How to Be Better at Instagram and Food Photography
Written by: Kirsten Alana
You know how it is, you open Instagram and a nice percentage of your home feed is pictures of a morning cup of coffee, someone’s dessert or the Michelin-starred meal they just can’t help but #HumbleBrag about. The problem is, almost every image is so poor that there’s no mouth watering to be had. Instead, you feel a bit sick while viewing them. Oh wait, I’m thinking of Martha Stewart’s twitter account… I kid. Sort of. Though the problem is a real one and so that you can avoid being the person who makes other people sick, let’s go through some tips that should help you share only the kind of photographs that make people happy. And maybe a bit jealous. Because let’s be real here, you’re not gonna stop sharing food photos, so the least you can do for all mankind is make your #FoodPorn a little more appetizing.
In a perfect world, all food and beverage images should be created only in the presence of completely natural light, and if possible, softly diffused daylight. It’s that simple.
If softly diffused daylight isn’t available, there are tools that can help you add artificial light. However, use them carefully. The only thing worse than poorly lit, gray food is food captured in the light of a harsh flash. So if you have a flash on your smartphone or camera that would be directly pointed at the subject, don’t use it. Instead, ask the person you’re with or someone nearby to activate a flashlight feature. On the newest iPhone this is a feature built in to the slide up menu on the home screen. The icon looks like, appropriately, a flashlight. With other phones this is usually a free and downloadable app. Here, the trick is still not to shine this artificial light directly on your plate of food. Instead, use it at an angle that diffuses the light without creating harsh and visible shadows just like a built-in flash would. (You’ll need to experiment with this a bit to get it right. There’s a definite sweet spot.) If you’re using a camera, to then send the image to a smartphone, as with Sony and Samsung’s newest cameras — diffuse your flash by having it bounce off a nearby white or very light-colored surface. There are also off-camera LED lights that you can buy from stores such as Photojojo and they work much like the flashlight setting or app, the best even have an adjustable level of light. In the end though, my general rule is that if I eat a meal I can’t capture in natural light, I don’t. Instead, and I know this sounds CRAZY (wink), I just enjoy the experience and save it in my memory bank. Not everything needs to be shared.
Still, we’re talking about how to better our images because we can’t resist sharing, right? Right. So, the third rule has to do with experimentation. Most food photos online, posted by any average user are captured at the same angle. It’s a boring one. You know the one, you can picture it in your head as you’re reading this. Don’t do that. Take the time to practice photographing food from all kinds of different angles, such as from above. Incorporate not just the plate of food, or the cup of coffee, or the bowl of steaming soup, but include other elements that surround it. What does the table look like? Who are the people eating with you? Are there ingredients around that went into the food preparation which can help tell the story of the dish? Is the Chef who cooked it around, to hold his creation out to you so you can capture him or her AND the food? Think about all of these things and stay tuned at the end of the article for some inspirational photographers who do this well. Learn from them and incorporate what you learn into your own images.
Color is king. Unless you’re doing a series on food in black and white, color reigns supreme when it comes to being appetizing. Salads with a lot of color are always a good subject. Fresh greens, orange carrots, purple potatoes, lemon slices, bright red pomegranate seeds; all of these things look good on camera and make people hungry. White is always good when balanced with other colors but just like with brown, if your food is all white it might be difficult to capture. Start with colorful, fresh but not fake, foods and you’ll find that everything is a lot easier.
Unless you are a food photographer or blogger only, unless your specialty is food, do not share every morsel that passes your lips. Skip a few meals, a few cups of coffee, share only the best and your best images of the best.
Don’t ruin a great food photo with lots of text and decoration around it, or even over it. Let your description of the image tell the story and let the image speak for itself. I love apps like OVER just as much as you do and I think words over photos can be compelling but use this on other subjects, not food.
Go easy on filters. Don’t over-edit. If you’ve been able to capture food in natural light, you really shouldn’t need a filter that will only serve to further cloud the natural beauty of your ingredients. Instead, if you need to edit, use an app such as Snapseed that will allow you to subtly adjust color, contrast and brightness with precision.
Forget the rules once you’ve learned to follow them. I break a few of these sometimes because I spent years perfecting technique. So now I know when a slight use of filter will help tell the story I want to, without harming the beauty of the food. Also, on occasion I do use artificial light to capture a dish because, unfortunately, I have to share an image of that meal for the purposes of blogging and writing and the excuse that there wasn’t adequate light just isn’t gonna fly with the person who has hired me. This too will come with practice!
Foodies to Follow on Instagram
I could go on but sometimes the best teacher is inspiration. So I’ve listed the Instagram accounts of a few of my favorite food photographers below and why their accounts are good to look at, if not also follow. I could make this list too far longer, but I will limit it to eight for now.
Food52 – The only “corporate” account I want to mention, I like the variety of food-related photographs that this account showcases occasionally showing what goes into a shoot and often what the finished product looks like. Their images run the full gamut of food photography.
LegalNomads – I like to credit my friend Jodi with singlehandedly getting me interested in Asia through her mouth-watering food photos. Mostly, of soup. Quite honestly, it just wasn’t a part of the globe that I wanted to visit but now every time I see a food photo of hers I am usually searching for cheap airfare to Asia within hours. She has a particular gift for stretching the iPhone to the max and making me wonder if she isn’t sometimes using a camera.
Daniel Krieger – A professional food photographer out of Brooklyn, Daniel posts sneak peeks on his account from shoots with the likes of Bon Appétit magazine and when he does, he always captures light and atmosphere in a way that is just inspiring.
Alice Gao – She might need to introduction if you’ve been on Instagram long enough and while her feed isn’t only food, when it is, it’s just grand. Also, her travel and fashion photos just constantly inspire my wanderlust!
Penny De Los Santos – Penny’s feed is more about her life overall but she is another working full time food photographer who gives a real insight into the culture and practices that surround food photography. I was introduced to her through my friend Ethan and I am so glad that he prompted me to follow her.
Ethan Adeland – Speaking of Ethan, he’s definitely worth a follow as well. Ethan is a food blogger and accomplished cook who has most recently been sharing his photos of soup and other glorious meals from Asia as well. He’s headed back to his home in Canada soon but I have no doubt the lovely food porn will continue.
TheGhostOnMyBack – Simple, colorful food photos with great natural lighting. Proving, definitively, that simple is always best.
Rick Nunn – Rick is an acquaintance I met in London, through a mutual friend, and he really opened my mind that day to what good coffee should, and can, taste like as he took me ’round to the best shops and cafés. His feed isn’t all food but when he does post shots, such as the one shown, he again opens my mind and makes me think about food photography differently because of his composition and lighting. He gives good Instagram.
Feeling inspired? Get practicing! And share your newly fantastic food and beverage images on Instagram by tagging @KirstenAlana and @SavvyAbroad. We can’t wait to see what you come up with. Also, let us know if there are other Instagram food accounts that you really love so we can follow them as well!
About Kirsten Alana
A former nomad, she now makes her home in New York City where she enjoys discovering and documenting the concrete jungle between assignments around the world. She has been in front of the camera for CNN, Expedia, AMC and AFAR Magazine. She was the first host of the NYC web series: Bites of the Big Apple.