I have taken a few photos of taupe sandwiches. Blobby, beige plates of pasta. Drinks so dimly lit you couldn’t tell what they were. Scroll deep, all the way to the bottom of my Instagram, and you will see my shame.
Photographing your food — something more and more of us are doing these days — is frivolous and fun. But it can also be tricky. Just because something looks delicious in person doesn’t mean it will appear as enticing through your phone’s five-inch screen. It’s a problem that stymies even high-profile food celebrities: Martha Stewart, famously, was bad at photographing food for social media.
And you can roll your eyes at people hovering with smartphones over their bowls of ramen — I am one of them, and yes, it can be embarrassing — but they might be enjoying their meal more than you. One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that taking photos of our experiences makes us happier and more engaged, whether it’s a trip to a museum or a meal. Most of my food photos are for my job, but looking back at my pictures of pinxtos in Spain, tagine in Morocco and pain au chocolat in France brings back all of the same warm feelings as photos of the nonedible sights I snapped during those vacations.
I’m no professional photographer, but I’ve gotten better, thanks to a lot of trial and error, and some handy iPhone apps that give my pickle pics and sashimi snapshots a boost. Here are some tips.
Lighting is everything. “Lighting makes texture, lighting makes shadows,” says Stan Lee, a Los Angeles photographer and videographer for Eater.com who was on the team that won this year’s James Beard Award for visual storytelling. “If you can control the light, you can control the way your image looks.”
First things first: Whenever possible, shoot in natural light.
“If you’re going to a restaurant and you really want to shoot pictures of your food, request a window seat,” says Scott Suchman, a freelance photographer whose clients include The Washington Post.
The reason? Restaurant lighting is designed to make people look warm and glowy, but bathes your food in an orangy light that looks unappetizing in photographs. Slightly cloudy or filtered natural light is best — a direct patch of sun can wash food out.
Keep the window to your right or left, not directly in front of you, unless you’re shooting a drink. In that case, “put your glass next to the window, and shoot it with the window in front of you,” Lee says. “The light now is lighting up your drink.”
At night, or in dark restaurants (which, to be honest, is most restaurants these days), don’t use your flash. The in-phone flash is too bright and it will make your food look horrible — and it will make everyone in the restaurant hate you.
If you need extra light, try the napkin trick. You’ll need to borrow a friend’s phone — and ideally, you’ll rope them into being your photography assistant, too. Turn on the flashlight function in your buddy’s phone, and hold it at an angle above that plate of pasta. Adjust the phone’s height and placement until you find the warmest, most natural-looking light. Don’t try this in a fancy restaurant.
“If you put a white napkin over the flashlight, that will make it softer,” says Desi Kireva, one half of the duo behind the popular @dcdining Instagram account, which aggregates food porn Instagrams from locals. The lighting method sometimes makes her feel self-conscious.
“One time we went to MXDC, and it was so dark in there,” she says. With a big group all shooting phone photos with this lighting technique, “It looked like a model photo shoot. It must have been funny for other people to see.”
Consider the composition. Some dishes look better from overhead (pizza, bento boxes, charcuterie boards); some look better from the side (all types of sandwiches). A round plate within the square Instagram frame is generally pleasing, but showing just a portion of a dish — especially if it’s aligned with photography’s Rule of Thirds — is a good bet, too.
“If anything’s dippable or spreadable, a good rule of thumb is that you should get the vessel that’s containing the product” in the photo, says Brian Johnson, the founder of Hungry Lobbyist.
Depending on the plating, some foods do better as close-ups, while some look better in the context of the other dishes on the table.
“People are obsessed with getting this close-up shot of a ravioli,” Suchman says. “If you look at food magazines, the shots are never that close. They’re always back to show more context.”
If it’s colorful, it will be easier to photograph. And that’s not limited to rainbow sprinkle-coated Ted’s Bulletin Pop-Tarts (although those are a guaranteed winner). Southeast Asian food really pops in photographs, with its red and green accents. Tacos, too. Delicately plated appetizers can have a lot of visual interest.
“Burgers are easiest,” because of the red tomatoes, yellow cheese, green lettuce and purple onions, Lee says. “You have a very nice color contrast.”
Suchman says that brown foods such as steak, barbecue and curry are the trickiest, as well as “Cuban food, which I love,” he says. “It’s like . . . beans and plantains and ropa vieja — it’s brown on brown on brown.”
Minimize your filter use. “You don’t want to misrepresent the food,” Suchman says. “If you start playing around with the filters, it doesn’t look like the bagel you had any more.”
Nick Pimentel, who sees many Instagrams of the food at his much-photographed restaurant Bad Saint, agrees. “I’ve seen some photos where I’m like, ‘Wow, that doesn’t look like . . . this dish looks like in real life,’ ” he says.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t manipulate the photos. Professional photographers adjust the shadows, highlights, color, saturation and warmth. When you play with those tools on your phone, you can mitigate the tinge of bad lighting.
Get a boost from food photography apps. Some of the accounts that are best known for their beautiful food photos don’t shoot on a phone — they use a DSLR. That kind of digital camera offers more tools to create beautiful photographs than a phone does. You can level the playing field a little bit with apps designed to help you take better photos of food. I like Foodie, an easy-to-use free app that labels its filters by food textures: “fresh” for produce-forward shots, “chewy” for breads and pastas, “BBQ” for meats. Hipstamatic ($3.99) also offers a collection of food filters (99 cents) that are good at softening harsh light and focusing on small details, such as the layers of a sandwich.
Just because it tastes good, doesn’t mean it will photograph well. Know when to accept defeat. Maybe it’s the lighting or some sloppy plating, but there are some foods that, in anything less than perfect conditions, will always look like dog food — or in the case of some squid ink deviled eggs I once photographed, worse.
Too often, people will snap a quick shot that looks like “something that’s been dredged up from the bottom of the sea,” Suchman says. “If I was a chef and those were the photos that were posted of my food, I would not be happy.”
Don’t let photographing food get in the way of eating it. The longer you take to arrange the perfect shot, the better your food will look — but the colder it will get. And if you go to great lengths to get your shot, you risk disrupting other diners. “When people are standing on the benches and chairs, then it starts to get . . . distracting to other guests and the staff as well,” Pimentel says. “I’ve never told anyone to stop, but I have seen someone almost topple over.”
You’re there to eat, not create a centerfold spread for Bon Appétit. If the tricks above aren’t producing a good shot, give up and enjoy your dinner.
“It is so funny to me that the second those plates are dropped, everyone at the table pulls out their phones,” Suchman says. “It’s become grace before meal for the hipster generation.”
Interestingly, a study in Psychological Science found that delaying one’s meal with a ritual — whether it’s prayer or photography — made people enjoy it more. But when I’m dining for pleasure and not for work, I relish the opportunity to just dig into my meal — and my companions do, too.