Well, here we are, getting into the swing of 2015. There’s a new royal baby, James Franco is still being James Franco, and a restaurant in Tel Aviv is offering customers food presented on custom-made plates designed to make the meal look better on Instagram. The world has collectively groaned, but for different reasons. Non-food-Instagrammers are annoyed because they hate Instagrammed food in general. Meanwhile, those of us who unapologetically flood friends’ feeds with tacos and waffles are annoyed because you’re doing it wrong, fancy restaurateur guy. Essentially, a plate is to food photography what a lawn gnome is to gardening: it’s there, but it doesn’t do anything.
To be fair, the plates are part of a workshop that includes food photography lessons along with your meal. But judging from the sample shots, things didn’t go so hot. (To be precise, things went left. Way, way left, for some reason.)
The good news is, better food photography costs nothing. BYOS (bring your own smartphone) and let’s make some gastro-foxy pictures happen.
The first thing you’re going to need is light.
If the restaurant offering this program really were designed for food photography, the space would be flooded with as much light as possible and there would be no food service after sunset. Natural light or go home, baby—“gross incandescent yellow” is not an Instagram filter for good reason. There is no secret to this simple shot of a pear, other than that it is well lit.
This is why patio dining is your best friend. I would not have photographed this beautiful Cubano indoors.
On the other hand, although this tempura and udon noodle dish was awesome, I should have just savored the experience and saved the photography for another day.
Next up, composition.
Some of the Instagram-friendly plates include a slot for where your phone should be placed, but how much can it really help if the patron chooses to zoom in with abandon?
As with all photography, the two-thirds rule applies, and it should be broken with care. Extreme close-ups are never a good idea. You are setting a scene—and nobody wants to be three inches away from a lasagna if they’re not about to eat it. Let your plate breathe a little, and your followers will thank you with an extra double-tap or two.
There’s always a temptation to get close to things like this to show detail, but the fluffy texture of the donut comes through just fine at a reasonable distance.
Keep in mind that everything in the shot should be there for a reason—this means no remote controls, no restaurant receipts, no crumpled napkins. Thoughtful and visually appealing props are always welcome, but typically, you’d want the shot to be neat in every way. Keep splatters and smudges to a minimum, too. It’s not always possible (see donut shot above), but it feels messy and while messy can be done right, again, rules should be broken only once you’re comfortable with them.
Lastly, we need some color.
All together now, gang: black and white is for photographing buildings and emo selfies. A food photo will always be better when it’s vibrant.
Unfortunately, some of the most delicious foods are beige, so what tastes the best doesn’t necessarily look it. At least 80% of the time, this can be fixed by throwing a sprinkling of something green on top; parsley on your oozing mac and cheese, a sprig of mint next to your pancakes, or, as seen here, a dash of pesto on a single veggie “meatball.” Sassy nail polish is optional.
When all else fails, find greenery in the form of a nice lawn. Don’t those ribs look infinitely more summery with a backdrop of green grass and flip flops?
As for the plate—note that it’s cardboard.
Danguole Lekaviciute cooks, eats, and drinks in Portland, and also really needs to know if you’re gonna eat that pickle spear. You can check out her food blog here, or come say hi on Twitter.