The Most Important Tip For Powerful Food Photography Styling

If you thought that the most important tip for food photography styling, was to create beautiful food then read on my friend!

The most important thing you can focus on in food photography styling is:

The Three C’s – The Most Important Tip For Food Photography Styling.

Cohesion – Complementary – Competing

All words that are thrown around a lot in the world of styling and food photography, and may not surprise you that they’re important. But do we really understand what they mean? Language is so powerful and knowing the difference between such descriptive terms is key to getting the balance right in your food photography styling.

When I approach food styling, I think about these three C’s: Cohesion, Complimentary, Competing. Here’s a quick process of putting together the images in this post.

Get Access to my FREE Resource Hub and Watch the full video as I break down each element in this image.

So let’s look at the definitions of these important words and how you use them to approach styling in food photography.


The action of forming a united whole.

A united whole. Isn’t that just an amazing thought. Remember these three little words, as that’s what still life photography, including food photography strives for.

As still life creatives and food photographers, we have to create our entire scene. The entire story.

Creating cohesion doesn’t just fall onto your scene. You have to really understand how all the elements you are selecting tie together to form one story, a united whole.

The biggest mistake I have made when it comes to cohesion (or the lack there!) of is choosing props that are ‘pretty’ or props that I like, over cohesion. Just because you like a bunch of props doesn’t mean they go together. I love handmade yet sophisticated flatware and vintage or rustic pieces. They don’t go together no matter how hard I try. It’s like bringing the Mat Hatter to a Royal Tea Party. It’s got odd written all over it.


Things to ask yourself:

Do ALL of my props create a united story?

Do the props make sense for the food I am using? Are they batting for the same team? Are they ‘united’?

Does my background ‘tie’ it all together or does it seem odd against the food/props?

What’s the most important tip in food photography styling? Click to read the Three C’s and watch as I break down each element in a short video so you can create powerful food photography!
What’s the most important tip in food photography styling? Click to read the Three C’s and watch as I break down each element in a short video so you can create powerful food photography!


Combining in such a way as to enhance or emphasise the qualities of each other.

Many people think that ‘cohesion’ and ‘complement’ are the same things. But now we can see that in fact they are actually providing different purposes within our food photography styling. The purpose of having complementary elements in your frame is to use one another to enhance each element and therefore the overall scene.


Things to ask yourself:

Do my background and props emphasise the food?

Does the light that I am using enhance the story I am trying to tell?



Strive to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over other.

The one goal of competition is to be the winner. 9 times out of 10 the goal of food photography is present the food as the clear winner in an image.

EXCEPT for light. Light should be #winning every single time regardless.

Have you ever shared a photo online only to have people comment on anything but the food (or your intended element)? They comment on the props, the background or even like the nail polish you’re wearing whilst holding that mug of hot chocolate.

I posted a photo on Instagram of a pseudo pink enamel plate and everyone loved the plate. I think one person commented on the bold lines which was the focus I was trying to get across in the image. My downfall was this competing element.


Things to ask yourself to avoid unintentional competition:

Does my chosen element have superiority in my story?

Do the props I am using give an unclear focus as to what the story is about?

Is the background I am using confusing the viewer and they don’t know where to look?

Have you ever experienced everyone ohhing and ahhing over the wrong element in your image?

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  • Reply Kiki November 18, 2016 at 1:41 am

    Hi Rachel, great post! I’ve been looking at my usage of props (or TRYING to…) a little closer since I took Helene’s workshop last year, where she said to always ask ourselves whether our props make sense. Ever since, I notice unnecessary things or things that don’t make sense – in OTHER people’s pictures… I’m not sure I can always see with the same objectivity when it comes to my own pics. It’s mostly after I posted that I feel like I should have left stuff out. I’m still striving to simplify my setups.

    Just the other week I used a background that looked good through the camera, but after posting I felt like redoing the whole shoot with a different background (and I might well do that at some point). While during the shoot I thought everything fit, now I just see the background and find it utterly distracting…

    • Reply Rachel November 18, 2016 at 6:01 pm

      Hey Kiki, it can be hard to look at our work sometimes as we see the things we want to change most of the time rather than what worked. If you have the possibility of tethering that might help you to have less ‘after-thoughts’? Maybe thinking of ‘simplifying’ is getting you tripped up? Could you look at it in terms of these three C’s? Maybe that will give you some direction that will work in the middle ground? Let me know how you go.

      • Reply Kiki November 18, 2016 at 7:52 pm

        I do occasionally shoot tethered – the reason why I don’t always do it is that sometimes the laptop/Lightroom says there’s no camera connected. But you’re right, I should do this more regularly, it might indeed help.
        And you might as well be right that thinking too much about simplifying is tripping me up. I will definitely consider the 3 Cs when I experiment this weekend. Thank you!

  • Reply Pang November 19, 2016 at 2:34 am

    I love that you give all of us structure– the words to style by, so we can be reminded of those Cs for our next shoot. I have styled my food, mainly, by instinct, which sometimes didn’t work. I planned it in my head, but occasionally things went wrong, and now, because of this post, I have an idea why.
    I’m bookmarking this post!!!
    Thank you so much for your post, Rachel 🙂

    • Reply Rachel November 30, 2016 at 9:18 am

      Great Pang! Yes it is amazing to have gut instinct, and to know the whys behind things at the same time are super powerful. Let me know how this goes for you.

  • Reply Navdeep November 19, 2016 at 4:26 am

    Hi Rachel, Your 7 Day FPSC email course was really good. Loaded with lots of useful tips and tricks. In my view I felt Day 5 material could have been better if you had few sample photos to show the various angles you have outlined to compare the differences. Visual lessons have more impact 😉

    Regards, Navdeep

    • Reply Rachel November 30, 2016 at 9:17 am

      Hey Navdeep! So glad to hear and thanks for taking the course. I love your feedback and I will definitely keep that in mind for future courses.

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