The concept is simple—take a photo of the food that you eat and post it online. If you cooked the food, link the recipe. If you didn’t, link the restaurant. On Instagram, everyday users who are passionate about food and dining can curate their own gallery of recommendations, recipes, and experiences. And the best part is that anybody can participate. You too can go to that restaurant or cook that dish, and you too can take a photo and post it for your audience to see.
Food photography—or as I like to call it, foodtography—was among the earliest Instagram trends. The rise of accounts entirely dedicated to food ignited a cultural phenomenon that would ultimately change the way America eats. Instagram account @thefeedfeed, which has accumulated a following of over 1.5 million, posts daily photos of optulent cheeseboards and homemade vegan pastas, all linking back to the recipes on its website. Users can follow accounts specific to their interests, from vegetarian recipe accounts, like @loveandlemons, to city-specific guides highlighting local restaurants and hot spots, like Atlanta-based @hungrygirlsdoitbetter.
Each account has a different feel and style. Some post homemade recipes while some post from restaurants, some crowdsource image submissions while others create all original content. Many have become trusted sources for recommendations; a mere scroll down the Instagram page of a friend or a blogger (who often grows to feel like some sort of distant friend) and you can not only find suggestions for where to eat—the location is often conveniently geo-tagged—but also see photos of the restaurant’s signature, photo-worthy dishes and plan out exactly what to order.
But years of foodtography have taught me that much more work goes on behind the scenes of those polished photos than one may expect. After much trial and error, I have discovered a few tricks to capturing the perfect photo (and doing justice to that ultra-gooey skillet of mac and cheese). But I’m no professional, so I consulted two women who are: Kate Wood, the Alabama baker and blogger behind Wood & Spoon and @katie_clova, and Amber Wilson, cookbook author and self-proclaimed “professional eater” of @fortheloveofthesouth. With these expert tips, you’ll be on your way to taking mouthwatering food photos in no time.
1. Find the Light
Photographing in natural lighting is quite possibly the cardinal rule of taking beautiful food photos. Lighting can and will make or break a photo, and bad lighting is unfortunately one of those things that Photoshop just can’t fix. It doesn’t matter just how beautiful those miniature chocolate cakes are if the photo is taken in a dark alcove; yet perhaps, photographed by the window, you’ll capture the sun gleaming off the ganache in just the right way.
When you are photographing food, always look for natural lighting. The challenges of photographing food in dark restaurant corners may be more obvious, but harsh direct light can also pose a problem. “Avoid shooting in harsh, direct rays that can wash out your subject and instead look for indirect sun,” says Kate Wood. “I prefer to use soft, natural light from a nearby window.”
2. Work the Angles
Before you dig into that dish, try to capture your food from a variety of perspectives—the best angle may surprise you. Some spreads require a wide-pan tablescape shot (think: Thanksgiving), while some stunning pies or pastries deserve a close-up. Wood provides a few helpful guidelines: “If you’re photographing something with an interesting profile (think cupcakes, a slice of cheesecake, or a hamburger piled with toppings) try shooting the subject straight on to best capture the layers of ingredients and textures involved. Other items like a pan of spiraled cinnamon rolls, a bowl of stew, or a charcuterie platter look best from above, so consider taking an overhead shot of those flat lay foods.”
3. Invoke the Senses
“The best food photos invite the viewers to pull up a chair and have a taste,” says Wood. When you’re capturing a dish, you want to show off the star ingredients to let the viewer in on the experience. “This might mean adding an extra drizzle of hot fudge just before photographing your banana split or sprinkling a few fresh herbs on top of a pork chop marinated in chimichurri. Give your viewers an idea of what ingredients are flavoring the food you’re photographing in order to invite them to make it or taste it for themselves!”
4. Capture the Process
If you’re photographing food that you’re preparing yourself, be sure to take some action shots throughout the cooking process. “Things like a freshly latticed pie crust, mounds of loaded cookie dough, or a braided babka headed for the oven can sometimes be more beautiful before they’re fully baked than after!” notes Wood. The behind-the-scenes can be just as beautiful—and you’ll be so happy to have documented these memories, especially if you’re cooking with loved ones.
