Food Photography – Tips from Professional Food Photographer, Anne Watson

Food Photography – Tips from Professional Food Photographer, Anne Watson.

Food Photography TipsFood photography is sweeping across social media. Who doesn’t love great food photos?! As a professional food photographer, I love seeing all the fabulous cuisine and restaurant shots. “Food Porn” is at an all-time high – it seems everywhere you turn you can find drool-instigating photos of gorgeous dishes from around the world. But, it also seems that for every beautiful photo that’s posted, unfortunately there are also quite a few food photographs popping up in my feed that (how do I say this nicely?)… lack a certain appetizing quality. And, more than anything, it makes me feel sorry for the chefs who created the dishes, because I’m sure a ton of work went into the food to make it beautiful. And the food likely looked a lot better in person than it did in the poorly-shot photograph that someone took of it and posted on their Instagram feed.

Of course, especially for chefs and restaurant owners, my first instinct is to offer my professional photography services and schedule a shoot so they can have a library of images to pull from for their social media posts. I do that for a lot of clients on a regular basis (every 3-4 months when a new seasonal menu is released, or at the start of each month for a quick hour or so, for example).

But, I realize that it’s not always realistic to have every photo shot professionally for social media. So, below I’d like to offer some tips on how to shoot better food photos in everyday restaurant situations with your modern smartphone:

  1. Turn off your phone’s flash! Always use natural light – even ambient lighting (candlelight, light from the kitchen, or light from a friend’s “flashlight” on their phone) will look better than a flash directly on your phone
  2. Work with your lighting – diffuse & bounce. If you don’t carry tiny diffusers & bounce cards around with you, everyday kitchen objects can work! A white napkin or menu card can act as a light bounce to help fill shadows. And you can often diffuse with an unfolded single-ply sheet of white paper napkin. Always try to get a window seat when possible. If you don’t diffuse your light, that’s ok – shadows can add texture if sun isn’t too harsh.
  3. Some iPhone camera apps are better than the phone’s standard camera. VSCO Cam, Camera+ & ProCamera are three of my favorites for capturing food.
  4. Backgrounds & props help tell a story. You don’t have to shoot the dish on your table. Chairs? Napkin? Cool piece of wood or metal? Throw a fork on the plate, a spoon next to the soup, etc.
  5. Dark vs Light: Phone cameras need contrast – so, as a general rule, dark items should be shot on light backgrounds, and light items should be shot on darker or more neutral backgrounds (chocolate cake on a white plate, white fish on a dark wood surface, etc).
  6. Movement/human element can create interest: Hands in a shot can add a nice editorial element & sense of immediacy.
  7. “Dress” your plate before shooting it – make sure you’ve added your salt & pepper, a drizzle of oil on your salad, etc so it looks like you’re about to eat it.
  8. Stay steady, lock your focus & exposure, get close (don’t use “zoom” – you should move closer and it will help your shot be sharper).
  9. Keep it simple, less is more — With a phone, stacks & groupings can often look too busy. Pull items apart. Allow your camera to focus on a single element.
  10. Depth of Field or “bokah” (when one part of the shot is in focus and background is blurred slightly) can add interest & look more professionally-shot. You can use “tilt shift” editing feature on Instagram, or VSCO Cam, Camera+ & ProCamera apps are great for this – they have a built-in depth-of-field feature.
  11. COMPOSITION: Use the rule of thirds (turn the grid on in your camera phone app). Imagine your image is divided into 9 equal parts by 2 vertical & 2 horizontal lines – position the most important elements in your photo along these lines or at the points where they intersect. It helps give visual interest as opposed to just centering your shot straight-on.
  12. With a phone, angles can be tricky. When in doubt, shoot from overhead – and use the rule of 3rds. (You don’t have to shoot the WHOLE plate – leave the viewer wanting more by just shooting a section of the plate close-up!).
  13. Use good judgment when shooting something that’s been bitten / partially eaten – there is a fine line between a “sexy bite” and just plain unattractive, half-eaten food.
  14. Don’t use filters (unless it’s the “Food” filter in Camera+) – instead, manually edit – typically boosting brightness, contrast & saturation, and a bit of dark vignette helps.
  15. Some basic food styling tools you can keep with you everyday:
    • Tweezers (they are most accurate & help you avoid fingerprints in the food!)
    • A few Q-tips (precisely sop-up drips on the plate &/or sauces that have broken)
    • A small paintbrush (freshen up a burger w/ oil, or lettuce w/ some water, etc)

Practice, practice, practice! Have fun shooting – try taking shots from different angles to see what you like – and find your own style.

One important thing to remember, though, is knowing when not to take a photo is just as important as taking a good one. Sometimes the conditions just aren’t right for food photography. So, in instances like that, you can simply focus on something else – people (action kitchen shots & “behind-the-scenes” photos are popular on social media!), architectural elements of the restaurant, an interesting angle of the menu, cool shot of the signage or the restaurant’s logo, etc.  Your goal should always be to portray the restaurant and the Chef’s food in their best possible light.

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