Smart Foods: How to Take Better Food Photos with a Smartphone

By Alfonso Calero | February 22, 2022

Whether you’re shooting a restaurant dish or something you just cooked at home, there are a few simple tricks of the trade you can use to capture professional-looking images.

1) Lighting

While professional food photography is often done in studios with elaborate lighting setups, you can achieve amazing results using diffused natural light.

Avoid direct sunlight and instead use a reflector to bounce light into the shaded areas of your dish. Pay close attention to detail, especially in shadow areas, and be careful not to blow out your highlights, especially in the food itself.

A simple piece of white paper can be an inconspicuous reflector in a restaurant environment. If you must shoot at night, avoid using the camera’s built-in flash as much as possible. A pocket tripod can be used to hold the mobile camera steady.

Image: Alphonse Calero

2) What objective?

Most new mobile phone cameras have two to three lenses released with 0.5/1x/2x magnification. I suggest avoiding the 0.5 unless you’re looking for a slightly distorted, wide-angle view.

1 or 2x magnification closely mimics a commonly used 50mm lens. Avoid pinching and zooming past your longest lens as this will be digital zoom, not optical. Your image quality will be greatly diminished.

Image: Alphonse Calero
Image: Alphonse Calero

3) Membership

The phrase “Keep it simple” is worth keeping in mind when it comes to composition. Try to avoid putting anything in the frame that distracts from the main subject. Move the camera angle up and down to find the perspective that makes food the most delicious.

A top down view can look great, but a 45 degree angle tends to add a more dynamic feel.

Image: Alphonse Calero
Image: Alphonse Calero

4) Depth of field

Using a wide aperture to produce a shallow depth of field can be a useful way to minimize background clutter and emphasize food. Make sure, however, that there is plenty of detail in the areas that matter.

Your mobile camera’s portrait filter launches a shallow depth of field filter. I like to use a program like Snapseed and its editing tool to have much more control over lens blur. Sometimes it can be good to blur the background to draw the viewers eyes more to the main subject.

Image: Alphonse Calero
Image: Alphonse Calero

5) Backgrounds

White plates on a white background have been popular in food photography for some time. It’s a style I love, as you can see in the images that accompany this story, but it’s not the only option. If you’re going to include a background with more detail, try to include elements that expand on the story of the food.

Developing your own signature style over time or arranging more food-appropriate backgrounds and accessories will help enhance the dining experience. I would keep it simple. Have three foregrounds, three different types of plates and three backgrounds, this way you can chop and change to match the feel, colors and textures of the food.

Image: Alphonse Calero
Image: Alphonse Calero

6) Culinary styling

It’s a complete subject in its own right and people who are good at it have been doing it for years. If you prepare the food yourself, make sure everything on the plate looks fresh and delicious.

A chef once told me that placing all the food items on a plate should take no more than five moves. The less you move the elements, the more naturally they will fall into place. Try to include a mix of shapes, sizes, colors and textures on the plate.

Image: Alphonse Calero
Image: Alphonse Calero

7) Editing

Once you’ve captured your best images, it’s time to integrate them into your editing program of choice. I use Snapseed and the most common tools I use are Tune Image, White Balance, Brush, Tonal Contrast and Lens Blur.

The best approach to editing is to take a more local rather than global approach. And, just like great food, marinating your images, i.e. taking your time, will also give you a better perspective.

If all of this makes your taste buds salivate, you might also find these other resources helpful:

Alfonso Calero is a professional photographer based in Sydney, Australia. Over the past 20 years, Alfonso has photographed everyone from politicians to artists and everything from exquisite food to incredible landscapes. See more of his work at an individual photography course with him or join his workshops at Uluru Where Tasmania.

Stewart C. Hartline