Master proportions and take a deep breath – follow this Instagrammer’s guide and say goodbye to disappointing food photos forever
by Poonperm Paitayawat
Six years ago I opened an Instagram account, @theskinnybib, to tell of my obsession with food, travel and culture. After 5,211 posts and 783,403 likes, I have developed another obsession: food photography. I now know how to shoot the most intimate angle for an heirloom carrot, how to make a starchy porridge glisten in the sun, and how to capture a market vendor at the peak of her afternoon boredom. Here are my six top tips:
Master shots from the top
Taking top-view shots is basic Instagram know how. Not only can it make your dinner look like an editorial, it’s also easy to get right. Check the light, which I prefer to come from the front or the sides – if the light source is right above your dish or comes from behind, it will cast a shadow in your shots, though you can usually fix this by moving yourself around. Hold your phone or camera steadily above your dish. Position the dish right in the middle of the shot. Focus. Make sure your hands do not tilt or shake. Then, snap. Done. It is that simple.
Top-view shots can capture a lot of visual eclecticism. You can see the detail in a dish, the contrast between the dish and the colour and texture of the table, and so on. That’s what makes these shots so beautiful and popular.
Interact and add some life
I usually don’t fiddle with the food that is presented to me. In most cases, dishes are served the way they should look. But I do personalise my shots by interacting with the food. I’ll hold a bao up against a crowd or queue; or carefully prick an egg for its yolk to gently drip; or snap a stylishly half eaten dish. Things like this make food shots less of a geeky culinary anatomy and more of a lifestyle choice to be envied. Ask a friend who is waiting to tuck in to wave their fork into the shot, too. It can look fun.
Burst-mode things that move
It is not true that you need to be a pro to capture emotion, livelihood and movements. There is a way to cheat. Most phones and cameras are equipped with burst mode. It allows you to take photos in very quick successions, be it a pastry chef quenelling ice cream, a fisherman quartering his 200kg tuna, or a seagull landing on your mum’s chips. All you need to do is anticipate movements, frame your shots, focus and let burst mode do the magic. Capture between 10-20 shots; at least one of them will work.
Let there be light
You cannot take photos without light. There is no way around it. When you are in an extremely low-light situation, you need to either find light or give up. While flash turns a beauty into a beast (or human food into feline feeds), torchlight from your friend’s phone does not. Do kindly ask them to switch it on and assist you. This is not to say that torchlights can solve the problem of having low light, but they can make the situation better. Buying light-up phone cases is another solution. At the other end of spectrum of no light is too much sunlight. First, you cannot take photos against sunlight. Second, too much sunlight makes your food fade in colour or create shadows. My preference is to have natural light coming from the front or the sides and not to deal with direct sunlight.
Get the proportion right
This is the more advanced stuff. You need to use your common sense to get the proportion of food in a photo right. For example, if your plate is chunky or large but your food portion is small, top-view shots (which aims at capturing everything) will make the food look minuscule. You will be better off snapping a photo at a 60-degree angle and zooming in on the food content. For food items that are stacked upward or sculptural, like a sushi or a burger, a 60-to-70-degree angle works better.
I hold my breath for a few seconds every time I take a photo. This is no joke. Once a light source is secured and a perfect angle is locked, a small, unpredicted movement from your hip, thighs or elbows can spoil your shot, making it blurred. To prevent this, you have to be as still as a rock. This means no talking and no shaking. Set the focus. Stop breathing. And snap. And breathe again. You can also rest your wrists or your phone on a stationary surface when snapping a photo, too. No photo-editing app can save a shot that is blurred.