Picture perfect: how to photograph your food

By
Matt Inwood
Added
18 October, 2016

Want your food to look as good as it tastes? We spoke to art director and Instagram pro Matt Inwood to find out how to make our food photos stand out from the crowd.

Why Instagram? 


If you want to create beautiful pictures, then Instagram is an incredibly powerful tool to exploit. It enables you to do two key things: create content and share it widely. There are myriad ways of producing that content. And just as many ways to share, bring attention to your pictures and find and interact with others doing the same. Most people use the Instagram camera to shoot with, but you can import and upload images stored on your phone's camera roll just as easily, which means you can shoot with the phone's native camera or use any third-party app to create content – then simply edit and share using Instagram. However deeply or not you choose to immerse yourself in Instagram's features, filters and fraternity, there are a number of ways of improving the images you take and ensuring they are the best that they can be. However good your eye, however inspiring your creations and however much time you have to work at taking pictures, the simple pointers and tricks below will help to enhance the way you create your food shots. As a foodie, you'll never be short of like-minded people to follow and be inspired by on Instagram. As a publisher of photos on the platform, sharing will introduce you to some of those people and allow your creations to be seen and commented upon. Whether it's interactions with friends and family members, promoting your business wares, a search for amateur makers of macarons or the quest for a like or fist-bump emoji from your favourite TV chef, Instagram will put all of these things easily within your reach. 


Let there be light


Photography is quite literally the study of light, so it's absolutely the aspect of your food photographs which you should pay the most attention to. I shoot only in daylight, or, more precisely, naturally available light.

Unless you're knowledgeable and able to invest in quite a bit of expensive kit, daylight is always preferable to artificial light. It's also the best way to shoot food at its most natural. The simplest (and often most effective) set-up is with a table close to a window with light coming onto the food from the side. This gives you a controlled mini 'studio' and an environment where you can tweak various elements to improve the amount of highlights and shadows across your food and the general mood of the shot. I have a number of different places in my home where I create this simple studio set-up. You might think to head outside where there is the most light. That can work well for some shots, but too much light can ‘burn out’ areas of your final image. Direct sunlight can also be very harsh on food and can create very hard black shadows. The softer kind of light by that window indoors will model itself around the contours of your food much more kindly. The quality of this natural light will be governed by the direction in which that window faces and the time of day you shoot, not to mention the weather patterns outside. Do you want something light and bright or dark and moody? Do you want the shadows to be soft or harsh? Place an apple on a white plate and turn round 360 degrees as you hold onto it and watch as the light moves over and around the apple and see how it creates highlights and shadows. Move away from the window and repeat this exercise and then move to another window and try it again. It will give you a really good idea of how to use the different areas of your home and to find a light that you like.


Bounce and filter 


There are times when a little more light is needed and, contrarily, sometimes a little less. There are ways of altering the amount of available light in order to give your dish the extra definition it requires. Dark colours absorb light and light colours reflect it: consider this when you’re arranging plates and props for your shot. While there are a number of relatively cheap photographic reflectors and filters available to buy, you absolutely don't have to spend money. For instance, by hanging a tea towel in front of the window at which you’re shooting, you can reduce bright or direct light into something much softer. Tape a sheet of greaseproof paper or tissue to the glass and it will do the same job: each extra layer of paper will further soften the light. Sometimes the light can create shadows that are heavy and dark. You can 'fill' these dark areas by reflecting light back at the subject. A mirror will do this quite robustly, but you might also use a sheet of tin foil. One of the simplest but most effective reflectors I use is a greetings card, which I open and stand close to the area that I want to 'fill' with light. Try tilting your reflector close to your food and look at how light plays across the surfaces and how it lifts the darker areas of your compositions. Once you experiment with bouncing and filtering light, you'll see a dramatic difference in your ability to control the environment in which you shoot.

 


Odd numbers win out


Chefs and food stylists have long known that things look better arranged in groups of three rather than four – odd numbers rule nine times out of ten. There's something far more pleasing about seeing one or three items on a plate together: two or four items tends to appear too neat, too divisive, which tends to create tension. When one or three items appear, the eye can find an anchor point (the single or centre item) and move around the rest of the dish/shot more harmoniously. As with most rules, there are exceptions, but odd numbers just work; things offset please just that little more. It's a rule that stands you well when assembling things on both plate and in camera and especially so within Instagram's default square window frame. 


Study the masters 


If the Renaissance artist was alive today he would spend as much time looking at how others had Instagrammed their lunch as he would lining up knife and fork for his own. Find Instagrammers and photographers who inspire you and really take a good look at them. Try to emulate a simple set-up of a photo of theirs that you like. Cook a dish, compose the shot similarly to the one you like, looking at the way the light falls (are they using natural light, inside or outside?), seeing how they angle their camera (do they shoot front on or from above?) and see how they frame their dish (do they crop elements out, do they get in close?). Can you shoot a pretty good copy of it? If you can't, can you pinpoint the flaws that make your shot a poorer version? Producing a copy of something you really love will teach you a lot about what you'd like to achieve with your own shots and will encourage you to shape your own style through studying the choices and strengths of others. 


