10 Tips to Menu Food Photography

Posted by | February 19, 2016 | Design Tips, Reference | No Comments

People are visual beings. Our behaviour is in reaction to what we see. Which is why food photography is an important part of marketing in the hospitality industry. It will trigger the actions of your customers and will heighten sales out of gluttony, temptation or need. But really, that’s advertising in a nutshell.

Investing in good photography is an important aspect to your brand aesthetic, but can be tough if you have a very strict budget. So let’s look into some pointers to make your food photography stand out, while help your business’s brand thrive.

My first experience of food photography was when I was working for an organization and was told they wanted food picture on the new menus we were rolling out. The brief was as follows: “We are trying to be ‘transparent’ so we want to have food photos that are actually served at the restaurant, not stock photography. As well maintain brand recognition, but we don’t have budget for a food photographer.” Does this sound familiar?

My best and really only solution was to roll up my sleeves and take it on myself. I read as much as I could on food photography and tried to take some awesome pictures with the resources I had. Ha! Boy, was it a task. In the process I formed a high respect for food photography after that experience. I have been in a few photo-shoots since then and would love to give you a breakdown of what I have learnt about food photography in the process.

1. Where & When to use Photography

The irony of food photography on menus baffles me. High-end restaurants generally do not use photos whereas low-end restaurants use photos. Of course this varies depending on the brand. The reason why I say it is ironic is that good food photography can become very costly. With smaller budgets, restaurant owners generally try to take it on themselves and most of the time it comes up short. So be sure it is done tastefully if you want to take on the job.

If you find you have fast turnover of menus but still want visual appeal, I do highly suggest illustrations as they generally do not form expectation but add a creative touch. Or just leave out visuals all together and use the words on your menu to heighten your dishes qualities.

2. Consistency

This is a general rule of brand design. If some of the photos look like they were taken on a good lighting day, some were taken in the back kitchen after hours and some in low res with filters — it honestly just goes down hill from there. If you are doing the photos yourself, try to have your shots taken in one photo session so the lighting is consistent and the shots look like they are part of the same menu. This does take planning in food production and food styling and may help if you know the exact placement on the menu layout. Giving the photographer an idea of what angles to showcase the dish best.

If you are a restaurant that has menu boards and printed or digital menus, be sure the photos are the same on all mediums.

3. Textures & Lighting

When you do set up a photo shoot, texture and lighting is very important. When I say textures I mean the background to highlight the food or the food itself. Along with the plates or the tables your showcasing the food on, try to incorporate what is actually used at your restaurant. It shows consistency of the brand.

You also want to be sure your lighting is good. If you have the option, get lighting umbrellas or set up your food in a light box. If you want to try it out yourself; watch this food photography tutorial for some great pointers.

As mentioned in this article, natural lighting is very important and can come in handy if you do not have the right lighting equipment.

Italio has a great example of using their bold red (even though they are paper) dishes to showcase their food.


4. Classification of your restaurant

The classifications of your restaurant will generally determine your menu design and the way you use photography. The fast-casual restaurant has become the newest class of restaurant, along with classics like fine dining, fast food, casual dining and others. They all have various ways to showcase their menu. As mentioned above upscale restaurants have a tendency to only use text and veto photos on their menus all together. Whereas the other three are more prone to use photos.

Fast-causal can go one way or another. Frequently displayed on menu boards, the photos are sparse but of good quality which resembles the fast-casual ideal, but limiting the amount of photos brings in a classy and value based appeal. One thing for sure is to make sure the photos are in line with your brand persona and recognition.


5. Use Sparingly & Strategically

Some menus will have a photo for each dish, which can work for some places, although it can disrupt the ability to strategically sell high profit items. So take (at most) two dishes from each section that you want to showcase and use the photo to highlight the dish, you will generally find a spike in sales with the photographed item.

If you have a multiple page menu it is best to use no more than two photos per layout. Like the Boston Pizza Menu (one of my favourite menu designs ever!) there is contrast between a full page image and additional smaller (secondary) items on the opposite page, but no more than two. I love this menu because it also has a lot of negative space leading the reader to read and observe the menu in a particular order.


