Tips for Instagrammable food photography – Beginner’s edition

Hi everyone!

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. Last month was quite busy for me with dealing with one thing after another, such as grading mid-terms as a TA, taking a week-long astrobiology course in the middle of night (again haha!). I also managed to submit my abstracts for the upcoming 12th Planetary Crater Consortium (August, 2021) and the GAC-MAC 2021 joint annual meeting (November, 2021). This is my first time collaborating with people from different organizations so I’m looking forward to that! I’m excited for both these meetings but especially for the GAC-MAC meet as it will be the first in-person meeting I’ll be attending after what feels like an eternity. On a side note, the LunGradCon 2021 is being held virtually this week! Even though I’m not presenting anything this year, I’m looking forward to networking with other young planetary science people and possibly catch up with some of my old collogues as well! 😀

Now moving on to what I actually want to talk about this week, Food Photography! Or more precisely, Instagrammable Food Photography’! I think it’s safe to assume by now that I enjoy the act of cooking, but what I’ve not shared here before is that I like/enjoy taking pictures of food even more haha! 😀 I’m that annoying friend in the group that makes the whole group wait, just to get a decent shot of the food they ordered. However, I think I’ve lucked out in the sense that all my friends are very patient with me and they let me indulge in my hobby all I want (95% of the times haha)! So Special shoutout to Shruti and Rajvi for always letting me take a good shot before they start eating. ❤

I think my interest in food photography first developed when I came across some really amazing snapshots of food on Pinterest and Instagram. Café hopping being one of my hobbies (pre-Covid of course 😦 ), I also started to experiment a little with my phone to try and take decent pictures of food and coffee. Initially the pictures turned out just meh, and I couldn’t figure out what was it that made the shots I’d seen on Pinterest look so much more appealing than mine. And it wasn’t the issue of a smartphone vs. a proper camera either, because I’d seen a lot of people take great pictures of food with their phone as well. After doing some basic research, and looking for tips and tricks for casual, Instagram-worthy food photography using smartphones here are the few things that I found quite easy to adapt and useful. I’m hopping that you would find them useful as well. 🙂

Proper Lighting

Now this is a no brainer. Not just food photography, any kind of photography is highly influenced by the lighting conditions. Almost all the articles I read online or videos I watched on YouTube had this tip in common. To get a good shot of your food, try to utilize natural light as much as possible. In an open setting (i.e. patio dining, picnic), this doesn’t pose an issue. Even on a cloudy day, you can take great pictures of your food as the clouds shall act as a giant diffuser, softening the light, making it a better setting for your food photography. I personally prefer overcast days over sunny ones when it comes to outdoor food photography because the direct sunlight can sometimes be too harsh to get a good shot. When you’re at an indoor setting however (i.e. inside a restaurant or a café), it’ll be better if you move your plate closer to a window or a door to get that proper light.

And if that doesn’t seem feasible in the moment then no worries, because what are friends for lol? To get a decent shot, ask your friend to use the torch feature on their phone and shine the light at either the back or sides of the dish while you take the pictures. Experimenting with the brightness settings of your camera will also help you get a better shot.

A very common scene for my friends and I when we’re café hopping lol!

Two pro tips which I got from my photographer friend are, (1) Avoid using the camera flash to prevent over-exposure and unflattering lighting and (2) Avoid shooting from the same direction as the incoming light.

Grid is your bestfriend!

Honestly, the camera grid feature on your smartphone really is your bestfriend! You can activate this feature by going into your phone’s camera settings. With grid comes a very important term everyone needs to be aware of, and that is the ‘Rule of Thirds‘. This rule involves imagining that your screen is divided into 9 equal parts, whether it’s in horizontal, vertical or square format. The points where horizontal and vertical lines meet are called ‘intersections‘. For our purpose, these intersections are of the most importance. The main idea here is that an off-centered composition is more pleasing to the eye and looks more natural than the item placed right in the middle of the frame. So when you’re trying to take a picture, you should try to arrange the food at one of the points highlighted in the picture below to get better results.

Here are a couple of shots I took while trying to follow the rule of thirds! They’re not perfect yet, but it’s a learning process haha.

Know your angles

Along with framing your shot correctly, angles are equally important. With the right angle, your photo will look dramatically better than otherwise. One of the most common angle I’ve seen food photographers use is the ‘overhead’ or ‘flat lay’ angle which look down at the food on the table.

While this angle works great in most cases, it doesn’t give you enough chance to play with vertical arrangements. For example, this angle doesn’t do much for foods like a burger or a nice layered cup of coffee. So for tall foods, the photo shall come out better if you arrange your phone on the table for a straight-on shot. Not only will this allow you to capture all the layers, but will also make your food look bigger than in real life.

More is more… but less is also more!?

So I realize that this heading might be a bit confusing! Let me explain this in more details. When I say more is more, I mean the number of photos you take. Instead of spending too much time to get that one perfect shot (and in turn annoying your companions/letting the food get cold), it’s better to take multiple shots from different angles/perspective quickly. At least one or two of them are bound to turn out good, provided you made sure to have good lighting and framed your shots nicely! And hey, even if none of them turns out great, you still got to eat some delicious food. 😉

But what does it mean that less is more? This tip is about the amount of dishes/items/objects you include in your shots. This might sound like a contradictory comment, but according to a lot of food photographers, you don’t have to give it all away in a picture. Sometimes it’s what we don’t see in the photo that makes it an amazing shot. So I would suggest, not to struggle to fit everything you ordered in a single photo, instead leave it up to the viewer’s imagination.

Post-shoot processing

Since we are focusing on smartphone photography, it’s definitely a good idea to rely a bit on editing apps. Not only do they help you adjust the exposure and colour settings of a picture, but they also allow you to play with filters and presets. I find this quite convenient in order to maintain a common colour theme for my Instagram account. As I’ve been practicing photo editing for quite a while now, I mostly use my own presets or filters rather than the ones offered by various apps, because this way I can have more control of how the final results will look. But if you find a pre-made filter which actually looks good on your picture, there’s no reason not to use it haha! I would however recommend not using them at their full strength and making adjustments as you need.

Some of such editing apps that I’ve tried myself and found quite useful are Lightroom Mobile, VSCO, and Snapseed. There are many other apps available as well, but these three give you quite a lot of room to play around with various features and also let you save your own presets/filters. I also recently found this hidden gem called Foodie which seems to be especially customized for food photos. I’ve only just started exploring this app, but so far it’s been fun haha!

Know when to stop!

This tip applies for both the ‘taking the picture’ stage and the ‘editing’ stage. Unfortunately, this is something I learned a bit too late! I used to get frustrated in the beginning when I couldn’t get a good shot, but the longer I tried to get a good shot, the worse it would come out. Plus, even though my friends are really patient with me, I know not to take advantage of their kindness. And the same goes for the editing part as well. I cannot remember the amount of times I’ve ruined a good picture by over-editing it (to the point that it hardly resembled the original picture haha). But, I like to think that those dark, embarrassing days are behind me now and I know when to stop now :v . I have made a personal rule of sorts: whenever I’m at a restaurant and cannot get a good picture in 5 minutes, it’s time to give up, it just wasn’t meant to be. For my home cooked meals, I give myself 10 minutes instead of 5.

That’s all from me on how to take Instagrammable food photos. I hope you find these tips useful. Happy capturing 😀

Until next time!

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