Image is everything as restaurants plate their food for Instagram fame

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Food photography
Restaurants try to take advantage of the free marketing Instagrammers provide when they share food photos.
Photo: Brigham Young University

Some restaurants take pride in offering perfect food and wine pairings. Others think more in terms of food and phone pairings.

Yes, you can blame Instagram if your restaurant is a little brighter and the presentation of the food is a bit fussier. Restauranteurs are trying to cash in on our obsession with photographing our meals by giving Instagram users better lighting and compositional conditions to make more appetizing shots.

Food photography
At Tel Aviv restaurant Catit, chefs plate food on special dishes for photography during their “Foodography” dinners.
Photo: Carmel Winery

U.S. restaurant chain Chill’s recently revamped the look of its dishes so they’d pop on social media. And one high-end eatery in Tel Aviv, Israel, hosts “Foodography” nights, with coaching from a professional photographer on how to better shoot your supper.

The trend sickens some. While many restaurants have created their own Instagram accounts to repost customer photos and rewarded diners for sharing, other eateries ban photography completely. But considering the challenge in making restaurants profitable, many chefs don’t mind if their art is reduced to food porn. With food competing with pets and ourselves as the most photographed subject on Instagram, restaurants would be foolish to ignore the free marketing.

“There nothing inherently wrong with Instagramming your photos of your dinner,” wrote Christopher Hooten in The Independent. “It’s no worse than pictures of your goddamn legs on the beach, or your goddamn kid hanging upside from a swing. But an entire restaurant set up around the photography of its food rather than the taste is pushing it.”

Hooten’s snark was a response to Catit, the Tel Aviv restaurant with the “Foodography” nights focused on photographing well-plated meals.

There are glossy white dishes with one end swooping up to provide a clean, reflective background. There is also a 360 plate, which Hooten sarcastically calls “The dream!” with a special mount for your smartphone and spinning plate for a nice video clip.

Here is the result from one patron:

From a "Foodography" dinner at Catit in Tel Aviv. Photo:Talmi Fridman/Instagram
From a “Foodography” dinner at Catit in Tel Aviv.
Photo: Talmi Fridman/Instagram

Marketing firms have been encouraging restaurants to better utilize Instagram, both in their own photography and that of their customers. Restaurants are creating recognizable usernames and hashtags for great searchability. They are reaching patrons and rewarding them with Instagram contests and feedback. Tips are offered on how to better light and take advantage of video.

Lighting is important, a lesson Martha Stewart learned in 2013 when she posted an unappetizing, poorly lit photo of her lunch on Twitter. It drew criticism, including someone wondering whether her account had been hacked.

“The Martha Stewart example really illustrates that restaurants are really vulnerable to the person who is taking the picture,” Dulen Rodriguez told The Financial Post of Canada. “If you have 2,000 Twitter followers and send out something that is a poor reflection on a restaurant without even realizing it, that is a valid concern for the people running the restaurant.”

Food photography
An example of color, simplicity and light from the food photography of Instagram user utosh.
Photo: utosh/Instagram

Instagram food photography tips

Here are some tips for Instagramers and restauranteurs who can’t afford a professional photographer.

  • Avoid flash or harsh overhead light. Choose softer light sources, like windows. Natural light is often the most flattering.
  • Think color. Martha Stewart’s lunch was a wedge of whitish iceberg lettuce with Russian dressing. Dreary light made the dressing look like barf. This was a perfectly fine lunch to eat — but not to share (especially if your followers look to you for impeccable taste).
  • Incorporate a prop, but not too many. Chopsticks, an elegantly shaped fork or a candle can give your followers a sense of place.
  • Take advantage of the filters in Instagram or an app like Snapseed that can add color, warmth and mood to a photo.
  • Avoid putting your subject smack-dab in the center of your frame. A slightly off-center subject — artists refer to this as using the rule of thirds — make the picture more intriguing.
  • Branch out from pictures of just the food. If the scene around you is festive or romantic, consider these details, which can set an inviting tone. If the light is low, hold still. If the result is blurry or noisy, do not post.

The old saying, “People eat with their eyes,” is even more true today.