|, Food, Food Styling, Photography|For Photo or For Food: Which Do You Like?

For Photo or For Food: Which Do You Like?

By | 2016-12-18T17:01:13+00:00 March 10th, 2011|52 Comments

Canon 5DMkII, Canon 70-200 f/4L IS lens, 1/125 sec at f/5.6, ISO 100

So, here we have two photos. The image on the left was “styled” … I cooked everything separately, placed each element by hand and even added an upside-down bowl and some clear rocks in the bottom of the bowl to bulk up the noodles. It’s all edible and cooked thoroughly, but I was very careful and deliberate with how it looked. I prepared this bowl of food specifically to be photographed.

The second dish, the image on the right, was cooked immediately afterwards to eat for dinner with the leftovers from the photo on the left (not from anything in the other photo, just from the stuff I didn’t cook yet). I didn’t do anything special to it, I just cooked it up like I would any other time I cook a meal. When I was finished I dumped it into a bowl (with very little regard to where the food fell) and photographed for a few minutes while it was cooling down.

Also, both images were photographed in the same light and were edited pretty much exactly the same. The color differences on the image to the right is due to the way the image was cooked (the broccoli lost a lot of its green when cooked in the sauce with everything else), the way it is sitting in the bowl (light can’t hit it the same since it’s sunken in) and also from some “diffusion” from the the steam.

So, my question to you is: Which do you like better … and why? Leave a comment below if you’d like to chime in.

About the Author:

My name is Nicole and I'm a photographer, author, & educator living in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA. When I'm not making photos I'm writing books and tutorials for my online store, Learn more about me and my story here.

52 Comments

  1. Melli March 10, 2011 at 2:19 pm - Reply

    I like the styled version better. The colors are richer and there is more of the food to see – ingredients seem to be all displayed and a better way for the eye to digest the composition.
    BTW, thanks for sharing your tips on how you shoot.

  2. Austin March 10, 2011 at 2:20 pm - Reply

    A. Shot on the left has a more mouth-watering appeal. I think, “now there’s a restaurant I want to visit.”

    B. Shot on the right has more of an “establishing” feel to it. A dish that might be delicious for a particular season, rather than the specificity that THIS dish (left photo) would be delicious.

    I’d want to order the dish on the left, and I wanted to visit the restaurant that served the dish on the right… regardless of the dish.

  3. Brandon Jacoby March 10, 2011 at 2:21 pm - Reply

    Really interesting post, Nicole!

    I like both photos, but for different reasons.

    I would really like to see the same kind of test but with different food.

    – Brandon

  4. Austin March 10, 2011 at 2:23 pm - Reply

    Edit comment above:
    A. Shot on the left has more of a mouth-watering appeal. It’s the food that draws me in, rather than the presentation.

    I contradicted myself.

  5. suemack March 10, 2011 at 2:25 pm - Reply

    Both look very appetising, but the colours on the image on the left are eye catching, the display very attractive.

  6. Mark Fogarty March 10, 2011 at 2:40 pm - Reply

    Nicole… great post. I like the one of the left because it feels balanced, both color-wise (notice the red peppers in particular) and overall food weight.

    The photo on the right feels empty in the back right. By seeing the back rim of the bowl I feel the food’s impact is diminished.

    Once again… nice post… and a fascinating peak inside your world.

  7. Allan March 10, 2011 at 2:41 pm - Reply

    There is more focus on the food in the stylized version, because the bowl is full. The colours are also more vibrant, giving a fresher look.

  8. Matt Vanecek March 10, 2011 at 2:50 pm - Reply

    I like the picture that’s all full of color. It looks more advertising, even though mentally I’m sure the picture on the right most likely tastes better. I think the bright, vibrant colors make the left one more appetizing visually.

  9. Matt Vanecek March 10, 2011 at 3:27 pm - Reply

    That should have been “appetizing”, not “advertising”. What I get for commenting from a phone…

  10. Elisha Frey March 10, 2011 at 2:30 pm - Reply

    My favorite photo is the ‘styled’ one. It is beautiful and the colors really pop. The bowl is almost overflowing and if this was an advertisement for a restaurant I would be happy the portion size is so large. What I do like about the photo on the right is the steam. That makes the photo more real and therefore more appetizing. Thank you so much for sharing.

  11. Joe March 10, 2011 at 2:56 pm - Reply

    Both look great. I like the right one more because it’s less crowded. I feel like I’m focusing more on the food itself rather than the left picture where I find I’m looking at the portion size rather than the food.

