Tips for cell phone food photography

Many of you have taken advantage of the new feature that allows you to add your own photos to recipes in the EYB Library. It's easy to upload a photo from your cell phone directly into the Library since the website now functions the same on mobile platforms as it does from one's computer. Shooting food photos with a phone can be challenging, however, since you often don't have the same tools as you would with a full-featured digital camera. We have a few tips to help you make your photos as tempting as the food itself. 

With a simple Google search, you can find several guides on using your cell phone or tablet to take food photos. The advice boils down to two main components: lighting and composition. We'll look at lighting first. Whenever possible, use natural light for the best results. Placing your food near a window that is out of direct sunlight (to avoid harsh shadows) produces the most true-to-life results. If the areas of your subject facing away from the window are too dark, you can use a white card to reflect light back onto your food. A piece of foam board or even a white cutting board will do the job; no need for any fancy equipment. The photo below was shot in front of a south-facing window on a heavily overcast day. The left photo used only the light from the window; in the right photo a white cutting board was placed perpendicular to the table, about three inches to the left of the fruit. You can see a lot more detail on the right image, and the shadows and highlights are less harsh. 

pomegranates

Unfortunately, natural light isn't always handy, especially in the winter. The camera's flash can be garish, incandescent bulbs can mess with the color balance, and overhead lights can cast big shadows. Adding a fill light can help the latter two situations. A small LED flashlight can offset the shadows and provide a "cooler" light to counteract the yellowish light from regular light bulbs. The photo below shows the results without and with an added light. 

pomegranates

One excellent LED flashlight includes tripod legs and a swivel head. It's available for a reasonable price on Amazon (US) or Amazon (UK). While not the equal of natural lighting, it will improve your low-light photography. Even though the tripod legs come in handy, you'll often have to hold the flashlight to get the best angle. If you have any beanbags lying around, they work great to hold the light on top of a box or other prop so you can have both hands free to hold the phone. 

Composition is the second key item in creating mouthwatering photos. One good rule to follow is the 'rule of thirds': divide your image with two horizontal and two vertical lines, and position the items of importance along those lines or where the lines intersect. With a plate of food, this can be as simple as rotating the plate to place emphasis on a particular item or moving the subject to the left or right:

scofflaw drink

Another rule that invokes the number three is that of multiples: if you are taking a picture of small items like cupcakes, groups of three, or at least an odd number, tend to look better than even-numbered groupings. (I can't remember the reason for this; if anyone here has a background in art, feel free to weigh in with an explanation.)

Choosing the angle of your photo is also important. There are no hard and fast rules to this, but some things to watch out for are distortion, scale, and whether the angle brings out the best features of the dish. Some foods beg to be shot from directly overhead (bowls of soup, for example), but other foods lose definition when shot from above (a slice of cake, for instance). Move your camera around and don't be afraid to stand on a chair to get that overhead shot (although it's best to follow this advice at home and not in a restaurant). 

Another trick to add interest to a photo is evoke action. Since food is mainly a static entity, food photos can feel a bit lifeless. You can add a sense of motion by including a prop, such as a spoon or fork, that leads the viewer's eye into the main subject. Removing a slice of cake or taking a spoonful of food from a dish are additional ways to hint at action in an otherwise motionless display.

spaghetti carbonara

Choosing the appropriate background can also enhance your photographs. Generally speaking, a neutral background is preferable so it doesn't draw interest away from the dish. Wood is a good, all purpose backdrop, and it also has the benefit of being rather easy to find - almost everyone has a wooden table or at least a cutting board made from wood. Plain or muted napkins and tablecloths work well too. Colors can also evoke the season: pastels for spring, oranges and browns for fall. Of course, sometimes it's fun to add a pop of color by using a brightly patterned cloth or serving tray, especially if the food is monotone (think cookies). 

pumpkin roll

If you can't find a neutral background, one workaround is to zoom in on the food. A tightly cropped shot can emphasize the food and get rid of distractions in one fell swoop. Cropping off part of a bowl or plate can also add to the sense of motion in a picture as your eye will be naturally drawn from the cut edge into the middle of the bowl or plate. 

blackberry cobbler

Props can add drama to a photo but it's easy to overdo it. Adding utensils, ingredients, or other appropriate items can simultaneously evoke action and create a sense of context. There's a reason so many baking blogs have pictures with sifters, whisks, and a dusting of flour, but don't think for a minute that the flour sprinkled on the counter is from the actual making of the dish!

While most of us use cell phones so we can instantly share photos without the hassle of camera cards and editing software, don't forget about your phone camera's built in features. Many cell phones now have photo editing capabilities that are easy to use and that can instantly improve your pictures. You can crop, rotate, adjust light, color balance, saturation, and more with just a few swipes. 

We hope that these tips help you with food photography, but please keep in mind that photos don't have to be magazine-ready to be useful or to be enjoyed. Even if they aren't perfect, we want to see your food pictures in the Library!

Also see Lindsay's post about taking food photos from a few year's back.

2 Comments

  • lgroom  on  11/20/2016 at 2:42 PM

    This was really interesting.

  • Rinshin  on  11/21/2016 at 2:21 PM

    Thank you - very informative. Did not know about the rule of thirds.

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