Photography is one of the most powerful tools in a hotel's branding arsenal. In order to get across your personality, position yourself in the market and tell your story, sometimes words just aren’t enough. After all, we eat with our eyes apparently.
But just because you can use photography, it never automatically means that you should. And it’s important to understand exactly what types of photography should go where, so that your brand is enhanced rather than tarnished.
There is almost no occasion where photography doesn’t enhance a website in some form or another. Hero banners are now the standard for getting across a visual idea as soon as a visitor hits your home page. A beautiful panorama of your location, a look at the food you create, or diners enjoying a great experience are powerful images.
These are examples of using photography in a way that words can’t convey. However, the photos need to mean something. They need to express something unique, something that’s difficult to find elsewhere.
In other words, they need to create the right sort of emotion.
DO have photos of:
- YOUR LOCATION: Taken at a great angle with great light. Sunset or sunrise, or even at night. Night shots are great if you’re in the city, and the light trails of cars and people walking by give an immediate sense of motion and intrigue to a restaurant or dining space.
- FOOD THAT’S INTERESTING: If you have food that is difficult to picture without seeing it. A well-plated dish or two with a great backdrop can really show off your menu while at the same timing giving clues as to the dining space.
For accommodation providers that offer food, it is best to show it in the environment served i.e. on a table, under kitchen lights or being served to diners by waiters. It is tempting to over style the food, but this may not come across as authentic.
Food that evokes emotion and get's your mouth watering. Juicy steaks with sauces or decadent desserts are good candidates. Dishes that taste great but don't look good or have little colour contrast may not be ideal.
- YOUR STAFF: If your brand suggests a welcoming, social environment (which it usually will), visitors love to see the team who’ll be preparing their food. These can be candid, in-action shots of the chef plating a dish, or a more formal to-camera shot with the kitchen staff.
The only problem with these photos is that they won't translate well to online travel agencies. So these photos are best used on your website or as hero images for your restaurant page on your main marketing website.
Also both Zomato and TripAdvisor advise against featuring staff in food photos, so they can't be used there either.
They can however be used in your general hotel marketing media such as posters, brochures and in room literature. Not to mention inserted into emails sent to your email subscriber list.
Don’t set up cheesy-looking photos with servers pouring wine at waiver thin fashion models grinning from ear to ear or worse - looking at the camera! Shots that are clearly fake but try to look real are too obvious and don’t really say anything other than “we can afford a photographer and some underfed models” rather than “we have friendly staff”
Where you do use models, try to use models that appeal to the avatar you are attempting to attract. Or in other words, if you are aiming at getting more business diners into your restaurant then they should be the subjects in the photo - not a family or couple.
If you have various avatars you are aiming at in terms of your audience, then the safest bet is a couple or two women dining together as friends.
- YOUR DINERS: These shots need to be candid. Obviously the photographer should ask the diner for their picture, but instruct them to act naturally. Set the camera back on a tripod and get on their level. People love to see what a restaurant looks like as they pass by, and this kind of shot gets this idea across instantly.
A good professional hotel photographer will be able to discuss the type of shot you want and inject motion into the frame with the use of slower frame rates. This can also have the effect of blurring diners faces which may be desirable to protect their privacy.
The problem with even attempting to photograph real diners is that it's almost impossible to get right without using models. Otherwise you will inevitably get the wrong types of people in your shot that don't match with your target audience.
So while you want the shots to look candid, there is nothing wrong with using a couple in the shot - just don't have them smiling at the camera or looking too staged!
If your restaurant is a fine dining affair, you will probably want to avoid any photos with diners - instead opting for an empty dining room.
Don't be afraid to shout a few drinks to anyone who is happy to be included in photos as candid models.
DON’T have photos of:
- FOOD THAT ISN’T INTERESTING: If you serve fish and chips in a basket or a steak on a bed of mash, you’re wasting your visitors’ time with photos like this. Everyone expects a steak to look juicy and succulent. Everyone knows what fish and chips looks like. Unless your food has some visual interest that is different to everyone else, don’t use these kind of boring photos.
- STOCK PHOTOS THAT CLEARLY AREN’T YOURS: Showing a photo of a coffee or a salad or a rocky-road sundae are bad enough for the reasons described above, but if they’re stock images (i.e. shots taken by someone else that you just download and use), it’s even worse.
- OVERLY STYLED FOOD: Food shots that are styled with ingredients surrounding them scream of a setup and will not be appreciated by people just trying to understand what your food is about. These type of shots are best left to food bloggers and recipe books.
ALSO, don’t use images of people dining or images of food that aren’t yours. People can tell sub consciously when things don’t look right, and even if they can’t, they’ll feel lied to when they turn up and the food or decor isn’t the same as the image they saw online.
So that means - avoid stock images like the plague.
Photos of Food on Menus
Menus can be tricky. They can appear in paper form at a table, or as a menu board out the front, or above the front counter at a fast casual restaurant. There are really only two reasons to use photography on a physical menu: to look cheap, or to look like a chain.
Looking like a chain restaurant
At McDonald’s, photography works to great effect because they want to look big and impressive. They want to show you how juicy and delicious their burgers are so that you’ll feel compelled to buy them.
You’ll probably grab it in a meal because the slow-motion video of the fake ice dropping into the glass of Coke looks so refreshing. All fast food chains do this, and it’s essentially just in-store advertising.
They want to upset you, and the easiest way is to make everything look so delicious that you’ll buy more than you really want.
The problems with photography of this style on your menu are twofold:
1. You’ll look like a chain restaurant. Chain restaurants are renowned for cookie-cutter recipes that appease everyone, and they’re systemised to such a degree that a monkey could put the meals together. It’s unlikely any passionate chef would be running a restaurant like this.
2. It’s far too expensive to actually pull this look off even if you wanted to.
You’ll need to hire a professional kitchen next to a studio, get video and photography of everything, then work with a graphic designer to put it together. Not to mention $10,000 worth of displays and the computer to drive them. It’s just a no-go.
Think about the Asian restaurant down the road. Or the corner takeaway with a horrible photo of a burger printed on the side of the shop. This kind of photography looks cheap because it is. It’s poorly lit and doesn’t really say anything about the food except how unappealing it is.
Like we mentioned in the website section, photography is only valuable when it shows off unique or interesting food, yet it should never be placed directly on a menu. On the website, it should be used as a gallery image or behind a header, never as a small thumbnail next to a description of the food.
Using photography of the food available at your hotel and the actual dining area is important and can really help with increased room bookings. It should be used sparingly on the front page, but available in more detail on dedicated pages for each of your dining options.
This applies to all accommodation providers from bed and breakfasts to larger hotels. Food should be seen not just as a profit centre, but as a conversion factor for getting people to book a room in the first place - and write raving reviews on TripAdvisor.
If you are not able to arrange a proper commercial shoot with models, then often the next best thing is an empty dining room where there is also no chance of those photos looking out of date in a few years time as fashions change.
Chris Jack is the editor of Locus Focus and a professional hotel photographer based in Brisbane with over 20 years experience in digital marketing. He also hosts the weekly "Sharper Hotel Marketing" podcast.