5. Use Props with Purpose
When you’re putting on a play, you have to set the stage. The scenery matters and styling is a crucial, yet often overlooked element of any food photo. It can be as simple as setting down a pair of sunglasses or a blue-and-white striped linen next to that croissant. Adding a few elements with contrasting or complementary colors brings new dimension to the photo and makes it more visually interesting. Go for natural-looking props that hint at how the dish was made: A few rogue raw ingredients or utensils will work well.
A few props can go a long way. If you’ve surrounded your plate with lots of ingredients, utensils, and other knick-knacks (plants, accessories, etc.), you can easily distract from the main focus: the food. Be careful not to draw the viewer’s eye in too many different directions. The plate of food should still be the star of the show and the focus of the photo; the props, arranged intentionally and sparingly, are the supporting acts.
6. Keep it Natural
When it comes to editing your photos, it’s easy to go overboard. “My approach to editing food photography is the same as my approach to personal style or makeup,” says Amber Wilson. “I try to enhance what’s naturally there.”
Phone apps like VSCO and Lightroom are great tools to lightly retouch your photos without compromising the integrity of the picture. Wilson notes that her photo editing takes just a few seconds: a quick adjustment of contrast, exposure, and clarity, and that’s about it. Wilson also loves to add “a touch of warmth” to give her photos a slightly sun-kissed feel.
7. Create Cohesion
Think about your favorite food Instagram accounts. Imagine the photos arranged in their neat three-by-three grid. What really draws you to this profile in particular? Your initial answer will probably be that the food looks delicious. But photographing good-looking food is only the first step; chances are there’s also something else drawing you in, something intangible.
The key to crafting a beautiful food Instagram account is establishing cohesion between your individual posts. Think of yourself as the curator of a collection: all of the photos should complement one another. The most successful accounts establish a style or theme and carry a few consistent notes through all their photography. Maybe it's using the same filters or small edits. Maybe it's photographing against the same white marble table. When you’re taking and editing your photos, think about the relationship between the individual photo and your whole gallery.
8. Beware of Flash
If your environment is dark, you may be tempted to use flash. Just don’t. Flash is a tool that should only be wielded by professionals under careful supervision. Not only will using flash not result in a quality photo—a bright burst of flash simultaneously overexposes and underexposes your subject, often resulting in a hyper-dark background and a bright white focus point—but it will likely disrupt other diners. It’s important to know when to let go of your desire to take the perfect photo and just enjoy the moment.
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9. Read the Room
We firmly believe that not every plate of food should be photographed. And no food should ever go cold or melt because you're trying to get the perfect angle. Don’t force it: If the moment isn’t right, dive into that plate of pasta with no regrets. Sometimes, you just have to accept that your romantic candlelit dinner simply will not translate well over camera. Read the room and know when to put down the camera.
That being said, photographing food at restaurants is not completely off-limits—there is a way to go about it tactfully and gracefully. Wilson offers a few of her tips: “If I know I’m going to be taking photos/videos in a restaurant, I always ask to be sat outside (weather permitting, of course) or to be sat near a window. That way, I’m getting great natural lighting. While I’m waiting on the food, I discreetly “style” the table, making “holes” for the plates. This keeps the photo taking to a few seconds. That way, whoever I’m dining with knows they can dive into their food quickly.”
10. Find your Personal Style
Food photography is an art, and it should be treated accordingly. While you can gain inspiration from others who have perfected their craft, your photos should represent your distinct style and personality. There is ultimately no one correct way to take a food photo, although some attempts are undeniably more successful than others. Find the angles, colors, and aesthetic that speak to you.
Instagram is abound with inspiration. Scroll through Kate Wood’s page to marvel at her homemade desserts—recently, a half-sliced frangipane tart with elegant fans of apples, and an appealing pile of chocolate-drizzled mocha macarons—which grace the screen in light-brushed tones of beige and amber. Amber Wilson’s feed expands into the savory, showing off bacon-latticed pies and spaghetti swirled in a pale yellow carbonara sauce; yet even with her breadth of subjects, all of Wilson’s photos lean into the same editorialized, dramatic shadowing, an artistic style that seems to glean inspiration from the pages of a magazine. Both accounts are undeniably their own form of art.
What makes your food photos unique? That’s up to you.