Recently, a chef who I respect and admire lamented on his Facebook page: “Jeez,” he said, “Remember when we could just be cooks, and not expert food photographers?”
I have to admit that when I read this, my first thought was, “Uh, not really.”
Presenting food in an appealing, interesting, and yes, clickable way has been a major part of marketing your restaurant for over a decade. Some talent behind the lens is particularly important for small-scale restauranteurs, trying to create a buzz in the early days of their ventures, when money to throw at traditional advertising is scarce. Building a social media following is the least expensive, least time consuming way to create a massive audience of would-be diners, while expanding your potential geographic reach well beyond the boundaries of your own neighborhood.
Follow a few local restaurants, however, and you’ll likely be astonished at what a struggle it is for even talented, capable chefs and kitchen managers to capture photos of their dishes in an appealing way for social media. Lifeless, grey burgers, anemic-looking sandwiches, gluey plates full of pasta, all captured under harsh light, or at weird angles, are the norm for entirely too many cooks managing their own social media accounts.
Several years ago, I wrote an article about the basics of food photography, intended for amateurs less interested in apertures and shutter speeds, and more interested in creating photos that would make their followers ravenously hungry, and maybe even hit the “like” or “share” button. The goal of that guide was to show even beginning food photographers how, with no budget and no extra equipment, they could take better DSLR food photos.
Since then, the process has gotten even easier. Most of us have an almost absurdly powerful camera, built into our phones and sitting in our pockets, right this very second. And all of those pointers about building your own quick-and-dirty can lights, choosing the right macro lens, and optimizing shadow for impromptu food photo shoots? They’re no longer relevant. Modern mobile phone cameras have fantastic image stabilization, the ability to capture crisp detail, and automatic exposure settings that can make even the most dimly-lit room look like a thoughtfully lit photo studio.
It’s easier that ever to take excellent food photos, even when you’re in the middle of the zillion other things you have to manage in your kitchen each day…but you still have to be thoughtful about it, and employ a few basic techniques.
Turn Off All of the Lights
The quickest, easiest trick for taking better food photos using your iPhone right this second is a dead-simple one: Turn off all of the lights. Artificial lighting is the biggest enemy of amateur food photographers, creating hard, sharp shadow, washing out color, and making food look generally unappetizing. Unless you really know what you’re doing, shooting food under artificial lights is really, really tough. Fortunately, the automatic white balancing and color correcting on most camera phones makes shooting under low light easy, and 9 times out of 10, the results you’ll get out of your iPhone using no artificial lights at all, will be better than with elaborate lighting setups. In our kitchen, my staff knows when I’m shooting a food photo for social media, because I’ll turn the overhead lights off, and use the natural light coming in through a window to light my subject. If you have bright sun beaming in, a gauzy curtain or rag can help filter the natural light, and soften up any harsh shadows. If it’s a cloudy day, you’re in business; the clouds outside will filter your natural light beautifully. Some of our best photos were shot on overcast days, near a window, with no complicated lighting setups.
For the Love of God, Stop Using Your Flash
It can be tempting to brighten up a scene with a quick pop of your flash, but there are two major reasons why you should never do this. First, flashes (by their very nature) provide a burst of very bright, very directional light. You may think you’re lighting your plate better, but really, all you’re doing is washing out the color of your food, making it look weirdly two-dimensional, and creating very harsh shadows. Second, and this is particularly true if you are shooting in a restaurant setting: Flashes are annoying to those around you. Be cool, baby, damn.
Plan Your Shot, and Choose Which Parts of Your Dish to Emphasize
I can’t state the importance of this one enough. For every item of food you’re photographing, take a minute before you fish your iPhone out of your pocket to think about which aspect of the dish you’re trying to emphasize and draw attention to. If you’ve built a burger with six crazy toppings, for example, you’ll probably want to draw attention to the height and layers of the finished product, which makes shooting your subject from the front make the most sense. If you’re super proud of the drizzle of pomegranate coulis you’ve lovingly scattered around your perfect plate, a top-down overhead shot probably makes the most sense. If a dish is creamy, saucy, and comforting, use close-ups to emphasize those traits. Taking a minute to plan what you want your viewer to see, can really make the difference between a good and a great shot.
