Restaurants / Food Service

FYI: How Food Photography Makes ‘Em Hungry

by Sep 4, 2018For Your Industry

PHOTO: Adobe Stock - Joshua Resnick

If I had to name the single greatest investment a restaurant could (and should) make to increase online orders and reservations it would be this: photography. The numbers alone will tell you why.


Average increase in conversions


Average increase in order totals


Average increase in customer satisfaction

This isn’t due to some psychological voodoo that photos perform. Instead, the reason good photos are so great at driving user behavior has everything to to with the physiology of the brain.

The Physiology of a Brain Looking At Food Photos

Good photos of food work really well at driving user behavior because visuals activate the prefrontal cortex. That’s the part of the brain that’s responsible for our ability to predict outcomes – including how something might taste.


If I tell you to imagine the taste of dirt flavored ice cream, your prefrontal cortex processes that information to predict not only how that might taste but how you might react to that taste. Then it prepares you for that reaction. My guess is that you’re going to react with disgust.

GIF: Buffy The Vampire SlayerGiphy

When we feel disgust our brain signals the body to react physically. Your face will contort the same way it would right before you throw up and you’ll get a little flash of nausea. You might not register all of the ways you physically react, either. Once the body has physically responded to the simulated experience of eating dirt ice cream, you’ve made up your mind about whether you’ll actually eat it.

Photos of food won’t work if they make a user feel disgust or even slight frustration. So food photography has to be careful not to bring out any features which might make someone feel disgusted, frustrated, or apprehensive for any reason.

Delight + hunger

Now if I tell you to imagine a fresh baked, soft and gooey chocolate chip cookie your prefrontal cortex is going to prepare you for a different reaction. You will probably start salivating a little and your pancreas might even start producing insulin.

GIF: Adventure TimeGiphy

This is the reaction you want users to have when they see photos of your food. This is the reaction that drives action – and it’s all thanks to the physiology of the prefrontal cortex.

The power of visuals

Hopefully by now I’ve demonstrated how your prefrontal cortex works even by describing two different foods in fairly minimal detail. You don’t need much to go on to imagine dirt ice cream. And most of us have experienced the delight of chocolate chip cookies, so we can quickly imagine exactly the sort of cookie that gets our minds racing.

What’s even more powerful than me merely suggesting a cookie is showing you a big photo of a warm, gooey, cookie that’s fresh out of the oven. You know… like this one:

PHOTO: Hot Fudge Stuffed Chocolate Chip Cookies

Once you see a photo of food your brain reacts as if the food is right there in front of you. The more appetizing the photo, the more likely it is to start a biological response to intensify the desire for that food.

It makes sense when you think about it. If you can see the cookie you’re probably about to eat it – so the brain makes sure that your digestive system is up and running before the cookie even hits your taste buds.

4 Simple Food Photography Rules

So now we know why food photography is so powerful at selling food. But not all photography is equal. Some photos will be better than others at driving user behavior.

To help you understand what kind of food photography drives up sales and order volume, you need to understand which types of photos trigger the prefrontal cortex’s anticipation of food.

1. Closeups are key

The composition of any photo of a menu item should be at least 60% food. You want the user to feel like they’re sitting right in front of what they’re about to eat.

To show you what I mean, I want you to compare these two photos:

PHOTO: Ambrosia
Eugene, OR

PHOTO: Brennan’s
Houston, TX

Both photos show braised veal shanks. The first is a photo of a braised veal shank dish that used to be served at a restaurant in Eugene, OR called Ambrosia. The second photo is of a similar dish served at a restaurant in Houston, TX called Brennan’s.

Why one is better than the other

Photos like the first one appeal to a restaurant owner because they look great and show off the aesthetics of the restaurant. But the impact it will have on the user’s desire to take action is negligible.

Food only takes up about 20% of the photo. The prefrontal cortex won’t be activated to imagine the experience of eating and the photo will go ignored.

That’s why the second photo is more likely to drive user action. The food takes up at least 70% of the image, so the focus is the food. Everything about this photo gives you clues about how it will look and taste when it’s right in front of you because of how close it feels.

This will trigger the prefrontal cortex to start getting the digestive system into gear – making the user more likely to complete an action that gets them closer to the food they’re seeing.

2. No Secret Ingredients

The best way to explain this is by way of the McDonald’s Big Mac. If you’ve ever ordered one of these sloppy monstrosities, you’ll know that the pickles and the sauce are usually invisible under the bun.

But in every photo McDonald’s releases of the Big Mac, you can see pickles and sauce. You can even see flecks of those re-hydrated onions.

PHOTO: McDonald’s
Big Mac

Is McDonald’s trying to mislead you into believing you’re getting a more gourmet experience? No. They’re showing you every ingredient in an aesthetically pleasing way to trigger your prefrontal cortex’s ability to synthesize different tastes.

Anticipation not deception

The prefrontal cortez isn’t just good at anticipating how you’ll react. It’s also great at figuring out how new combinations of ingredients might taste based on past experiences with each individual ingredient.

