Nick Ulivieri | 9.27.12
Food has always been a big part of my life, so I quickly gained an appetite for photographing it when I first picked up a camera. While all of my professional food photography work is done with my DSLR camera and a carefully choreographed lighting set-up, I find myself using my iPhone almost exclusively for my personal food shots when I’m at home or in a restaurant.
So if you’re a foodie, Instagram addict, or just want to take better food photos for whatever it is you do, check out my tips and tricks for taking better food photos with your camera phone.
1) Get close: There are endless ways to take a photograph of food, but when I’m using my iPhone I almost always get close and focus on “the best bite”. I do this for a few reasons. First, the iPhone’s close focusing distance works really well for getting tight into a subject. Second, because I share a lot of these photos via social media, I assume a large percentage of my followers will see these on their phones, which makes for a small photo. A full-shot of a dish won’t convey the textures and ingredients in the same way an up-close, detailed bite of food will.
Don’t be afraid to play with different angles and compositions. Perfectly centering and leveling every shot will lead to dull images. Survey the plate and figure out how to fit in other aspects of the dish while making sure your main subjects is still prominently featured.
2) Find the right light: The right lighting is the key to great photographs – It doesn’t matter if you’re shooting with a camera phone or a DSLR. Though the “right lighting” can vary depending on what look you’re trying to achieve and who you ask.
For the purposes of food shots, great lighting on the front of your dish is key. But how can you do this? If you’re at a restaurant, try and get a window seat, and sit with your back facing the window. Whenever using ambient light, you always want the light to be coming from behind you so it’s hitting the “front” of your dish – though neat shots can also be made by shooting from the sides. In almost all cases, do not shoot with the light coming from behind the food (shooting a dish with a bright window behind it). There are times where this can work, but in cases where you have no other light sources, a bright window coupled with the camera phones auto-exposure will turn your dish into a low detail silhouette.
A few more lighting tips…
– If you can’t get the right ambient light, try using a friend’s iPhone screen to throw additional light on the hidden details.
– If you’re at a table with direct overhead lighting, push the dish back until the majority of the light source falls in front of the plate.
– A white napkin can reflect ambient light to add highlights to slightly dark areas.
– Candles are a great way to add light to your photos – especially in dark settings. A candle behind a glass of wine or beer, as pictured above, can create a really dramatic look.
3) Don’t use the flash: While the camera phone has made great strides in quality, the built in flash leaves much to be desired. Even in a relatively low-lit area, nine times out of ten you’ll end up with a better photo by holding steady and taking the shot with the available lighting. It may be a bit grainy, but I haven’t come across a food photo that looked better with a camera-phone flash than one without.
Now, I know you aren’t supposed to put your elbows on the table, but I usually lay my forearms flat to give myself a bi-pod of sorts to keep my phone steady when shooting in low-light.
4) Work quickly: By the time a dish has arrived at your table (be it in a restaurant or at your kitchen table) the food is already degrading. Fresh greens will start wilting on a warm dish, ice cream begin to melt…You get the idea. Don’t spend more than a few minutes taking photos of any one dish – You’ll ensure you capture the food in its best light, and you’ll enjoy the dish as the way it was meant to be eaten.
5) Clean the plate: Since you’ll be shooting close to the food (in most cases) you’re going to magnify any imperfections or distractions on the plate – so clean them up. I’m not suggesting you full on food-stylist, but removing crumbs or errant drips of sauce will give your photos a cleaner, more professional look.
6) Don’t shoot, eat: The secret to making great photos isn’t jut how to do it, but when not to do it. There may be certain dishes that just don’t photograph well, the lighting may be too dim, or you risk being rude if you’re in a social setting. Sometimes, no photo is better than a bad photo, so don’t force it.
7) A note on editing: There is no shortage of photo editing apps available, and truth be told, I haven’t experimented with all that many since I like to keep my edits simple. Though today’s camera phones take great photos, I find heavy edits tend to degrade the quality of an image pretty quickly. I’ve also noticed that the contrast of iPhone photos is usually a bit too low for my taste, so finding a program with good contrast adjustments goes a long way. For a majority of my iPhone photos I use either PS Express or TiltShift Generator . Surprisingly, the color controls in TiltShiftGen are what I really like about the software, though the tilt-shift tools are great too. There aren’t many color adjustments you can make in TiltShift Generator, but I find the saturation and contrast sliders are all I need to make the “RAW” iPhone photo pop.
Speaking more generally about editing food shots, “light and bright” edits are your keys to success when editing. Though if you’re shooting in poor lighting, no amount of iPhone edits can give you the light and bright look. Additionally, if you’re editing in Instagram use caution if you use the “enhance” button (little sun icon). In many cases it can add a lot of splotchy dark areas to your main food subject giving it an unappetizing look.
Note: For the purposes of this post, I ran all of my original iPhone photos through Lightroom so I would have more control over the size and quality of the main image once posted. In the above photos, I did my best to approximate the original Instagram edit, though as you can see in the edit comparison below, the Instagram/Tilt-Shift edit tends to have a slightly more “aggressive” look to it.
© Nick Ulivieri Photography in Chicago, IL