Want to improve your DIY food photography? First step: Put down your phone.

Are you trying to grow your business or brand with social media and food porn?

Are you one of the millions of people who post food photos on the Internet? Whether you’re a chef in a kitchen, to a restaurateur, to a nutritionist/food blogger, or even the casual restaurant-goer, you’ve likely either created and shared or “liked” food photos on social media.

How many of those photos were good? How many of them did you look back on and wonder, “gee… why did I post that, it’s ugly…?” How many of them did you look at later and think, “wow!! I want to eat that right now!”?

I get it. I also feel the urges to take and share photos in the moment… but, with the over-saturated food industry and the web full of bad, unappetizing food photos, if you really want to stand out, think about quality over quantity… and only share your best work – or hire a pro to make for you.

Do you appreciate quality in food?

Think about it – you’d only feed your customers (friends, family, etc.) the best possible quality of your food, right? Then, please extend that philosophy to your social media and marketing photography.

I’m not saying to never post a phone photo, but if you are going to do it, make sure there is a good reason and it is definitely worthy of sharing… and understand the limitations of phone photography (we’ll get to that further down the post). Besides, if you’re trying to to the best at social media, it might be better to wait to post for better timing (for maximum engagement) anyway.

Have a purpose… don’t just do it because you can. (Hint: probably, the purpose is building positive perceptions…)
My own philosophy is, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you ought to do it.

(And, this most definitely applies to food photography and the ease of sharing imagery and other content on the Internet.)

Just because you can take a photo on your phone and post it on your business or professional social media accounts, doesn’t mean you should.

But why?

Well, I’ve written about this before… we all know – or at least I hope we do – that image quality effects people’s perceptions… and perceptions lead to either sales or avoiding doing business with you.

How do you want to be remembered? Do you want to stand out for better or worse?

Think about it – do you want to be remembered (or worse, forgotten because of it) as the restaurant who posted a disgusting-looking photo of raw food in the dark kitchen, or the restaurant who posted a beautiful, hunger-making professional photo of your daily special, well-lit, perfect focus, stunning colors…?

Hold on a sec… pause and breathe before posting. Think:

If you want to stand out from the crowd of unflattering food photos on the Internet and get people to actually appreciate what you’re putting out there, the first thing you might want to consider when you’re about to share a photo on social media is… whether that photo will have a positive or potentially harmful impact on people’s perceptions of you, your food and your business.

A few basic questions to ask yourself before posting that photo:

  1. Is this photo properly exposed?
  2. Is the part of the photo I want in focus, actually sharp?
  3. Is the photo clear and well lit?
  4. How’s my composition?
  5. Does this photo represent me and my abilities in the most appealing and flattering light (no pun intended)?
  6. Why do I want to post this?

With me so far? Want to improve your food photography?

Food photography isn’t rocket science. Yes, there are some definite techniques to create the best possible results: amazing food photos that make you drool.

Are you with me so far? Are you looking to take your own food photos to the next level without hiring someone to do them for you?

Step 1: Put down your phone.

Well then, if you’re not an expert in photography, it’s time to start learning. And, the first step is to put that iPhone down.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some absolutely gorgeous photos that were made on phones, but let’s, for at least a nanosecond, treat this as the exception to the rule.

The first, most important thing you can do for your photography is get a “real” camera. By this I mean, get a camera that allows you to use manual settings, interchangeable lenses and your own flashes (on or off camera).

This could be a digital SLR or a mirrorless camera, it really doesn’t matter. The point is, you’ll want something that has a decent sensor and which allows you full control through manual settings and variable lenses.

Why? Well, working with a cell phone camera has a lot of limitations, which can be good for learning certain things, like composition, but which can also inhibit your photos from being the best they can be.

Why cell phones aren’t as good: Limited dynamic range

Firstly, cell phone sensors have a limited dynamic range. This means the sensor records less data than a “real” camera, from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights. With a real camera, not only will you get a larger scope of information (wider range of dark to light), you can also pull back some “lost” data from otherwise overexposed highlights or underexposed shadow areas. Additionally, if you’ve ever seen cell phone images that have a weird sort of contrast and you couldn’t quite figure out why it looked weird, it’s likely because of this limited dynamic range.

Why cell phones aren’t as good: fixed focal length… ultra wide.

