In an ideal world, you will be presented with an amazingly photogenic dish, set in perfect lighting with access to all the props you need, and will be snapping the photo with a top-of-the-line DSLR camera. Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world. Sometimes we just have make the most of what we have (usually that includes bad lighting and iPhones).
Instagram filters have saved many a photo, but all the filters in the world won’t help you if a photo isn’t good to begin with. Which is why an understanding of what composes an appealing image is the most important skill you can have. Photo composition is a hard thing to get right, but here are some simple easy-to-follow rules to guide you along.
This is referring to where exactly the food is positioned in your photo. Imagine your camera frame is divided into a 9-part grid (basically like a Sudoku). This is where the 'Rule of Thirds' kicks in; the main focus of your shot should be aligned with the lines or the intersection of the lines for it to look most appealing.
Here’s the first photo of a plate of oysters. As you can see, the intersecting points on the 9-part grid do not intersect on the main focus of the picture (the actual oyster itself). Instead, it puts the focus on the sides of the oyster shells, which makes the photo less appealing.
Here's the second photo with adjusted photo alignment. The angle has been adjusted, so now the intersecting points are on the oysters closest to the camera, making the photo a lot more appealing!
Natural lighting is best in most cases, but since it’s generally frowned upon in restaurants to take your dish on a walkabout to find the perfect lighting, you’ll have to resort to artificial lighting. If the venue is too dark, you may have to reconcile yourself to a less-than-perfect photo because most phones are not made to take photos in such dim lighting.
Of course, you can always try to change to a higher ISO setting on your camera, but this will also most likely result in a very grainy photo. Adjusting the ISO is basically adjusting the sensitivity of the image sensor, meaning the lower the number, the less sensitive your camera will be to light, therefore displaying less grain in the photo. Higher ISO is generally used in darker settings so your photo will be less blurry, but the photo also appears grainier.
An alternative is to have a friend shine a light on the dish with their phone while you take the photo with yours. But never use a flash; it will only make your food look less appealing by washing it out.
As mentioned before, we’re all huge fans of Instagram filters, but there are tricks to using them properly. When it comes to editing a photo, we’re mainly looking at contrast, brightness and saturation. Is your photo too yellow? Decrease the warmth of the photo. Is your photo too dark? Increase the brightness. Are the colours not showing too well? Tune up the saturation. But if adjusting those settings are too much of a hassle, there are always the Instagram pre-set filters. They make a huge difference by automatically changing the entire vibe and colour scheme of the picture.
Props & Accessories
Props can be used to add dimension to the photo and you can use anything from napkins and utensils, to garnishing ingredients that were used to create the food dish (e.g. salt and pepper shakers, hot sauce bottles). But be careful not to go too crazy with the colours and items or people might not even realize what the main focus of your shot is.
Using the previous oyster photo as an example, simply adding a lemon wedge makes the photo pop even further.
Don’t forget that you can also use the props to interact with the food, such as taking a spoonful out so the shot focuses on the spoon instead.
Last but not least, be fast – especially with cold food or stacked food, because they usually melt, wilt or fall apart in a short period of time. The faster you take them, the fresher the end product will look (and taste!)