Travel Bloggers and their Smart Phones
Travel bloggers and travel “influencers” can get a bit mad sometimes with their smartphones. They take pictures of everything. God forbid that you start eating your food before they get a picture of it. I know… because I am one of them.
If you are a normal traveler, then taking pictures of everything might seem a bit excessive, but if you are a travel journalist these days, you do it because part of the reason the restaurant, hotel, tour company, or destination invited you is that they wanted you to post about them on social media. So if you want to get invited back, improving your social media posts, particularly your photography on Instagram can’t hurt.
Recently I was invited to a winemakers dinner at the Marriott in downtown San Jose. As the dinner went along, I posted updates. While I wrote about the dinner later in more detail, the PR rep who invited me specifically thanked me for posting Instagram updates.
Let’s focus specifically on photographing food. My food photography used to be bad. It was photos with harsh flash or bad lighting. Let me tell you what I have learned. Everything below can be done with your smartphone, edited from there if need be (I use the Snapseed app), and posted directly. I might also take some shots on my SLR, but I usually find my iPhone works great for these shots.
1 – Each Picture Tells a Story
Sometimes your task is simple. These salads at the Birch and Bear in Whitehorse Yukon are just great looking. And they tasted as good as they looked. But the other reason this shot works is that even the r ough wood of the table tells you something about the restaurant. From just this photo, what do you picture the restaurant to look like? It looks like this. Was that what you expected? A food picture is more than just the food. Think about what story you are trying to tell.
2 – Use Natural Light if Possible
As a rule, photos with the iPhone flash look flatter and don’t work as well for food. Use natural light if at all possible. I went through all my food photos and did not find one taken with a flash that I liked. If you are reviewing a restaurant, you might even see if you can go earlier in the day when you can get more natural light. If you do find yourself in a dark restaurant, consider using a selfie light that clips onto your iPhone or get your tablemates to light the scene with their iPhones.
3 – Take a Picture of Signs
How did I know the name of the restaurant from the first food photo above? Easy, as I walked in, I took a picture of the sign. These pictures may never be part of the story. This sign is, after all, pretty boring. This picture never went up on Instagram, but it was useful for later blogging.
In addition to restaurant signs, sometimes a sign in a restaurant will also tell a story. In this case, the sign at Brick Spoon in Gulf Shores, Alabama does a great job of explaining that this restaurant makes a pretty good Bloody Mary.
4 – Backgrounds Tell a Story
This picture of crab legs is my favorite food picture from a dinner at The Gulf in Gulf Shores, Alabama. It tells me two things: seafood and casual. But when I changed the angle of the photo, I can tell you a 3rd thing. The Gulf is at the beach.
The dinner there is more than just the food. It is the breezes and the sea air. So a burrito bowl may not be as picturesque, but don’t you want to go here? In every picture, you are selling an experience. Food is a big part of the experience, but it is not all of it.
Likewise, this dark daiquiri with quince cocktail at County Bench in Santa Rosa, California is nothing special looking, but with the colorful bar in the background, the cocktail is more appealing.
5 – Settings are Important
You learned something about the food and about the setting, but the story of The Gulf would not be complete without telling you that the restaurant is made out of stacked shipping containers. Pictures of exteriors, dining rooms, or sidewalk cafes help tell the story. Some people who see this photo will be more interested, and some will be less interested. That’s fine. My job is to tell you what to expect.
6 – Include Action
I love this photo. I know that I might just like it because I know the breakfast at the Cahawba House in Montgomery Alabama was tasty. But also think about how much less interesting this photo would be without the hand. I mean, biscuits are not the most exotic food (unless you eat them with some of the spicy jam they served). This shot was not staged… but it could have been. Also, note that getting only half a plate of bacon in the photo is fine. You don’t have to include a whole dish.
7 – Include People
My Instagram is not filled up with shots of my face, nor me in a bikini… for which we are all grateful. But when you are telling the story of a Street Food Tour in Guanajuato, Mexico, the people are also part of the story. Also… tamales taste much better than they look.
