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How to look attractive online

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Written by Sarah Denardi
8 May 2020
Writer, stylist and creative producer

Undeniably, the food industry is spinning from the rapid change of what was to what is, but time waits for no one and while many restaurants and food outlets initially closed, there is now a reopening to a new reality. Even as restrictions lift, it is unlikely that we will find ourselves in a familiar space anytime soon. Instead, there will likely be a hybrid existence - a new kind of restaurant experience together with an increased demand for online take home/home delivered food services.

Adapt. Improvise. Re-imagine. Evolve… get your online presence in order.

Hospitality by definition is to openly treat friends and strangers with warmth and generosity, and in a time of universal quarantine, that’s a tricky divide to span. If eating in is the new eating out, engaging your customer base visually is one of the foundations to ongoing success. What exactly does that mean in this time of social distance? First and foremost, Instagram is your new best friend, your digital front-of-house, a daily shout-out to your customer base.

Once the support act, today successfully navigating Instagram as a business tool is more than ever a game changer. Simple and immediate it is an excellent vehicle for here and now, so clearly direct your narrative and content to maximise your marketing potential. While hungry to feed it is simple to master, all you need is a great plan and some killer images. The good news is you can achieve this with nothing more than your phone (unlike your website, where professional images are probably recommended) and a bit of creativity.

Image making 101

When shooting food or food related content; space, texture, height, form and colour are all key players. The combinations are endless and the skill is in orchestrating how each is utilised, a little like creating the perfect balance in a dish. As Thomas Keller said “A recipe has no soul. You, as the cook, must bring soul to the recipe,” the same can be said for images - not all images are created equal, they need soul, and to be successful they need to be well considered.

Style - clarifying your style direction will clear the way forward. The principle ‘less is more’ is a mantra to help you navigate, plan and manage your visual assets. Style is an overarching concept that will dictate all your decisions from subject, angle and colour through to props. If it is not immediately obvious, try creating a folder of inspiration images and references to help get you started. Clearly your brand identity will have some influence, then imagine an overall look and feel. Is it graphic, with eye popping colour, a little pop art? Or, moody, muted, tonal? Maybe there’s there a narrative; your location, your staff, your process? Or is it simply all about the food up front and centre?

Pattern and texture - develop your awareness of patterns and textures, both naturally occurring and composed, they create rhythm, an enhanced sense of order or movement. From the natural texture of food (the crust of freshly baked bread), to random repetition (a tumble of coffee beans), an organised repetition or a looser interpretation through the use of repeated shapes in your composition (from the food to the tableware).

Shape and form - tie directly back into angle and composition, the form of your food/subject will inform the angle. If you are shooting a burger, chances are you want to shoot into the layers, so height will create maximum impact. A slightly wonky icing swirl on a cupcake adds a sense of whimsy. These considerations will guide the plating of the food or arranging of the subject. The overall shape and form are governed by the food/subject but also supported by the props and other elements, whether it’s the corner of a draped napkin, a glass of wine, the shape and size of your plates, cutlery and so on.

Colour and contrast - embrace colour, it’s a powerful ally. Tie it in with your brand, use it to evoke mood, add drama and elevate the subject. Experiment, from monochromatic colour schemes through to complimentary colour schemes.

The human touch - movement is the poetry that helps tell the story and make the image relatable. Actions like pouring, holding, twirling, stirring connect the viewer (stills shot as a sequence can be turned into a simple GIF). Another technique to suggest movement is the much loved messy look. Spills and sprinkles - grated cheese, a few drops of dressing, crumbs, salt, pepper, herbs and chili flakes, just keep it light, a little goes a long way.

Deliciousness factor - even the worthiest dish can need a little extra TLC to show its best side to camera. Olive oil or glycerine for extra gloss here and there especially helps to make melted cheese, roast veggies and meats pop. A little spritz (mini pump atomisers are perfect) of 50/50 cold water and glycerine on salads and herbs that need a quick lift. Cast your critical eye over your dish - trim off any herbs/leaves that have dried ends or are wilting. Use skewers and toothpicks to help food stay in shape, especially anything stacked. Pay attention to sauces, the right drip or drizzle of sauce and you’ve maxed the yum.

Lighting - this can make or break an image, it’s difficult to master, so keep it simple. Aim for natural light where possible, turn off any overhead lights that will flatten or dull your images. Light shifts as the day progresses, so play around within the space you are working. The softest light is early in the morning, followed by late afternoon which has a warmer feel. If you want to soften the light manually, you can diffuse it at the light source (e.g. window) with some sheer fabric or a scrim. Alternatively, if you need to bump up the light onto your subject or more generally, then use a reflector - a piece of white cardboard or poly board does the job.

Angle - most often the food or scene will dictate the best angle. Choose according to the desired impact, overhead and eye-level create fairly graphic images, where a high angle (think perspective of a seated diner) creates a more descriptive image.

Composition - there are many ways to approach composition - balance is key, don’t let the surroundings compete with the subject. The hero is the conveyer of your story. All of the rules of composition can be used together or separately to find balance.

  • Negative space - knowing how to use the empty space around an object is a really effective design tool. Leveraging negative space well gently amplifies the focus
  • Leading lines - using lines in the composition creates a path to draw the viewer’s eye in. For example, shooting low along the edge of a bar to a frosty cocktail
  • Symmetry - both sides of the image hold equal weight with the focal point centre, this works really well with graphic subjects
  • Rule of thirds - works on the concept that off centre composition has great appeal. Mentally divide your image using even lines, two each, horizontal and vertical. Then place the most important elements at the intersection of these lines.  

Editing and beyond - a few apps to galvanise your efforts. Editing - SnapseedVSCOAfterlight and Photoshop Express. Video - Boomerang and Lifelapse. Scheduling - SKEDLater and Hootsuite.

Practice - don’t be afraid to take some bad photos - allow some room for spontaneity, always use a light touch.

Take it to the next level – Creative Live and Domestika both have affordable and easy to access, short online/via app classes.

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