As a part of my job as a food writer, I am constantly photographing my meals. In fact, sometimes I feel like I spend more time snapping pictures of my food than I do eating it. The extra effort is worth it. The best shots – the ones that have the power to make viewers literally salivate or exclaim, “I want that in my belly now!” – get posted to my Instagram account @nevinmartell or are sold to a variety of print and online publications.
I shoot exclusively on my iPhone 6 using the Hipstamatic app because of its versatility and extensive variety of filters. Additionally, using a phone camera allows me to do my work relatively unobtrusively in a restaurant, so I’m not disturbing other guests while I painstakingly document my dishes and drinks.
Though it seems super easy to just whip out your phone and snap a few shots of the steak you’re enjoying, it’s actually quite difficult to make it look good. We’ve all seen the bad shots people keep posting to social media. They’re often poorly lit, out of focus, and have no clear subject. Worst of all, they make the chef’s or mixologist’s hard work look downright unappetizing.
Food photography should inspire a sudden hunger or an unfettered desire. That’s why they call it food porn. So, if you want to shoot wow-worthy pics that rack up the hearts and make your friends envious of your dining regimen, follow along to learn how to take delicious Instagram food photos.
Utilize natural light whenever possible by shooting next to a window or outside. If you can’t shoot during the day, never use a raw flash. Instead, get another diner to cover the front of their iPhone with a white napkin and turn on the flashlight app to create a soft light.
Sometimes you need to do a quick mini-makeover of a dish before you photograph it. Wipe smudges and crumbs off the plate, arrange garnishes attractively, and pull sandwich halves apart so the fillings are visible. Remember to take pictures quickly, because ice cream melts, sauces congeal, and greens wilt.
Some dishes are best shot in extreme close-up, so you can see its most intricate details. Other times, you’ll want a wider shot of a dish in context with other accompaniments, the restaurant itself, or an interesting backdrop. Shoot dishes from unique angles rather than simply straight on. To give viewers a sense of the scope of a large meal with a multitude of components, shoot straight down from overhead (but watch where your shadow falls).
Out of focus photos do a disservice to the food you’re documenting and make you look like an amateur. You can have an item in the foreground in sharp relief and the background out of focus – that just makes the primary subject stand out more – but the whole shot can’t be fuzzy. No exceptions.
Including people can bring a picture to life. Maybe it’s a bartender grating fresh nutmeg over a winter cocktail, a flurry of hands reaching for a table litany of appetizers, or your dining companion pulling out a gooey spoonful of French onion soup.
Every picture should communicate something – the epic scale of your triple patty burger you’re about to take down, the awesomeness of the happy hour you’re enjoying with your friends, or the comfort you’re taking from the gigantic slice of chocolate cake and glass of prosecco you’re indulging in after a long day. Simple images are fleeting, but good stories rich with emotion are forever.
Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell.