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YOUR FOOD PHOTOS ARE BAD
let's fix that
Hey y’all, Matt here, resident photographer at Bad Manners. I’ve always found photography a mind-boggling technology that would likely scare the shit out of our caveman ancestors. We’re the first people in history to carry this super power with us neatly packed into our pocket sized smartphones. The biggest year ever for film photography was 1999 with the world taking over 80 billion just that year. But now in the age of the smartphone, we can’t stop snapping. In 2021 it’s estimated that we will take over 1.4 trillion pics. But how many will be worth looking at?
When we call upon the mighty power of the camera, it’s natural to shoot things we find interesting. Maybe it’s a selfie because we feel fresh in a new fit, a pic with friends or family because it’s been forever since you’ve all been together, or maybe your the kind of person who can’t take the first bite of food because you’re trying to figure out the best angle to convey just how fucking delicious that food is gonna taste. We see joy and know it’s fleeting, so we do our best to capture what makes us happy.
There are, of course, the cynics. Y’all know how opinionated I am, but me noticing someone at a restaurant standing on their chair trying to take the perfect picture of their meal doesn’t bother me in the least. I’m glad food inspires even the least creative amongst us to try. What I *do* find exhausting is the narrative people have created against anyone taking food photos. It’s like someone going to the gym but judging how they look or exercise, they’re fucking trying okay? They’re not even doing it for you so mind your own goddamn business.
Who’s to say these amatuer foodographers (is this a word?) aren’t simply appreciating what others take for granted? Shoot your heart out, then eat. But first, here are some tips to make all your photos, particularly of food, much more appetizing.
Use natural light. Don’t EVER use flash.
If you learn nothing else today, learn this- the flash on your smartphone is devastating to food photos. So optimize natural light wherever possible. If you’re cooking at home, move your food next to a window. If you’re at a restaurant, try getting a table near a window. If you can’t, an easy cheat (but it won’t look half as good) is to use someone else’s smartphone’s flashlight to illuminate the food. If you use the camera’s onboard flash, the photo is gonna look flat and unappetizing. I sometimes use strobes (just an expensive word for ‘flash’) for some of my print work but they’re calibrated to a certain light temperature that smartphones just can’t match. So turn that lil lightning bolt icon the fuck off.
Clean your lens.
Seems simple but most people don’t think about this before snapping a pic. Our phones are in our pockets, purses, cars, and our dirty hands, so the lens takes some punishment. The grime on the protective covering will make photos blurry and spread light. I usually wipe my phone’s lens on the corner of my shirt but it’s not a bad idea to have a cheap microfiber cloth on hand. You’d be amazed at how much better a photo can look after just taking a few seconds to clean the lens.
Framing/rule of 3rds. Look at the entire frame.
Now we’re getting into the guts of photography. The rule of thirds is one of the first things you’ll learn as a photographer. Naturally most people want to center what they’re photographing, which is fine. I certainly do it myself sometimes. BUT if you stick to the rule of thirds, you’ll create a more appealing photo. You can fill the negative space with props to create more of a vibe, if that’s what you’re going for. Every smartphone has a grid overlay you can turn on/off in the settings, keeping the grid on can really help you with framing.
Speaking of framing, pick a perspective.
In food photography there are 3 core perspectives. Overhead, three-quarters, or straight on. Overhead is probably the most often used because it forces the viewer into the perspective, as if they were sitting at the table looking down at the food in front of them. Overhead is also the easiest to light so when I’m feeling lazy, I’ll set my camera rig up for overhead and just change light set ups for different dishes. The three-quarters shot is a bit trickier but it falls somewhere between an overhead and straight on, splitting the difference. Three-quarters shots allow for more background and foreground, which is helpful if you’re focusing on the dish. Setting props like a stack of clean plates in the foreground or a wine bottle in the background will create a scene as much as they will bring the viewer’s focus to the food itself. A straight-on is pretty self explanatory and what we often see in food marketing. It’s meant to be informative, like a burger or sandwich so the viewer can see each layer of ingredients. Some foods this works great with like the aforementioned burger, a scoop of ice cream, or a cocktail. Some foods this doesn’t work with at all- like soup. How the fuck can you shoot a bowl of soup straight on?
Editing is fine but fuck filters.
Smartphones have endless photo editing capabilities which are great for quickly making adjustments like exposure or shadows. BUT resist the urge to use filters. These are the equivalent of “one size fits all” which in photography is never the case. What might look fine for one image can look like shit for another. Great photo editing is meant to be seamless. Capture the best image you can in camera and if you must make edits, they should be minimal. Stay clear of premade filters and stick to individual adjustment settings. You shouldn’t have to make more than 10% adjustments in any direction. Subtlety is sexy.
Honestly I could go into more details (and tomorrow I will for the supporter newsletter) but as long as you keep these 5 things in mind, anyone can take decent food photos using that brick you're probably reading this on. At least just clean your fucking lens first and turn the flash off. You’re already a better food photographer.
This week on Forked Up, we explore the worst in-flight meal ever served, why you should never replace potatoes, and candy canes less than biblical beginnings. Matt volunteers to drink contaminated water while Michelle stops LA traffic for a pup in need.
Have you started your holiday shopping? Consider adding our books to your list of gifts. They’re great for anyone who likes to cook or just likes to chuckle and look at tasty as fuck food. Our first book is only $12 on Amazon right now so it’s great if you’re stuck doing Secret Santa and have a $15 limit. Don’t be the asshole who gives a gift card. We’ve got you.
Thanks again for joining us here in The Broiler Room.
Matt and Michelle