We like to dress it up, artfully arrange it. We take close-up portraits of it, filter the image with romantic washes, tag it appropriately, and post it for the world to see. Food—it’s not just for eating.
For anyone who’s been active on social media, you’ve certainly been on the creating or receiving end of an ever-increasing stream of food photography.
Sometimes teasingly called “food porn,” these glorified dishes tantalize, goading us to admire, envy, and salivate. This mass art is a form of entertainment, inspiration, and small torture, and both its fan base and its maker community continue to grow.
Mintel estimates that there are almost 30 million “hungry amateur food photographers” today. Flickr group I Ate This has doubled in membership over the past five years; it now has 42,000 foodie members who’ve posted over 665,000 delicious photos.
What’s more, food photos attract not only admiring followers but new restaurant patrons too. And although most food photographers are not snapping their lunches for the sake of endorsing any businesses, food pics are so valuable that OpenTable spent $10 million to acquire Foodspotting in 2013.
The Rise of Food Photography
Eve Turow is an author and researcher on our culture’s food obsession. Turow’s research on Millennials’ relationship with food has led her to conclude that food feeds our psyche in four ways:
• Gives us sensory pleasures that are lacking in our digitally-immersed lives
• Provides opportunity for face-to-face interaction with others
• Builds our identity and serves our online personal branding
• Provides a feeling of control as we make deliberate choices of what to eat, when, and how
Turow further sees our food mania as a powerful movement that’s shaping the food industry and the economy. Foodie culture and the rising demand for better ingredients and transparency in food production, including trends favoring fair trade and organic fare, is putting pressure on food manufacturers and policymakers for increased food quality.
Food Pics are Us
Marketing company 360i reports that more than half of us take photos on our phones at least once a month, and almost 20% of us share our photos online.
Of those who take food photos, 48% do it for personal documentation, while 10% do it to capture a moment with friends and family.
The most popular themes for food pics are desserts, followed by vegetables and poultry.
In some ways, capturing food is nothing new. Certainly many historical painters did it. Consider Wayne Thiebaud’s pin-worthy “Cakes” captured in 1963, or the much earlier “Still Life with Ham, Lobster, and Fruit” created by Jan Davidszoon de Heem in 1653.
Even our most primitive cave paintings featured food as a major subject of interest. From the time that we began to communicate with images, we have loved to talk about food.
How to Shoot Great Food Pics on a Smartphone, According to Experts
To help us learn how to put our best face forward through our food pics, we interviewed a panel of food photography experts, asking them:
We’ve compiled their verbatim responses below so you’ll be all set for your next kitchen counter or dine-out photo shoot.
Lighting is important, and so is composition. I don’t think of myself as a great photographer, but I work very hard to make sure that the composition of the photo is interesting, eye-catching, and deliberate. Those things stand out to viewers, especially when they are scrolling through photos on their phone. “
J. Kenji López-Alt is the author of the New York Times bestselling cookbook The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science and winner of the IACP 2016 Cookbook of the Year and the James Beard Award for General Cooking. He is the managing culinary director of Serious Eats and a columnist for Cooking Light. He lives in San Mateo with his wife Adriana and two dogs, Jamón and Shabu.
Same as with any camera! It’s all about lighting. Get yourself near a window with some good, indirect natural light and you’ve won 99% of the battle. The rest is just framing. With my phone, which does not have a manual aperture size, I find it easiest and generally most attractive to shoot directly top-down where you don’t miss some of the depth-of-field elements that make isometric or head-on shots pop (and which you can’t really get without a full-sized manual lens). If I’m at home, I’ll place the food near my kitchen window. At restaurants, I’ll look for nice seats by the windows, which are best for photography and also give you a nicer experience, photos or not. If you absolutely must shoot in a dark restaurant, one tip is not to use the built-in flash on your phone. Using the on-phone flash will give food an unpleasant sheen and a deer-in-the-headlights glow. Instead, have a friend (or better, friends) use the flashlights on their phones to illuminate the food.”
Don’t be afraid to play around with different editing apps. Almost any photo I post to Instagram has gone through three apps with variations on certain filters, exposure turned up, color cooled down/warmed up, edges sharpened, etc. It doesn’t matter what kind of light or shadows were in your original photo because you can honestly fix anything in an app nowadays. Some of my favorites are Snapseed, Afterlight, and VSCO.”
