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  • Writer's pictureDavid B Townsend

Food Styling Essentials for Social Media

Updated: Apr 26

Charcutier Board

Social media is a powerful tool that, when used effectively, can drive views to your website menu, potentially leading to reservations and enticing potential guests with your food imagery. Photos play a crucial role in advertising your restaurant or catering business. As one of the leading consulting firms has said, “The menu is the single most important piece of marketing collateral for any restaurant. A well-designed menu can consistently increase profits for any restaurant.”*  Designing a menu involves shaping or styling the presentation on the plate. The awe-factor impression as the meal arrives at the table is the first impression every chef strives to achieve.  Through social media, you can showcase this impression to a wider audience.  However, simple camera images are often flat, off-color, and composed in haste while you prepare the kitchen for another lunch rush. By investing time and effort into food styling, you can transform these images into captivating visuals that can significantly enhance your online presence and attract more customers.

First, what is Styling in terms of food photography?  Styling is staging or skillfully arranging the food to look attractive and appealing.  A photo may lack composition or a clear focal point without creative styling.  The composition of the photo setup allows you to tell a story, highlight specific ingredients, and convey flavor profiles to the viewer. I’ve seen one of my area’s best-acclaimed dinner houses show a post, which was probably an elegantly presented fish entrée but looked less than appealing because the lighting made the filet of fish disappear in its surroundings, a flat, one-dimensional blot of muted color.  In contrast, a nearby bistro’s post showed a common fish n’ chips with vibrancy in color, two small filets stacked for height, and an indication of steam rising.

So, how does one approach the task of consistently creating photos regularly that will get likes on social media and hit your website to lure potential guests into regular guests? One practical step is to reserve a space in the corner of the kitchen or an office, even a storage area for regular shoots. Once you figure out a space, you must examine what makes for great styling and, therefore, great food photos.  Some simple techniques may require you to have a specific area to shoot if you’re doing this daily or even weekly.  Three valuable ideas to keep in mind when thinking through a regular food photo.  Composition, Lighting, and Story.


Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato
Classic BLT

Composition:  This is where styling starts, and matters most.  The plate of food has to entice a view within a fraction of time.  Even before food is plated, the design or look of the items needs to be carefully planned. A small peeled Yukon potato with chives presents a different picture than a lightly smashed Yukon topped with gravy. Ask what you want the sides to say in complimenting the main entrée.  As one scrolls through Instagram or other social media, the composition creates the hook for one to stop and take a look.  Is there dimension, height, depth, mass?  Where is the focal point in the shot?  Is there a color palette that, to the eye, draws one in?  Like a bee to a flower, color, and texture pull the eye inward.  A bright red tomato juxtaposed with crisp brown bacon and leafy greens on a BLT sandwich can salivate the hunger, stopping a casual observer for a closer look.  Build height, and cut the sandwich so the ingredients are fully exposed. An extra dap of mayonnaise cascading down the toast's edge all creates intrigue. When shooting an egg dish, I often show the moment the fork pieces the yolk, exposing the crimson yellow rushing out in its splendor.


Lighting: Use more than one light source.  A key light, or primary light source, is the first step, and in many ‘selfie’ type photos, it is the only light used.  However, at least one other source, be it a second light or a reflector used to bounce that key light back onto the plate, gives dimension and a touch of backlighting, creating a dimensional building of the composition.  This reflection can be from a shiny whiteboard or a second light. When I shoot in the studio, I often use three or more lights for a key light, a backlight, and a fill light, which is used from the side to create depth in the field of vision; thereby, the food on the plate has a complete three-dimensional look, often highlighting textures and focal points of the plated meal.  



avocado toast with rose in background
A Romantic Get-a-Way, Breakfast at the B&B

Story:  Utilize small props, from a wine glass and bottle in the background to views behind the plated food of the ocean view from your dining room; you tell a story of why this photo needs to be viewed.  The BLT sandwich has been seen a thousand times.  Why not let the viewer see the elegant table setting you provide by showing a flower vase with a contrasting color splash in the background to suggest a romantic twist to lunch?  Suggest a scenario where the viewer needs inspiration for a romantic getaway, like a rose at breakfast at a Bread and Breakfast Inn.  The background doesn’t need to be in focus and often shouldn’t be.  It’s a suggested scene, but one in a dreamlike fashion pulls one into the picture.


These suggestions don’t have to be complex or take a lot of time to set up the shot. However, they do need to be planned out ahead of time and can often be used, with slight variations over and over with slightly different props, i.e., S&P shaker, flower, linen cloths, styles, and shapes of the plate. Also, shooting angles can be switched up: overhead, close in, a side view, etc.



*Aaron Allen & Associates-Global Restaurant Consultants


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