Most food photography today is captured on a smartphone.
Check out hashtags like #foodphotography on Instagram today, and you will find almost twenty-five million posts!
Most modern phones have a great camera, but as with any type of photography, it’s not so much about the quality of gear but the knowledge of what to do with it.
Whether you’re documenting your own meals or shooting for a business or brand, here are some tips and techniques to help take your smartphone food images to the pro level.
Use Natural Light to Make Your Food Photos Look Fresh
When you shoot with your smartphone, ensure that you are using natural light.
The number one reason why so many food photos taken in restaurants look horrible is because of the artificial lighting. Fluorescent and other types of artificial lights create unwanted colour casts and can cause your pictures to look hard and flat.
Food photography in particular needs to look as fresh and natural as possible in order to be appealing, which is why the quality of light is so important. Professional food photographers use large and expensive strobe lights to mimic natural, diffused daylight for this very reason.
Bring your plate to a window or try to shoot outside, as long as the sun isn’t too bright, which will create hard shadows in your scene.
However, you can try using a small diffusion disc or panel to remedy this.
How to Ensure Your Phone Gets the Exposure Right
Smartphones can take a perfectly exposed photo in ideal conditions, but if you’ve tried shooting food with your iPhone, chances are you’ve encountered these conditions a lot less than you’d like.
You can boost the brightness of your scene quite a lot but using a piece of white foamcore as a bounce card, to bounce some of the light back onto the set. You can use a white linen napkin in a pinch.
However, if you’re doing smartphone photography professionally, you might want to invest in a reflector kit, such as the one pictured below. You can bring this to a restaurant and use it to diffuse the light, or use the reflectors to bounce more light onto the dishes.
Also, your smartphone has an “exposure lock”, which you can use to lock in your shot at a certain exposure level.
To do this, tap on the screen and you will see an icon of a sun appear. Move your finger up or down and y0u will see your exposure adjust accordingly.
Photography requires constant problem-solving. A bit of creativity combined with what’s already around you can go a long way to make your shots look professional.
Make the Most of Your Phone’s Wide Angle Lens
One of the biggest mistakes people make when shooting food with a smartphone is choosing the wrong angle.
Smartphone cameras have a very wide angle lens. This means that certain angles will cause your images to look distorted. We’ve all seen the images where it looks like the food is sliding off the table.
This is because the photograph was taken at a 3/4 angle, which often doesn’t work due to the nature of the wide angle lens.
To get the best results, shoot overhead or straight on to your subject.
The reason flatlays and overhead shots have becomes so popular is because the 90-degree angle is so flattering to most subjects. It eliminates depth and brings a more graphic pop to an image. You can fit a lot more elements in the scene, and it’s relatively easy to compose.
However, this angle doesn’t work for everything. For example, if you’re shooting a tall food, like a burger.
If you shoot it from above, you will not be able to see the various layers composing the burger and the picture will be all about the bun–which is hardly the point.
Use Neutral Backgrounds to Highlight the Food
When taking pictures of food, you want the background to be neutral. The food is the star, and anything else in the image needs to support it and not detract from it.
A background that is too colourful or textured, or otherwise busy in some way, will draw the eye away from the main dish.
Go for a neutral background and stay away from wood with an orange tint to it. It looks ugly and competes with the food.
With smartphone food photography, it’s hard to get bokeh–that pretty, blurred out background found in professional food photography.
This means your background needs to be on point, as it will draw more attention to itself.
Again, a bit of creativity will serve you well. You don’t have to always shoot food on the table. I have been known to put the dish on the seat, or a floor if it’s concrete or nuetral-coloured tile in an interesting pattern.
Clutter Will Make Your Pictures Look Too Busy
One issue in a lot of food pictures on Instagram is that they look messy.
I don’t necessarily mean the food itself, but the environment.
There is clutter in the background of the image, too many props that don’t add anything, or other elements that distract the viewer from where the focus should be.
Much of this can be solved with tighter shots. Closeup and macro shots of food can look great. Just be sure that you are not shooting so close that the viewer won’t be able to tell what the subject is.
Also, take care not to overlook drips or smears on plates, crumbs or other messes that look unintentional. They can look distracting and can be difficult to fix, depending on what app or program you se for your post-processing.
Composing Your Smartphone Food Shots
With smartphone food photography, less is more, especially when it comes to composition. Unless you have a lot of experience in arranging food for the camera, it’s best to keep it simple.
Use a prop or two, one of which can be a piece of linen or a beverage. Food photography must focus on the food. This can’t be stressed enough.
Luckily, if your food is nicely styled and plated, you’re more than halfway there. A utensil and a napkin tucked under the plate is all your really need.
Depending on the subject, you can create interesting images with no props and a complementary background, like in this image of the pink doughnut.
