The Beginners Guide to Composition in Food Photography: How to Transform your Food Photos from Good to Bloody Beautiful

Use photos to tell the story. A nice picture is one thing, but your photos should augment the text, or vice-versa — David Lebovitz

Don’t you agree? And this telling a story aspect is where composition comes in.

Firstly, we need to understand what composition is. Like the word is generally used, it is how all the elements that form the final product are used.

Composition is a way of guiding the viewer’s eye towards the most important elements of your work, sometimes — in a very specific order. A good composition can help make a masterpiece even out of the dullest objects and subjects in the plainest of environments. On the other hand, a bad composition can ruin a photograph completely, despite how interesting the subject may be. — Photography Life

And the secret behind great composition? Making it look effortless. The composition should be seamless, so that the focus is on the food itself and not what was going on in the mind of the photographer.

Deeba Rajpal, one of my absolute favourites, when it comes to composition, puts her thoughts on composition across in such a sublime way.

Food styling and composition for me is a very connected and therapeutic process, and something I immensely enjoy. I have experienced however that if I don’t enjoy styling, making or tasting what I’ve made, the joy in styling and shooting is somewhat diluted. The results speak! So, I feel, it is important to have a passion and to be in sync with what you plan to shoot. Also, that we grow with each shot, every ‘image’ is another step in the learning curve. I really love shooting dark, moody images, but sometimes I chase light rather than block it!

There you have it. This is precisely why you sometimes need to go with the flow for your compositions.

In my mind, there are two ways you can approach composition.

Either your composition is telling you a story and making you think about the picture.

Or it needs to present the image in the best way possible.

Since I’m one for pictures that talk to you, here is one of my recent favourites in terms of composition. Sandhya of Sandhya’s Kitchen fame creates such a beautiful picture that instantly evokes a story in your mind.

I can easily visualise the author, sitting on that chair with her cuppa and browsing through that cookbook. Beautiful!

And what do you think this picture is telling?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like every composition tells a story. Some are effective by simply bringing out the best elements of the food. It needs to make the dish stand out, make us want to try it out, and for a food blogger, make that reader want to come back for more.

And the most important thing to do, to bring out the best, the absolute best in a photograph, food or not, is the RULE OF THIRDS.

What is Rule of Thirds?

Now, I have had a bit of difficulty understanding the rule of thirds. the whole breaking a picture into thirds and imagining nine boxes thing, doesn’t really work for me. If you do get it the geometrical way, here is a great tutorial on the Rule of Thirds:

But here are a couple of things I try to do which a photographer friend of mine told me:

  1. Make sure the subject of your photograph occupies only 75% of the frame. And make sure that, the 75% is not in the dead centre of the frame.
  2. Have three objects in the frame to even things out, but keep the focus on your primary object, which in this case is the food.

So my advice to you when it comes to the rule of thirds is to simply make sure that your image is not dead centre, but the focus needs to be on the elements of the dish that you want to stand out.

Here are some gorgeous and delicious examples where the rule of thirds is beautifully used.

Having said that, I don’t believe we should always follow the Rule of Thirds to take a great picture. Yes, it is probably the easiest way to take a good picture. But just because you haven’t it doesn’t mean you will not get a beautiful image.

The Arrangement of Elements

At the end of the day composition is all about arranging things in the right way to make the picture stand out the most. There are a couple of elements to consider before creating a mouthwatering picture which the world will want to pin.

Background

The right background is what will determine how well your images stand out. The thing is there are really no hard and fast rules here. Some people say that you need to use a light background when your dishes and props are dark and vice versa. But this can be contested when you see images like this. Sujitha Nair’s images certainly negate that!

But the background should be just that. A background. It cannot take the focus away from the picture. So be particularly careful when you are using bright hues as your background, because, there is a chance that your dish may become inconsequential because of the background.

The Props

There is nothing like a few well coordinated props to make your picture stand. But bad prop choices can ruin the picture too. First thing to remember with props: they are props. They will aid you in telling whatever story you want with your images.

Same dish, two different compositions.

So they simply need to augment the dish. They are not and should never become the central focus of the image.

The Angle or Orientation of the Image

After all the elements have been arranged, the angle plays a very, very important role. This can only be determined by what you need highlighted in the image. For some dishes like a pizza or pie, overhead shots look great, but sandwiches, burgers and the like truly stand out at a lower angle, shot from the side and so on.

Look at this, the same dish and arrangement from different angles by Indu Matthew. Each angle brings out a different character of the dish.

So, always shoot from multiple angles till you get the shot right. And even your food will want to put their best foot forward. So make sure to use the most flattering visuals of our dish in a photograph. And avoid the camera slant. Nothing more unappealing that a skewed image of that burger.

The Use of Colours

Remember, composition is all about complementing your dish in an artistic way. So don’t be tempted to go overboard with the colours. Don’t have a yellow bowl, green spoons and a red table mat, no matter how much you love your colours. Instead focus on complementary, contrasting colours.

This Rajastani Laal Maas curry by Himanshu Taneja, another top favourite, is a great example of the use of beautiful complimentary colours. Imagine if it was served up in a an orangebowl with a red table cloth background. All wrong, right?

Use of Negative Space or White Space

We sometimes have this overwhelming need to fill the image with props and colours. But negative space or white space can be used brilliantly to bring out a picture beautifully.

All these images by Richa Gupta are a great example of how to use negative space to your advantage in food photography.


In my opinion, these are the key elements that transform a picture from good to mouthwateringly beautiful. And to demonstrate how much difference a good composition can make to your pictures, here are a few of my favourite food bloggers with their transformational food photographs.

I have already told you that Deeba Rajpal has always been an inspiration for me in terms of compositions.Here is why.

“I shot these mulberries from just a dump down shot, and then moved to add small elements. They were actually headed for a mulberry cooler, so I did take a lighter shot as well. ” — Deeba Rajpal.

For more from Deeba on styling and food photography, here is a great resource which I think every food blogger must, must read.

Check out the evolution of this picture by Subhasmita Panigrahi of The Flavours Of Kitchen.

She has shown through the below six photographs, the evolution that her images went through, before she got that final, mouthwatering picture.

Richa Gupta of My Food Story has also written a post about it and detailed the thought process behind creating that beautiful picture which you can’t wait to click on!

So that’s what goes behind making a photograph come alive. For easy reminders here’s our top three tips.