Sometimes the meal is more than just the individual dishes. This dinner is the opening night dinner of the Amateur Traveler trip to Morocco. I was not trying to tell the story of a specific dish, but don’t you get the impression that Morocco is fun?
8 – Include Props
How do you convey the idea that this dinner is eaten in Chinatown? I thought that for an article about a food tour in Little Italy and Chinatown in New York, simply including the chopsticks gets that idea across pretty easily.
Likewise, I would count the piece of paper under rum samplers as a prop, like here at the Sapphire Falls Resort in Universal Orlando Resort.
9 – Use Layouts
Sometimes you want to include more than one thought but don’t want to send out multiple pictures to your Instagram followers. The folks at Instagram have built-in support these days for the Layout App, which you can use to combine photos. For Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar & Restaurant in Key West, I wanted to send out both a picture of the great tacos (and local hot sauce) as well as the colorful bar. My final blog post used two separate photos because I have more room for telling a story in a blog post, but on Instagram, I used a two-photo layout.
10 – Capture Unusual Menus
At LuLu’s in Gulf Shores, Alabama, I was struck by how prepared they were for guests who had different food allergies. It is rare to see an allergy menu.
11 – Capture Menus
I will often take a photo of the menu of a restaurant for later use when I think I will be writing a restaurant review. But a menu can also make a good prop, especially at a wine tasting room like the De Tierra Wine Tasting Room in Carmel, California. Wine tasting can be a particular challenge because one glass of red wine looks pretty much like another glass of red wine.
12 – Go Outside
Another way to solve the issue with wine tasting is to go outside. If you buy a bottle, as we did at McGregor Winery in New York’s Finger Lakes, you can take your bottle and commemorative glasses to create a scene in front of the vineyards. After this, I started to get bolder when the winery knew I was a journalist to take my tasting glass outside.
You can mix and match these, take your glass outside, shoot from a low angle to show the outdoor wine tasting area, and include the tasty cheese plate as a prop, as I did for this photo at the Folktale Winery in Carmel Valley.
13 – Go Behind the Scenes
Sometimes the interesting picture is not the food but the kitchen, like this kitchen at a restaurant in Meteora, Greece where all the food was prepared in these big pots like the locals would cook at home.
Another example is aebleskiver (Danish pancake balls) that were being made by the pool on the Holland America Zaandam. Pancake balls are ok looking, but a pan with 100 different holes is very cool.
14 – Include Fire
A special category of including action in your photos is to include fire. Everything looks more interesting when fire is introduced, whether that is bananas Foster, saganaki (flaming greek these), or in this case, smores at The Cellar in Corning New York.
15 – Label Your Images
Use an app like Over to label your Instagram photos before you post them. In this case, again from The Cellar. Restaurants would love to see you giving them the credit for this great food. (This photo also used a layout, a person, and fire).
16 – Get Close
You can take a picture of a whole market, or you can zoom in on just hot peppers. Both are useful. But think how boring a movie would be if it didn’t have close-ups. Think about mixing them into your Instagram feed.
17 – Use Video
I love still photos, but some scenes need video. This smoking cocktail from the Downtown San Jose, Marriott is an experience that you have to see in video. Also, think about videos for things on fire, table-side dish prep, or the chef explaining a dish.
But what if I don’t have Instagram follows?
There was a time that you could just post good photos and build a following on Instagram. That is probably still the case if you are posting bikini photos, but we have pretty much ruled that out in my case. These days, it also takes some luck or intentional time spent interacting with other Instagram users. You can outsource that work to a VA or a company like Social Network Elite, but you will want to be clear that they follow Instagram’s rules, or you could end up worse than when you started. I would not give over control of which pictures to post. You can read more about my experience here: Should You Hire an Instagram Marketing Service?
What is your tip? What have you learned about taking better food photos for Instagram or for your blog?