    That’s a marketing strategy to make people think they’re getting more bang for their buck.

  12. Bruce March 10, 2011 at 2:59 pm - Reply

    The one on the left, when they are side by side. I covered the left with my hand and the one on the right looked good. It just didn’t pop like the one on the left.

    … and it wasn’t just the quantity of food either, I think those bright green, plump broccoli florettes and bright red peppers front and center grab the eye.

  13. Bruce March 10, 2011 at 3:01 pm - Reply

    Oh, one knock on the left picture. The chopsticks look awkward on the saucer. They look much better crossed and next to it, as in the right shot.

  14. bernd March 10, 2011 at 3:24 pm - Reply

    well to look at – the left image.
    to actually eat – the right image.
    the left one has all poppy colours and a nice presentation. appealling as it might look, it seems fake. like in just a tid bit too much. like the shiny plastic replicas only made to look pretty. having that impression in mind, i’d always go for the right image in case of hunger. it just looks more real.

  15. Pamela March 10, 2011 at 3:24 pm - Reply

    The right one. My eyes are drawn to that one over then other one

  16. TripleScoop March 10, 2011 at 3:54 pm - Reply

    The styled version is better. You can recognize all the ingredients and it has a better presentation. Although I think the unstyled version probably taste better :)

  17. Glen March 10, 2011 at 4:03 pm - Reply

    My choice is the styled version. The colors pop and it’s a mouth watering dish.

  18. Aparna March 10, 2011 at 7:53 pm - Reply

    I like both of them for different reasons. I like the way the red and green pops out of an otherwise yellow-brown dish on the left.
    But for the other reasons I like the one of the right. I like the “white” of the background and dinnerware, the less full bowl suggesting meal-size to me, and the space at the top of the photograph.
    If the veggies popped out of the picture on the right giving it more colour and texture, it would be perfect, to me.

  19. Patricia Davidson March 10, 2011 at 8:43 pm - Reply

    I like the styled one on the left. They are both very good, but side by side the one on the left is more eye catching and appetizing to me. I think the full bowl of food is what does it for me.

  20. Tim Buckner March 10, 2011 at 11:18 pm - Reply

    The styled one works for me i love the full looking bowl and i am sure there is some Styrofoam or something under there to give it volume.

  21. Craig Evans March 10, 2011 at 11:41 pm - Reply

    Unfair comparison. We are judging based on a single sense – sight.
    We aren’t getting the scent of the food and the way the chili opened up and released the oils into the sauce.
    We don’t get the taste of the beef, with the caramelized goodness of the sear in (I hope) canola oil with a little sesame oil.
    We don’t get the textural crunch of the broccoli – and I am afraid it looks like you overcooked it in the second photo, neither did you :)

    I’ll be disappointed when I order the one on the left and have the one on the right delivered, but I’ll eat it. And enjoy the meal … Because you might start the meal with your eyes, but then a whole range of sense get to play.

  22. Nicole March 11, 2011 at 12:05 am - Reply

    @Craig – Yes, that’s true. But that’s also the challenge with food photography. The only sense we can play with is sight, we have to “deliver” the others through that one sense. This is why styling food is such a big deal.

  23. Bruce March 11, 2011 at 12:31 am - Reply

    I think the “styled” is the better looking one. Colors pop, there looks like more in the bowl, and by cooking each separately you don’t get that color mixing effect. Like the white background on the site, as it tends to make your photos stand out more.

  24. Iza March 11, 2011 at 6:21 am - Reply

    Very interesting experiment, indeed. I obviously like the image on the left more. I am sure it is coming from how the image was styled- this prepared for photography dish stresses more the diverse colors of ingredients. There is red pepper and green broccoli. The first bowl is also fuller, and somehow that looks more appealing, too (good lesson for me in the future). I agree that the colors on the image on the right are less saturated, and I can believe the overcooked vegetables lost some of the color, but the pasta has more intense color on the left, too.
    BTW- I am looking forward your upcoming Food photography book from Peachpit!

  25. Eve March 11, 2011 at 12:56 pm - Reply

    I like the styled one better of course… but I also love how you can see the steam on the right pic!
    Its almost calling your name to indulge FAST before it cools off and becomes bluh!!

  26. Doug March 11, 2011 at 2:00 pm - Reply

    I think a combination of the two might be best. I like the framing and position of the chopsticks in the photo on the right. The food, well obviously it looks much more appetizing on the left. However, the bowl is overfilled in my opinion (dare I say over styled?) Seeing the back rim of the bowl visually brackets the food in the frame (at least to me anyway.) I tried food photography but lost my “taste” for it once I found out how difficult it was. :p Great work!

