The Value of (Good) Food Photography

The Value of (Good) Food Photography

I went away to college in Boston and started taking pictures of food because – all of a sudden – I was within arm’s reach of an abundance of great food (also because I filled all the hours during which I should’ve been studying with walking around the city, eating). Yes, I’d lived in LA for 18 years, but in a small, secluded suburb where my most exotic excursion was 10 minutes away to an all-night taco truck (Rambo’s. Eagle Rock. Burrito con tripas y cabeza.). I enjoyed food, and that was all.

I had no awareness of Instagram (except as an app I could use to edit my photos…but I also had no awareness of editing), and really only shared photos on Facebook to let my friends and family know that I was still alive. Then people started to get jealous of my diet, and I’m not too ashamed to admit, I loved it.

Here’s the thing: if people are jealous of what you’re eating, then you’re taking food photos the right way. People should want to eat what you’re eating. That’s a photo fulfilling its thousand-word promise.

Faster than saying, “No, not like Cup Noodles.”

Good Looks Matter

If you do delivery, you should have great food photos. Not necessarily “professional,” just presentable (more on the difference later). As Grubhub is keen to let its vendors know, “Including a photo can increase sales of that item by up to 30 percent.” It’s a hassle to read every menu item description, and I’m not a picky eater (no, neither am I one of those picky eaters in denial about my pickiness: ‘I’m not picky! I just don’t like…’). Life is much easier, however, if I’m browsing a menu of pictures instead of a menu of words; “looks good” is usually a much lower bar than “sounds good.”

This is a change of pace for restaurants – menus have historically been text-dominant or text-exclusive. But with delivery on the rise, this is another thing restaurants are going to have to rethink to adapt to the evolving demands of consumers.

A good food photo is especially valuable when you’re introducing a new product or a cuisine that’s new to a neighborhood. Instead of having to explain, on your website or directly on your menu, what this thing is to people who don’t know –

Ex: Introducing ramen.

‘So you’ve had Top Ramen?’

‘Top what?’

‘Cup Noodles?’

‘Oh, yeah.’

‘Great! It’s like that, but better in literally every way.’

‘Okay…I’ll have the short rib.’ (Suspend your disbelief that a restaurant could have both ramen and short rib)

 – here’s a picture, questions answered. There’s a reason why casual chains like BJs and Cheesecake Factory have menus filled with pictures; the same with banquet halls and many dim sum restaurants. Not only do pictures of food make people hungry but they get customers over a crucial knowledge hump that exists in all retail, but especially food: “I don’t know what that is, so I won’t get it.” Fear of the unknown. Unless the unknown looks really really objectively mouth-wateringly delicious: “I don’t know what that is, but it looks amazing.”

A photo can answer the big question, “What’s that?” more succinctly and satisfyingly than any other way. It’s a huge reason why Instagram and the food community are so tightly intertwined.

Food photography is also one of the only things that you, the business owner, can influence on Yelp. You can do this by adding your own images to those taken by your customers – ideally, yours would be of much higher quality. When I – with my ‘consumer’ hat on – am looking for new food on Yelp, I look at images, not reviews. Yelp written reviews, for the most part, stink. The aggregated star rating will get me to a restaurant’s page, and the images will (or won’t) close the deal. Again, all I’m looking for is something that looks good. And as much as I like to bag on Yelp, it is positively tied to a restaurant’s revenue.

How To Look Good

The pictures only work if they’re good; but what is “good?” I won’t post any examples here – because, well, no – but browse any Yelp page and you’ll find a couple of pictures that make you go, “Yeuch.” And I’m not talking about the ones from the critics – “my Well-done stake was overcookd 1 star” – I’m talking about the pictures that are supposed to make food look appetizing, but don’t.

My checklist for taking a good food picture (2 and 3 serve as my “consumer-side” photo checklist) is as follows:

  1. I must genuinely enjoy the food.
  2. The picture must make me hungry. Even if I’m full.
  3. The picture should demonstrate some bare semblance of photographic awareness.

#1 motivates me to take a picture as good as the food. #2 is a goal to keep in mind – if it makes me hungry, it probably makes someone else hungry. #3 stems from browsing restaurant posts extolling the virtues of their “Classic Thick-Cut, Crispy Pepperoni Pizza” (or some other yum-inducing item), only to look at a close-up photo of what might be a blurry pepperoni on cheese but what might also be Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

I try not to think of professional food photography when I’m taking pictures. I’m not remotely a professional photographer – I did not attend photography school, nor do I run a photography business – so why try to be? I neither have the time (my food is getting cold) nor the will (I’m hungry and my food is getting cold) nor the knowledge (that angle might look good but I’m hungry and my food is getting cold) to set up a shot just right. But frankly, it’s also better not to. How often does the Famous Pasta from the Famous Restaurant come the way it appeared in The [City] Times? And even if it’s still amazing, there’s an element of disappointment that it’s not quite what you’d seen. Do they make this better for the City Times?

When I’m taking a picture, I focus on one simple thought: ‘What about what I’m eating looks good?’

For example, say you’re taking a picture of a massive deli sandwich. 1st thought: “This is a sandwich. The middle – pastrami & corned beef – is the showstopper.” Clearly. But when the answer is, “Everything looks good!” then by default I just go top-down. It’s the best and simplest perspective for making food – especially a whole plate or several plates – look great.

Superb pasta from a lunch counter in Boston (Casa Razdora). Easy picture.

Taking solid (good, presentable, appetizing, etc.) food photos is not particularly hard, especially when the food is good (presentable, appetizing, etc.) all by itself. It is far easier to take a picture of a plate of great food than it is to take a picture that compensates for mediocre food.

And so we cycle back to the origin of most restaurant advice: “Believe in your product.” Taking great pictures of your food is only going to help if the real thing (as well as the rest of the experience) keeps people coming back.  But if you’re getting into delivery, bringing a new cuisine to your neighborhood, or want to clean up your Yelp page, a good food photo can go a long way.


-Mitch Collins | Community Manager | @mitchpls