Of all the food styling challenges to darken any visual artists’ day, the exasperated complaint that a particular dish is “too brown” to photograph nicely comes up more often than the average eater might imagine. Considering how many edibles are naturally brown, not to mention that the act of browning through high heat is what makes scores of culinary creations truly delicious, that’s one huge stumbling block to overcome. Banish those old prejudices- Brown really can be beautiful! With just a little bit of planning and attention to detail, there are many ways to prevent a photographic brown out.
When scheming up the overall color palate for any shot, always first consider the color of the food itself. To allow the “hero” to stand out, you want something contrasting, but not jarring.
Think about the occasion you’re making the recipe for. Holidays often come with their own distinctive sets of hues, but try to go beyond the cliched green-and-red for Christmas or orange-and-black for Halloween. Try to picture the mood instead; shimmering white snow around the winter holidays for a more sophisticated palate, or earthy greens and coppery gold for the changing autumnal leaves.
Take the mood you’re trying to set into consideration, too. Fun, whimsical kid’s birthday cake on display? Go bold, bright, and vibrant with those shades! Cozy breakfast in bed with pancakes? Stick with soft, warm tones that echo the soothing morning glow instead.
If you’re still stuck for the perfect accent colors, consider the individual ingredients in your featured dish. Chocolate-cherry cookies bake up a muddy brown, but a vibrant red-violet background would get the point across quite nicely.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to art, but when all else fails, go back to basics. Simple white plates are invaluable for keeping the focus on the food, brightening up those darker shades, and preventing visual fatigue brought on by busy patterns. The same principle applies to white backgrounds as well. Subtle textures like stone, fabric, and wood prevent the food from “floating” in the frame, without fighting for attention.
Emphasize texture so it doesn’t appear flat, shapeless, and quite simply boring. Raking the light across the subject, rather than shining it directly into it, shows off all the nooks and crannies of a cake’s crumb, no matter how dark and plain.
Don’t forget about the garnishes! Nothing perks up a boring, bland-looking stew like a sprinkling of fresh herbs. That bright green color tells viewers, “Look, this is fresh!” no matter how long it’s been simmering on the stove. Depending on the flavors being featured, consider reaching for crushed red pepper flakes, chili threads, salsa, edible flowers, berries; anything that makes sense with the dish and breaks up that sea of flat brown color.
Although these are my most commonly employed tricks for managing a photographic brown-out, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creative solutions. Every composition will demand something different, which is where the artistry of food styling and prop styling comes into play. When you have a brown situation on your hands, what’s your favorite fix?