Russ Crandall is the New York Times bestselling author and blogger behind The Domestic Man, a leading food blog in the Paleo, gluten-free, and whole foods communities. Taking cues from traditional cuisines, The Domestic Man inspires readers to look to historical recipes for that ever-elusive key to health. His work has been featured in People Magazine, Food & Wine, and was nominated by Saveur Magazine as one of the best food blogs of 2013.
When taking food photos with my phone, I always aim for spontaneous shots—something that feels organic for me and the viewer and is fitting for a phone photo setting. So typically I’ll do a top-down shot of the entire table to capture the whole experience. I will often artfully arrange the plates, bowls, silverware, and glasses to be pleasing to the eye as well. Sitting near a window is a must, and don’t feel shy about standing on your chair for a moment to get that perfect angle!”
Chase the light!
The same rules for taking great photos apply when using your smartphone. Natural light will always make your food look better. Turn your flash off and never turn it on again! Shooting with your smartphone does limit the control you have over the photo, but touching your smartphone screen will set the area in focus and adjust the exposure to suit. If your light is coming from one direction, like a window, experiment with your angle. Take lots of photos and compare—does your dish look better with the light behind it or behind you? Finally, because you can’t adjust the depth of field when shooting with your phone, try getting a bird’s-eye view and photographing your food from directly above.”
Oh man, I think cell phones have come such a long way with how well they take photos nowadays! For my photographs of food, I actually sit on my porch, which is shaded, and take my photos. The direct sun definitely affects my pics, and I’ve found that photographing food this way has really worked out best for me. Just make sure you have a steady hand when using your phone so you get those crisp-looking pics of each wonderful food item you are taking a photograph of.”
Elizabeth Minchilli is the author of the book Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City and creator of the bestselling app Eat Italy (with guides to Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan, and Torino). She can be found daily on her blog, Elizabeth Minchilli in Rome.
Use natural light whenever possible. If you don’t have natural light, pretty much don’t bother. I find the most successful food photographs are the ones that engage the viewer. I always try to take the photograph from the diner’s point of view as well as physically bringing the viewer into the photograph by means of my own hands, a utensil, or a perspective. Also, not all food is destined to be photographed. There is a huge difference between an interesting dish and an interesting photograph. And sometimes the two just don’t ever meet up.”
In most cases, all you need for a good food photo is a clean plate, a neutral background, and a source of natural light. If you can check off those three factors, it’s going to be hard to take a bad picture, either with a phone or a higher-end camera.”
Here are five helpful tips when shooting from your phone:
Set up: Shoot in the square mode so framing the shot is properly set up from the get-go.
Lighting: The best lighting tends to be natural and indirect. Shoot near a window or move to the edge of a shaded are so the light still skins the food.
Composition: Overhead and straight-on angles work best with most cameras, but definitely move around your food if you are able to. Try to avoid using the zoom feature, since it tends to make most phone photos noisy.
Subject: Make sure it’s the star. Avoid noisy backgrounds that will distract from the food.
When taking food photos with just my iPhone, I make sure I find good natural light for the photo. At my house, I know all the good spots with natural light. At a restaurant, I will specifically request a table by a window. You shouldn’t be afraid to manipulate the lighting at a restaurant as long as it’s in a respectful way. Pull shades up or down, block out conflicting lighting (overhead), bounce light using a white napkin or menu. I’ve even asked a small eatery to turn off all their overhead lights!! No one else was there, so it was fine. :)”
I often rearrange dishes and whatever else is on the table to get the best shot. A crowded table can tell a story better than just one dish. If the lighting isn’t good, I move dishes to a better spot or try a different angle. Overhead shots are very popular on Instagram, but a side angle can be good too. I love the look of multiples—a tray of dishes rather than just one. I never use a flash, and I like apps like Camera+ that are easy to use and offer more options for focusing, limiting depth of field, flipping photos, and editing them on the fly. Last but not least, I shoot the menu so I can remember the names and descriptions of dishes after the fact.”
Natural light – and as much of it as possible! Minimize all artificial light as it can cast yellow or green tones or shadows in your photo. Also, due to the lens on most phones, an overhead shot usually the best angle to capture the food. Try to keep the food on a solid background and neutral dishware if possible.”
The Factorialist Quick Guide to Taking Great Food Pics
- Find good natural lighting (find a seat next to windows!)
- Create interesting, deliberate composition
- Go for spontaneity and natural feel
- Turn flash off
- Touch screen to focus
- Steady your hand
- Find a neutral background
- Shoot the menu to remember the names of food
- App recommendations: Snapseed, VSCO, Camera+