, but the key is that you’re breaking down food photography into more manageable components so you can better analyze and understand what makes a it “remarkable”.

  1. Food
  2. Food Styling
  3. Color Pallet of the photo
  4. Props
  5. Background
  6. Focus
  7. Composition
  8. Lighting

I know, my theory sounds really simple, but it has some powerful implications to the food photographer.  There are two ways to use this theory of mine, by observing, and while shooting.

Observing – If you want to become a better food photographer, you need to look at a lot of food photography. And to truly learn about any subject, including food photography, it helps to break the subject down into its component parts.

When you find see a photo you like, you should always interrogate yourself and ask “why” you like the shot. If you answer yourself, “I don’t know why, I just do”, you’re a dumb shit and you’ll never learn anything… :o)  Try to figure out what it is that you like and don’t like about the image.  Is it the lighting or the styling, or the focus, that you like?  Chances are, it’s a combination of things…  Analyzing other photographer’s food photos is probably THE most important skill you will develop as a food photographer.  Unlike other pursuits in life, I think you can actually learn more by looking than by doing.

Shooting – In the middle of a shoot, I find it helpful, to take short breaks, walk away from the set, and come back to the computer with fresh eyes.  I ask myself which of these eight component parts are looking remarkable, and which are not.  Then, I try to figure out how I can make each of the weaker elements more remarkable.  It’s that simple, but it’s a very powerful idea.  Here’s a closer look at the component parts of food photography:

Food Photography Elements:

Food – Food is actually one of those things that a commercial food photographer has very little control over.  A professional food photographer is usually assigned what food he needs to shoot, so often times, this element is something a photographer can not depend on to make the photo remarkable.  He shoots what he’s paid to shoot.

If you are however, just shooting to make beautiful photos for your portfolio, the more exotic the food, the better your chance of having a remarkable photo.  An octopus comes to mind, when I think of a food photo where the food was something that made the picture remarkable.  Different = Remarkable and Unusual = Remarkable.

Food Styling – a Food Stylist can do a great job of helping you make your food photo more remarkable.  Delicate little garnishes can go a long way to make the food photo look “finished” and of course the food needs to be prepared in such a way as to make it look appetizing and attractive.  Some photos need to be styled a little “sloppy” and some don’t.  In some food photos, crumbs and imperfections make the photo look real, but would be inappropriate in others.  Don’t underestimate the importance of good food styling.  Food styling is something you usually only notice when it isn’t good.  Terrible food photography is remarkable, but not the kind of remarkable I wante my photography to be known for…

BTW – When I’m looking to shoot for my portfolio, I like to pick food items that do not require much food styling.  That way, I can shoot by myself, and just play around, without any outside pressure to ruin the fun.

Color Pallet – I find this to be one of the most influential elements in making a remarkable food photo.  I tend to be attracted to warm colors, but sometimes love blue backgrounds.  Whatever colors you choose, they need to work together.  In my swipe file, I have photos with a lot of browns, for some reason.  Maybe I think of tables being brown wood, I’m not sure.  I also am attracted to blacks in my photo, but that’s mostly a lighting issue.  I’ve come to realize that color greatly affects how I feel about a photo.

Propping – Great props make a huge difference too.  I’ve seen many a shot become remarkable because the props were exotic or unusual, and therefore remarkable.  I heard of one photographer say that it looked like the current trend in food photography made it look as though all the shots now a days look like they were taken in a midevil castle.  That make me chuckle, but I could see what he meant.  Props are very important and I sometimes choose the food for a portfolio shot, based on what would look good in a certain plate or bowl that I have sitting on my prop shelf.

Background – While props make a big difference in the remarkability of a food picture, backgrounds may have just as much of an affect, if not even more on one.  A cool or unusual background can help set the mood for the photo.  They shouldn’t distract too much from the food, but they can compete.  I’ve seen food photos, that I’ve considered remarkable, where the background was just as cool as the food, if not more.  It all depends on the purpose of the photo.  If you’re selling the food, then the background should not overshadow the food, but if you’re just trying to make a pretty picture, then anything goes…

Focus – For many years now, minimum focus has been the trend.  That’s because it just looks so cool and it also had the added benefit of directing the viewer’s eye where the photographer wants it to go.  That is a powerful tool.  A good photographer can use that tool to make some pretty damn remarkable photos, if he knows what he’s doing.

Composition – I’m not sure what to say about composition.  I’ve seen plenty of remarkable photos with questionable compositions.  I guess it’s because composition is so subjective, just like most other aspects of art.  Some photos are made remarkable by their “poor” of the composition.  Weird crops can catch the eye, but it’s not something you’ll want to do all the time.  Food photos, to be considered useful, can’t all be cropped weird or can they?  I know I can’t do it. I guess I’m too conservative.

