I couldn’t talk about culinary photography without addressing the issue of color. It’s a crucial component in the composition of your photographs. Unlike other types of photography, culinary photos let you orchestrate an entire scene to highlight the subject of your photo. You choose which dishes to use, the backdrop for your photos, dishcloths, and accessories to include, etc. You’ll also ask yourself whether you would prefer a colored plate instead of a white one. So then, which color should you choose? Will it be a good match for my background color? And what about accessories? Will they be a good match too?
Even if it is on an unconscious level, these are still questions that you’ll be asking yourself.
The idea behind this article is to encourage you to be aware of these choices and start to see color as a specific aspect that contributes to your photographic compositions.
How is this an important choice?
- Color is going to make your images attractive and create visual appeal and whet the viewer’s appetite.
- Color is directly linked to the photo’s ambiance. You’re not going to want vivid and shimmering colors to create a cocoon-like atmosphere.
So how do you choose?
Every color appeals to the senses and hearkens back to an ambiance, and evokes an emotion. Prior to preparing your scene, you’ll first need to ask yourself what ambiance you want to construct, so you can make the right choices.
I associate colors with the different culinary seasons. A winter stew will be matched with darker and rather neutral colors – brown, midnight blue, dark red, and gray. Colors that contribute warmth.
On the other hand, a summer recipe will be best showcased with turquoise blue, apple green, yellow…colors that contribute an overall sense of freshness.
To every season its colors and its ambiances.
When I’m not letting the season be my inspiration, the recipe will speak to me with a particular theme. Do you want Japanese-style ambiance? I’m going to opt for blacks, reds, and whites. For a “Christmas” atmosphere, I’ll go more for white, gold, and silver, and perhaps add some notes of red. I’m just digging around for some inspiration from my Christmas decorations. Finally, for Halloween atmosphere, I’ll go straight to the black and orange color combination, and I’ll build the composition around this duality. How about an English brunch? I’ll work with the colors of the Union Jack. Here are 4 concrete examples:
Marry colors together in good taste
But regardless of the ambiance, you will want to choose colors according to the food so you can be sure to highlight the dish! Whether you want bold contrast or harmonious interplay, you’ll decide what best corresponds to the idea you’re working on and you’ll choose what you like best. Because the composition also has to please you!
To avoid clashing colors and create the right wedding of complementing shades, you can use the color wheel below.
This is the simplified version and it shows both primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) and secondary colors (orange, purple, and green).
Color harmony is created by the presence of two adjacent colors on the wheel (yellow and orange, blue and green). It creates for the viewer a certain balance.
On the other hand, contrast is the result of the juxtaposition of two opposite colors (like red and green and yellow and purple). You can put together a warm color with a cool color, which creates a strong visual impact.
If you don’t feel very at ease choosing colors, I recommend to just start adding a single color, and then two. Be careful not to bring in too many colors. Unless it’s really part of the ambiance you’re going for, it’s better to take it easy and not take off in too many directions at once. Be careful not to use clashing colors.
How do you add color?
There are several possibilities for adding color to your composition.
- The background can be colored or neutral. Starting off with a neutral base is easier if you then want to add little notes of color. If you choose to have a colored background, be careful to make sure the photo isn’t too busy. It’s a little more difficult to make the right choices when you’re starting with a base that already invokes a particular visual impact.
- Cloths and dish towels. It is pretty rare that I don’t use cloth to bring color to the scenes I create. You can place them either below your dish, on the side, or in the background.
- Dishes. A plate, some cutlery, and glasses can also add notes of color to help highlight the recipe you want to showcase.
- Ingredients. The ingredients you use to make your dish or which tell a story can also be elements that add bold colors in the background. So you can place them further back.
On the left, in order to bring color to these totally white pavlovas, I used a colored plate and a napkin. Some strawberries placed on the scene also bring in some pleasing touches. You can also insert some little designs as I did here with this little polka-dotted red placemat.
In the center, I have a colored background, but it isn’t too brightly colored, so I can then easily add some notes of color with a dish towel, some herbs, and a bowl.
Lastly, for the picture on the right, I wanted to create a very dark scene. I started with my dish to guide the selections in my scene: a (red) raspberry sundae, (green) pistachios, and (brown/black) chocolate. It’s key that I used my ingredients to add in the notes of color.
And what about the monochromatic effect?
Monochromatic means that you’ll use just a single color. This doesn’t mean that the image will be monotone! It contributes a visual unity between your dish and the elements surrounding it.
To create this type of image, you’ll start from a monochromatic dish. Otherwise, you won’t get the desired effect.
To avoid creating a flat and boring image, try as much as possible to play with contrasting dark and bright tones or bright and pastel colors.
For this photo, I wanted a monochromatic atmosphere, based on the beige tones of these coffee creams. I blended in accessories and background with more or less somber tones in order to showcase the creams. Look at the color chart just below the photo. It shows the various shades of beige from darkest to lightest.
And what about post-processing?
To better highlight your photos, don’t forget to spend some time on post-processing. Without returning to the subject that has been amply discussed in an earlier article on the blog, I will just say not to forget that retouching photos will help you achieve the most sublime colors and intensify them (be careful, always proceed delicately!) or maybe just modify them a little.
In fact, sometimes I slightly modify the colorimetry of an element so that it will blend in perfectly with the rest of the scene. Once again, you need to employ a light touch so that the effect remains natural.
To really harmonize the shot with the background I chose, I slightly corrected the color of the plate so it would use the same tones. To go from the left photo to the right photo, I played with the tint, and I adjusted the settings so that only the plate was impacted by this correction.
Under the pseudonym chefNini, Virginie has written a culinary blog by the same name since February, 2008. She shares her recipes, technical articles, purchasing guides and test products.
Since 2011, she has offered photography, styling, and culinary creativity services.
She has written a culinary photo book published by Pearson, as well as a Cuisine Almanac published by Editions 365.