Keeping up with food photography trends in commercial Licensing

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In recent years, food trends have reshaped and revolutionized commercial photography, inspiring Licensing Contributors to get more creative and innovative, even when shooting at home. From acai bowls and rainbow bagels to avocado toast and kale (believe it or not, farm production of kale went up 60% between 2007 and 2012), food photography has never been more vibrant and colorful than it is today.

A woman holding a baking tray of baby carrot by Studio OMG on

With more than half of US millennials considering themselves to be “foodies” (58%, according to one report), the evergreen genre of food photography is getting a modern boost. Plus, with lockdown orders restricting many artists to shooting at home, some are pivoting into shooting products and food in their own kitchens and dining rooms. Tracking changes in the industry is essential to shooting photos that resonate with today’s image-buyers, so with that in mind, we wanted to take a closer look at just a few trending topics topping the charts these days.

Food Prep by Zak Nuttall on

Trend #1: Pantry Meals

Amid lockdowns, more people than ever tuned into virtual cooking classes and made meals at home. Some got innovative with basic ingredients they had stocked in the pantry, and others experimented with new flavors and spices. Interest in pantry meals isn’t fading anytime soon; at the start of this year, a survey from the consumer market research firm Hunter showed that 51% of respondents are continuing to cook more, and 41% are continuing to bake more than they did at the same time the previous year.

What’s more, 71% of those who are cooking more plan to continue to do so after the pandemic ends. In 2021, top motivations for cooking at home include saving money, eating healthier, and feeling good. Hunter also found that many respondents are trying new ingredients (47%), new products and brands (52%), as well as rediscovering old favorites. 81% said they’re finding enjoyment in cooking.

Overnight oatmeal with cinnamon, honey, pear, pomegranate seeds  by Edalin Photography on

At the start of 2021, Whole Foods Market predicted “Basics on Fire” as one of their top trends, citing the rise in home cooks working with shelf-stable ingredients (pastas, sauces, spices, etc.). Now is the ideal time to get out your favorite recipes and shoot photos with that authentic, home-cooked vibe. Your shots don’t need to be overly staged or styled; a natural, lived-in aesthetic works just as well.

Baked feta cheese with pasta, tomatoes and fresh basil by Eva Soukupová on

Quick tip: Follow social media. The best way to keep up with emerging food trends is to keep an eye on social media. In February, for example, a baked pasta dish with basil and cherry tomatoes went massively viral on TikTok (in fact, the same recipe had gone viral in Finland in 2018, apparently causing local stores to run out of feta cheese). Soon, people tried different variations of the dish, including one with asparagus and several vegan recipes (yes, there is vegan feta on the market!).

Other recipes to go viral online recently include variations on Gigi Hadid’s “spicy pasta,” “rainbow cloud bread,” “pancake pizza,” and tons more. TikTok influencer Tabitha Brown created a mega-popular carrot “bacon” for her plant-based followers. Follow the food blogs and chefs you love on Instagram and TikTok. Social media recipes are often ahead of the curve and help predict larger trends in the industry. If you see something trending that looks particularly photogenic, put your own spin on it and shoot it at home.

Fresh smoothie with ice, mint and lime pouring from bottle by Anna Ivanova on

Trend #2: All things plant-based

In 2021, vegan options abound, from plant-based meats like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat to plant-based milk like Oatly and Silk. With more people understanding the direct impact of meat, dairy, and egg production on our global climate crisis, and with increased awareness of the animal welfare issues associated with these industries, interest in plant-based eating has boomed.

Last year, research from Chef’s Pencil indicated that veganism had grown twice as popular as it was just five years earlier. Plus, just this spring, a report from the Plant Based Foods Association and the Good Food Institute showed that plant-based food sales grew nearly twice as much during the pandemic as overall US retail food sales, rising by 27%. In 2020, more than half (57%) of households bought plant-based foods.

Fruit homemade popsicles  by Edalin Photography on

At the start of this year, the Future 100 Report from Wunderman Thompson tracked the rise of plant-based dining in Asia. The movement can be traced from the Beijing-based brand Zhenmeat, which specializes in hot pot and dim sum made with plant-based proteins (pea, soy, brown rice, and mushroom), to the Singapore-based startup Karana, which creates a popular pork alternative made using jackfruit.

For commercial photographers, vegan food offers the perfect opportunity to get creative and put a fresh spin on familiar favorites, from appetizers to entrees to desserts. Think colorful plant-based poke boils, vegan cheese and ice cream, plant-based fish and pork alternatives, and more. When it comes to visualizing ethical foods, the options are limitless.