  27. Luca March 11, 2011 at 3:55 pm - Reply

    I prefer the one on the left. I’ve just started shooting flowers for a local florist and this reminds me a bit like that. “Shooting flowers for people” or “filling them in and making them fuller for the shot”. The one on the left looks more full, less of the bowl showing and showcases the food which I think is what the focus is? ;) Well done great stuff AND Looks yummy!

  28. Nichole March 11, 2011 at 11:25 pm - Reply

    Photo on the left is great, no denying it. But I’m already inundated with images of things I can never achieve so I’d rather see realistic photos of REAL food; you know, as it would look in my kitchen when I was done making it. One of the appeals of blogging was that it was a way to connect with real people doing real things. It kind of takes away from the spirit of the whole endeavor, imo. There are glossy magazine and cookbooks for picture perfect food ~ I’m just out here looking for healthy ways to feed my family and friends.

    • Nicole March 12, 2011 at 12:30 am - Reply

      Hi Nichole, you make a good point. It’s sometimes difficult to find the balance between “real” and “looks tasty”, as I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of food photographs that don’t look too appealing … some of which could have been fixed by simply using better lighting, but that’s another topic. :) I’m more of a photographer than a food blogger/cook, so much of what I photograph is prepared specifically to be photographed … and then I eat the leftovers. I also create my photographs to be sold commercially, yet still try to not “over” style the food like you might see in some high-end ads (think “chain restaurant” menus with lots of photos).

      I also don’t really do unnatural things to the food (like add non-edible ingredients) to make them look good. I’ve got a few tricks I’ve used in the past, but for the most part everything I do is something that is very achievable from anyone, food stylist or not.

      • Nichole March 12, 2011 at 12:46 am - Reply

        If I were paying you to make my food look snazzy, which you most obviously can!! I’d choose the photo on the left, hands down. It is jump-off-the-page perfect with each ingredient looking fantastic against nestled up beside the other. =) It’s truly lovely.

        I guess since I followed a link from foodgawker that I came here with different expectations; I was thinking that whatever was in the bowl was something I want to try to cook. From what I’ve seen in your portfolio I’m pretty sure that you could take a picture of some pesto smeared onto shoe leather and it would look divine!! Beautiful work. Now I’m going to peek at your tutorials to see what I can learn there.

        • Nicole March 12, 2011 at 1:08 am - Reply

          Haha, thanks Nichole :) I try to describe my photos on Foodgawker (and similar sites) so people know they’re photography-related. Thanks for the comments btw.

  29. Lisa March 12, 2011 at 2:32 am - Reply

    I like the photo of the food cooked to eat. It looks real and it looks like a bowl I would dive into. I can tell stylized food in photos when I see it and though the colors are vibrant and everything is placed just so… I know it won’t taste as good because it is in fact styled. I photograph food too and I always just photograph what we are about to eat. In any case, both of your photos are terrific and both dishes look yummy. :D

  30. Mireille March 12, 2011 at 5:14 am - Reply

    I like the picture on the right better, less crowded. But I would just saturate the colors maybe a bit so they pop too. But the whole vibe is cleaner for me, which I like better. The one on the left is too crowded for me!

  31. D's March 12, 2011 at 6:10 am - Reply

    Why the f*** would you present a food picture of a dish thats not real? You’re cheating everyone. Its both bad cooking and bad photography.

    • Nicole March 12, 2011 at 12:21 pm - Reply

      It is real, it’s all real food and perfectly edible … seasoned and flavorful. I just did tiny things to the preparation to make it look better, things that I wouldn’t bother to do if I were just going to eat it. I also propped it up from underneath to make it look bigger. I didn’t do anything weird to the food, just was more deliberate in the presentation.

  32. whatsfordinneracrossstatelines March 12, 2011 at 10:07 am - Reply

    This is a hard topic, or course if I was looking in a magazine, my eyes would be drawn to the left. If you are a photographer and that is what you do, you are doing it right in my opinion. If you are a food blogger that wants to provide recipes with results someone can replicate at home, you must be more cautious and not use fake or misleading photos or I think your readers will not trust you. I think it’s like anything, be informed so your are not mislead.
    -Gina-

    • Nicole March 12, 2011 at 12:46 pm - Reply

      Hi Gina, yes I agree. I think a lot of this depends on what your purpose is for the food. I mostly will create a food photograph because I want to photograph something beautiful, and because I’m hoping it will help pay my bills. :) I don’t consider myself a food blogger, however I do believe that with what I know about photography and styling I could easily photograph all my food in its “ready-to-eat” stage, I just like to add a little bit of “hair and makeup” to it so it presents well.

