As phone cameras improve, it’s easier than ever to capture food and restaurants on the fly. But as anyone who’s ever been on Instagram knows, the bar for food photos has risen dramatically (and while some chefs hate it at their restaurants, others embrace it — and many are really good at it themselves). So Eater spoke to a group of experts, including professional photographers and frequent food ‘grammers, for the tools they use on and off the clock. Your crash course in nailing food photos starts now.
Add a lens
San Francisco-based photographer Patricia Chang, who shoots frequently for Eater SF and the Michelin Guide, swears by Moment Lenses, which she attaches to her Pixel 2, which has one of the strongest cameras on the market. The lenses are perfect for restaurants, she says, “since they’re really light and compact and easy to pull out for quick shots, especially in restaurants where elbow space can be limited.”
Moment makes a few attachable lenses, but Chang prefers the wide version for tight tables. They allow you to capture the table scene without “getting too out of hand, like standing on chairs and such,” says Chang. Each lens is about $100 and doubles the width your phone can capture, making them the perfect tool to start elevating your photography. They attach to your phone with a Moment case.
Opt for Sony’s portable and powerful point-and-shoot
Photographer Gary He, who shot restaurants across the country for Eater’s America’s 38 Essential Restaurants and shoots frequently for Eater NY, favors the Sony RX100 V for “anything from food photography to discreet reportage.” The wide aperture lens (1.8 on the wide angle) and low noise at high ASA settings make it perfect for low-light restaurants.
The Sony RX100 V is small and subtle, which means it’s great for going incognito — even at hot New York restaurant openings. “Legacy Records refused to set up a photoshoot with us even though they were already open for service,” recalls He. “So I just made a reservation and despite being dumped into the darkest corner of the restaurant, was able to produce enough food and space images with the Sony to run a package on the restaurant.”
Wonho Frank Lee, a Los Angeles-based photographer who shoots frequently for Eater LA, also uses the Sony RX100 V when he needs an off-the-clock break from carrying his big DSLR with six lenses. He brought the Sony on his honeymoon in Asia and praised the “image quality, video capability, and great focal length range.” It’s quiet even at high ISO (key if you’re trying to avoid attention) and “you won’t have much problem taking great photos even at a quite dark restaurant.”
Jake Cohen, food critic for Time Out New York and a frequent food Instagrammer, uses the Sony A6000 because “it’s light and portable while still taking crisp photos.” The camera is WiFi enabled, says Cohen, so “I can immediately send the photos straight to my phone for instant uploading.”
Jennie Snyder, Director of Partnerships and Social Media at RVD Communications and founder of @hungrygrls, also recommends the mirrorless Sony A6000, especially for newer photographers — though she currently shoots with one of the best cameras on the market, the Leica Q, which “can make a piece of burnt toast look like a million bucks.” With an extremely powerful lens with a full frame sensor and a 1.7 aperture wide-open, the Leica makes images look almost 3D.
Or try a FujiFilm
Christine Yi, who runs popular food and travel Instagram account @CY_Eats, shoots with a Fujifilm X-Pro2 Body Professional Mirrorless Camera, which can shoot at a very low shutter speed perfect for dark settings.
The camera is also very quiet and achieves excellent color reproduction, so all the layers of a dish come across.
Step into the light (or bring your own)
No matter the equipment, all the experts suggest focusing on light. Gary He warns not to “show up and just hope that there’s a good window or not a bunch of shitty overhead spotlights.” Instead, knowing how to manipulate light will serve you well.
To shoot at really dark restaurants like Next in Chicago, Yi adds a photographer’s light that mimics natural light. While it’s not a subtle accessory, it helps get the shot since “people don’t realize that restaurant lighting is NOT good lighting. Natural light (but out of direct sunlight) is ideal. Using flash on your iPhone is also not good lighting.”
If you have no extra tools, a tip from Snyder: “Instead of using the flashlight on your iPhone (which can be disruptive to other diners), go to your text message screen (the white background), turn your brightness all the way up, and use that as your extra light. It gives off a much softer light than the flashlight.”
Take it easy
Another common issue in food photos is focus, which requires a steady hand. If you don’t have one (or have had a few drinks), Yi recommends using your phone’s self-timer feature so your hand doesn’t shake as you push the button. The self-timer automatically focuses the shot and it will take a burst of photos, giving you more options.
But ultimately, if things don’t turn out perfectly, you’re keeping it real. According to Eater’s senior social media manager Adam Moussa, “we consistently find photos shot with phones gather more likes than overly-detailed photos shot with fancy cameras.” Off the clock, Gary He says, “[I] want my food photos to look as down to earth as possible. It’s obnoxious to broadcast well-lit Michelin-starred meals [on social media] every day.”
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