How to improve your food photography; Lessons from an Instagram Star

As part of a new series, we're interviewing a variety of experts to ask them about topics near and dear to our customers' hearts. Today, we're writing about food photography because so many Nowsta customers work with food, whether in catering, restaurants, or even hospitality staffing.

For this post, we reached out to Nisha, the photographer behind the incredible vegan food Instagram feed @rainbowplantlife. Despite having no experience in food photography and starting her account only one year ago, Nisha already has over 170,000 followers on Instagram thanks to her stunning photos.

Nisha has so much great advice that we couldn't fit it all in one post. Today, we're covering two of the most important topics in photography: lighting and composition. In future posts, we'll cover food styling and props, the fundamentals of manual camera work, and digital photo editing.

I don't have a nice camera; can I still take great photos?

Absolutely! So many people incorrectly believe that you need a high-end professional camera and expensive lenses to take good photos, but that couldn't be further from the truth. There are plenty of amazing Instagram feeds that consist solely of photos taken on an iPhone or Android phone.

More important than fancy equipment is getting the basics right - composition, lighting, and styling. Get these fundamentals down and your Instagram following will grow in no time.

What kind of light do I need to take good photos?

The first tip I give anyone interested in food photography is to shoot in natural light. Without doubt, this is the most important rule to follow in order to take good photos.

The absolute best natural light comes from placing your subject in a a shady spot on a sunny day (when you're outdoors) or in indirect light (when you're indoors). Your food will have a natural, even, and appealing glow, which is exactly how you want food photos to look.

What do you do when there's not enough light?

One way to add light is to use a reflector to bounce light back onto your food and remove any dark shadows. You can use a variety of materials for a reflector or a “white card,” as it is sometimes called. For a cheaper, easier solution, I just use a white foam board that you can buy at any craft store.

Unless you're already an expert in photography, don't shoot in artificial light. Photos taken in artificial light almost always have an unnatural tint to them that makes food look unappealing. The same goes for using your camera's flash - it's a big no-no if you want to take appealing photos and you're just starting out.

And, my favorite way to shoot in low light is with a tripod. If you're using a DSLR camera and want to keep your photos crispy clear, a tripod is essential. We'll talk more about that in a future post.

How about when it's too bright?

If you have the problem of having too much natural light (lucky you!), you can create a diffuser to make the light less bright and direct. When I'm shooting on-site, I'll bring a semi-sheer white curtain to soften the light. Because the curtain is so light, I can hang it up using only duct tape, then take it down when I'm finished shooting.

I strongly recommend avoiding direct sunlight when shooting food. Doing so will result in photos that are blown out. The shots will be harsh, with a mixture of overly dark shadows and whites so bright they're almost impossible to differentiate from the surroundings.

What is composition and why does it matter?

Good composition–the arrangement of elements in a photo–can transform an average photo into a great photo. The goal with composition is to guide your viewer’s eye to the focal point of your photo and, in some cases, to tell a story with your photo.

Try to keep these tips to keep in mind when you are framing a photo. Don’t try to use all of these techniques at once, just FYI. For one, it will take an hour just to set up your photo. And more importantly, some of these tips contradict one another.

Visualize your composition before you take the photo

Before you hit the shutter button, think about the dish you are photographing, the best angle to photograph it from, and which elements you want to be the focus of your photo. Visualize all of this first and then set your camera up. If you just start shooting without thinking about the arrangement and layout of food and props, you’ll likely end up with a photo that confuses your viewers or simply falls flat.

Follow the Rule of Thirds...

The Rule of Thirds is one of the most fundamental rules in all types of photography. It states that when you compose a photo, you should visualize it being divided in thirds, both vertically and horizontally (i.e., like a tic-tac-toe grid), and place your focal point along one of those lines or ideally, along one of the intersection points. Human eyes are naturally drawn to these focal points, so placing your food along this grid will help your viewers better understand and relate to your food.

Or, rely on symmetry

You don’t always have to use the Rule of Thirds. When your photo is square cropped, as is common on Instagram, placing your object directly in the center of the shot can produce a very visually pleasing result. Just make sure you have equal space on both sides of your photo and that your lines are straight

Know your angles

Know which angles work best for particular types of food. For instance, foods such as pizza and soups photograph best from an overhead angle so you can clearly see all of the toppings.

In contrast, vertical-oriented foods like burgers, parfaits, and ice cream cones photograph best at table view. And many foods photograph nicely from a three-quarters angle, which is basically just a mixture between overhead and table view.

If you don't have an intuitive feel for what looks best, you should shoot your food from multiple angles to easily compare them later.

Create depth, movement, and drama

One of the main objectives of good photography is figuring out how to present our 3D world in a 2D medium (photography). To give more visual interest to your photos, you can use composition to create depth, movement, and drama. One easy way to do this is to include a foreground, a middle, and a background element in your photo.

In this photo, I've included three elements at varying depth levels: the slice in the foreground, the frosted loaf in the midground, and the bowl of cranberries. Had I included just one or two of these elements, the photo would not have the same visceral effect.

Key Takeaways

  • Natural light is your best friend... so long as you avoid direct sunlight.
  • Follow the Rule of Thirds or rely on symmetry when framing your photos.
  • Figure out the most flattering angles for the type of dish you're shooting.
  • Don't be afraid to add depth, movement, and drama to liven up your shots.

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