6. Hire the right Photographer

There are so many photographers to choose from. Finding one that has a lot of experience in food is definitely a must, as working with food is a category on it’s own. So hiring the your best friends wedding photographer may not be the best route. I have put together personal list of local photographers who’s work is definitely something to admire. In no particular order:

James Tse | Heather Shaw | Shanghoon | Vince Noguchi | Micheal Alberstat | Rob Fiocca | Sracey Bradford | Ryan Szulc | Colin Faulkner | Micheal Crichton | Mark Burstyn | Jim Norton  | Nick Ghattas

I also came across a post which had some really great international food photographers as well. See here.

7. Leave smart phones to Instagram

Of course just going out and getting a good ol’ Cannon camera is not your key to great food photography but can help you understand the art. I did came across this hilarious, tight-budget photo session done by photographers with an iPhone that is very impressive. But again left to the professionals.

Although smartphones, more so then not can come in handy especially for your Instagram feed. If you want to gain some social recognition definitely invite and respond to your customers taking food shots, using those Instagram filters to embellish and woo. But again leave it to social media, not your menu. It can definitely look a little amateur when you can call out which filter is being used on your menu.

Regarding promotional content; check out this post with some great smart phone tips.

8. Understanding Expectation

One of the largest aspects of food photography is forming expectation and for this reason alone, many restaurants leave out photos all together. Once you have placed an image of your food on your menu and it comes up short of anything less than that photo; you have killed your customers expectation. Leaving a person mislead will result in never seeing that customer again because they sum up the experience as misleading.

Accuracy of photos is very important. Even though they may be stylized to please the eye, they should still resemble the dishes that will be brought to your customers. In detail; misleading portions, quantity, quality and overall look of the dish can make your customers feel bamboozled.

Consumers have and will always form expectations. They measure their perception to what they have seen and experienced in the past so you do not want to come up short.

9. Work Together

Sometimes when running a restaurant, you loose sight of what and who is around you. Is your wait staff in school? Particularly for photography? I was watching a TedTalk where Gabriel Stulman explained how one of his staff members was a photographer. Recognizing his abilities and got him to photograph one of his restaurants. The employee was so grateful that he saw his potential.

As I mentioned hiring food photographers can be pricy, so if you do have a strict budget and a resourceful staff always weigh out your best options. Although don’t veto hiring a food photographer as you will be happy with the value it brings to your menu.

10. Examples

Below are some examples I have come across that work beautifully and in line with their establishment and brand.

Kelseys Menu Design — Food Photography: Brandon Barre 

Kelsey's Menu Design

Menu Design for KIRKOS Bar Resto by MANIFITO Group

Kirkos Menu Design

This Digital Menu from Creative Mints; although a concept design it is very well thought out, with a beautiful appeal of the main image to grab your attention.


Alternates to food photography is illustration. This doesn’t sway the expectation of the customer while giving off a creative feel.  Irving & Co. | Art of the Menu : Continental Miami

Menu Illustration

Simple Food Photography. It gives a hint of ingredients or a subtle look into what is being used. Grids&Grids

Simple Menu Photography

Although this is a Foodland Ontario recipe brochure and not a menu but has some similar elements that apply, and can work really well on a menu. The layout and use of photography is beautifully executed.  Design Agency : Leo Burnett | Food Photography : Rob Fiocca


Red Lobster Fest Menu — This is case there majority of the menu is designed with food photography, although it limits the amount by focussing on four particular dishes.

Red Lobster Food Photography


Although I do not vouch for stock food photography especially on a menu (because it should ideally be your own food) but here is a stock photography site that may help with food imagery and possibly marketing materials. It also has a page dedicated to it’s contributors which you can maybe find local photographers in your area.

I have found an agency in Toronto that sources food photographers called Walden Design. They can source out the best photographer for your needs.

If you do want to learn more about food photography in your spare time there is an online course that I have heard is pretty good as well.

Hope you enjoyed this post and let me know if I’ve missed anything on Twitter or Facebook.

Cheers, Ashley Howell

Graphic Designer; Ashley Howell provides creative services for restaurateurs and businesses in hospitality. If you would like a quote or have questions please get in touch today! Read the stories behind Avid Creative. Or get seasonal updates with the Avid Creative Newsletter.
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