3 easy steps to make the best food porn on Instagram

Instagram may be the perfect medium for food porn, but we’ve all seen amateur shots that are more cringe-worthy than crave-worthy. The hashtag #foodporn produces over 69 million results, some of which look like they belong under #foodscorn. A bad choice of lighting, placement or filter can be the difference between your eggs Benedict looking decadent on IG or like the Loch Ness monster. 

But worry not, you don’t have to be Diane Arbus to produce decent shots of paella or pancakes. You don’t even need a fancy camera. Maria Licthy, of the popular food blog Two Peas and their Pod, said she alternates between her iPhone 6 and Canon 7D. Her blog’s Instagram account only contains photos she took with her phone. 

Here are some more useful tips on how to get the best shots of food for Instagram. 

1) Go easy on the filter

As much as Instagram’s latest updates open the field for a seemingly infinite amount of photo experimentation, the new features make it even easier for a clueless photographer to make a bad choice

Instagram now has a total of 27 filters that range from a hazy, vintage Reyes to a Juno that tints cool tones green. Editing tools let you tweak the brightness, color, contrast, saturation, and sharpness of your photos. Also, there are options to fade your photos for an “aged film effect”, as well as to add shadows or highlights. 

For example, here’s a relatively normal, unfiltered photo of a plate of banana crepes I ordered at the Bayside Skillet in Ocean City, Maryland.

A photo posted by Amrita Khalid (@askhalid07) on

Here’s the same photo with the light-enhancing Ludwig filter, nothing else. The warmth of the colors in the photo gets kicked up a notch. The golden brown of the crepe looks even more golden brown.         

A photo posted by Amrita Khalid (@askhalid07) on

I then went back to my untouched photo and got a little trigger-happy with the Hefe filter. I played around heavily with the Warmth and Saturation controls without paying attention to how the smallest adjustment altered the photo. I added an orange tint with the Color tool and applied shadows and highlights. 

A photo posted by Amrita Khalid (@askhalid07) on

The end result looked unreal and unappetizing, a dish in a vintage cookbook. 

Dina Avila, a professional photographer whose vast client list includes Food and Wine Magazine and Eater, told the Daily Dot that she only uses Instagram filters “on occasion.” It’s not hard to see why; it can be ridiculously easy to go overboard. 

“Although I don’t use filters except very occasionally, I think they’re fine if they’re not overdone. Instagram is a creative medium, after all, so if filters help you to tell the story you’re trying to tell, then go for it,” Avila told the Daily Dot. 

As Epicurious notes, there’s no one fail-safe Instagram filter for food. The brightening Amaro filter, for example, can come in handy while at a dimly-lit bar, but under normal lighting make your food look washed out. Dramatic filters such as Lo-Fi, X-Pro II, or Hefe could be overkill for foods that already have vibrant hues. Vintage filters like Reyes or Nashville are probably just for your summer music festival selfies. 

Some photographers forgo the Instagram pre-set filters entirely and just rely on the app’s editing tools. In order to do this, just open your photo on Instagram and click on the wrench icon. 

Amrita Khalid

While some food photographers voice a preference for other editing apps such as Snapseed, both Lichty and Avila said they tend to pretty much stick to Instagram these days. 

“The filters and editing have gotten better in Instagram,” noted Lichty. 

2) Avoid flash and use natural light

Breakfast with a view! @deervalleyresort #deervalleymoment #bbretreat

A photo posted by Maria Lichty | Food Blogger (@twopeasandpod) on

Good natural lighting can be hard to find, but when you do find it, there’s no substitute. According to Avila, as far as ambient lighting goes, natural light is the best for food photos (especially food photos taken with a phone). 

When it comes to supplemental lighting, stay away from your phone’s flash.  “I never, ever use the iPhone flash for food,” Avila said.  If you’re using your phone at a dark and crowded bar, it can annoy other patrons. To add insult to injury, it’ll result in a horrible, overexposed shot. Try finding a natural source of light, like an open window. Make sure your subject is backlit; the light source should be behind or to the side of your subject. 

Jessica Siskin, the owner of Misterkrisp, a company that can churn out a Rice Krispie treat version of practically anything, says natural light is crucial important for her photography. So much that Siskin times her shoots around the daylight.

When she’s shooting outside, Siskin photographs in the late afternoon and avoids the direct sunlight. 

krispin’ on the go #misterkrisp #iphone #instagram #meta

A photo posted by misterkrisp 💁🏼 jessica siskin (@mister_krisp) on

When Siskin shoots indoors, she makes sure to shoot in the morning or afternoon with the shades open. 

she’s really cute and sweet and quiet. (because she’s a #krisp.) #misterkrisp #puppy

A photo posted by misterkrisp 💁🏼 jessica siskin (@mister_krisp) on

Siskin usually opts for a white background and avoids filters in her food photos, instead playing with the brightness and saturation levels.

give me a break pls 🙏 #tbt #misterkrisp #kitkat

A photo posted by misterkrisp 💁🏼 jessica siskin (@mister_krisp) on

3) Pay attention to composition, focus and exposure

Photo composition might sound complicated. For the purposes of food photos, think of it simply as guiding the viewer to the best part of your shot. Framing your shot properly can mean a world of difference. 

As Nicole S. Young, author of “Food Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots”, tells Table to Grave, the point of view can be what makes a photo unique. Close-ups can highlight a dish’s best features. 

Salted caramel french toast #food #foodporn #breakfast #caramel

A photo posted by The FOOD bible (@teamfoodbible) on

That being said, Avila warns against getting too close. 

“Don’t hold the phone too close to your food. Make sure the subject is in focus,” Avila said. 

If you’re using Instagram’s default camera, you can tap the screen to locate the best focus and exposure. Once you find the subject with the best exposure and focus, tap and hold that location on the screen. The blue focus box will surge and blink twice. You can then release your finger. You’ll see the text “AE/AF Locked” at the bottom of the screen. 

Lastly, don’t be afraid to experiment. Try positioning your food in one corner of a frame, or experiment with negative space

“Don’t be afraid to try new angles. Take close up and overhead shots. Make sure your photo tells the story,” said Lichty. After all, you only have to post your best photos. 

Doing the brunch thing! @deervalleyresort #deervalleymoment #BBRetreat

A photo posted by Maria Lichty | Food Blogger (@twopeasandpod) on

For all you aspiring food photographers, here’s one parting word of advice: “Lastly, as my photography professors have always said, practice, practice, practice,” Avila said. 

Noodles! Did a little photo shoot at Noraneko today. #ramen #noranekopdx #pdxeats #portlandrestaurants

A photo posted by Dina Avila (@dinaravila) on

Photo via Misterkrisp/Instagram

Amrita Khalid

Amrita Khalid

Amrita Khalid is a technology and politics reporter who specializes in breaking down complex issues into practical, useful terms. A former contributor to CQ, a Congressional news and analysis site, she's currently a master's candidate in international relations at the University of Leeds.