Food Photos: Improving Others' Photos of Your Food

By Kelly Kirkendoll

Walk into any restaurant, and you’re likely to see diners snapping photos of their meals and posting them on social media. In fact, a 2016 Zagat survey on dining trends revealed that 60 percent of avid U.S. diners said they had stopped dining companions from eating so they could first take photos of the food. Fifty percent said they took pictures of every dish at the table. Sixty percent of these same diners said they browse food photos on social media, and among them, 75% say they have picked a place to eat based on these photos alone.

Like it or not, we live in an Instagram world, and nowhere is this more true than in restaurants. The vast majority of diners’ food pics end up on social media, especially on Instagram. With 95 million photos posted on Instagram per day, and 287 million posted with the hashtag food (#food) alone, your potential customers aren’t just looking at your photos; they’re looking at photos of your food taken by others.

You can control the quality of your own photos, but you can’t control those snapped and posted by patrons, reviewers and bloggers (who will also tag and talk about you). However, you can take steps to make your food and establishment more photo-friendly so patrons help you put your best foot forward.

As a restaurant, caterer or other foodservice provider, you have to ask yourself: are we making it easy or difficult for our customers to capture beautiful pics of our food?

Let There Be Light

Good lighting is magic for Instagram-worthy food shots, whereas darkness is their kryptonite. In fact, good lighting is so key to good photos that professional dining critics, restaurant reviewers and food bloggers usually opt to eat during the daytime as opposed to night.

During daylight hours, you can improve your situation by letting the natural light in. If letting it in creates too much harsh, direct light, diffuse it rather than blocking it. You can also train your staff to direct traffic. If they notice a patron walking in with a camera, ask if they’d like a seat by the window. Similarly, if they notice diners in a dark area taking a lot of food photos and there’s an area open with better lighting, ask if they’d prefer the area with better light.

During the evening hours (or in darker areas of your restaurant during the day), it’s more challenging, but you can assess your current lighting and even consult a lighting design expert to help. It’s a drastic move, but some restaurants have chosen to move locations altogether; others have simply reconfigured their lighting, windows, etc.

Still others have gotten creative in their quest to be more photo-friendly. Dirty Bones, for example (which has locations in Manhattan and London), rolled out what it called "foodie Instagram packs” last year to make it easier for customers to take better photos. Each kit is free to use and includes a portable LED camera light, a multi-device charger, a clip-on wide angle camera lens and a tripod selfie stick to get overhead shots.

Bellota, a Spanish restaurant in San Francisco, installed custom lamps at its 25-seat bar. The lamps can be tilted or turned 180 degrees, and the light’s intensity can be adjusted up or down. Patrons can also rest their phones on the lamp’s neck to take a selfie.

Plating and Presentation

In this new era, it’s important to consider what your plated meals (or cakes, drinks or catering services) will look like in your customers’ photos. Culinary schools are even adding food styling to their curriculum. The Culinary Institute of America, for example, introduced two new elective courses to its 2018 curriculum – one on how to style food and another on food photography.

Some of the most delicious food isn’t always the most colorful; in fact, it’s often shades of brown. Think about: how can you add color and visual interest with garnishes or other ingredients?

Also, think about your utensils, plates and napkins. Shiny silverware doesn’t look as good in photos as flat utensils, and white plates and napkins often photograph best (white napkins can also be used to diffuse harsh overhead lighting).

Don’t compromise your brand for the sake of photos … but do think through what win-win choices you could make. One of my favorite local restaurants, for example, has beautiful plates that are on-brand, but in photos, the plates are unattractive and detract from the beautiful food.

Branding Opportunities

While you’re setting the stage for appealing photos, think about ways you can work your brand into photo opportunities. You don’t have to go so far as branding your burger buns with your logo, like some restaurants have, but you can find other ways to ensure it shows up in a portion of your customers' photos.

Some options include branded drink glasses, branded coasters, branded centerpieces that would serve as a beautiful backdrop for food photos and, of course, working your brand onto the food itself.

A Final Word

Good looking photos are increasingly important to success, but they will never mask mediocre food or service, even in an Instagram world. Like dating, visual allure may attract diners, but there has to be more to a dish than its looks to keep them coming back for more. 😉

This is Part 2 in a 3-Part Food Photo series. In Part 1, I focused on how restaurants and other foodservice providers can improve their businesses by improving their food photos. In Part 2 below, we’re looking at why and how foodservice providers can help improve the photos OTHERS’ take of their food. Stay tuned for Part 3, which will look at how they can make the most out of others’ food photos (plus some dos and don’ts).

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Gig Harbor, Washington


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