How to take the best Instagram photos

Want to take that perfect food shot? Avoid taking photos at night.

Edwina Pickles

Want to take that perfect food shot? Avoid taking photos at night.

Food, glorious food. It’s a global obsession far beyond mere sustenance, and what better way to share the glory of our ‘foodie’ infatuation in these digital times than popping up a quick pic of our latest meal out or homemade creation.

Along with pets, selfies, plane wings, feet, manicures and the sky, food shots are one of the top subjects on Instagram, with nearly 190 million posts currently hashtagged ‘food’, and #foodporn, #foodie and #foodstagram also numbering in the multiple millions.

But there’s often nothing instant about Instagram posts, and this definitely applies to those involving food, where empires are built on the back of choosing the right filter for your eggs benedit, the right angle to show off that painstakingly sliced wedge of cake or those carefully arranged plates and accoutrements.

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It’s an art, undoubtedly, and based on the high number of likes afforded to the snaps of our foodie photographers, it’s something people continue to take great pleasure in, both the sharing, and viewing of.

We checked in with some of New Zealand’s top foodie Instagrammers to see just what it takes to capture that magic macaron moment, spot on smoothie shot or perfect pork bun pic.

I really love minimal food photography, namely white ground and just the food styled, but then I also adore tables covered in food with flowers, props, etc. Both are beautiful as one is about the food, and the other is about the life that surrounds food.

The lovely thing about styling photos for Instagram is that really anything goes – a simple photo of you holding an ice-cream against a beautiful wall, or a photo of a perfect macaron in a paper bag can sometimes work just as well as a beautiful styled photo in a cafe or studio.

Don’t be afraid to be ‘that person’ who shuffles food, coffee and flowers around, then quickly stands so you’re high above the table and take as many photos as possible before your supportive friends are wanting to enjoy their meal.

I love photography filter apps, mostly because the majority of my photos are taken on my phone so I need to be able to edit them quickly to share. I really like PicTapGo and VSCO – they’re both simple to use and export well, which is perfect as I’m then able to use those photos on my website too.

I personally avoid taking food photos in low/dark light (unless of course that’s your style, then go forth) but I find it easier to photograph food in natural light.

I like to see an interesting point of view or a good story. Getting a peek into people’s routines and lives is great. Funnily enough, despite my health geek tendencies, I get bored of endless photos of green smoothies or acai bowls. There has to be something a little more intriguing, real.

I’m also a big sucker for beautiful lighting. Always use natural light, never artificial. Find a window and use that lovely side light. Full sun is not your friend when shooting food outdoors (like a picnic). Use the dappled light of a tree instead and you’ll get a prettier, more natural effect.

Some of my best snaps are unplanned and taken spontaneously because something catches my eye or inspires me. These are usually perfect within a couple of goes. When I over think things or try to plan too much it can take longer. Being relaxed and letting the creativity flow is the best approach.

Some of my favourite Instagrammers to follow are a mix of self taught, bloggers and chefs but the accounts I admire most are well thought out beautiful pages with content that inspire visually. I’m attracted to things like composition of styling and the use of negative space, and of course, food that makes me want to lick the screen, haha.

Never take photos at night time, use natural light. Allow enough time to cook and shoot so you’re not rushed. Have a large surface to photograph on so that you’re not limited with how big your compositions can be.

I use the VSCO app to edit, Lightroom and Photoshop. And I personally never use a filter.

Styling is important, although it doesn’t need to be overly styled, more thoughtfully arranged. Good lighting is important and not too much clutter. I prefer real-life styling as it makes me want to make the dish, with basic food props that are relevant to the food. I love images that tell a story, and although sweet dishes are often the most popular I love savoury food images as they can incorporate colourful garden produce.

Stand back, give the food some space and include some negative space (white or dark) so it draws your eye to the hero of the image (the food) as you’re scrolling through your Instagram feed.

Flatlays (shot from above) if using a phone camera will give the best images to remove background clutter, or set up in front of a wall. Keep the colours simple and complementary. White backgrounds are a good place to start, although some of my favourite accounts use darker backgrounds with amazing images and style.

I don’t use filters as I think they can take away from the image too much, especially if you’ve spent the time creating a lovely scene. I use basic photo editing either in VSCO if I need something specific or often just in Instagram. I mostly take images on my DSLR camera as I have an older iPhone (with poorer photo quality) and wireless transfer the images straight to my phone.

Unfortunately with little kids in tow, I don’t often have the luxury of spending extended time on an image. Instead, I focus on sharing quality images less often as they really make an Instagram profile shine. Quality over quantity, always.

I love looking at pictures of ridiculously beautiful creations but at the same time, my favourite accounts feature quite simple food I can draw inspiration from and make at home.

Props can definitely elevate pictures from good to amazing. I feel like some Instagrammers have a whole room full of props that they use – their photos are amazing! Food/prop styling is definitely a skill though and one which I have not yet mastered. My favourite prop is just a good backdrop. Using an old rustic wooden pallet or textured board to take pictures on can really elevate a picture and make it look cooler than on the old dining table or kitchen bench. I know lots of people who’ve had a bit of luck with finding these at junk shops/yards.

If you’re like me and your skill set only allows you to use an iPhone camera, natural light can be your best tool! Take your food close to a window.

I use VSCO to edit all my photos, it has heaps of filters you can buy and some awesome ones that are free as well. Avoid using flash. Take more photos than you think you need, just in case.

My partner (bless him) has to sit and wait for food that will literally go cold before he can eat it. It all really depends – sometimes I have to wait for the light outside to dull down so it’s not so harsh, but if it’s just a point-and-shoot scenario then maybe around 10 minutes? Maybe it’s my partner that makes it seem like I take hours. It’s always better to get more than not enough though.

For me it’s about lots of bright colours and lots of texture within the food, and also props – I like to use wooden boards, bright tea towels and interesting utensils. Then there’s the composition of the shot and playing around with the balance and placement of items within the frame.

One tip would be good lighting – natural light always, but also out of direct sunlight to avoid harsh shadows.

I only use Instagram filters and then do my own editing within Instagram also. A little straightening, brightening and sharpening of a photo can make a big difference – just don’t over do it.


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