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Simple food styling compositions to add to your little book of tricks

My failsafe food styling layouts

Today i'm going to share with you some of my go-to compositions (or layouts) when styling props for food photography.  They are very simple but I'll try to explain a bit of the thinking behind them as I go, and of course each one can have a very different feel depending on what props and mood you are going for.

In a nutshell, food photography should showcase the ingredients, stimulate the senses and evoke the desire to eat.

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To showcase the ingredients we need to learn about composition.  (If you'd like to learn about stimulating the senses and evoking desire in your food styling check out our Prop Styling for Food Photography handbook, filled with lots more tips and techniques and available for instant download.)

Good composition can get you very far with even the simplest of photography equipment (or an iPhone). Learning how to balance a shot and honing how you do that in your own unique style will make your images instantly recognizable and help build a strong brand. This takes time and can only be learned through practice with both your food and props, but it is fun and really helps increase your confidence and speed. 

Don’t be afraid to repeat compositions that work – food, colours, props etc can vary to keep things interesting but go-to layouts and favourite angles are invaluable. When you find something that works sketch it out and keep it to refer back to - try to get a handful of failsafe layouts for each aspect, mix up the angles as well so you have a go-to format for each aspect at each angle. –

  • square for instagram or product thumbnails. Personally I only like square images shot overhead and quite simple or graphic in style, I find them a bit ‘stumpy’ otherwise.
  • portrait - most editorial work is shot in portrait and they work best for Pinterest
  • landscape - our blog looks better with landscape shots and for web sliders, banners etc you’d normally need wide shots

food styling photography tips how to composition layout

My priorities in (most of) my images are to a, present the food well and b, show off our products (the background boards). So my style could be described as simple or stark, definitely graphic and bold, maybe more on the side of food art rather than home cooking. I sometimes soften with fabrics and texture but generally there is a lot of space to show off the backgrounds and an element of colour association to show how the boards shoot with different colours, lights and editing styles.

Of course your priorities as a food stylist can be completely different with each shoot– to get traffic to a blog, to sell bespoke wedding cakes, to explain a new technique, to show off a gadget for a sponsored ad etc. This can guide your composition in completely different or new directions along with the ‘buzz words’ of the client.  If they want a homely, relaxed, cosy, comforting, fresh, healthy, cleansing, new or exciting feel – all of these moods will require different props and styling to convey a feeling around the food.

Here are some examples of compositions I use for different aspects and angles, feel free to have a go at them in your own style.

Food styling for square shots

The sketch on the left shows a style for shooting at eye level with a background (horizontal) and backgrop (vertical). On squares I like to do this simple format on anything with a bit of height but I think it can leave too much empty space for low plates. 

For food on lower dishes or plates, if it merits a close up I often just divide the shot into three parts with around a ¾ angle (20 odd degrees up from horizontal) – making distinct areas of background (horizontal), food and backdrop (vertical). It makes for quite a stark/graphic shot but if the food looks good this composition leaves it alone to shine. The background and backdrop surfaces could be simple or vibrant depending on the food, again making more or less of an impact as you see fit.

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For overhead shots on squares I like some soft layering, breaking the formality of the square a bit so creating softer angles and some overlaps with fabrics, boards, handles etc. I would normally position the subject and focus around the centre on a square shot but with layered, asymmetric props you can make it more dynamic.

The left sketch shows softer layering for a more organic, relaxed image, the sketch on the right shows a slightly more graphic design with some overlaps to break the edges of the board. Both of these overhead framing techniques show the food off very simply but quite overtly – it must look good as it is centre stage, in full close up with the spot light on it! 

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This next sketch shows a simple background splitting technique using different colours, surfaces or textures to create a vertical line through the image. As long as this line runs through the focus (thus leading the eye back to the food) it is a great, easy trick for creating a strong composition that doesn’t take over the shot. 

The final square food styling composition I’ve sketched for you is for a ¾ angle using the golden ratio principle. Starting at the bowl (the largest element and main focus) the eye is taken to the jug which it overlaps, the foliage curves around to the ingredients (the second most important element, think of it as the supporting role) evoking the taste and smell senses perhaps even more so than the dish, and then back to the dish itself.

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Examples of square food photography layouts

For a sequence of recipe shots we went overhead with a background split and ingredients props, then at eye level with the subject on the lower 3rd line (rule of thirds in action) with a background board and mixed height props to create a soft backdrop.

 

food styling photography tips how to composition layout food styling photography tips how to composition layout

Landscape shots (my least favourite I don’t know why!)