Next, cell phone cameras have a fixed, wide angle lens. What this means is, you have to get awkardly close to things for them to be close to the right size in the frame, but then, your subject is generally quite distorted. But, if you don’t get close, then you have too much of the scene in the photo. So, either the size and shape are distorted, or you have too much area to view. And, there’s nothing you can really do to change that. With a real camera, you can change your lenses for different effects, such as far away zoom, extreme close-up/macro, wide angle, etc.

Why cell phones aren’t as good: Perhaps you want to blur the background?

And cell phones do not allow you to really control your depth of field. Depth of field refers to how much and what things are in focus in the photo. With a cell phone, because of some super geeky technical things related to aperture, wide angle lenses and the distance between the lens and the sensor, cell phone cameras typically result in everything or most things being in focus. This is not always a desired effect, especially in food photography, where you may want to blur the background for creative effect, or simply because it’s distracting. With a real camera, you can be in control of this stuff.

Step 2: Build a strong, solid foundation.

The second most important thing you can do, is invest some effort into learning the basic technical aspects of photography, such as exposure, depth of field, basic lighting (quality/direction of light), white balance and composition. A little more advanced will come to post processing and editing, styling, and other things.

Think about it, you didn’t become awesome at cooking without first learning the basics, training and practicing… did you? Probably not…

Well, photography is the same way.

However you like to learn, do it. There are some phenomenal, affordable places online to learn photography, you can read books, attend workshops or local continuing ed classes… or even hire a tutor (like me!) to help you get started.

But, don’t just take photos of your food. Really practice on anything and everything, just to really grasp the core concepts. And, study photos. Study what works, study what doesn’t. Study light wherever you are. Open your eyes.

Step 3: Practice… Practice more… Practice even more!! And… get feedback.

You know, as someone who is well trained in your primary arts and businesses, it takes time and effort to get good at something. Especially things that matter…

And, if you’ve read this far, you obviously agree that photography matters. So, put the time in and practice. Then, get feedback, and shut up and listen. Don’t just be defensive. Find a mentor who’s work you like and get their honest/candid feedback. Go to a portfolio review. Don’t just post the images you want feedback on, online for your friends. They probably won’t give you honest feedback.

Now, here’s a sample… side by side cell phone vs pro DSLR.

Here’s a side by side of a recent setup I did… On the left, a cell phone image of the same scene and on the right, a professional digital slr camera image.

cell phone versus dslr food photography

Now, while the image on the left is alright, technically speaking, it doesn’t really compare artistically to the image on the right.

You can see, since there was enough light, in this case, the cell phone image is properly exposed, but it’s a little dark on the front of the pancakes and it lacks contrast, is ultra wide angle and has a lot of depth of field (i.e. it’s completely in focus).

On the right, thanks to interchangeable lenses, I was able to use a macro lens and get in close, cut out the nasty background, blur out the props, so they are just added elements to the story, and focus on the important part – the delicious looking pancakes.

On the cell phone image, you can barely tell that there is syrup on the pancakes, but you can clearly see it on the right. This is an element which adds to the story of the image and the feeling of deliciousness.

Also, because of the fact that I could get in much closer without extreme distortion on the right, you don’t see the fact that the plate is chipped on the right side, because it doesn’t appear in the photo. (Sure, if it did, I’d have photoshopped it out, but still, I didn’t have to because of the composition and cropping).

Additionally because I could get in close, it completely changes the context of the photo. it looks like a nice countertop, rather than what it really was – a tile on the floor in front of a newspaper holder.

Now, perhaps this isn’t the best example, as there was enough light that the cell phone image isn’t grainy, blurry or way too dark.

How about this next sample… I tried to take a cell phone “behind the scenes” image during a restaurant shoot, which was at night, in low light. I never posted/shared it previously because it came out so horrendously that it wouldn’t add anything to my personal brand story. It came out so poorly because it was just too dark to make an image on the phone. So, here we go, I’m sure you’ll know which is which.

cell phone vs dslr food photography, low light

Is there even a comparison here?

Which one gives a more romantic vibe for the restaurant? Which one will attract couples in the summertime, looking for a fancy, fresh and romantic dinner?

Where to go from here

If you want to grow your business with photography, because you understand the power and importance of imagery/photography in attracting customers and the need for photos to boost engagement on social media, but, even after knowing how much goes into it, you’re still hell-bent on doing it yourself… please, for the sake of everyone involved – and your bottom line – do it right.

Get a camera and a tripod.

Learn the basics.

Practice.

Study.

Or… budget for a photographer to do the important stuff for you.

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