If there’s one thing we’ve learned in all these years translating our whole lives through Instagram filters, it’s that getting a great food photo is deceptively difficult. How does anyone get that airy and bright food image that oozes an effortless Sunday vibe, all from a plate of eggs Benedict?
“A good food photo always starts with the best light you could possibly get,” says Matt Armendariz, an LA-based professional food photographer with almost 30 thousand followers on Instagram. “And going out to brunch or breakfast is always ideal because it’s the daytime.”
Finding a diffuse source of light, as opposed to standing in direct sunlight, is always better. Book a table next to a window, or if you’re outside, ask for one on the patio, under the shade. If that’s not possible, and if the thought of people giving you weird looks is not disturbing to you, just take your plate and bring it next to a window.
One thing to never do, according to Armendariz, is using your camera or smart phone’s flash. “Food photos taken with the flash just make it look like a crime scene,” he says. “I always tell people if you want to take pictures of your dinner, then have dinner at 5 o’clock.” Basically, if you’re at a basement bar at 11 PM having a drink and an appetizer, just enjoy them and forget about trying to take a picture of them.
Another important factor is the angle. Shooting the food overhead has become very popular, and for a good reason. Smartphone camera lenses are a little wider so taking a snap of your breakfast pizza or a tray of croissants with butter will always come out well, explains Armendariz.
“[Shooting overhead] also enables you to add a little bit of context to it, like a hand holding the cappuccino, or there’s a little vase with a flower in it. It adds context, charm, and a sense of place,” he says.
Close-up shots of the chocolate drizzle on your pastry are only going to come out as delicious-looking as it is in real life if you own a good DSLR camera with a proper lens. Smartphone cameras use digital zoom which, unless you have a very steady hand, results in a lot of shaking and unfocused and grainy images.
Shooting against a wall is also a very popular style of food photography. It’s perfect for when you want to emphasize a single object. “It’s a great way to bring the viewer right back to what you’re holding. The hand is right in front of the camera, there’s a solid background — sometimes it’s a brick wall or a white wall — and it’s kind of removing information from the frame so that the viewer goes straight to that one single thing,” explains Armendariz.
You can also use your iPhone’s portrait mode (available on iPhone 7 Plus, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X) to focus on one object and have the background blurred; this makes for very professional-looking snaps.
And speaking of background, while some foods are naturally beautiful (like baked goods and pastries), some are not so much and this is when you need to introduce a few props to your shot. Just scan the restaurant and see if you can spot really pretty elements that you can incorporate into your shot.
“There are times when I’ve taken my plate of food and moved it on to the floor because of the beautiful tiles,” he adds. You can also put the food at the edge of the table and try to take a wider shot to show the background or ask a friend to hold the plate so that you can get the food off the table and see the environment of the restaurant behind it. Yes, sometimes getting the ultimate food photo requires the confidence to act a little wild in a restaurant.
But don’t overdo it in the staging department. Perfectly clean, sterile shots are not always the best and they don’t look natural.
“I love shots that look like someone just stepped away from the picture — so maybe it’s just a bowl of rice but the chopsticks and the napkin next to it look like someone just plunked them down, pushed their chair out from under the table, and walked away. [It] feels much more lived-in than something that is overly staged,” says Eunice Byun, co-founder of kitchenware company Material.
Using mismatched plates and utensils is fine as long as they are visually appealing. Eating is a messy activity so there’s nothing wrong with showing that. Byun suggests clearing out everything around where you are looking to shoot, and then, piece by piece, adding things in — like a cutting board, a salt well, drips of oil, or flaky salt.
“I think the best shots are the ones where something is completely mundane and everyday, but it’s the moment that is captured that is magical,” she adds.
Once you have that perfect shot, you’ll probably want to do a few touch-ups. When Armendariz edits food photos on his iPhone, he usually uses one of these three apps — VSCO, Snapseed, SKRWT— to adjust the contrast or saturation of the colors, but he warns against going too far with retouching. “Color in food means that it’s fresh — or it means that it’s rotten or spoiled — so I try not to process food photos too much.”
His favorite Instagram filter is Clarendon, but he only uses it at 40 percent strength for food photos.
“A good food photo is a good food photo no matter where it’s taken as long as you think about the best light, the right surfaces, and the angle — really that’s all you need,” he says. Well, that and a delicious plate of food.