I don’t shoot many landscape shots (maybe that’s why!) because editorial work normally requires portrait and also because on Instagram the image ends up being very small (where as portrait shots get the same width as a square shot with some extra height). When required to compose landscape images for a recipe blog or our website I have a couple of templates I can roll out if in doubt.

This is a fairly standard format, it basically uses the rule of thirds to split the image (I can see now I’ve noted the ‘focus’ a little high, it should be lower on the split between the bottom and middle third). I usually also add something tall to drop off the top edge as it breaks the line of the second dish up and brings height/depth back into the shot I feel.

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A similar composition for a slightly higher angle might look something like this. The food and focus is in a similar area but because we are losing the height by shooting higher I would bring more interest in on the surface, perhaps scattered ingredients which will be more in focus than on the above shot unless a very short f/stop is used.

food styling photography composition tips principles technique

Overhead shots are easier for me in landscape as I can pretty much make a portrait composition work in landscape too (as long as it’s shot fairly centrally and there aren’t any tall objects falling away in the wrong direction making the viewer feel dizzy, wondering where ground zero is).

I like using rectangular props in landscape shots as I can kick the angle off a bit and soften the frame, also elongating the width for a more appealing image.

If I was going for a very simple style (as in only one or two elements) on a landscape composition I’d always dress to the right or left of centre (probs left), splitting the image into thirds vertically, I think this is more balanced than the focus being horizontally central but above or below centre.

food styling photography composition tips principles technique

A landscape shot created with Holly Bell (recipesfromanormalmum.com)

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Composing for portrait food photography

Personally I find overhead portrait shots the easiest to compose but I guess I have also styled for them more than other angles and aspects as it shows the background off best! (When styling for our background boards as opposed to commercial clients at least.)

I feel this is where I’ve really explored and mastered (eek, hopefully!) my own style and I believe people have started to recognize my shots from the simple but arty compositions I use (and our backgrounds of course).

This first sketch shows a simple layering technique to frame the food while leaving the rest of the image clear bar a couple of ingredients dropping off the top edge of the shot.

The second shows a more dynamic style with a clear flow though the props. This is great for grouped ingredients shots or when the brief is ‘organic’. I used similar styling to this on the Kaiyo background board on a hot chocolate shoot I was lucky enough to art direct and it’s been one of (I think) my most successful images.

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The hot chocolate ingredients shot on our Kaiyo food photography background board

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The next two sketches are super simple, probably not even worth getting down on paper but it’s surprising how often I can start reinventing the wheel and end up with something very similar to this. Both use the golden ratio design principle – the left sketch filling the areas statically, the right sketch using a flow from the fork around the plate and up to the secondary prop. You could add a well placed linen to this image (where the arch is marked) to make the flow more obvious if you found it too bare.

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Here are two examples of portrait styling at a ¾ ish angle. The first composition I used for a dessert shoot where we repeated three glasses of pretty desserts on a slate board. We chose to frame the focal point quite boldly with dark slate but place it quite far off centre leaving enough empty, light space to balance it. A few ingredients were styled off some of the edges to anchor the image again.

A go-to composition for many food stylists is to have two strong elements off each side of the shot, overlapping slightly and softened with some unobtrusive linen. I also like to add something with height to bring depth back into the image, especially if using very flat plates or boards.

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And finally, two portrait compositions following the golden ratio spiral. Food stylists are very lucky in the sense that they can create flow and direction quite easily with circular props, especially overhead or at a ¾ to ½ angle (20-45 degrees).

Here you can see two variations to create a spiral flow through the image. The left composition using a plate and fork pointing to the glass which overlaps with a draped fabric wrapping around a small pan which in turn points to a key ingredient. The right sketch uses a round bottomed bowl leading to a tall vase of flowers which lean towards the small dish and spoon. The focus will nearly always be on the food in the foreground, but the natural flow created by the placement of the props guides the viewer to a secondary element of food which might be even better at evoking memories of flavour, creating desire or telling the story than the dish itself.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this and found it useful for your food styling, and maybe are even inspired to try some of these techniques out!

This info is taken from a section from our Prop Styling for Food Photography handbook-  if you’d like to learn more about composition for food styling – height, framing, using depth of field, the principals I've introduced, creating focal points etc – take a look at our food styling resource area, filled with lots more tips and techniques and available for instant download.

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All images copyright Scott Choucino www.scottchoucino.com

For more specific food styling tips from our resident food stylist, home economist and recipe developer Tom Cockerill, check out this blog post on what's in his kit and why - Food Styling Essentials - what's in my kit.

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