The Art and Science of Insta-worthy Food Photography

Since the rise of home cookbooks, food photography has been a big part of why and what we eat. Every famous chef from Julia Child to Jamie Oliver has relied on stellar photos to showcase their best work. So what makes a great food photograph? What makes people salivate? | July 2018


Why is food photography so hot right now?

In collaboration with professional food photographer Joe Sarah, we set out to learn more about the DNA of food photography as an essential part of the food industry.

What we found was more than angles and lighting — food photography has become an entire movement and form of expression. The rise of Instagram has brought a flood of foodie-wannabes looking for the perfect shot. And for those working in the food industry, the trend isn’t going anywhere.

You don’t need to look far to see how ubiquitous food photography has become. At time of writing, there were nearly 250 million posts with #food on Instagram (not to mention other posts under #foodporn, #foodie and #hungry). In the UK, it’s estimated that over 130,000 pictures of food are shared every day.

Posting food photos have become part of daily life for many people. According to a 2016 report from Waitrose, one in five Brits (around 9 million people) share a food photo online or through a social app at least once per month.

Waitrose also found that young people in particular are likely to share pictures of their latest dish.

But it’s not just Instagrammers who are contributing to the food photo craze. The newly coined ‘food media’ has swept the nation. In 2016, the Great British Bakeoff was hands-down the biggest show on UK television with peak viewership at nearly 16 million people. The first episode of the season attracted 11.2 million viewers — an estimated half of the estimated UK TV watching audience.

A study by Lurpak showed that UK adults may be spending more time watching cooking shows than cooking food themselves. And most people know it: over half of the 2000 surveyed admitted to preferring watching a cooking show or browsing food photos online than making their own food.

Science confirms that our brains have a tendency to mix up these experiences. Studies have shown that looking at food photos activates the same ‘taste’ and ‘reward’ sections of the brain as actually eating something. Research participants have also claimed that a food tastes significantly better after being shown a top-quality photograph of it, compared to a poor picture — even though they experienced the exact same taste.

A Masterclass in Photographing Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner

So what can we learn about the strategy behind great food photography? We teamed up with professional food photographer Joe Sarah to dissect how he approaches taking pictures of food. Joe Sarah has worked with top chefs Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal over his career.

He combines scientific theory of color and form with a killer instinct for what makes a great shot to create bright, glossy pictures of delicious dishes. His photos also draw upon the principle of crossmodal perception, which strives to bring together all 5 senses to create multisensory food experiences.

volume_upListen to Joe's tips on Pancakes


volume_upListen to Joe's tips on Beans


volume_upListen to Joe's tips on Steak


volume_upListen to Joe's tips on Pudding


format_quote Ultimately you're working together to tell the story of what the dish is, and where it comes from, who's made it, who's it for: all that comes together in a great food photograph.

Joe Sarah in his own words

One of the things I've always been really keen on is bringing elements of science into photography. A lot of what I do is intuition. Feeling what looks nice, what makes sense. But also what I do is read up on color theory and using techniques that have stood true as methods to achieve beauty, creating pieces of art and the reason why it's so commercially viable as a way forward.

Food photography always has this agenda, like ‘we're going to make beautiful pictures, pictures that make you want to eat.’ And that's so limiting and so boring for me. I think there's so much more interest in creating pictures that could go in a gallery and be considered works of art.

What's next in food photography?

Within photography there are some principles that just don’t change. But when it comes to food, certain trends come and go. It’s important to take note of what’s coming in future trends.

Some foods have always worked well to photograph. In Joe’s opinion, it’s cakes.

“There are some things that I think have always worked. One off the top of my head is baked goods. I don't think there's ever been a time where people haven't salivated over a picture of a cake.”

He’s got a point: cake stands the test of time. But not all foods are as delicious and photogenic as the sweet, crumbly cake family. What’s on the up?

Naturally, we dove straight into the data. By analysing the average food purchases of residents in the UK over the past 40 years, we’ve managed to pinpoint the most popular foods (and the ones to stay away from) to line up your perfect food photoshoot.

format_quote I don't think there's ever been a time where people haven't salivated over a picture of a cake

How have UK food purchases changed over the past 40 years?

Average quantity (in g or ml) of food and drink purchased per person per week.

Food as entertainment

It’s not just food trends that are changing. The entire culture around food has made a huge shift. Moving forward, we’ve identified 3 key trends in food content marketing for companies to keep an eye on.

Food is not what you eat anymore. It’s not just a combination of ingredients, heated to a certain degree and assembled on a plate.

It’s a lifestyle. Brands that can capture this will be the ones that rise to the top.

Just look at how people use cookbooks: a survey of 2,000 UK residents showed that despite owning an average of six recipe books, most Brits make the same nine meals over and over again. Cookbooks aren’t about the recipes — it’s about how the recipes look and what that says about your personality.

You look back to the 80s, the cookbooks selling back then were step by step: it was about teaching how to cook. Now, we are in a phase where people are buying cookbooks to tell a story and inspire with beautiful food. Cooking has forgotten it’s roots and become entertainment. Owners of these book put them as coffee table books, they’ve become a thing to talk about. Food porn, street feasts, cook books, cookery shows: they're all part of the entertainment industry now. At the same time, what we eat is the biggest factor in our health and our happiness and the impact we have on the environment.

Food photography will be huge in travel and tourism, with a future coming in AR technology

Food has been a driving factor in why and where people travel for a long time. According to a survey done by the World Tourism organization, 88.2% of respondents ranked gastronomy as a central part in defining the branding of a travel destination.

People will travel for food. It’s estimated that 39 million leisure travelers from the U.S. tend to pick a vacation spot based on food options and activities. And this number is growing. Mandala Research published a report showing that the percentage of American travelers who wanted to have new dining experiences increased by 11% between 2006 and 2013.

Augmented Reality also presents a huge opportunity for food photography to expand in new ways. For example, Heinz created an augmented reality app way back in 2011 to display recipes when users pointed a smartphone camera at the ketchup bottle. As technology improves and more companies invest in AR this functionality can only get better.

With Apple’s new highly reviewed dual lens camera, users will have even more ways to make their photos look professional-grade. We expect to see the use of Apple’s new “Portrait Lighting” mode, which allows you to black out the background behind a person, to creep into other photography styles as iPhone users start to experiment. That perfect plate of avocado on toast? Yep. Matching green background coming soon.

Eating ethical is the right thing to do — and it’s on the up

We’ve known for a while now that organic food is exploding in popularity. But data shows that Fairtrade products are swiftly approaching organic as a top priority for consumers.

Over the past decade, spending on Fairtrade products has more than tripled. Free-range poultry and eggs have also risen significantly over time. It’s clear that people are caring more and more about where their food comes from and the people behind it.

The culture of food is changing: food is blending with entertainment, travel sectors are investing in food photography and people are voting for wholesome, ethical food with their money. Great food photography can be a big part of this change. And when done right, it can communicate so much more than just the food.

We love food, photography and data. Check out our work to see what else we do, or get in touch.

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