  33. whatsfordinneracrossstatelines March 12, 2011 at 10:10 am - Reply

    You are, that is commenting from phones is such a bad idea.
    -Gina-

  34. Al March 12, 2011 at 11:20 am - Reply

    i think the food prepared on the right should be styled like the pic on the left for the ultimate food shot. you need to be honest about what a dish will look like, so the pic should be of the actual prepared food presented in the most flattering way possible–ie given the upturned bowl and good light treatment.

    • Nicole March 12, 2011 at 12:23 pm - Reply

      The light was exactly the same, no changes were made. My point was to have a completely un-styled dish to show the difference. Maybe in the future I’ll do what you suggest and have everything be exactly the same except for the food itself.

  35. Laurie March 12, 2011 at 3:58 pm - Reply

    At first glance, I chose the photo on the left. I believe it’s because the broccoli is color is a much brighter color. I like the photo on the right with less food in it and think if you had the brighter broccoli and maybe did a defog (it doesn’t look as crisp as the pic on the left) it would look just as appetizing. Both look delicious though :).

  36. jenn March 13, 2011 at 5:26 am - Reply

    to be honest… the one on the right :) though i don’t think it’s possible every pour, the one on the right seems more real to me, enough of the “right stuff”, more “ready to eat!” which of course attracts me to it more if it’s food. the one on the left feels forced. while i notice that things are “balanced” it’s just too even, too… convenient, i suppose. the one on the right looks like a bowl i would pour for myself, while the one on the left looks like way too much food (and thus, in comparison, something i would pass over in favor of the other)

    i think part of it comes with expectations, though. i knew this was a post about food photography, and i associate this kind of blog post with the DIY crowd (i found this post through foodgawker). the one that appears more “i just made this myself, you can too, enjoy!” appeals to me more visually. perhaps in a pro magazine, i might be swayed into thinking “hmm… not quite as appetizing as i would hope.” i think personally as long as the presentation is “clean” and the photography is quality with sound lighting, then way it’s presented (in reference to posing the actual food) may be secondary.

    both look fantastic! i just think the psychology works more in favor with the right one, for me, as i see it.

  37. Lindsay March 13, 2011 at 9:14 am - Reply

    Do you eat the styled food afterwards?

    • Nicole March 13, 2011 at 11:12 am - Reply

      No, not all the time but mostly just because the food sat around for so long and got cold or just yucky from being handled a bit too much. It really depends on the food and the photo, and how long the photography process takes.

  38. I love the first one. Thanks for explaining the difference; it’s amazing the work you put into the first image. I’ve always wondered why my images never had that pop. I knew part of it was because I wasn’t lighting it correctly, but there was something a little more too that I couldn’t figure out.

  39. Ann March 13, 2011 at 10:41 pm - Reply

    The first one (left) looks yummy, the one on the right looks pale. I “see” the food in the first one, seems that would be the intent. I’ll remember that for my own photography. Thanks Nicolesy, I’m always so inspired here :)

  40. Luke McCoy July 25, 2011 at 12:16 pm - Reply

    Definitely the one on the left. Like you mention, it looks fuller and the colors from the broccoli and peppers are ore evenly placed than the picture on the right.

  41. Aleta August 1, 2011 at 9:15 am - Reply

    I’m just getting into photography. I love the picture on the left. Hands down. The colors pop and the bowl looks like it’s going to over flow with yummy taste

  42. sergio howland September 3, 2011 at 4:24 pm - Reply

    Actually I like the one on the right much better. I like the fact that you get more textures to the picture by being able to see the white wood table, the chopsticks and the steam coming out of the noodles. It seems to be more to it.

    Sergio

  43. Kimmi September 24, 2011 at 7:11 am - Reply

    I like the picture on the left. That being said, I want to eat the food I take pictures of. LOL. Isn’t there a happy medium?

  44. deirdre December 6, 2011 at 11:48 am - Reply

    The colors and pop of the one on the left are great, but when I try to imagine eating it, I worry that the food is going to fall on the table and that the broccoli and red peppers are going to be a little too crunch for my taste. Therefore I prefer the one on the right. It looks more tempting to me. I also like the steam and the way having more space at the top gives a feeling of steam rising.

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