Technically your food is a prop. To make your food look good, you need to play around with depth of focus, lighting, and mood.
But if you take your food photos without anything accompanying it, your image will look boring. Today we will show you how to enhance your food photos through well-placed props.
Consider The Props
Before you can place the props (see also “How To Use Props To Enhance Your Product Photos?“), you first need to consider what they are doing in the image.
What Do The Props Add To The Image
If you’re taking a picture of a burger, your prop could be the plates, napkins, or sauces usually seen with your order. If you’re photographing an iced coffee, perhaps you scatter whole coffee beans on the table, and include a milk jug in the background?
The props you use in your image need to enhance the story and mood you are telling. In our burger example, the props tell the viewer what the restaurant will look like, and will also create a sense of familiarity.
In the iced coffee example, we are telling the viewer how the coffee is made, while at the same time creating an atmosphere of easiness. Before you pick out your props, consider what your aim is. Are you making a recipe?
In that case, showcase the ingredients or equipment used in the creation. Are you highlighting a new restaurant order? Include themes from your business.
Once you’ve narrowed down your aim, you can start picking props that contribute to your aim. You can be creative, and there are no right answers, just remember that the overall theme needs to match your aim.
What Dimensions Can They Bring?
Ideally, your props should cover at least 3 dimensions. They are height, texture, and detail. We will go into more detail about how height can be important, but the overall idea is to create a variation in your image.
Let’s go back to the iced coffee idea. If you include a slightly scrunched tea towel next to the mug, you’ll be adding in a textile your viewers can easily imagine.
The small coffee beans thrown around add a sensory detail of smell, it also helps the viewer understand the height of the mug. Lastly, a blender in the background stops the image from feeling “one level”.
You don’t have to play around with where these props go yet. For now, make sure you are creating variety through your prop choices. If everything is one height or one note, then the image will feel flat.
At this point in your creation process, bring all the props that relate to your aim or theme. Later on, we will narrow it down, but for now, you want to explore the options available to you.
How To Enhance Your Stage?
Now you have the props ready, you need to set the stage.
Layer Your Image
First things first, you need to think about layers. Normally an image can be separated into 3 parts, the middle (which will likely hold your main food item), the foreground, and the background.
Ideally, your foreground props should be small, like a footnote to your main plate. If it’s too large it can cover your main item or simply steal the show. To help you avoid a scene-stealing prop, make sure you use a 25 to 45-degree angle shot.
This will help your viewer focus in on the middle of your image first, everything else will come second. The background should contain your taller props. This way they add height to your image without stealing the scene.
In terms of placement, you want the props to flow from one place to the next. For example, going back to the iced coffee idea, you could have a sprinkling of beans in the foreground to the left. They circle upward around the coffee cup.
The coffee cup is in the middle of the image, but lying next to it is a tea towel. The tea towel isn’t bright and is half cut out of the shot to the right – this allows the mug to stay in the middle of the scene without real distraction.
Right now the viewer’s eyes go to the mug first, and then they notice the beans and go down to the left, up to the middle cup, then to the middle right tea towel. Our tall milk jug should now be placed in the background but on the far left.
This prevents us from creating a diagonal line that feels unnatural and mechanical. Notice how in this description nothing is sitting in the middle of their layer apart from the mug. This means nothing is overlapping our view.
Increase Your Distance
Without changing any settings, our current coffee display seems busy and chaotic. We need to keep our viewers focused on the cup, so we need to change our apertures or depth of field shutters.
The depth of field is very similar to the “portrait mode” of your smartphone. It blurs out details behind and in front of your main focus. However, unlike portrait mode, it doesn’t leave a line of clear edits. Instead, it works more like your eyes.
Try focusing on an item around you, and notice how your peripheral vision naturally blurs out everything around you. Changing your apertures will do the same thing. Start by dropping the f figure to f/2 or f/4.
Because we are working with food, we are going to want a good close-up with the plate or cup. Play around with the f ratings until you get the right DoF balance.
With a blurry background and blurry foreground, your food will become the automatic center of focus, while your props become soft second-place images.
Add Height To Flat Lays
A flat lay is when you take an image from above looking straight down. It gets its name from laying out all of your props flat on your surface. Flat lays can be difficult to master, as your natural height differences are ruined by the changed lighting.
Everything will look too, well, flat. However, if you’re taking an image of a beverage, the best angle is normally from above. That way you can pick up the details on top of the liquid. Here are some tips for this specific problem.
Use Transparent Acrylic Props
Ideally, you want your main item to stand higher than anything else in your flat lay image. That way their eyes will naturally be drawn to the highest item. You can then use your DoF settings to focus on the tall item and blur out the rest.
To do this seamlessly, you should buy a transparent acrylic prop. These are normally cylindrical in shape, allowing you to place a plate or a mug on top of them without worrying about spilling.
You can raise your main item by a couple of inches, and because the prop is transparent, no one will see that it’s standing on a stilt. This helps your item stay the most important thing in the image without disrupting the scene you have created.
Use Geometric Props
The props you use to lift up your main item should be easy to hide. Geometric shapes can hide a multitude of problems, as they can be applied to almost anything and be hidden well. This advice can be used for non flat lay shots as well.
If you make the prop match the color of your background, you can use them to lift up items without hiding. For example, you could have two wooden discs, one double the size of the first. Put the little wooden disk on top of the larger one, but off to the side.
Then place the milk jug on the larger disk (the area not touched by the second disc), and place your coffee mug on the smaller disk. Around the discs, you can have your coffee beans, and a tea towel in the background.
Here we have used exactly the same props as before, but the added geometric discs change the atmosphere. Now the picture looks purposefully posed, suggesting an elegant and established coffee shop instead of a rustic homemade recipe.
Little changes like this can add a lot to your atmosphere, so mess around with all these ideas until you create an image that matches your aims.
The best way to enhance your food photos is to consider the height, texture, and details of your props. Then place them in the foreground or background of your stage depending on their height.
Your props need to amplify the theme or aim of your picture, but they should do it subtly. This means using your depth of field to blur out the props and keep your main item in view.
Frequently Asked Questions
Food normally looks best under natural light. This is because the image will seem warm instead of artificial. However, artificial light is easier to manipulate.
Depending on your issue, swap your light source and see if you benefit from a natural or easier-to-manipulate option.