Their Instagram photos are a rainbow of heirloom tomatoes, and yours are dark and grainy. Theirs elicit pangs of hunger and envy. And they almost always leave you wondering, “How did they shoot that?”
Well, the photography pros do things a little differently than you do. Here are a few simple tips that will immediately improve your food photos on social media.
Focus on the food: We mean that literally. It may sound basic, but there are more fuzzy photos of In-N-Out Burgers on Instagram than there should be. Steady the phone to avoid shaking the camera, and focus on a point near the center of the dish or its most enticing detail, like the interior of a sliced layer cake.
Compose the photo: While Instagram now supports vertical and horizontal photos, the medium is still very much square. Take a moment to frame the image. Try the rule of thirds.
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Start thinking like a food stylist: Wait a minute for the ice cream to drip. Take a scoop out of the cobbler or lasagna and leave the full fork on the plate. Ruffle the cloth napkin near the dish. Experiment with utensil placement.
Fill the frame: Get close to your subject, so the photo brims with food.
Shoot in natural light: Natural light allows for nuances in a photo that a phone flash does not. If you’re shooting your big baking success, take it to the window in your home that provides the most light. If that light is harsh, consider hanging gauzy curtains to filter the bright light. You can illuminate the shadowed portion of your dish with white poster board. To do that, have someone else hold the board so the dish sits between it and the window, which will reflect more of the light onto the dish.
Use your friends’ phones, too: There are moments when you will be compelled to try to shoot your dinner in a candlelit dining room. You will most likely fail. The light cast by the flash on your phone will not flatter the food. But if you’re dining with friends, you can have them turn on the lights of their phones and point them toward the dish while you take the picture without turning on the flash. They can even diffuse their phone lights with lightweight white napkins. That said, be considerate. No one wants to dine next to the party that turns on the floodlights for every single dish. Use this trick sparingly.
Try a different angle: Stand up and take an overhead shot of your food, or duck down to meet your plate at a 30- to 45-degree angle from the table.
Don’t be afraid to move the plate: Follow the light. Sometimes you need to put that platter on the floor to make the best picture. (Don’t do this in a restaurant.)
Shoot with a camera: Many of the best photos on Instagram are shot with cameras, not phones. Cameras with manual settings offer better control in low light, which describes just about any restaurant after dark. You will have to use your desktop computer to crop the photos to size (1080 pixels-by-1080 pixels). Email the photo to yourself and save the image to your phone. You can upload it from there.
Use a postproduction app: Color-correct photos on the fly using an app such as Snapseed or Afterlight. These photo editing programs give you some of the benefits of Photoshop. You can tweak the image’s brightness, warmth and color saturation, but you don’t want to change them much – just enough to make the image pop. Don’t go overboard. The food should look edible, not like a product of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
Develop a style: Pay attention to the kinds of images you like, and your own favorite photos. Try to continue in that vein as you hone your style. Some people live to like supersaturated, high-contrast close-ups, while others desire the cool, blue hues of a Kinfolk table. If the process of cooking is your thing, turn off the stove before snapping an aerial shot of your mussels lest your phone fog up with steam. If this is a brag book of your restaurant meals, pepper your feed with It-list dishes.
Keep shooting: If you’re serious about becoming a better photographer, practice. Take three or four or even a dozen photos of the same dish. Review them and pick the one to post. As you take more photos, you'll become more comfortable with your phone’s camera features, learning the benefits and limitations of the camera. You'll also come to understand which foods are photogenic and which ones are not, how to adjust your framing or stylistic approach on the fly, and the time of day when your home gets the best light. Those are the details that will help you make beautiful images.