If you’ve spent any amount of time doing food photography, sooner or later you’ll have wondered how to take pictures of baked goods and other brown foods while still getting appetizing results. Often dull and unattractive, a brown dish can really test the skills of even the most experienced food photographer. What may taste absolutely sublime, and look perfectly appealing when served, can often take on a rather less alluring aspect once photographed.
It needn’t be like this though. And once you know how to take pictures of baked goods properly, you’ll wonder how it could ever have seemed so challenging.
In this post I run through my six favourite tricks for transforming baked goods and other brown foods from dreary-looking disasters to moreish delicacies in no time.
The Challenge of Photographing Brown Foods
Brown and beige are often associated with healthy eating (think wholegrains, raw palm sugar, and other unprocessed foods). And if you’ve ever checked out eco-fashion labels on Instagram, you’ll probably have noticed that they tend to go for a subdued palette of pale-biscuit and light ecru: again, because these tones suggest a more naturally-harmonious and unadulterated product.
There’s a considerable difference, though, between shades of toasted wheat and caramel, and the altogether “earthier” hues of many baked goods and certain curries, soups, and stews. How do you add palate-appeal to dun-coloured cakes and cookies? How can you avoid giving Hungarian Goulash all the charm of, well… a pile of brown?
I’m so glad you asked!
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Here’s how to take pictures of baked goods and other brown foods without losing your appetite for food photography.
6 Surefire Tips for Taking Better Pictures of Baked Goods and Other Brown Foods
1. Capture Texture
Everyone loves cookies, cakes, and bread. But let’s be honest; plain baked goods don’t always make for the most exciting of photography subjects. But the secret to shooting simple brown foods such as this is to concentrate on texture.
First off, you can simply try getting more interesting texture baked into the dish itself right from the outset. But beyond this, emphasizing texture is all about clever use of lighting.
For the cookies above, I played around with the angle and hardness of the light, positioning it slightly lower than I normally would, so as to pull out as much of the texture as possible. This helped to break up the otherwise monochrome cookies and gives them a nice crunchy and crumbly look. On the close-up image, I used my macro lens to capture the cracks and sugar crystals in all their mouthwatering detail.
2. Layer It On Thick
Another really good way of adding interest to baked goods and other brown foods is to create a feeling of greater depth by layering. Just because interest is lacking in one aspect of an image – in this case colour – doesn’t mean that all the other elements need to be one-dimensional too. When faced with any monochrome subject, layering can really help to add a feeling of increased depth, with different elements sitting on different planes within the shot.
For example, let’s take a look at this pie straight out of the oven, sure, it’s delicious, gooey and has the perfect crust. But it looks a bit… boring and flat.
So let’s take a look at how layers made all the difference to the final shot.
Firstly, I chose a backdrop in a similar warm tone to help create an analogous colour palette throughout the image, which gives a softness to the frame, creating a warm, cosy vibe which is definitely what you want with a pumpkin pie! The plates are a slightly off-beige colour, and as well as complementing this warm palette, they form our first layer. Next I cut the pie into slices to create interest, and these slices also allow me to position them and point them through the frame to create leading lines. The next layer is a dollop of whipped cream, which would naturally be served with the pie anyway, but it adds a new colour and tone that breaks up the monotonous brown surface of the pie. Lastly I sprinkled some extra cinnamon on top of the cream and the pie, which emphasises the flavours found in the pie, and gives us our last layer on the food.
A few spoons and a little bowl of cinnamon and this scene is complete. If we compare this final photo to the initial plain pie, you can see the difference that these simple layers made to this shot.
3. Go Specular (or go home)
Photographing really dark brown items can present similar challenges to photographing black objects: a total lack of detail that no amount of increased exposure or more powerful lighting will change. And just as when photographing black, the solution here is to create specular highlights – i.e. direct reflections of your light source – on the food itself.
The strong highlights you can see in the furrows of the chocolate ganache above are simply reflections of my softbox. If it wasn’t for these, the image would be totally flat and the icing would lack all texture and detail. Specular highlights are a great way of adding life to any boring but reflective subject; brown foods included.
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4 . Change Your Perspective
If you’re struggling to make brown foods look good, you might simply be approaching things from the wrong angle. Turn the dish around; shoot it from above; even from below. If it’s a cake, bread, or other baked item that can be cut open, what does it look like on the inside? Maybe revealing the interior will add that extra degree of interest that makes the shot come to life.
Brown foods needn’t be boring; the shot of this cake only came together when I cut into it, revealing all that beautiful texture inside.
5. Be Complementary
Small children have favourite colours, favourite numbers, favourite Peppa Pig characters. But people who understand colour know that no single colour is truly beautiful on its own; rather it’s how colours are combined that makes them interesting.
Brown can look great with other browns, or with lighter shades within the same family; such as pale yellow or beige. Brown also looks beautiful when combined with just black, white, and shades of grey.
But if you know your way around a colour wheel, you’ll also know that the complementary colours for brown are in the bluish region (exactly which kind of blue will depend on the precise shade of brown you’re working with). For example, baked goods and other brown foods can look truly stunning when photographed in combination with deep indigo or more cyan-heavy shades such as turquoise.
I love photographing brown foods on bold coloured backdrops, but if you don’t have a lot of backgrounds hanging around, really making the most of your garnishes can be a great way to add interest to your brown dish. In this shot above, I made sure to include plenty of green garnish, by cutting the spring onion in two different ways for interest, and placing lots of fresh coriander on the dish, and in a little serving bowl to the side. The green chillies also give an idea of the flavour in the dish, while providing another complementary pop.
In need of inspiration? Try using an online colour palette tool such as Adobe’s Color Tool to see what other colours would work well with your brown dish.
6. Embrace Monochrome
What happens when the dish you’re shooting basically has no colour? Well… embrace the monochrome!
Now the shot becomes all about light, texture, and form. This way you get to ignore what doesn’t work, and concentrate solely on the dish’s good points – like it’s texture!
In this photo of crinkle cookies, the brown is baaaarely even perceptible due to the darkness of the cocoa. Instead, I wanted to focus on the stark contrast of the black and white, picking up all the craters and texture from the icing sugar.
Shooting on a dark background allowed the food to stand out without distracting from the beautiful white sugar powder.
Although photographing brown foods definitely presents a few unusual challenges, they are not necessarily the insurmountable obstacles we’re often told they are. The evidence lies in the fact that baked goods can, and do, look amazing when photographed well.
By following the above tips, you should now have a very good idea about how to take pictures of baked goods and other brown foods without dropping your visual standards. Here’s hoping your next brown food shoot comes out looking all dark, rich, and sophisticated; and less like something you scraped off the bottom of your shoe. And don’t forget your FREE food styling tips guide!