Ideas Amplified™ | The Flink Blog

Recipe for Success: Leveraging AI in Crafting Tempting Food Visuals

Working with a tight budget while trying to make great images for your food brand? Artificial intelligence offers groundbreaking new ways to produce top-tier visuals without the cost. Explore how AI can elevate your brand's appeal with the sorts of stunning, appetite-inducing images you've been waiting to afford.

Good-looking Photos Elevate Food Brands. 

Quality food photography can feel like a luxury when you’re just starting out. Your meager startup budget can only stretch so far and the list of financial obligations is a mile long! But your brand deserves more, and needs more, than your DIY phone snaps. In fact, the success or failure of your startup can hinge on the quality of your images! In the startup phase when you’re new and people are discovering you and your products, you need to ensure they’re the best images possible.They help establish your brand’s credibility while building awareness and cultivating desire. — Tell me how delicious something is and I may believe you,but show me an image of that meal and my mouth is watering and I’m reaching for the car keys. Yes. It’s that important. Don’t skip it.

But What If You Can’t Afford It? 

Some amateurs can take pretty good photos. And if you have food styling experience, are great with composition, lighting, props shopping and post-processing you might produce some good shots.

  • But will you be able to crank out 30 of them?
  • Will you be able to create a look that consistently shows your food in its best light?
  • Will you be able to create a consistent look across all your products?
  • And what if you have a hundred other things vying for your attention at the time?

Odds are, you’ll do one or two shots really well, then the quality will drop off. — Besides, is this how you want to be spending your time when there’s so much else on your plate?

A Primer On Professional Food Photography.

If you’ve never hired a professional food photographer, you may not be aware of all that goes into a photo shoot and how costly a shoot can be. Years ago, when I was still working at a large agency, I did shoots for a national fast food chain. 

Let me share the process with you. 

First, a designer creates a sketch and sends it to their chosen photographer. The photographer and designer then share their vision for the image, discussing the brief as well as the intended mood, lighting, composition and styling. The photographer will then hire a stylist who shops for food, ingredients, props, cutlery, dishes and surfaces while they might hang out in the studio doing some test images to establish a baseline. The food stylists buy, or rent, more items than they need so that on the day of the shoot there’ll be options to try. Different cutlery, dishes, props and backgrounds will be tested and shot and jpgs will be sent to the client for approvals and feedback. 

Since cold food looks different than warm food, the stylist will make multiples of the dish to be shot so the photographer has a “stunt double” to work out compostion and lighting details before the shot is dialed in and ready for the final photography. Then, the shot will be taken in numerous ways with bracketed exposures and slight compositional changes with each image shared for client and designer feedback. (I’ve spent as much as 8-10 hours on set with a photographer to get the image just right) A few days later, your images will have been cropped and retouched and sent to you along with a fairly sizeable invoice.

These are, without a doubt, the best food images you’ll ever see. The stuff of coffee table books and glossy recipe magazines. The effort is indeed worth it but with the amount of time and budget required, it’s not an easy path for smaller businesses. 

AI Presents An Alternative to Photography.

AI text to image generation tools and technologies are here. And, while I wouldn’t have said it a year ago, today’s AI food images are surprisingly good! The quality and control of AI images in March of 2024 is a far cry from the melted face seven fingered people we used to generate with AI. There’s now better lighting, more believable textures and ambiance, composition control and even reference images are now possible. If you’ve toyed with the idea but haven’t tried AI images yet, you’re in for a pleasant surprise.

New Opportunities & Unlimited Experimentation. Thanks To AI.

AI image generation is quite simply, magic. Simply describe the image you’d like in plain English and (presto) — there it is. No code to write or complex programming procedures. Sure. There are some tricks to make better images, but it’s a viable alternative to a professional photo shoot. AI photography is faster, nearly free and very controllable. — Want a burger floating in space? Chinese takeout shown on the Great Wall? Or Raviolis in Venice? You can do that and plenty more besides.

Control & Context Are Key.