Lighting – Out of all the factors mentioned above, personally, I depend on lighting the most. I think it’s what separates my work from my competitors.  I want people to look my photos and say, “what beautiful light”.  That’s my favorite thing and what I value. That’s what trips my trigger, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle.  I’ve seen tons (ok, maybe a few) remarkable food photos that didn’t have great lighting, but they’re few and far between.  Great lighting is critical to making a truly remarkable food photo.

Good Lighting vs Remarkable Lighting – Let me say one thing here that some of you may not understand.  When I say “good lighting”, it’s not something concrete.  It’s subjective.  There’s “good” lighting and then there’s “remarkable” lighting, which some may consider to be “bad” lighting.  Just because you CAN light food so you can see every nook and cranny, don’t mean that you SHOULD light so you can see every nook and cranny.  Sometimes, dramatic lighting is more remarkable that good lighting. “Dramatic” usually means dark shadows, which is something many photographers try to improve upon.  Knowing when to light dramatically and when to light for information, is the sign of a truly good photographer.

Mike’s theory on creating Remarkable Food Photography is this:

The more component elements of a food photo you can make “remarkable”, the more people will like your photo.    So as you’re creating your food photography, break it down and look at each element, one at a time and ask yourself, “how can I make this more remarkable?”  It’s just that easy… :o)

Food photography with 200mm macro lens

This is a recent photo of mine that I shot just for my portfolio and to have a little fun too.  I think I’ve created a pretty remarkable photo here, but what is it that makes it remarkable?  What are the strong “elements” of the photo that make it remarkable?  Let’s go through them… We’ll rank the importance of each element on a scale of one to ten, with one being a negative, five being neutral, and ten being something that makes the photo “remarkable”.

1. Food – Nothing really special about Raspberries, is there? No…  The color of the fruit is cooler than the fruit itself, so I’m giving the food a six.

2. Styling – There’s really not much styling here to be good or bad.  I do like the folds of the material and the arrangement of the food is pleasing, but it’s just not that much of an issue.  I don’t think it “makes” the photo. I’m giving the styling a six, not so much for the food styling as for the napkin folds.  I have a thing for napkin folds… :o)

3. Color Pallet – Reds and Blacks are always a strong combination and the brown works well too.  I’d say that the color pallet of this photo is of the main reasons I find it so appealing, but that could just be me.  I don’t think so, but someone else might not agree.  I’m giving the color pallet an eight.

4. Props – The dishes are pretty cool and I think they add to the feel of the photo, so I’d give the propping a seven.

5. Backgrounds – To be honest, An had just created this background the week before and I really LOVE it, but since you can’t see much of it, I can’t attribute any of the remarkability of the background to the overall success of the photo.  The background gets a five.

6. Focus – The focus gets a ten!  This was a test shot I was doing, playing with my new 200mm macro lens.  I bought this lens with the hopes that the focus falloff would be something remarkable, and I wasn’t disappointed. The photo above is unretouched and the focus was not enhanced in any way.  The lens is freaking amazing.  It’s a game-changer and I hope to use it often in the future.  I’ll probably do a post just on this lens, some time in the near future.

7. Composition – I’m pleased with the composition, and even in hindsight, I don’t see anything that I’d change.  There are no compositional no-nos, and I think there is a good balance of structure and casualness in the shot, but I don’t think that the composition is all that remarkable.  It’s nice, but not remarkable.  I’d give it a seven.

8. Lighting – I’m very pleased with the lighting.  If I wasn’t, I probably wouldn’t be showing you the photo.  :o)  It shows detail, but is still dramatic enough to be interesting.  The direction of the light, which I always agonize over, is just where I want it to be.  I’m proud of it.  I’d give the lighting a nine.

Keep in mind, that I’m analyzing a current favorite photo of mine, so there isn’t much I hate about it, so all my rankings are above average.  Usually, with hindsight being twenty twenty, there are things I really prefer to change, but overall, I’m pretty pleased with this shot.  So with that said, I just wanted to go through a sample of how I analyze a food photo, breaking it down into it’s component parts, looking for strengths and weaknesses.  You can see that the remarkable elements of this photo are the focus and the lighting.  That’s what carries this photo. If I wanted to make it even more remarkable, I would need to improve the weaker elements. Try this same exercise on your own, both with both your photography and with other food photographer’s work as well.  I’m telling you, it’s the best way to improve your eye and your skills as a food photographer.

Happy Shooting!


Michael Ray Photography
2820 Smallman Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15222