Capture beautiful dishes with these 7 minimalist food photography lessons

Overhead pink ice cream on pastel blue background. Minimalistic summer food concept.

In a world obsessed with superfluity, minimalism is a breath of fresh air. In the last few years, it has influenced everything from fashion to architecture to graphic design. But how does this 'less is more' philosophy apply to food photography?

Photo by Jenny Dorsey

Read on to learn about the seven minimalist techniques that you can use to elevate your next food shoot.

01. Treat your dish like a star

Photo by Ruslan Bardash

No matter what type of food photography you pursue, the dish you’re photographing should always be the star. Nowhere is this more exemplified than when you shoot with a minimalist approach. With little to no props, you are left with no other choice than to make the food look its best.

Photo by Heather Schwartz

So, how exactly do you do that? The secret is all in the food styling. First, you need to add a bit of color to your dish. If it’s made up of mostly one color, embellish it with other edible items of different colors to add some contrast. Adding a garnish can also give it some texture and make it appear even more palatable.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska

You can also give the dish some height and substance to make it appear more three-dimensional in photos. Since photographs are naturally flat, this trick creates the illusion that the food is almost popping out of the frame. Additionally, any subject that appears big and plentiful can generate a feeling of fullness in its viewer.

02. Keep your background clean

Photo by Foodism360

Your chosen background plays an essential role when photographing food. Its role is to highlight a dish without overwhelming it. That’s why it’s best to choose neutral-colored backdrops. If you pick one that has too many visual elements, it can overload your viewer’s eyes as well as distract them from the food. Play it safe and look for a background that functions like a clean, blank canvas.

Photo by Jasmine Waheed

The best backgrounds to use include tables, countertops, and plain walls. However, you can use just about anything at your disposal as long as it doesn't overpower the rest of the image.

Photo by Pooja Chaudhary

Figure out the dominant colors of your dish and pick a color that either complements or contrasts with them as your background. Doing so will make the plate and the rest of the photo look bright and vivid. 

03. Avoid distracting with too many props

Photo by Benjamin Wong

As a general rule, minimalism is all about keeping things as simple as possible. This may seem limiting at first, but just remember that the fewer the number of subjects in your photos, the less amount of props you actually need to support them.

Photo by Chiaseng Tai

Whenever possible, there should be few other objects in your frame aside from your dish. However, adding selected props can add depth to your shot’s overall composition as well as provide context to how your dish is meant to be eaten. Some props you can use include everyday kitchenware, such as plating and utensils. Just make sure that whatever you add to a shot is relevant to your theme.

Photo by Dennis Klein

If an item distracts the viewer from your main subject, you’re better off removing it. As long as you don’t overdo your styling, a minimal amount of props is perfectly fine.

04. Leave plenty of negative space

Photo by Toa Heftiba

What makes minimalist food photography so distinct from other styles is that it makes use of a lot of negative space. Why? Because it’s the best and simplest way to isolate and highlight your main subject.

When there isn’t much else to look at, the viewer’s eyes naturally gravitate toward the dish. Therefore, you should always give your dish enough breathing space by clearing out any clutter around it.

Photo by Brenda Godinez

This doesn’t mean that negative space equals a blank frame all the time. Experiment with contrast by varying the spaces and patterns between objects once in a while. As long as you give the dish enough headroom, you can expect the same beautiful results.

05. Simplify your lighting

Photo by Atharba Lele

When possible, it's best to avoid artificial lights while shooting food—especially tungsten bulbs. Often, the best way to bring out the colors and textures of a dish is by using natural light.  

Photo by Toa Heftiba

Set your plate next to a window to diffuse the light and avoid strong shadows. You can also add a plain white curtain to help distribute the light better. Since the sun isn’t directly hitting your subject, you can keep taking photographs even at noon when the sunlight’s supposed to be the harshest.

However, since the light’s intensity changes throughout the day, you should also check and re-adjust your settings every once in a while. Make this a habit to prevent your image from looking over- or underexposed.

Photo by Daniel Gold

You can also shoot outside at sunrise or sunset during the golden hour. The golden glow that the sun casts enhances the colors of your dish. Apart from that, the orange light also makes the food look warm and delicious. Just beware that the sun during this time can cast long shadows. Therefore, you need to compose your shots wisely to prevent the shadows from potentially obstructing some of the elements in your shot.

Photo by Chad Verzosa

Nonetheless, if using natural light proves to be impossible, you can improvise with artificial lighting. Instead of using the overhead lights in your room, use a desk lamp with an adjustable head. You can position it beside the dish, and tape wax paper to the head to diffuse the light. Just remember to turn it off every few minutes to prevent it from getting too hot.

Photo by Chad Verzosa

Alternatively, you can also buy a cheap tabletop studio. This set-up usually includes small lights as well as a cube that evenly distributes the light on the subject to produce professional-quality photos.

06. Focus on uncluttered compositions

Photo by Lidye Petit

When framing your shot, make sure to keep everything neat. As much as possible, try to stick to one point of interest: your dish. 

Photo by Calum Lewis

Use the rule of thirds if you’re not sure where to place your dish in a frame. Divide the frame into nine imaginary squares. Then put the food where the lines of those squares intersect. Thankfully, most cameras have a gridline function which you can turn on if you’re having trouble visualizing those lines. Once the gridlines appear on the screen, you’ll have an easier time composing your image.

Photo by Alex Loupe

Apart from the rule of thirds, you can also place the plate directly in the center of the frame. Although it feels counterintuitive (especially according to the rule of thirds), it works perfectly for minimalist food photography. When the food is in the middle, it dominates the space, and your viewer will instantly know it’s the main subject.

Photo by Adrienne Leonard

You can also crop your photo by getting close to the subject and photographing just a portion of it. This type of composition teases the viewer because it only shows a part of the dish. At the same time, it also allows viewers to see the ingredients close enough to almost taste it.

07. Explore different points-of-view

Photo by Patrick Browne

It goes without saying but when you’re photographing a dish, don’t just stick to one angle. Experiment with different perspectives, so that you have a variety of options at the end of the photo shoot—ones from high and low, from afar and up-close.

Photo by Mantra Media

First, take photos of the food from eye level. It offers a perspective that makes the food look large. At the same time, this vantage point allows the viewers to see the details much closer.

Next, you can try shooting at a 45-degree angle. This is effective because it's the perspective that most people see when they’re sitting in front of their meal.

Additionally, you can photograph the food overhead. It doesn't only offer a unique point-of-view, but it also allows the viewer to see everything on a plate all at once.

Photo by Monika Grabkowska

Always remember to change the styling and composition slightly depending on which perspective you’re shooting from. No matter which point-of-view you choose, always make sure that the main ingredients is clearly visible in every shot. Give your viewer a way to imagine how the food tastes just by looking at it.

Photo by Racheal Gorjestani
Photo by Monika Grabkowska

Minimalism brings everything down to the elemental level—which is truly, visually refreshing. It's the simplicity of your shot that elevates the importance of the dish. Working with restraint can seem challenging at first, but just remember that in this type of photography, less is definitely more.