Fresh and juicy raw passion fruit by Sabino Parente on

Quick tip: Combine lifestyle with still life photography. When shooting a home-cooked meal, consider capturing every stage in the process, from the gathering of ingredients to the preparation of the food to the serving and enjoying of a dish. You capture a mix of tabletop still lives and candid lifestyle photos that show the joy of cooking and having a meal with loved ones. When working with people, remember to ask them to sign a model release. An anonymous hand reaching into a frame won’t always require a release, but in any photo where the model is recognizable or identifiable, it’s necessary.

Borschtsch  an eastern european classic with red prayer by Darius Dzinnik on

Trend #3: Foraging

In what experts are calling the “shroom boom,” mushrooms are having a moment. In December, Kroger predicted that 2021 would be the “breakout year” for the antioxidant-rich fungi. Meanwhile, Whole Foods forecasted trends ranging from mushroom broth to mushroom jerky. Since then, mushrooms have appeared in everything from protein powder to coffee alternatives, and data shows that mushroom consumption in the US has grown every year since 2013.

In New York, DIY mushroom grow kits boomed during lockdowns. In the next seven years, the global market for mushrooms is expected to reach over $50 billion. There are a few reasons for the skyrocketing popularity of the mushroom: to start, they’re versatile and nutrient-dense, and they have a low environmental footprint. But there’s another reason too, and that’s our increased interest in outdoor foraging amid, and following, the pandemic.

Woman sitting and eating healthy vegan dish from bowl by Anna Ivanova on

From morel mushrooms to blackberries, 2020 witnessed an uptick in foraging as people found creative ways to spice up their meals and spend quality time outdoors. Educational platforms like Wild Food UK, for instance, noticed a significant uptick in sales of pocket guides and website traffic, while restaurants such as the Ethicurean, also in the UK, helped make foraged ingredients mainstream. The Food and Drink Report 2021 from Waitrose & Partners found that social media interest in foraging in the UK went up 89% year-on-year.

Raw carrots and apricots with different healthy herbs on wooden by Olga  on

The shroom boom offers a plethora of opportunities for photographers, from traditional food shoots featuring mushrooms as a key ingredient to lifestyle sessions celebrating the art of foraging in the urban wild. If you go hiking and foraging with your family or friends, get those model releases signed and document the adventure.

Charcuterie Board by Zak Nuttall on

Quick tip: Play with composition. When shooting for your commercial portfolio, versatility is key, so you want to get a variety of angles and compositions. Many clients will search for photos with copy space where they can add their own text or logos, so in addition to close-up or detail shots, remember to shoot wide and include plenty of negative space. Croppable photos appeal to buyers who want to use your photo across multiple channels and platforms, so that’s also something to keep in mind.

asparagus soup by Irina Meliukh on

“Consider all the possible avenues of a food shoot, from deconstructed ingredients to the finished meal against a minimalist colored background,” the 500px team suggests. When styling food shoots, keep your compositions simple and clean, and use the color wheel to find harmonious palettes. The ingredients, dishware, and background should complement one another. You can shoot the same subject in a number of different ways by mixing up your backgrounds and propping, so give yourself plenty of time on set to experiment and try new things.

Baking cake or cookies ingredients on white wooden table top view by Vladislav Nosick on

Trend #4: Takeout

Last fall, research from Deloitte found that delivery and takeout orders continued to increase since the pandemic, with almost a quarter (23%) of consumers saying that their more frequent use of takeout and delivery options would be permanent. Among those surveyed, 57% said they have a third-party delivery app on their phones. Meanwhile, in August, research from Technomic showed that off-premises dining had almost doubled on Friday and Saturday nights.

Vegan milk by Natalia Klenova on

In 2020, restaurants relied heavily on takeout options to stay afloat, and although many are gradually starting to feel more comfortable dining out, takeout continues to dominate. Recent research by Morning Consult reveals that even though on-premises dining does show signs of catching up, takeout is still the most popular dining option, with 40% of American respondents saying they order takeout at least once a week.

Like takeout, meal kits have also experienced a boom, with the global meal kit delivery services market size expected to approach $20 billion by 2027. Brands like HelloFresh and Home Chef have witnessed massive growth year on year, and many restaurants also started offering meal kits to customers looking to prepare dishes at home. The way we dine has changed drastically in the last year, and, in turn, advertising photography has come to illustrate many of those transitions.

Japanese sake and appetizers by Hidekazu Makiyama on

When shooting takeout-themed content for your Licensing portfolio, remember to use generic packaging, as branded elements are copyrighted and off-limits for commercial use. Another thing to keep in mind is sustainability; with more restaurants offering reusable takeout packaging, it’s time to consider incorporating eco-friendly props over harmful, single-use plastic containers. As always, aim for variety; your shoots can include tabletop photos of the food itself, photos of someone ordering food on their phones, and relatable shots of a delivery person wearing a mask and handing off a meal or dropping it off outside.

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