There used to be an old saying when photographing food – you NEVER shoot food on blue. I’m sure it originated in the 70’s when we had Home Economists, now called food stylists, working in test kitchens at places like Campbells and Kraft. I have no clue why this became a rule as blue is a wonderful color for so many foods.
Today I’ll be talking about what are the best and worst colors for photographing food. I think the best way to think about this is to just break your food down into colors. Don’t think about what the food is, just what is the most dominant color in your food.
We need to look at the color wheel from art class. I’ll be talking about complementary colors and analogous colors. I can write an entire post about color, but that wouldn’t be too exciting and there’s already been enough written about it. So I’m going to make this very simple and talk about these colors as we use them in food photography.
Complementary colors are colors that would contrast each other in our food photos. They are colors that oppose each other on the color wheel, oranges and yellows vs blues and turquoises.
I was very careful with the napkin I chose for this shot above. I tried several colors and ended up choosing a napkin in the same color family as the wood surface, just a darker version of it so that it didn’t distract at all from the slice of tart on the plate.
Analogous colors are colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel, the same color family.
In the image above we have all warm toned colors here, golds, yellows and creamy whites. To make the food stand out we put the muffins into a darker muffin tin.
Now, let’s break this down into our food groups. Remember, in our food photos, the food is the most important thing in the shot so your eye should look at that first in your image – not your background or any props. When used incorrectly, color and props can be very distracting in the shot. This is about finding the right colors to make your food stand out and look beautiful.
Green Foods: Veggies and Salads
Here is an example of green foods with different backgrounds. The first shot has that blue/turquoise color again. Second shot is on a white plate that is on a very light yellow fabric going to white. White plates look great with a lot of foods. It can help frame your food against a color background and really make it stand out. The shot on the right is showing some greens in a wheat berry salad on a yellow background, again being framed by a white bowl. Green foods can look great on so many colors, both complimentary and analogous.
Brown Foods: Meats and Steaks
Many food bloggers tell me they have such a hard time photographing meats. This really does come down to styling the meat. You really have to spend time making your steak or chop look perfect*. The other important thing is what colors you will be using in your shot. Meats are usually brown, which is a combination of colors. These browns have yellows and reds in them. You have to make sure your shot doesn’t look muddy and what ever colors you use, enhances the meat.
In the shot above on the left we’re using a light pink/purple color on the fabric under our lamb chops. I love using purple and pinks with meats. It softens the shot a bit and makes the meat look very tasty.
The shot on the right above is using a totally neutral, natural, earth toned color palette and framing the steak in a warm white so it stands out. Greens and blues also look great with meats. Earth tone colors really look great with meats too.
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*Side note – for great styling techniques for all kinds of foods, you need Denise Vivaldo’s book – The Food Stylist’s Handbook
Yellow Foods: Poultry, Yellow Fruits and Veggies
Poultry can be a very light yellow color all the way to a yummy warm brown color if it’s roasted. The shot on the left has a nice warm, rusty, orange colored background which is analogous with both the chicken and the beef. When using yellows and oranges I always try to use earth tones. Same thing with green colors.
The whole bird in the middle is on a very bright purple/magenta color. Experiment with fabrics. You will be very surprised at how nice a shot can look with certain colors. Though this isn’t earth toned, the pink color really brings out the golden color of the chicken.
The golden raspberries in the yellow-green bowl are analogous colors as well that really relate to each other.
Neutral Colored Foods: Pastas, Grains, Potatoes
The key with shooting foods that don’t have much color is your garnish, how you plate it, and your background color. In each shot above the food is being garnished with something that has color. The pasta on the left has parsley on top. The granola in the middle has bright fruit and so does the cereal. Darker bowls and plates are an interesting way to plate food that doesn’t have much color in it.
Bright Foods: Reds, Oranges, etc.
Bright foods will automatically get your eye’s attention so generally speaking, the best thing to do here is to use neutral colors with it to really make it stand out. On the left we have tomato soup in white bowls on a dark navy blue fabric. The orange soup really pops. If you do add color to these kinds of shots, complementary colors work really well, like the green basil garnish on the soup, in small amounts so as to not compete with your main food.
Colors That Are Hard To Shoot with Food
I don’t even like looking at this graphic. The colors are so harsh. I avoid using fabrics or backgrounds that are pure red, pure blue, and pure yellow, the Primary colors. I actually find bright yellow to be the hardest color to work with. It is much easier to use colors that are earth toned in most cases.
The bright colors will cause other issues too. They can do what’s called color contamination with your food and your set. The color is so bright that it reflects that color into the food or props, or both, destroying the natural color the food had. This is very difficult to fix later.
Avoid Patterns on Plates
Something I need to mention here. Notice that most of the images have no patterns or designs on the plates. That can be very distracting and can take the viewer’s eye away from your food.
Random Colors That Can Look Fabulous
Of course when it comes to color there are no real hard rules to this. Be open to trying some different things – just remember the goal is to make the food stand out and to look as great as you can make it. Who knew that my studio computer table from CB2, in flaming green, could look great as a surface? I’ve never used it since, but for this shot it worked out great. You also might be shocked at how pink can look in your shot.
In my next post I will talk about how to work with fabrics. There’s some good tricks you need to know to make it easier on you. Fabrics can be a great way to bring color and texture into your shots for a very reasonable price.
Photo styling credits for the images used:
- Rustic Peach Tart on turquoise – food styled by Marcella Capasso
- Cornbread Muffins – food styled by Alise Arato and props styled by Amy Paliwoda
- Green Salad on turquoise – food styled by Marcella Capasso
- Asparagus on white plate – food styled by Alise Arato
- Wheat Berry Salad – food styled by Alise Arato and props styled by Amy Paliwoda
- Lamb Chops and T-Bone steak – food styled by Alise Arato and props styled by Amy Paliwoda
- Grilled Chicken with Beef Stew on orange – food styled by Alise Arato
- Whole Chicken on Pink – food styled by Alise Arato
- Mac and Cheese – food styled by Alise Arato and props styled by Amy Paliwoda
- Overhead shot of Granola – food styled by Sarah Simms Hendrix
- Bowl of Cereal – food styled by Alise Arato and props styled by Amy Paliwoda
- Tomato Soup and also Bowls of Strawberries – food and props by Amy Paliwoda
- Eggs on green table – food styled by Alise Arato and props styled by Amy Paliwoda
- Citrus on Pink – food and props by Amy Paliwoda
If you are local in the Los Angeles area, Amy Paliwoda is the owner of The Surface Library, where many of the props and surfaces you see here can be rented for your photo shoots.
Disclosure: Denise Vivaldo is a very good friend of mine and we teach classes together. Should you choose to buy her book mentioned above I will receive a small commission.
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