Doing it for the ‘Gram: How to Plate and Style Food for Social Media Photography

Since the dawn of Instagram, food photography has held a special place in the cultural consciousness. Now, with IG Stories and Reels, TikTok, and other emerging platforms, there are even more ways to share moments from your culinary journey with friends, family, and followers.

Taking attractive food photos is a whole new set of skills to learn! Not to fret, though; we’ve got plenty of tips and tricks for how to style and shoot your dishes so that they not only smell and taste amazing, but that they also translate all that deliciousness into a two-dimensional image on social!

Natural vs. Artificial Light

Lighting is one of the most crucial elements in photography. Natural light is how you’ll achieve the best-looking results using most smartphone cameras.

Direct sunlight can create harsh shadows and high contrast. For dramatic, stylized photos, you can use this to your advantage. If you want more natural or moody photos, diffused sunlight is better. Find that type of light filtered through sheer curtains or by placing your dish close to a window, but not directly in the sunlight.

Using natural light is trickier at night, which is most likely when you’ll try to ‘gram your dinner. In these cases, you may want to turn to artificial lighting.

The flash on your smartphone camera usually blows out the image with way too much light. If your kitchen has under-cabinet lighting, that might be sufficient, but both traditional and LED light bulbs can affect the image’s color balance. Photo editing apps or social media filters can help compensate for this.

Or take a cue from influencers and serious home food photographers and purchase a small lighting rig. There are many types of setups, including DIY or ready-made light box kits, and ring lights, all of which can be purchased online. Take it one step further with other accessories like color gels and a wireless camera remote.

A smartphone tripod is also a solid investment. Even slight movements can knock your photos out of focus, and a tripod will keep your camera perfectly still. Many tripods also have extendible, flexible arms or components that allow you to experiment with different angles that might be uncomfortable to hold with your hands.

Color & Texture

Beautiful food photography is often about more than just what’s on the plate. Weave in color and texture to complement or contrast with your dishes. You can do this with linens, like tablecloths, placemats, and napkins; dishes and flatware; and other elements like fresh flowers and candles. Vintage and thrift stores are the ideal places to look for affordable accessories for your food photos; even if you don’t find a full set of dishes or napkins, you can still use one-offs to add to your stash of props.

After all this, it’s time to be your own art director. Think through what mood you want to convey with your photos. For a luxe, vibey photo, try yellow or rose gold flatware with matte black dishes. For an airy, rustic feel, opt for natural, light linens, drinks in jars, and vintage china. The sky’s the limit when it comes to the looks you can create!

Composition

It’s also important to consider how the dishes are composed in the frame. For Instagram, always shoot square photos for the grid and vertical images for stories and reels.

You’ll also want to hone in on your style. Questions to ask yourself include:  

  • Do you want minimalist photos with lots of negative space?  
  • Will you get up close and personal with the food to show off specific details? Or do you want to show off your full tablescape and multiple dishes with a wider shot?  
  • Do you want to incorporate action, like a sauce being drizzled, or a sexy cheese pull? 
  • Do you want hands included in the photo? It is a great way to show off your fresh mani 💅.

Finishing Touches

The look of the food itself is definitely important, too! Make images pop with a colorful garnish like fresh herbs and edible flowers, black and white sesame seeds, hot sauce, and citrus zest. Professional food stylists often use “flavor accents” arranged in the photo frame, which are usually ingredients featured in the dish. This adds an organic look to the image. And finally, make like a chef and give the edges of your plates and dishes a quick swipe with a towel to make sure drips, fingerprints, and crumbs are removed before you take that winning shot!


Ready to get cooking (and ‘gramming)? Take a spin through ZENB’s collection of 150+ plant-powered recipes to decide what you’re making tonight. And get social with us! Follow ZENB on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.


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