AI images are best when they get specific. Prompt the AI for a peanut butter and jam sandwhich without further context and you’ll get an image of a white bread sandwhich in the middle of frame. Very uninspiring. But AI can only work with the prompt information you provide, so be sure to really describe your scene adequately. You can control nearly everything you’d control on a photography set. Compose the items how you’d like, set the lighting, time of day, add props, stylize the images, simulate particular cameras, lenses, exposures, and effects. And when you generate the ideal look, you can even save it as a reference image so all your other images appear to come from the same source and brand.

AI Prompting As Art Direction.

AI prompting is a lot like art direction. Art Directors are the visual half of ad agency creative teams and together with copywriters, develop advertising and design concepts. Art Directors are responsible for the overall look of a brand’s creative assets and direct illustrators and photographers with the details that inform the overall look of a brand. AI prompting controls are similar, but instead of talking with a photographer, you provide the AI directions in the form of prompts to completely customize the look of your images to create a unique looking brand. 

How Good Is Good?

A recent client packaging project for Copper Bluff Seafood had me put AI to the test. The client had a tight timeline, limited budget and a small window of opportunity to pitch Costco on a gift-boxed Smoked Salmon package. They specifically requested I use AI to make artwork for the front of the box, and though I was excited, I was also concerned about whether AI images would deliver the level of quality I was used to.

I shouldn’t have worried.

On showing the early iterations of my salmon swimming underwater images, the clients were thrilled and had a hard time choosing. We settled on an oil-painting look featuring a swirling kelp beds and a distorted view of nature from below water then I designed some package design alternatives for their review.

AI-generated smoked salmon packaging images

Where’s The Recipe Image?

The salmon box also featured a recipe for a smoked salmon quiche but the client hadn’t provided an image of the recipe for the box. As any foodie knows, people decide on recipes based on photos, not words, so I thought I’d try making an AI-generated image instead of complaining about the lack of a recipe image.  

I typed “Smoked Salmon Quiche” as my prompt, and, as you may expected, it sucked. I had left out the details and context that the AI needed to make visual choices. I ended up with wet pinkish slices of fish pile on top of a “stock photo-looking” quiche.

I should’ve known better.

With context and instructions missing the AI had little to go on other than the recipe name.

I was lazy.

When I later added that context by describing the way the quiche is made, and the mood I was after, I got an altogether different and far better image! I was shocked when days later, I asked the client if she’d ever made it and she said it looked exactly like my image. AI and I had nailed it!

A mock up of a strip of film with AI food images in the frames

Wanna’ See How Good AI Images Can Be?

A real-world test using online recipes and images.

I thought my quiche photo may have been dumb luck, so I decided to test some real world recipes and their accompanying pro photos with my AI-generated recipe images. Here’s the results:

First. I chose a “Heart-Shaped Lasagna” recipe from Food Network’s website. The actual image from their site is on the top and the AI-generated recipe image is below.

Next. I chose a Chicken Parmesan photo from the online menu of a local Mom & Pop Italian Restaurant, “Andreas”. It’s good example of good food with poor presentation. Again. Their recipe image from the dinner menu is above and the AI image is below.

Can AI images improve the appearance of your menu? Think you might sell more Chicken Parmesan if it looked like the one on the below instead of the one above?

When it comes to food, we buy with our senses and an appetizing food image supports a higher value perception. Your AI food image might just help you sell more menu items at $25 than you ever sold at $15! And wouldn’t raising your prices be better than finding ways to keep the doors open?

Are AI Images Right For Your Next Project?

AI images are awesome but not an ideal fit for every project. If you have the time, money and your project features proprietary or unusual menu items, a conventional photoshoot may be a better fit. But if you are crunched for time, have no suitable photographers in your area and need a very creative approach, AI food imagery might be the perfect choice. And with over 30 years of experience and over 2000 images generated thus far, we’re the perfect partner to take your food brand further with AI. — Get in touch and let’s chat about your next project!

Note: I made all images in this article using AI. (Yes, even the studio photographer at the top).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR / / / Brent Flink is an award-winning graphic designer, marketer and the founder and Creative Director of Flink Branding, a Vancouver-based food & beverage brand design firm. He specializes in helping food and beverage brands find their authentic voice and build brands that build companies.

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