Take better food photos with tips from Mette Nielsen

  • Article by: LEE SVITAK DEAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2014 - 10:03 AM

Local cookbook photographer Mette Nielsen offers tips for great pictures.

You know the drill. You’re sitting in a restaurant and a waiter serves up a dish — sometimes stunning but not necessarily — and out comes the smartphone by at least one in the crowd.

Guilty.

Blame it on the smartphone, which bumped up the quality of camera-phone photography and made it possible for all of us to be instant messengers through social media. Look, fans! Here’s what I ate. We may as well call these food selfies.

Also credit the popularity to our growing fascination with food and, in many instances, to an increasing appreciation for what appears at our table, wherever that table may be.

But for every drop-dead hunger-inducing photo posted on Facebook or Instagram, there are 100 — or more — that should never see the light of day. Among those are the Twitter food images posted by Martha Stewart that have been widely lampooned (worth Googling, if you haven’t seen them already). Even the maven of perfection needs a few tips on food photography.

With that in mind, we offer here a brief tutorial on how to take better food photos with your smartphone. For pixel advice, we turned to local photographer Mette Nielsen, whose work has been featured in cookbooks and beyond for more than 30 years. Her words of wisdom apply to other cameras and nonfood photos, as well.

Let’s start with the key to any good image: lighting, particularly critical with food, says Nielsen.

Use natural light whenever possible. If you’re indoors, that means a window seat is best.

Avoid sharp sunlight. The harsh light of midday is the worst. Later in the day, after the sun gets lower in the sky, images will look warmer. Light in the morning, though beautiful, is fleeting and hard to capture in a restaurant. Overcast days by a window are perfect.

White napkins work well as a fill card to bounce light onto your food. You could also use your hands — or someone else’s — to do the same.

Don’t use the flash on your phone. It’s too weak to do anything, distorts the color and creates shadows in the photo. And, not so incidentally, annoys everyone around you at the restaurant. Overhead artificial light will cast unintended shadows, as well. If the environment is too dark, wait this one out and skip taking a picture.

Use a mini-tripod if you’re at home. That will keep the camera completely steady, which is particularly important if the lighting is darker. It’s not for restaurant use, though, unless you intend to create a scene.

Turn on the HDR setting — high dynamic range — on your camera. It instantly creates multiple images of the same photo, with different exposures, and combines them into a shot that may or may not be better. Check it out. The camera has to be steady for this because motion will affect the photo.

Another element of good photography is to use alternative perspectives when shooting.

Experiment with square photos. That’s an option on new smartphones, and it offers a bit of a different look.

Look for detail shots. The overall photo of a dish tends to be the fallback. Instead, check out the bread basket or the look of the knife and fork or other aspects of the meal that are intriguing.

Play with camera angles. Get low and look up at things. Try perspectives other than overhead.

Pay attention to the background. Clear away distracting items in the frame of the photo. That may mean moving the salt-and-pepper shakers, or your guest’s plate or the flowers on the table.

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