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Food that looks as good as it tastes

Five easy tips for taking better food and drink photos with your phone

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Photo: Jessica Emin

Photo: Jessica Emin

Scrolling through social media these days is like a virtual menu from friends and local restaurants, some more appetizing than others. Like all other clichéd photography on social media, food photography can be either enlightening or enraging, depending on the quality of the photograph.

The dish or drink in question might look and taste amazing but since the viewer can’t indulge, the visuals have to do all the talking.

When I think about social media I think about quality over quantity, and some people argue that if people don’t like the photographs one might post, then said person can stop following them, but I tend to think that’s a bit of bruised-ego bullshit. The point of sharing photographs en masse is for the validation, otherwise we’d keep them for our camera roll, or send our to a few close friends. Making nice things, like food or drink, getting to enjoy them, and then sharing those recipes, tastes, images and experiences is my favourite thing to do. No shame.

When I think about the photographs of food I tend to appreciate those that are a bit more #soigné (meaning “elegant;” it’s a much used food hashtag.) A photograph that can create surprise, that is different, that is clear, and that makes good use of light can turn the most mundane into something beautiful. I’ve even found myself liking the occasional baby portrait, coffee cup, or manicure shot—which, too often, make me cringe—if they use some basic, good photography principles.

There are 1,001 things that make food photography better, and part of that is making food that looks good, but here are a few pointers to make snacks look on point.

For more food inspiration check out some of my favourite professionals from near and far on Instagram: @mattarmendariz, @foodandwine, @food52, @adamfoodstyle, @chefjacqueslamerde, @dennistheprescott, @cannellevanille, @ratinaudhfx, @baconandbaileys and @stylinfood.  You can also check out my feed, @thejessicaemin.

1. Light it up

A window to the right of the frame is the only natural light source, and creates nice even shadows on the carrots and from the pan. Photo: Jessica Emin

A window to the right of the frame is the only natural light source, and creates nice even shadows on the carrots and from the pan. Photo: Jessica Emin

Although you might be tempted to capture your dish in the evening, in what seems like the bright light of your kitchen, the photograph will usually come out looking flat, warm and unbecoming. The warm, or yellowish, light coming from overhead bulbs is a last resort, only.

If you have the option, capture in daylight, near a bright window, in diffused sunlight. Choosing diffused sunlight as opposed to direct sunlight will give the food texture, shadows and contrast without it being hard. If the day is overcast, even better, as the light will be diffused naturally.

Also, having food side-lit, as opposed to lit from above, will create texture instead of flooding the food in uncomplimentary even light. This being said, telephone camera flash is extremely unflattering to most foods and situations. For restaurant situations, in the day either sit nearest a window, and in the evening try to use available light.

Lighting is what really makes or breaks a photograph. Take this more seriously than any other factor.

2. Crisp edges

The blood oranges pop nicely because they are sharp and in focus, and using a sharpening tool can give the edges and highlights of the food more definition. Photo: Jessica Emin

The blood oranges pop nicely because they are sharp and in focus, and using a sharpening tool can give the edges and highlights of the food more definition. Photo: Jessica Emin

Make sure your photograph is sharp, crisp and in-focus. Since many foods don’t have sharp edges their shapes can easily get lost or jumbled by an unsteady hand. Take the time to make a few captures, and make use of the built-in camera focus. Once you’re ready to post, use a quick and easy editing tool, like Afterlight (free in the App Store) to adjust the sharpness of the photograph.

Amping up the sharpness of a photograph by taking it properly in the first place, then giving it a bit of a boost, will make the food pop-out from the tiny screen it will probably be viewed on.

3. Create contrast with colour

The bright greens and pinks in this tuna, radish and artichoke salad merry nicely, but the table was very dark and distracted from the salad, so I used a white and pale pink pinstriped tablecloth to cover it.

The bright greens and pinks in this tuna, radish and artichoke salad merry nicely, but the table was very dark and distracted from the salad, so I used a white and pale pink pinstriped tablecloth to cover it. Photo: Jessica Emin

Take a look at the colour wheel, and see which colours complement each other. When photographing food, use colour as a way to play on the colour of the food.

White is most often the best colour, as few of the foods we ingest are stark white, but there are times that a blue plate, pink napkin or nice chocolate brown cutting board underneath the food can add new life to the frame.

Colour tone can also be important. If the food in question is pale and soft, like a dusty pink macaroon, then a dark saturated colour within the frame might take the life out of the pastel, while another pastel might be a better match.

A pop of colour might be of better use on the food, in some cases. A sprig of green herb or onion, or even an edible flower can completely change the look of a drab, or beige, dish.

4. Do it raw

Although these cookies looked lovely coming out of the oven, the process of cutting them out looked better, with the flour and utensils already on the table nothing needed to be changed for a good photograph. Photo: Jessica Emin

Although these cookies looked lovely coming out of the oven, the process of cutting them out looked better, with the flour and utensils already on the table nothing needed to be changed for a good photograph. Photo: Jessica Emin

Taking a photo before cooking the pie, roast or pizza is cooked can’t hurt. The look of the fresh, crunchy and colourful ingredients can better translate to photograph than the warm, ready-to-eat version.

Take a photo once it’s out of the oven or off the stove, too, but if you forget and just start eating, at least there will have already been some documentation.

If you’re particularly keen about getting a good shot of your creation some experts say that vegetables can look best when partially cooked for dishes like soup, stir fry or pasta. Like, if the asparagus you’re putting on a meat and potatoes dish gets blanched, instead of being fully cooked, it will look more appetizing. But don’t give yourself more of a headache than it’s worth.

5. Balance the frame

Keeping balance and symmetry within this photograph, by orienting the spoon parallel to the horizontal side of the frame and keeping the tin in the centre, makes it more pleasing to the eye. Photo: Jessica Emin

Keeping balance and symmetry within this photograph, by orienting the spoon parallel to the horizontal side of the frame and keeping the tin in the centre, makes it more pleasing to the eye. Photo: Jessica Emin

The frame of a photograph should not feel too heavy to one side or the other, although negative space can work in some instances. To balance the frame try moving utencils, napkins or cookware in and out of the frame. A glass of wine or a cocktail can find a spot in the corner of the image to balance a heavy plate, or the knife used to slice up the roast can look good if left in frame.

Balancing the frame of a photograph within the editing software on your phone can also do the trick after the fact. I usually look at the photograph and ask myself what isn’t adding to the composition, or try to pick out what’s distracting, and chop it off by cropping.

Looking at the way lines, like patterns, plate edges, tiling and direction of utencils, work within a photograph can be the guides to your balance and framing. Try running the lines within the photograph with the edges of the frame, then try making them askew by using the balance adjustment tool within your favourite editing application.

 

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