The blue makes the pink really pop. All it takes is a blue piece of craft paper. Nothing else is needed.
From Using Negative Space to the Rule of Thirds
Always try to have some negative space in the image. Negative space is the area in the image that is empty. Positive space is the area that is taken up by your subjects.
Negative space gives the image some breathing room and allows the eye to briefly rest as it moves through the images. Having every part of your frame filmed can give the viewer a claustrophobic feeling.
I prefer to think of composition rules as guidelines, because they don’t always work every time for every image. However, they are principles that can be used to get the most out of your images.
A simple example is the Rule-of-Thirds.
This is a compositional guideline that divides an image into nine equal sections using two horizontal lines and two vertical lines. The important elements in the scene fall along these lines, or at the points where they intersect.
Think of an imaginary grid that divides the image into nine equal parts, like a tic-tac-toe grid. The ratio is 1:1 per rectangle.
This grid helps add harmony to your images and will aid you considerably in creating your composition.
If you want to take this concept even further, read about the Phi Grid. This is an even more powerful compositional tool that works particularly well for smartphone food photography.
The great thing is that smart phones already have this grid as an overlay when you turn on your camera.
Focal points can be created with light, colour, isolation, or contrast.
An important element, like a garnish, can also be used as a focal point.
How the Colour Wheel Can Improve Your Composition
The colour wheel can be a fantastic guide to composing your shots.
Colour is considered an important aspect of composition, and it’s absolutely vital in food photography.
I refer to mine regularly when I’m planning my shoots.
The colour wheel shows you what colours easily complement each other. It is your guide to harmonious compositions.
Food photography is unlike other kinds of photography in that it’s best not to use filters when editing. The colours need to be natural and work together for your images to look their best.
Combinations that work very well are blue and orange, purple and yellow, or red and green. These colours are opposite form each other on the colour wheel, and are called complementary colours.
While using complementary, analogous, etc., colours will help you achieve a harmonious composition, don’t forget that you can move the arrows and triangles around and interact with the colour wheel. It’s not a rigid rule saying to only ever use opposite colours.
How to Style Food for Smartphone Photography
Styling your food to appear pleasing to the eye is essential. You can have the right angle, perfect exposure and a great subject, but if the food looks sloppy or ugly, the end result will not be as appealing.
Make sure that your food or dish is as fresh as possible.
If you are shooting at home, use herbs and garnishes and other elements like chunks of bread or some extra sauce to elevate the food.
For example, I like to have some breadcrumbs or coarse salt or pepper to sprinkle onto my surface to give some context to my food story.
Remember that a little goes a long way, and that there is a fine line between looking real and looking downright sloppy.
Props also can give context and add that special something to a food photo.
Whether shooting with an iPhone or a DSLR, photographers usually bring a few items like vintage cutlery or squares of linen to restaurant shoots to add a bit of pizzaz to what is sometimes boring and typical flatware.
Which Editing Apps Are the Best
I just mentioned that it’s best to not use filters on food photography. That being said, your pictures will need some editing to look great.
The best approach is to use an app like Snapseed, VSCO, or Lightroom Mobile. Of course, there are many other great photo editing apps, but these are three that I’d most recommend.
Adjust your images for exposure and brightness, white balance, and saturation, and perhaps add a bit of clarity for contrast.
If you find some filters that look pretty good, don’t use them at full strength and make adjustments to the image as needed. One click edits to food photography usually don’t work.
Tell a Story With Your Social Media Food Photos
Close-ups of images look great, as does a minimalist approach. But what about adding a narrative to your images?
Give your viewer an idea of a wider story taking place beyond the confines of the frame. This can mean a table setting where some of the elements are partially cropped out, or someone’s hands serving food.
These kinds of images have become very popular lately. Hands give context to an image and make it relatable.
The next time you are shooting lattes in a cafe, take a picture of your friend’s hands holding the mug.
Or if you’re at a restaurant, take the shot just as they are tucking into their brunch.
Develop a Consistent Smartphone Food Photography Style
Success in social media these days means having a consistent brand.
Your images don’t have to look the same, but there should be certain elements that are cohesive throughout.
This may mean a palette made up of two or three of the same colours, or backgrounds in a similar tone in all of your images. It can mean that all of your images are dark and moody, or conversely, light and airy.
Or they may all be close-up or macro shots of food.
If you look at the most successful accounts on Instagram, you will find that most of them have repetitive elements in the photography. All of the images have a specific style and “look”.
Take a good look at your images and figure out the consistencies you see. Style is developed over time and is reflective of what people naturally prefer.
The more specific you can be in your approach to taking pictures, the tighter your feed will look and will draw an audience that resonates with it.
Smartphone photography should be fun! Take some of these tips and play around with them. Explore what works and what doesn’t.
With a little practice, you’ll hone your style and compositional skills and be posting pro quality images.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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