9 Tips For Better Food Photographs With a Phone Camera
Today, if you’re not on social media, preferably in more places than one, then you probably don’t exist! If you can connect with your audience there visually as well, it’s even better. People on social media today have even less time to spend on it than before simply because there’s so much matter there. So you’re likely to have their attention if you can tell your story in a couple of sentences or better still, with an image.
Smartphone cameras and social media, especially Instagram were made for each other so now just about everyone can be a food photographer.
I came to Instagram quite late simply because I refused to let go of my old push button “not-so-smart” phone till a year ago. It finally died on me and I buckled down and got myself a “smart” phone. Though it meant I had to get smarter to figure it out, I have come to appreciate my new phone camera.
While DSLRs are the way to go with serious food photography, it’s not always possible to lug around a camera and lenses everywhere one goes and that’s where the smartphone camera scores. Who goes anywhere these days without their phone, right?
The past one year has been a learning curve in terms of shooting food with my smartphone and here’s what I’ve learnt. Smartphone photography is not rocket science. Focus, shoot and a few minor edits later, you can share your images with the world. No shooting in RAW, converting to JPEG, worrying about ISO, aperture or shutter speed and all that stuff as the smartphone does all the work for you.
However, it’s a fact that your smartphone don’t know it all and needs your help and support to produce good images. So how do you get the best out of your smartphone camera? First, it helps if your smartphone comes with a decent camera. If you have a fancy phone that’s really great but you don’t need a whole lot of megapixels on your phone camera to get the job done. In fact, beyond a point, more megapixels on your phone camera don’t give your images an edge.
No one expects images from a phone camera to compare with those from a DSLR but phone camera images are generally good enough for posting on the web.
Whether you shoot with a DSLR, a PS, a camera phone or whatever, the rules of photography remain the same. There’s no magic in the smartphone camera or the editing software that can convert sloppy, tired and badly plated food into drool worthy fare. At least, there’s none that I know of. So it’s still important to make sure the food is decent looking and well plated, and also keep in mind all those food photography basics like light, angle, composition, propping and styling, etc.
1\. Make sure there’s adequate light (natural light is the best, of course). Bounce/ reflect it as you would for conventional photography if you can (if you’re shooting at home for example). If you’re somewhere outside, like in a restaurant, then use whatever ambient light is available. If you need a little more light than you have, you could always try lighting up your food with the light from the screen of a friend's phone.
2\. Let your camera meter the available light. Most mobile phone cameras these days will let you tap on the screen to fix and lock the focus/ choose an exposure point where you want it. This also ensures that there is enough light in the area around your focus point. As always, try to avoid using the flash on your phone.
3\. Avoid using the “zoom” function on your phone camera as it will affect the clarity of your image. It would be better to go in as close to your subject as you can and photograph it. If you shoot one from a little further away and one from close up, you'll have two shots from different perspective. This way, you can pick the better one or use both if you like them.
4\. Many smartphones cameras allow you some amount of control over ISO and White Balance. It’s a good idea to check this out on your phone and set them according to the available light situation as an “auto” setting might not always give you the best results.
5. Instagram in particular, accommodates only square format images so if you’re shooting portrait or landscape format you might find your composition getting messed up when you try cropping it into a square. So you need to keep that in mind if you’re shooting to post on Instagram. There are different ways of posting portrait or landscape format images on Instagram, and apps like Instasize (what I used for the Dragon Fruit Pomegranate Salad below) and others are probably the easiest.
6\. Unlike the camera, it’s not easy to shoot with a shallow depth of field on the phone camera so everything in your composition will be more or less sharp with a deep depth of field. So you have to work your photograph around that.
Some phones have a “depth of field” mode (it’s probably called something else on your phone) which helps you overcome this shortcoming somewhat, but you have little control over it.
There’s also editing software than can help you somewhat to achieve a shallow depth of field. The Vietnamese Iced Coffee below was shot using the "depth of field" mode on my phone camera.
7\. For the above stated reason, most of the time, you will find that the two best angles to shoot food with a phone camera is from the side (eye level or thereabouts) or from right above/ overhead. Don’t limit yourself to these two angles though as other angles can work well depending on the food/ drink you’re photographing.
8\. Do keep your phone (and hands naturally) as steady as you can. Look for something to prop your arm or elbows against to steady yourself, if possible. Do take more than one shot so that you can be sure that you have one clear photograph.
Low light situations are more likely to create a blur from “shake”. Most smartphone cameras are not really well equipped to take good quality images (without noise/ grain) in low light situations, no matter what the manufacturers claim.
9\. Consider converting your colour photographs into black and white. While this might not save a really bad image, it is likely to work well with an image that is perhaps not “popping” in terms of colour or has been taken in light of different temperatures. A black and white image will showcase contrast/shadows/highlights in your image instead of colour.
The image of "Navara rice" below was shot in colour. While the deep reddish brown colour of the rice is attractive, I felt the conversion to black and white brought out the coclour shades and texture in the grains.
10\. You can shoot and edit photographs using freely available apps. Do a little research on the internet and you should be able to find one or two that suit your shooting preferences and phone. Use editing software and filters if you think it will help but go easy with the filters because food mostly looks it best when it is “au naturel”
An "oil painting" filter was applied to the image of fresh cherries below.
Editing software can help you adjust brightness, contrast, colour balance and White Balance. You can increase sharpness, crop your image, adjust shadows and highlights and much more.
Most smartphones come loaded with editing software and a variety of filters. Experimenting with can be fun but it's easy to overboard with it. Filters can sometimes take away from photographs instead of adding to them, and all filters are not necessarily flattering to photographs.
I personally find that Instagram filters tend to be a bit unflattering to food. VSCO Cam and Snapseed are two image editors that are reasonably with food photographs but it's really a matter of personal preference.
If you are willing to spend a little money, there are apps available for smartphones which give you a little more control over exposure by letting you manually adjust and set the ISO and aperture or shutter speed.
If you have any tips/ suggestions for taking and posting better photographs with a phone camera, I would love to hear them.
You can see more of my smartphone photography and follow me on Instagram