How to approach colors in a food photography image

Feelings expressed in colours

Do you want to express health or comfort? Summer or winter? Luxury or a home-made?

Choosing the right color is very important for expressing the mood.

While summer can be told via airy, bright images and vivid colours, you can use desaturated color, moody and dark scene for autumn or winter images.

If you want to add the luxury feeling into your images, you might want to grab golden, white and black props. These colours are associated with luxury, elegance, or sophistication.

If you want to express feelings in your images, such as natural and healthy, you will want to go for green & earthy tones.

Before choosing the colours for your scene, define what feelings or emotions you want to express in your images.

Luminance of colors – tonal contrast

Luminance of colors is important for creating tonal contrast in an image.

Tonal contrast is the difference between the darkest and brightest tones in an image.

While tonal contrast might not be very visible from the colorful image, it is more visible when turning the image into black&white. You can clearly notice how bright or dark your colors are.

For creating outstanding image, you need to work with different luminosity of colors. This will make sure, that your main hero will stand out.

In the image above, you can notice on the left – low tonal contrast = the colors of the garlic and the backdrop have almost the same tone. While, the column on the right, you can see high tonal contrast – stronger difference between the brightest and darkest areas. This is something that you can achieve by adjusting the luminance of colors in post-production.

My personal process is always to turn the image into black & white, so from there, I can see how to create better tonal contrast. This can be done by a few tools: by adjusting sliders of the luminance of colors, by tone section: highlights, whites, shadows, darks or also by a tone curve.

I want to show you another example:

In this image, you can see how turning the image into black and white can help you understand the luminosity of colors. White, the first colourful image on the left could be ok when it comes to colors, turning the image into black & white, showed us that the colors – green and purple have very similar luminosity.

So, adding the brightness of green helped us to create a better tonal contrast.

Warm or cold colours

Warm and cold colours can create different emotions and feelings.

While warm colours can express feelings of conform, energy, warmth, or joy and playfulness, cold colours create calming effect, create sense of relaxation or freshness.

You can create images using warm or cold colors only, or you can combine them and work with color contrast too. This way, you add lots of visual interest into an image.

So, when choosing your props and backdrops, decide again, what story, feelings or emotions do you want to tell through your image?

In the first image on the left, I worked with warm colours. You can see how the image expresses energy, joy, playfulness or excitement.

The image in the middle is a combination of warm (the main ingredient) and cold colours (the backdrop). Here, I created a lot of colour contrast, you can notice how the apricots and the syrup really stands out and the image has lots of visual interest.

In the last image, I mainly worked with cold colours – green/blue in the backdrop, purple/green – the basic leaves, then avocado and a bit of yellow – the oil and yellow in avocado too. This image evokes freshness and a sense of calmness.

Vivid colours that take attention

When you choose colours for your main subject and other supporting elements, your main hero should have the most saturated color. The other supporting elements should not take the attention from the main hero.

In this image, notice how I used the strongest color only for my main subject – the fruits. Then, there is the syrup, which I poured on top of the chia, but all the other supporting elements have a neutral color. This way, I make sure, that they don’t take too much attention and my main hero stands out.

When you use other strong colours in your supporting elements, they might take our attention and the main hero looses it’s place and importance.

Balanced proportion of colours

Creating a balance of colours in an image is very important too. This applies when working with 2 and more colours in one image.

Generally we can say, choose one main color present in the image and then, include less of other colours.

You can follow the proportion of 60-40, or 70-30. That means – 70% of your image will be dedicated to one color, and 30% to another color.

You don’t need to include most of the color of the main hero. In the image on the left, you can see the most colour present is blue, then, I added less orange colour – which is actually my main hero.

When you want to work with more than 2 colours in your image, try to follow the guidance of 60-30-10 or stay somewhere around this. Remember it’s a guidance not the rule and listen to your feelings when you work with colours.

In this image, notice how orange colour is the most present. You can see it in the backdrop, tomatoes and knife handle. Then, I included less red tomatoes and then, even less yellow color, which is present in the cut tomatoes and the oil.

Repetition of colours

It’s good to repeat the same colour in your scene. You can do it by including props of the same colour, or by adding different ingredients that again, have the same colour.

This helps to create a harmony and makes your image more balanced.

You can do this for matching your food and backdrop, or food and napkin, or food and other props, or by matching ingredients – hero & supporting elements.

If you have a look again at the image above, notice how the backdrop contains the same color as most of the tomatoes (orange).

Or, look at the image here, on the right. Notice how I included ingredients that have the same color – red melon, red currant, cherries. Or, green colour of the edge of melon paired with the basic leaves. Orange colour of apricots paired with the almonds.

Key take-away:

  • Before choosing your colours, decide what feelings you want to express in your image. Is it a sense of nature, luxury or comfort? Each color evokes different feelings.
  • working with different luminosity of colours is important for creating tonal contrast. This helps to add the depth to the image and makes your main element stand out
  • warm and cold colour colours evokes different feelings. While warm colours creates sense of energy, comfort and joy, cold colours evokes relaxation and freshness
  • vivid colours take a lot of attention, so make sure your hero stand out and has a proper place in the scene. Use strong and vivid colours mainly for your main subject, so other elements can play a supporting role and they don’t take attention from the main hero
  • balance the proportions of colours in the scene – make one colour dominating, the other colours less present. This helps to add the balance in the image and make it look harmonious too
  • repetition of colours is a great way how to add interest in your images. You can match your food and the backdrop, food and napkin, or food and plates or other props, or you can include other ingredients that have the same colour
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