When Starting Out, You Get Three Angles
There are kind of two schools of thought on this one. Some would argue that you should always be shooting food in a creative way, to engage your viewers’ brains and make them really consider what they’re seeing. For example, a cookie on a plate with a bite taken out of it is a boring photo, because your brain has already registered that image dozens of times. Better, some say, to get in close on the bite, presenting an interesting angle, with maybe the jagged edges of the cookie providing an otherworldly landscape to tickle our brains and engage our senses.
This may be a great idea, once you become really, really accomplished in the world of food photography. But I think when you’re just starting out, it’s better not to make your viewers have to work too hard. Presenting food at angles they’re familiar with will allow them to instantly register what they’re seeing, and connect it with a past memory. A photograph of a burger taken from an over-the-shoulder perspective of the eater connects anyone who sees your photograph to every burger they’ve ever eaten. I would argue that when you’re just getting started or working to improve your iPhone food photography in the early days, it’s best to stick to three main angles: The top-down overhead view, which is always popular and instantly to familiar to anyone that’s ever eaten food fro a plate, the three-quarter or 45 degree shot, for when you really want to emphasize the details of a dish, and the front-facing, preferably lit from the side. Each of these angles will deliver a professional look, every time, even if they may seem a little boring or overused.
Eliminate Shutter Jiggle (Even If You Think You’re Not Jiggling)
Modern smartphone cameras have become really, really good at reducing shake digitally. But no matter how still you think you’re being, there is always a tiny bit of movement, either from tapping the button on the side of the phone, or tapping on the screen to take your photo. This almost imperceptible movement is enough to throw your photos ever so slightly out of focus. Some folks employ a tripod with either a timer or a remote shutter release, which is all well and good for capturing perfectly crisp shots; however, dragging even a small tabletop tripod out in the middle of service is a hassle, and enough to generate big eye-rolls from your staff. More often, I use the two second timer feature on my photo app, while still shooting with the phone in my hand and staying as still as possible. They photo capturing software handles the rest. Is it perfect? No. Is it good enough for the ‘gram? Definitely.
Drips and Yolks = Social Media Celebrity
This is kind of hacky, and feels a little bit like cheating, but it gets results. Before shooting your picture, arrange all of your elements next to your plate, so that you can build it at the last minute and take a photo as quickly as possible afterward. Why? Drips, baby. People love to see dripping, delicious sauces, and catching the perfect dollop of horseradish aioli as it just starts to bead and ooze out of your burger will capture some “likes” every single time. And if the drip you’re catching in your photo is an egg yolk? All the better.
Use Photo Editing Apps Sparingly and Smartly
Sometimes, even the most well-planned, well thought-out, well-composed photo can use a little help. Maybe your lighting was weird, or maybe your colors got a little washed-out. It can be tempting to turn to the insanely wide array of photo-editing apps to try and fix your photo, but use caution: Usually, clumsily applying that 1970’s-era Polaroid filter or some weird lens effect to your food photos is not going to improve matters much. When I need to make subtle tweaks to boost color or sharpness in a photo, the native filters in the iPhone app are usually enough to get the job done. They’re subtle, and aren’t distracting or overpowering. When that’s not enough to get the job done, I also wholeheartedly endorse the “Foodie” app. Its filters are gentle, and can pop saturation and reduce shadows in a way that doesn’t feel overprocessed. If you just can’t resist applying Instagram filters to your photos, turn the opacity down to about 50%. After all, you want people to see your food, not your filter.
Publish, Publish, Publish
This can be a tough one for a lot of people, especially when you’re just getting started taking pictures of food. After all, the bar for even amateur food photography has been raised so impossibly high, that choosing to share your photos (or use them to promote your restaurant) can feel intimidating. The only solution to this is to just keep shooting, and keep publishing. You’ll develop your own feel for what style of photography works for you (seriously, I have like maybe five tricks, that I use over and over), and you’ll get real-time feedback from your audience in the form of likes, shares, and comments. The only way to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t is to keep shooting, and keep trying. And don’t feel like you have to populate your social media feed for your restaurant strictly with photos of food; behind-the-scenes shots of staff silliness, cooking mishaps, and crowded dining rooms will all connect with your audience, build your authenticity, and grow your viewers in time for your next delicious food photo.