When you see a nice picture of a Big Mac you’re not being tricked into thinking it’s going to be served like a gourmet burger. You know from experience that it’s going to be a sloppy mess in the box.

What the photo is doing is acting on that past experience with the burger and its individual ingredients. Your prefrontal cortex is quickly processing exactly how pickles, lettuce, beef, bun, cheese, and sauce might taste.

Even if you’ve never had a Big Mac before, your prefrontal cortex can get really close to approximating it by combining the singular experiences of each ingredient.

It doesn’t just work on assembled food. Online menus that include photos of individual ingredients that can be added help increase order totals. You’re more likely to add bacon, cheese, or guac – ingredients that have significant markup – if you see a photo of the ingredient than if you just see it listed.

3. Use vibrant colors

The prefrontal cortex loves vibrant, bright colors when you’re looking at food. This is because vibrant food looks fresh, healthy, and free of rot and disease.

Take these two photos of the same salad:

PHOTO: Adobe Stock
Joshua Resnick

PHOTO: Adobe Stock
Joshua Resnick

The first photo has been professionally color balanced to showcase the vibrant colors of the ingredients, and the second has had a popular Instagram filter applied. The first photo is more appetizing because it conveys freshness and quality. Even though the second photo still looks great, the food is less appetizing.

This is because the most popular filters that users go for tend to reduce color saturation to homogenize the colors in a photo. [source] This can create a dramatic, artsy, and retro effect but it can also cause the prefrontal cortex to react in a few different and undesirable ways from a conversion standpoint.

What you don’t want is for the user to ignore the photo as an artsy piece instead of a depiction of food. You also don’t want the user to associate the food with rot or disease.

4. Demonstrate quality, temperature, texture, and consistency

Presentation is vital for a satisfactory user experience. It’s really important that the photos of your food include your highest-quality ingredients and showcase the temperature and texture at the time of serving. Photos should also match the name and description of the food in the photo.

Yet one of the biggest mistakes a restaurant makes is using photos that rely solely on the artistic composition and not the naming or presentation of their food.

Compare these two burger photos:

PHOTO: VIA Italian Table
Worcester, MA

PHOTO: Adobe Stock
Lukas Gojda

The first photo is a photo taken from the website of a high-end restaurant near me. The second is a stock photo that I snagged from Envato. Both photos make great use of composition, but they take very different approaches to presentation.

What’s wrong with the first photo is that it features a plate of food that’s obviously not fresh out of the kitchen. The cheese looks hard and congealed like it’s been sitting out, the beef looks dry, the fries look limp and undercooked, and the beer in the background looks room temperature.

I’m also pretty sure that’s iceberg lettuce being used, which is a very low quality ingredient for a $13 burger. And despite the site’s description of the bun as brioche – I can’t see that golden, shiny bread crust at all.

If this was served to me in a restaurant I would be disappointed. You definitely don’t want users to be disappointed before they even sit down.

The second photo is far more appetizing. You can see that the cheese looks freshly melted, the beef is glistening, the fries are golden brown, and the beer glass has some condensation on it which indicates that it’s a fresh, frosty draft. It also features a leafy green lettuce tucked under the top of an obviously buttery brioche bun.

Make sure your food names match your food photos!

But it’s still possible to follow every single photography rule and still not have an effective photo because the image of a dish doesn’t match its name or description in the menu. That same restaurant features this photo of pork meatballs on their menu:

PHOTO: VIA Italian Table
Worcester, MA

The menu description for this item is “Crispy Pork Meatballs”. That doesn’t match what you see in the photo – which is a set of glazed meatballs that don’t look crispy at all. This creates dissonance between what the prefrontal cortex is expecting and what it’s getting from item names and descriptions. Dissonance leads to frustration because extra steps are required to match photo to something they can order.

A restaurant like this is probably showing photos of their more profitable items to drive sales. But they’re shooting themselves in the foot by being inconsistent in their naming strategy.

This is where naming consistency is valuable.

If the meatballs were called “Glazed Crispy Pork Meatballs”, that would create consistency between the photo and the name of the item on the menu. It would also help the customer understand that there’s a texture they can expect that’s difficult to portray under all that glaze.

With an accurate naming convention the photo would be more effective at selling this highly profitable appetizer. And a bonus: customer satisfaction wouldn’t be negatively impacted by the inconsistency between the name and the expectations built by the photo.

Steps you can take

There are some really simple ways to ensure that your food is presented well during a shoot and remains consistent with your naming conventions. For starters, a menu engineer can help you identify and name your menu items to sell. And if your restaurant has a talented expediter you can have them around for the shoot to make sure everything in the shoot has ready-to-serve quality.

The most important thing is to make sure you hire a photographer who knows how to photograph food using standard tricks of the trade to keep food looking fresh and photogenic.

Wrapping it up

As a restaurant owner your goal isn’t to use photos to trick your customers into wanting more food through the cunning use of food psychology. Instead, your photos should activate the prefrontal cortex and confirm the experience that it simulates before the user gets to your food.

When you deliver a visually and tastefully consistent user experience through food photography, the benefits are long term. Users are more likely to recommend and return to your restaurant and become loyal fans and frequent customers.