5 Ways to Up Your Instagram Game
Food Media

5 Ways to Up Your Instagram Game


Is your Instagram feed in need of a tune-up? Are you tired of overhead food shots? Do you want to give your channel an added zing?

A great Instagram feed takes lots of planning and hard work. Here are 5 tips that will help take your Instagram food game to the next level.

Lighting, lighting, lighting

The dishwasher's station at the James Beard American Restaurant proved to have the best light in the house. You'd never know there was a tall stack of dishes directly behind the camera here. Photo via USA Pavilion 2015

Lighting is the most important element in any photograph. After all, "photography" means "to draw with light.” Whether you’re shooting with your phone, point & shoot camera or DSLR, the perfect light brings your photograph to life.

Indirect sunlight is best. A table directly next to or close to a window can provide great light. If you’re at a restaurant seated away from any windows in the evening, ask if you can be seated at a table with better lighting. It’s important to make sure the light source is not directly above your head or the subject so as to avoid any shadows. Sitting by a good indirect light source also prevents using your phone’s flash which often works against a beautiful photograph.

Finally, be resourceful. At the James Beard American Restaurant in Milan, I shot the food at the dishwasher’s station because it was the one place in the entire restaurant with the best lighting. You could never tell by looking at the photos there stacks of dishes and tubs of utensils splashing about right behind the camera because we always managed to make it work. In the end, that's what it comes down to: no light, no shot. Make. It. Work.

Nothing—no camera, phone, filter or app—can replace good lighting. Optimal lighting allows you to work with different angles and perspectives, too. Remember, in photography, the light is not only your friend, it’s your instrument.


Obeying the rule of thirds.

Let’s face it, even impromptu-looking photos n Instagram are styled, albeit slightly. A carefully composed image helps guide the viewer’s eye. If you’re shooting in a square format, arrange the subject off-center to catch the viewer’s attention. Being “off-kilter” goes against our desire for balance and therefore draws scrutiny to the image. Also, images arranged diagonally add a sense of movement and dynamism, especially in a landscape or portrait format.

Also, apply the rule of thirds: that is, imagine a grid of nine squares placed directly above your image, much like you would find on your camera’s viewfinder; the photo is now divided both horizontally and vertically into thirds. The important elements of the image should be placed either along those lines or at their intersections. It sounds a lot more complicated than it really is but, like learning your mother sauces, once you put this into practice it becomes second nature.

Finally, work with negative space (the space surrounding the object) to define the boundaries of the positive space (the subject) and bring balance to the image. You’d be surprised to find something in the nothing.


Once you start experimenting with lighting and composition, you'll feel the need to break out of the limits of using only your phone. Here, my tools of the trade (clockwise l-r): tabletop tripod; Sony point & shoot camera; WiFi memory card; external drive for iPhone; my Samsung Galaxy s6 Edge Plus; my iPhone 6.. And yes, I have 2 phones. 

Many people photograph their food with their phones, which is exactly what Instagram was designed for. But if you’re reading this, it’s because you probably want to go beyond the limits of your phone.

Once I began to understand lighting and began to work with different angles and compositions, I felt confined to overhead and 90-degree angles. But what if you want to shoot a dish with height? It’s preferable to shoot it at a 3/4 angle which is nearly impossible to do on a phone since the lens distorts the food, making the top look bigger than the bottom.

My solution? Invest in a camera with both a great lens (even if it’s fixed) and WiFi capabilities. It doesn’t have to be a large bulky DSLR and you don’t have to carry multiple lenses. A point & shoot camera with a good focal length, low-light sensitivity, high-speed autofocus, manual exposure and built-in WiFi connectivity for transferring the images to your phone is ideal. In addition, it’s worth buying a WiFi memory card. I use Eyefi Mobi Pro but there are a variety of memory cards out there; experiment to find the one that's best for your needs. One added advantage of a WiFi memory card is that it's your plan B back up if your camera is having connectivity issues. Some memory cards also include an online cloud back up for your photos, giving you more reason to invest in one. Also, if you're so inclined, a tabletop tripod is good idea. You never know when you'll need one.

Finally, a wireless thumb drive that connects to your camera, phone and computer is always a good idea. Once your image is up, you can safely store it on the device and remove it from your phone’s memory. The last thing you want is to be caught without enough memory because you didn’t clear out the old photos.

Apps & Filters

Oh, what a difference an app makes: before Snapseed (left) & after Snapseed (right)

Once your well-lit, beautifully composed image that you shot with your new camera is transferred to your phone (make sure you have enough memory), you’ll need to give it that last zhuzh. You shouldn’t have to alter the image too much. After all, you don’t want to show something that looks nothing like the real thing, especially if you’re shooting at a restaurant. That’s not only deceitful but cruel because you're setting up past and future diners for disappointment. If you’re shooting your own recipes, imagine how disenchanted or discouraged your readers will be when they make the same dish that looks nothing like the image?

There is no shortage of photo apps to choose from but my favorites include VSCO because of its exquisite filters and editing tools, including cropping. Also, Snapseed and Adobe Lightroom are great for tweaking the fine details of an image, like sharpening focus in spots or saturating the colors in slight gradations. As an added bonus, Lightroom allows you to save settings for future images, so if you’ve found a combination that works for you, you can just use the saved preset.

Also, don’t discard Instagram’s built-in editing tools and sibling apps! They’re great and come in handy when you’re in a pinch to post immediately. You can select any of the preset filters (I’m fond of Clarendon and Ludwig) or bypass the filters altogether to edit the photo as it is. I’m also a fan of Instagram’s Layout and Boomerang apps, too.


What's your inspiration? Here's what inspires me: travel to places like Istanbul; simplicity of ingredients; tomatoes in a Mediterranean market; petals on a gray Milanese afternoon; a bartender tenderly placing a pineapple on a piña colada in Havana; flowers in full bloom.

Inspiration is what breathes life into our imagination. What is about food that inspires you to take a photo? Is it the process of cooking, the scent of peppers roasting over an open fire, or the sight of an oyster shucker’s hands as he pries open another Blue Point bivalve? Is it a painting or a photograph that comes to mind when the server places the plate in front of you? Or is it a memory of a time and place? Inspiration is a fundamental component of your images, that thing that will keep your photos from becoming stale and boring. Whatever it is, grab it, right at that moment because inspiration is fleeting. Don't think for a second it will come right back to you. Listen to it. It's the life force of your own creativity and the secret ingredient to an always-evolving beautiful series of images.

About the Author

Food, travel & forks in the road: Culinary & Digital Media | Food Stylist | Recipe Tester | Former Social & Digital Media Coordinator, USA Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015