Straighten up and centre in


There are some aspects of taking a good photo that take real practice and consideration. There are others which are much simpler to achieve, but can be every bit as enhancing. When lining things up, setting things straight, centred or 'square' is an easy thing to get right and it requires no special skills other than a steady hand. If you're shooting front on or directly overhead then make sure you have any key vertical or horizontal planes lined up correctly. A skewiff horizon line is a crucial thing to put right. If shooting directly above your dish, is everything looking completely flat (as it should)? If it's slightly askew then you might need to dip or raise your camera a touch to correct things. If you're aiming to centre your subject in the frame, then take care to make sure that's exactly where it sits. And if you have parallel lines in your shot (perhaps the two sides of a serving tray) take extra care to make sure they look good in frame -- either converging towards a harmonious vanishing point, or set square and parallel if shooting plumb in front or above. 


Backgrounds


Food photographs feature all kinds of exotic surfaces beneath and behind plates. Cookbook photography in particular has seen a shift from the clean and homely towards looks of industrial, grunge and shabby-chic for its background surfaces. Anything goes, really, and I keep a range of surfaces I hold onto just for photography, from old floor tiles, roof slates and found bits of wood to boxes of paper, tissue, linen and cloth. But you can put anything to good use, from a sofa cushion to – once, quite literally – the shirt off my own back. Remember: dark surfaces will absorb light and bright surfaces will reflect it. A mid-tone grey is a great neutral ground to put food onto (it's no surprise you see so much metal and slate in books these days). Wood (especially worn wood) is always a good surface which suggests homeliness and an accessible kind of cooking. Generally, go for plain backgrounds with enough surface texture to provide interest, but not so much heavy detail or pattern to detract from the food. 


Serendipity and roughness


Sometimes, the strive for perfection can be all too evident in a shot. If you're too tidy and clipped it can give your food shots a sense of being unreal and false. It's good to tee your shot up and get everything in place where you want it to be, but at that point you should weigh up how it looks. Is everything too 'straight' and formal, too clean and mechanical? If it is, then start to look at where you can add a little ‘roughness’ to make things appear more natural. Deconstruct things a little. Rely on some more natural instincts: try placing a second slice of cake onto a plate with a little less precision and try to forget you’re styling it for a photograph. It can be surprising how much more effective the results can be when you're not consciously thinking about every step in terms of a good photo. Leave crumbs and spills on the plate or board. Take a forkful of ingredients away and see if your plate of pasta suddenly looks even more desirable. Deconstruction and happy accidents can sometimes transform a sterile food shot into something with real life and style. Whenever a food shot isn’t working for me, it’s almost always because I’m obsessing over it as a photo and forgetting about it as food.


Distractions


While a few chance spills and splashes might help lift what's on the plate, more often than not what’s beneath or behind the plate can't quite be so randomly plumped for. I've seen many a beautiful plate of food ruined by the 'noise' of the distractions around it. If you've gone to all the trouble of cooking your food and making your plate look beautiful and now you want to share it with the world, then go that extra small step before you do and take away any distractions. Take your plate of food to a place where it can be the star of the shot without other elements such as a half-used tin of cannellini beans gently bullying it from behind. Clear your photo frame of anything that you don't consciously want to see in it and you'll ensure that your viewer's attention is fixed firmly on your food. 


Edit




If you're running the most up-to-date version of Instagram, then you should have a very powerful range of editing capabilities for your images. The app has come on in leaps and bounds over the last couple of years. What used to be a very primitive suite of adjustment controls is now a fully polished deck capable of transforming average images into something quite wonderful. Try to avoid the pre-set filters that come with the app and opt instead for manually editing your images to ensure a much more subtle and controlled end product. I spend quite a bit of time editing my images very carefully: often longer than I do composing the shot. There’s no set sequence I edit my images in, but I do usually go straight to the most deficient element of the photo and look to correct and/or enhance from there. For instance, I might see that the image is a little too dark and needs the shadows or brightness lifting; sometimes it might be a little too blue (light late in the day can do this), so I'll ‘up’ the warmth setting to counterbalance. Work your way systematically through the controls, adjusting anything that you feel could enhance your photo, but don't get into the trap of editing for editing's sake. And watch carefully what you're doing: you should be trying to refine and enhance here, not create and filter over something from scratch. Taking time to carefully edit your images can really transform your photo from an average shot to something which will grab the attention of your followers. And that, after all, is what we’re all on Instagram to do.


Matt Inwood is an art director and designer with more than 15 years' experience in cookery book publishing. Find out more about him here, and follow him on Instagram here

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