Hey, food people. Have you settled into Facebook as the best way to share triumphant pictures of the all-day cooking project that turned your kitchen into a war zone? Do you tweet pictures of the $100 shellfish tower you’re enjoying on vacation to make your friends happy for your good fortune (i.e., green with food envy)?
You may want to put another social-media arrow in your quiver: Instagram is coming up fast as a platform for amateur food photography. This photo-sharing service, which went online in late 2010 and was recently bought by Facebook, is having its moment. It combines the best features of competing platforms in a nifty package that is optimized for viewing on smartphones. Like Facebook, threads of comments gather under each photo. Like Twitter, posts are searchable by hashtag.
I began to notice this shift on a recent family vacation. As I uploaded images of the trip on Facebook, my daughters turned to Instagram to post their landscape shots, pictures of their sisters clowning in front of monuments and, increasingly, food.
Somehow my kids had turned into amateur food photographers.
As useful to professional photographers as it is to savvy high schoolers, Instagram has another feature that neither Facebook nor Twitter can claim: a kind of tacit contract.
“The unwritten rule is don’t post things from your camera. It has to come from your phone,” says Tami Hardeman, an Atlanta-based food stylist who posts on Instagram as “runwithtweezers.”) Photos must be cropped to the square format that Instagram requires for display, and posters take advantage of the many filters that sharpen contrasts, brighten colors, blur edges or create any number of retro color palettes. Such enhancements are not only expected, they give the whole thing its defining air of enhanced reality.
But “reality” is the key word: if anything, Instagram serves as a kind of picture diary for a daily poster.
“You’re living in that moment with that person,” says Hardeman.
Nicole Franzen, a Brooklyn-based food and lifestyle photographer has been using Instagram since the platform (“nicole_franzen”) debuted nearly three years ago and has since amassed more than 45,000 followers. “I love just documenting my everyday life,” she says of her robust feed of images, “and showing the things I’m inspired by.”
Her postings — New York cityscapes, seascapes, vignettes of city life, candid portraits, many gorgeous plates of food — share a defining style. There’s a dreaminess to the environments and backgrounds, but also a sharp-edged definition to the subjects. Her best images are like missives from the unconscious mind.
Franzen has seen a huge rise in the amount of food photography on Instagram since she started. “It’s in style and trendy right now to take pictures of your food, and I consider that a positive thing. Any awareness of eating better is good.”
Camille Becerra, a former chef and “Top Chef” contestant, has always been interested in images and representations of food and decided to pursue it as a career. Now the New Yorker styles food for print photography, film and television and documents many of her shoots on her popular Instagram feed, “camillebecerra.”
She loves the immediacy of the iPhone camera, which is there when she needs it. “I’m most moved by light at a particular time of day,” Becerra says. “A few hours before sundown is my favorite time to post.”
“There’s an instant gratification,” Franzen concurs, adding that her photos go up with very little tinkering. “You don’t want to spend 10 minutes editing a photo for Instagram. That’s not what it’s about.”
All these professionals agree that the spike in food photography also means a spike in bad food photography. “I don’t think there are that many good photos out there,” Franzen says democratically, citing overuse of filters and unnatural colors.
Hardeman, a good bit blunter, says, “Filters won’t work as a light source for you. They may make a sucky picture suck less, but they’re not going to make it look awesome.”
But knowing that you’ve got a quality digital camera on your smartphone at all times, and that it can capture — and share — the beauty in a basket of strawberries at your farmers market, well, that’s what Instagram is all about.
“You know what people say,” says Hardeman. “The best camera is the one in your hands.”
Instagram tips from the pros
1. Always use natural light. Keep the flash off and adjust the exposure on your iPhone by touching and holding the subject of your lens.
2. Stay away from kitschy or aggressive filters. “Filters can be great for landscapes, but you don’t want purple steak,” says Nicole Franzen. She likes to use the filter that comes with the ShakeIt app, which gives food shots a subtle enhancement in contrast and exposure. Hardeman likes the VCSOcam app, which comes with several filters and posts right to social media platforms.
3. Keep the composition simple. “I don’t use any weird angles for food,” says Franzen. She shoots straight down or from the side and keeps horizons or background objects to a minimum.
4. Look for interesting natural subjects. “Using great produce, unique items that you’d find at the farmers market, makes an interesting picture,” says Camille Becerra.