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Taking Pictures of Food: Going into the Subliminal

Updated on April 2, 2012
This poached egg was Sam's breakfast on the day he published this article. The table cloth is of his own design, superimposed on dry weeds which photo he also took the same day.
This poached egg was Sam's breakfast on the day he published this article. The table cloth is of his own design, superimposed on dry weeds which photo he also took the same day.

Whether you sell food, your recipes, cookbooks, or you just want to torment your friends by showing them your cuisinesque wonders, it’s always a good idea to know how professionals put it all down on paper.

There’s much more to photographing food than just aiming and clicking. This is true, by the way, with all forms of photography. But in this article, I will concentrate on the art of photographing food. I will particularly focus on the art of appealing to the viewer’s subliminal perceptions.

Artists usually employ subliminal visual stimulants, because they are known to work. (see the link below).

The above link describes the flashing of subliminal message quickly on a screen. But there are other ways to get messages to the viewer, when you can’t animate your showcase. Some of these methods include the use of: Light, color, form, design, familiar objects, texture, sensory-provocative images, and popular scenarios.

Let me tell you why it’s important to play into the subliminal mind of the viewer: People from all walks of life have liked or disliked certain commercials or ads or photos. Most of those people don’t know why they like them, or dislike them. They just do, or they just don’t. Well, research has shown that everyone receives messages into the subconscious mind while they’re viewing or listening to the product in question. Anything that they are familiar with, or that has affected them in the past in any way, whose icon is found in your photograph, will be noted subliminally in a person’s mind, and will have an affect on their judgment of your photograph or ad. All this is done unconsciously. They aren’t aware of the process. They only know that they either like it, or they don’t.

Then, you enter the picture. Since you are now aware of such a process, you can control, mostly, how a person is going to react to your photo, or your ad. You may not be able to control all viewers, but if you know who your target market is, and you research their likes, dislikes, what movies or famous people they like, and everything else unique to them, then your chances at pulling them into your “kitchen” or getting them to open their wallets, will increase dramatically when you appeal to their good experiences. Now that you know this, it’s time to move on:

The Beginning:
First of all, set up your tripod, camera and lights, before you finish your cooking. You want to photograph fresh food. A good camera and proper lighting will help you to see the difference between fresh food, and old food (older than one hour). Also, think of the extra objects you want around your food. You don’t just photograph the plate, but you surround it with things that enhance the apparent appeal of your plate, things that will appeal to the subliminal or unconscious mind.

As you search for the objects that will be part of the “composition,” keep in mind that you may wish to tell a story; one that begins with a problem and then ends with a satisfying solution: your dish. What you tell or how you tell it has no limits: For example, to the left of the picture (eyes read from left to right) you can put an object (or phrase, if this is going to be an ad) that presents a problem: “I’m hungry!” or “I’m thirsty!” or “I feel like getting a sugar high!” If it’s just a photo, you can put down something next to the plate that represents “famine” or “dryness.”

For example: If you’re making an apple pie, you could put a few toothpicks on the table, or a sprig of some dried herb that you might find in an apple pie. Those will represent dryness, or lack of food. Then you could put cinnamon sticks there as well. This also will hint of “dryness” or absence of food, as you can’t chew cinnamon sticks. But it will also represent a promise of what flavor is found inside the pie. Now, you have the pie: a piece of it sitting in a clean dish, showing off its beautiful interior. Perhaps on top of the pie (not directly on top: you need to follow artistic composition rules) you will put some vanilla ice cream, but not shoot the picture until some of it begins to melt onto the pie. This will represent “something liquid” – a solution to the dryness at the left of the picture. The viewer will also see something hot – a problem – against something cold – the solution.

If your audience is a little more mature, perhaps you won’t want ice-cream, but a cup of steaming coffee or hot chocolate behind the pie. You could put the pie in front of and to the right of a window that shows a cold, icy day outside (this would be a good wintertime ad, because the viewer would most likely be attracted to finding warmth). The cold (bluish or greenish) window will present the problem, and the pie and hot chocolate will provide the solution. It would help to have a mug that is warm in color. You can make the coffee or hot chocolate “steaming hot” by putting a lighted incense stick behind it.

Other objects around the pie (but not so much in front of it) could be apples, both whole and cut in half, a sack of brown sugar (some of it is spilling out of the bag on the table, coming toward you and inviting you to pick it up to taste it, or maybe a measuring spoon is still sitting in that generous mound, waiting for you to pick it up and try some)

It may even work to have a clean fork sitting on the plate. This brings the eminent tasting of the pie closer to reality. Perhaps you can even have a bite missing, with a few crumbs sitting in the vacant area, and some of the (clean) creamy apple gelatinous cream on the tip of the fork. This helps the viewer to imagine the pie in his/her mouth, creating a more urgent need to get a real one right away.

The fork on the plate, by the way, will help some people to “hear” the click of the fork on the plate. Sound, or implied sound, when related to eating, will stimulate the taste buds in some people. If a hand-bell or food timer is sitting somewhere in the background, this may help the viewer to “hear” that fork. This is what I mean when I mention “sensory-provocative images.”

Keep in mind that you should keep it simple. I referred to many items you can use, but don’t overuse them. The fewer the better. As long as a quick story can be told, then that would be sufficient. It is said that a very simple composition that tells a powerful story is labeled as “elegant.” This type of composition is both pleasing (and peaceful) to the eye, yet memorable.

The plate itself should have something accompanying the item featured: a sprig of an herb, or a syrup artfully surrounding the food. If you watch some competitions on the Food Channel, you will get some good ideas on how to “compose” a plate of food.

Plate Presentation

The general rule of thumb is, don’t only include things that make it taste good; use items that make it LOOK good. Some photographers have said that they have ruined the good taste of a dish, in order to make it look scrumptiously delectable. Others would recommend you don’t eat it at all, after you’re done with it. Here is a link to an article that explains why:

For using real food that’s edible, here are more tricks:

Don’t use a flash – at least one that’s attached to the camera – unless you have trouble finding sufficient light. The light from a flash will usually fill in the texture and tell-tale make-up of the food. It may also create a harsh glare. Set some white lights above and at a slight angle to the food to be photographed. Then have a warm (red) or cool (blue or green) light on the other side of the plate at a low angle. The color would depend on the composition, mood or story you’re telling. It would also depend on the food you’re using. For example, if you photograph meat, you don’t want a cool light, or you meat may begin to look sick. If you don’t have colored lights, you can set your dish near a window while the sun is still strong outside. You can put a thin curtain of a certain color over the window to get the mood you wish. This side-light will give more definition or body to the featured item; it will help it to become more 3-dimensional, hence more real.

Some digital cameras keep their lenses open longer than normal in a room that is a bit dark. So if you like subdued lights, put your camera on a tripod, or have it resting in a place where it won’t move when you push the shutter button.

Following these principles, your chances of creating “mouth-watering” compositions will increase greatly. Good luck, and happy snapping!


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    • HaileyChambers profile image


      6 years ago from Avon Lake, Ohio

      Fantastic article I always wondered what went into food photography!

    • freecampingaussie profile image


      6 years ago from Southern Spain

      I enjoyed your hub as I have been taking photos of food lately for hubs or just for fun !


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