It’s the holidays, which is the season of special family meals, eating out and stopping for nice treats to help get through all the shopping and errands. This time of year is a great time to use all those colorful and carefully prepared dishes to practice your shots.

Composition and Context 

In most of my photos I am careful to not put subjects dead center or have my subject take up most of the image I create. When I am shooting food, I can throw all that out the window. Centered and subject-dominant compositions work great in food photography. Food is a great place to train your the eye to do centered or symmetrical shots, and execute it well.

The Rule of Thirds still applies, along with every other principle of composition. Centered compositions aren’t easy mode. Try to find balance within your subject. Look for ways to have contrast in tones or texture. There are still times where using off-centered compositions is most effective. My gingerbread house shots are off-center because the house faces a certain direction. Houses, cars, waterfalls and people all seem to face a certain way. Allowing the viewer to see the space in front of the ‘face’ of an object makes the shot have a relaxed feel.

Rose-frosted chai spice vegan cupcake from Back to Eden Bakery. Every time I am able to tag something as vegan, I get a bump in my Instagram likes.

I always carefully control how much context I put in my food pictures. Adding in details like silverware, friends or a stunning view makes the image a snapshot of your lifestyle, which changes the subject and makes the image more personal. I try to keep context limited to only one detail, and keep that detail subtle. Your picture tells a story. If you add a lot of details that aren’t about the food itself, you are rambling on as a story teller. The details of the food itself need to be what catches the eye.

Getting all the relevant details in a single shot can easily wind up very strained. Here, the context I wanted to add is that I was having this bowl of Poke at a local restaurant that is still getting away with calling itself Poke Mon. I used the Layout app for iPhones to combine two images instead of having a single, busy image.

Food Photography and Instagram 

Food photography flourishes on Instagram. One reason is that the app wants to display images at a 1:1, or a perfectly square, ratio. Centered and subject-dominant images work well in squares. Round objects like plates and cakes can follow the rule of thirds while being front and center, instead of stuck in a corner. 1:1 is a very neutral and relaxed ratio. Uneven ratios like 3:4 and 5:7 bring visual tension into your shots.  Instagram now accepts offset ratios, but there’s no control over the crop and photographs still appear as square in searches.

If you are going for a 1:1 ratio for your food, or any Instagram photo, set the camera to shoot in 1:1. Composing in-camera is better than cropping later, because it’s far easier to tell if your image is skewed or the composition is off when shooting in the format you will post in.

There is more to food photography than Instagram. However you share images, it is always good to think ahead about what works best on the platform. For instance, shooting portraits is sometimes more dramatic on Tumblr.

Watermelon and rum popsicle eaten at the Belmont Street Fair in Portland, Oregon. Images on any platform where the viewer scrolls down are read top to bottom.

Food and Focal Length 

Shooting with a wide-angle lens can give a more dramatic look to food. Conveniently, wide angle shots are easier to manage because you can shoot from up close. Shooting with a narrower lens can flatten things. The subjects of these shoots are often roughly the size of a hamburger. The depth and width that a wide-angle lens provides makes meals pop.  

My tiny gingerbread house that I baked for this article. Here, it’s shot at the equivalent of a 600mm focal length, making it appear a bit flat. Several houses were eaten in the making of this article.

What are your local holiday treats? What compositions have you made? Share your favorites in the comments!


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