How to elicit an emotional impact with your food photography

First of all: what is an emotional reaction? Emotions have been one of my main fields of study in my career in neuroscience. Among the magic things about our brains that neuroscience has revealed, there is the fact that the networks for emotional processing are extensive and include both evolutionary old parts of the brain and a considerable part of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is especially developed in humans and also important for higher cognitive functions. Emotions are a powerful motivator for everything we do and they influence our seemingly most rational decisions.

If we want to create photographs that draw the viewer into our image, that makes her stop and repair in the details, it’s important to understand how the brain processes emotion and aesthetics. If we know which compositional techniques elicit a strong emotional impact, we can use this information when composing, shooting and editing.

Want to create food photos that make an impression?

Even if a food photo looks disgusting - it at least might make us stop to examine more closely how unappetizing it is. It elicits an emotional reaction and that’s usually better than no reaction at all.

Still, our aim in food photography is the contrary of a reaction of disgust - we want to trigger an emotional response of desire. In the shape of a two-dimensional visual stimulus, we want to create a multisensory experience - the viewer should almost feel the creaminess of a cheesecake, the crunch of the fresh lettuce in our salads and smell the cinnamon in our freshly baked cinnamon rolls.

Find a point of connection

Our aim is the connection with the viewer whose senses should come alive with our photos, because we give her something that connects her in a positive way with her own bank of experiences, emotions and visual memories. The viewer should feel identified with the image, may it be through a memory of hers, a longing or desire.

Food offers multiple possibilities as it is present throughout the life of each and everyone of us, we all have experiences and memories of food connected to special events in our lives. So food doesn’t only activate all our senses, but memory and emotion also play an important role.

Take them to a place they long for

In publicity, the image of the product is often less important than the story that is told around it, we ultimately buy something because of the positive emotions it will elicit in us. It’s more about the transformative experience than the product in itself.

We want the same for our photos. When we show a beautiful tablescape, we want to imagine our viewers taking a seat and reaching for a plate, being part of a lively gathering around delicious food.

When we show a dimly lit farmhouse style scene with rustic wood and hands that shell peas, we want to evoke childhood memories of other times in which peas were cultivated and collected from the garden, shelled by the caring hands of a beloved person, not bought frozen from some supermarket shelf to be heated up in the microwave.

When we create an intentional mess in a baking scene we’re shooting, we transport the viewer into the scene by making it more relatable.

Show them who they could be

Somebody who cooks, bakes and takes the time to make food look beautiful is somebody who lives slowly, mindful and in the moment. It’s somebody who cares for himself and others. Choosing the best ingredients (high quality, sustainable and good for our bodies), prepare something carefully and enjoy it in the company of others, shows self-respect and care and brings us pleasure. Even if it’s not one of our priorities and our reality looks quite different, isn’t it something most of us aspire to some extent?

Assess your own feelings

Something that differentiates food photography from most other photography is that we create what we shoot from scratch. So it’s not about observing our environment as in other types of photography like landscape or weddings for instance, it’s about creating it.

The mood you yourself are in when planning and creating a session might be important for the outcome and we should always pay close attention to our own feelings.

Consciously plan the emotion

In general, a good way to start is to ask ourselves about the emotion we wish to convey with a specific image or series of images when we plan the shooting. If we’re after something melancholic, we might manipulate light in a way to bring out the shadows. We might let less light in and choose darker props and backgrounds. If we’re after a cosy feeling, a hand with a woolen sweater, holding a cup of tea might be visible and we could increase the light temperature in post-processing to get these warm and golden tones. If our aim is giving a sensation of cleanliness, we’ll go for a white background and a well-lit subject.

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