Photographic Composition for Restaurants

It’s happened to everyone at least once: The ad is packed with pictures of an irresistible deep-dish pie, oozing with glistening cheese and crisp colorful vegetables.  Gracing the background as a sure indication of wholesome freshness, some lovely green peppers are misted with tiny droplets as they rest comfortably next to handcrafted sausages straight from Italy.

Photographic Composition for Restaurants

So, like Pavlov’s dogs, just one look at these gorgeous photographs is enough to make you want to pick up the phone and place an order — whether you’re hungry or not.

Of course, when the pizza arrives, it’s basically a train wreck. The lukewarm pancake covered with greasy cheese and pale-orange meat looks nothing like the thing of beauty from the ad.

You become convinced that food photographers for the big guys are essentially magicians, and you may wish that you had a little of their power to capture your actually delicious food.

Of course, they don’t really sit gazing into crystal balls looking for the secrets of the universe. They just know lots of cool tricks. If you’re aspiring to master the art of food photography, you’ll have to master some of their methods.

Macro Focusing Capabilities

The ability to take close-up pictures makes the difference between pizza that resembles a handcrafted masterpiece — and what you see when you opened that lid.

For the ultimate food photography, invest in a camera with macro focusing capability, like a view camera with a digital back. Hey, it only costs a cool $40,000 for top of the line gear! Or, if that’s a little out of your price range, a beginner digital SLR camera can also suit your needs, to the tune of around $600.

You can also use image-editing programs, like Photoshop or Google’s Picasa, to crop tighter shots. But, this method may result in some image quality loss if you’re not shooting in RAW format.

Manual Controls for Focus and Exposure

To emphasize certain details in a shot, professional food photographers often use manual focus and exposure. Say, for instance, you’re shooting a slice of pizza with a green salad on the side. Manual focus lets you hone in on the slice, showing it in fine, delicious detail, while allowing the salad to remain a soft, fuzzy blur.

Similarly, manual exposure allows you to control the aperture and depth-of-field, or sharpness of focus. Sometimes you want extremely sharp focus, while other times, a slightly out-of-focus look works best.

These tools increase your flexibility. If your camera doesn’t support manual focus and manual exposure, you’ll miss out the detail that pre-set levels just can’t get. Consider investing in a digital SLR camera to get these manual capabilities and add to your arsenal.


Of course, professional food photographers use studio lighting for the best results. If you don’t have access, create your own budget lighting system with hardware store items. Important components include:

  • Tripod
  • Light stands
  • Portable lights with 60-100 watt bulbs
  • White bed sheets hung on dowel rods
  • Different surfaces, like wood, tiles, corkboard or Formica

You can also use natural lighting to your advantage. Just make sure to diffuse any harsh sunlight so you don’t blow out the highlights.


Be mindful of the shot’s background. Obviously, you want the background to remain appetizing – no cats using litter boxes, please – and uncluttered, or free from visual noise.

Among the best options: The pizza equipment used to create the food — such as cheese graters, wood-fired ovens or paddles — and ingredients, like garlic cloves or ripe tomatoes, to whet the appetite.

With a bit of practice and editing, as well as the right equipment, your photographs can show off your food and tempt a hungry audience.

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