Food Photography Friday: Poor Plating

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Yum, it’s Food Photography Friday! I’m on a mission to learn the secrets of taking mouth-watering photos of food. Each FPF, I share stories about the lessons I’ve learned from the trenches of food photography.

The Challenge

The goal of food photography is to make food look delicious.

Since the viewer cannot touch, smell, or taste the food, you must distill all of these sensory experiences down into a single sense– sight. The challenge is conveying how heavenly a dish is from a purely visual standpoint.

Sometimes this is easy, as some dishes look so good, you’re practically drooling as you try to take the shot.

Other times, even if the food is amazing, a lack of presentation can make it look worse than a pile of mud.

What do you do when the food doesn’t look good? I learned how to deal with poor plating first hand at Cinnamon’s Restaurant in Kailua, Hawaii.

Short-Changed Short Stack

Let’s begin with Cinnamon’s Carrot Cake Pancakes:

Carrot Pancakes

As far as presentation goes, these pancakes are rather neutral. It’s not terrible, but it doesn’t make your mouth water either. You could even say that there really is no presentation to speak of– it just is.

“Neutral” is not a good thing when it comes to presentation.

Even the barest of efforts would have had an impact. For example, simply placing the butter on top of the pancakes rather than to the side would have improved the symmetry of the dish in addition to giving it a central focal point.

Hold on you say, they sprinkled some carrot shavings on the pancakes. Surely a garnish counts for something?

It would, except that the bits of carrot were dropped on the pancakes so haphazardly that I suspect its purpose was to help the server differentiate between the different types of pancakes rather than to tickle my taste buds. The saddest part is that a few more seconds of attention is all it would have taken to allow this garnish to enhance to the diner’s experience as well.

Compare this to a stack of pancakes from Times Coffee Shop (also in Kailua, Hawaii):

Banana Pancakes

Which one looks better to you? It doesn’t take much at all– a little attention to detail goes a long way. If you remember from a previous FPF, the pancakes at Times Coffee Shop were nothing to write home about, but that didn’t stop them from looking good and thus making for a great photograph.

Omelet of Sorrow

We now come to a more drastic example– Cinnamon’s Spinach & Tomato Omelet:

Spinach & Tomato Omelet

I honestly don’t know what they were thinking. This dish doesn’t just lack panache, it looks disgusting.

Being inherently formless, eggs need to be framed to improve their appearance. Here, the omelet is dropped without regard on a large white plate without even a sprig of parsley to share the space.

The omelet doesn’t stand a chance.

I’m not even going to get into “style” in which the spinach and tomato are mixed into the omelet. In short, it’s a mess.

Contrast this with Cinnamon’s Benedict Omelet:

Benedict Omelet

Finally, something we can work with! The egg is delicately wrapped around a medley of ham and fresh spinach. Rich hollandaise sauce is poured over the omelet with care and finished with a dash of paprika to add a twinkle of contrast to the otherwise golden landscape.

What’s more, this omelet is not alone on the plate! Lightly seasoned home fries frame the omelet perfectly.

Aside from a few errant grains of rice, the dish looks great and makes for a delectable shot.

The Solution

As a food photographer, you want nothing more than to make a dish look delicious. When you’re presented with poorly-plated dishes, what do you do? What can you do?

Here’s the thing: Sometimes there simply isn’t a solution to poor plating. If those preparing the food don’t care how their food looks, your options are severely limited.

In such cases, do you best to get a good shot and move on. Better food will soon follow.


Cinnamon’s Benedict Omelet definitely looked much more appetizing than the other dishes, but here’s the kicker– all the dishes were pretty good. Despite the great divide in appearance, they were all fairly equal in terms of flavor.

This just proves how important presentation is, not just for food photography, but also for the experience of the diner as well.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s post. See you next Food Photography Friday where I’ll share more stories and lessons I’ve learned during my adventures in food photography!