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How to Take Great Food Photos for Instagram

How to Take Great Food Photos for Instagram

Shanna Mueller, Mar 26, 2019

Food and Instagram go together like peanut butter and jelly.  Why? Because Instagram is essentially visual storytelling and a way to connect with others through experience sharing. Although technically food is nourishment, it is also much more than that. It is community, story, and connection.

“Gramming” food isn’t always as easy as people think, the best food photos make the viewer want to take a bite out of it, right now! But, not everyone can have a stylist, a lighting tech, and thousands of dollars invested in photo equipment. The pros do things a little differently than you may be able to do, and that's totally okay - you can still take great photos and communicate a consistent brand story on your Instagram. Taking good photos literally comes down to science. The science of lighting, composition, data, and technique.

Whether you are an enthusiast, a blogger, small business or running a major brand’s social account, we have some easy workarounds, fail-proof food photography tips, and must-have apps that will surely inspire you to get your food-gram skills up to par.

Photography 101: The Rule of Thirds

Before you even think about pressing that button: take a moment to frame the image and be purposeful in the framing. A great rule of thumb that may come naturally to most professional photographers is the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds works by virtually dividing your frame into nine equal rectangles, using two vertical, and two horizontal lines that are equally spaced. Just like this:

Cake rule of thirds

The points at which the lines meet (red markers) are the critical points of interest, and you should try and place your main subject on, or near one (or more) of these points.  Once you know the rule, you can experiment and break it. But always keep in mind the balance of negative space.

Steady As You Go

Now that your photo composition skills are on point, you need to steady the camera to avoid blurring. Focus on a point near the center of the dish or its most enticing detail and then zoom in. Take the image from many angles–stand up and take an overhead shot, or drop down to meet your plate at about a 45-degree angle from the table. Keep in mind that overhead imagery eliminates the need for background props, but it tends not to work as well for dishes with drinks or other items of varying heights.

*Pro Foodie Tip: A photo brimming with food tends to be more appealing.

Photo Shoot Styling: Tell a Story With Your Images

Food Photography, especially on Instagram, is all about balance. Props like accessories, glasses, dishes, and food tend to look best in odd numbers, but don't spend time sweating the small stuff. Think about what feels "natural" to avoid that overly staged look.

Sometimes it's what you don't see in a picture that can tell a story, so don't struggle to fit the entire spread neatly into your screen. Let your props and food accompaniments fall partially outside of your photo and viewers will be able to imagine the rest of the scene.

Now, try to think like a food stylist. Think bright colors, interesting textures, honest imperfection, and fresh ingredients. Pause for a second to let the ice cream drip, which makes for a more interesting photo by creating action. Take a scoop out of lasagna, pull that cheese slowly, take a bite of that berry, and leave the fork on the plate. Ruffle the cloth napkin near the dish and freely experiment with utensil placement. Try to imagine that you asked a person who was eating or cooking to leave everything as it was immediately. Oftentimes, injecting a human quality into your images will make them seem much more genuine, storied and engaging and less staged. Leave the crumbs, grains of salt and dollops of sauce, they’re real, and they’re delicious.

Have a few (or several) great props on hand. Always keep an eye out for beautiful bowls, plates, and wooden boards when you’re shopping, they can add so much texture, character, and style to your photos.

Follow the Light

Remember you have to follow the light. Sometimes you just gotta put that platter on the floor, or have a pal hold it for you to get that perfect picture.

Say no to flash–just don’t do it–the harsh light created with the flash on your smartphone or even the pop-on camera flash will not flatter the food. But if you have a buddy (or buddies), have them turn on the lights of their phones and point them toward the subject while you take the picture. You can diffuse or reflect their phone light with lightweight white napkins or a thin cloth.

Try to go natural as much as you can–the light allows for nuances in a photo that a phone flash does not. If you’re shooting your foodie masterpiece, and have no studio light–take it to the window that provides the most natural light. If it’s too harsh, consider hanging a light fabric to filter the bright sun.

You can illuminate and fill the shadowed portion of your dish by using white poster board or another light, sturdy surface as a reflector. Have someone else hold the reflector so that the dish sits between it and the window, which will reflect the light back onto the subject. Try not to light your meals from the back, as this can make your photos appear dark an unappetizing. Make the most of your phone or camera’s auto-exposure settings: tap to focus and also measure the darkest area of the image to light to the whole photo, then adjust your exposure levels up.

Tap into Technology

Now that you have framing, story-telling and lighting down, there is one more element you need to know in order to take a great photo, besides simply tapping the capture button. That's where photo editing apps and software programs come in. They will help you get the best looking images, which is a big part of your photo getting a lot of likes on social media.

However, proceed with caution when using filters. Don’t always rely on preset app filters to edit your image – they might not suit the composition, mood, and lighting of your shot. You really want to tweak the image’s brightness, warmth, and color saturation just enough to make the image pop. Don’t go overboard with the post-production changes. Remember: food should look edible, and in almost every case close to reality.

Some typical software programs are Photoshop, Affinity Photo, and our personal favorite for quick editing and easy workflow–Lightroom.

But not everybody got time for that. So here are some great on-the-fly apps:

  • VSCO (Our top choice of apps)
  • Lightroom
  • Instagram
  • Snapseed
  • Afterlight

Good Food Photos = A Lot of Practice

Practice makes perfect, and one of the benefits of digital photography is you can take lots and lots of images. So do that. Take tons of pictures at first, and experiment freely. As you take more photos with your camera, you’ll become more comfortable with its features, and understand the benefits and limitations of the camera. You’ll also come to know how to adjust your framing or stylistic approach on the fly, how to adjust for the time of day, and which places get the best light. The devil is always in the details for beautiful image crafting.

Pay attention and make note of imagery you have seen or have taken (food-related or otherwise), and continue in that vein as you hone your brand’s style and you'll be sure to get hunger-inducing images every time.

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