You eat with your eyes first. That’s why there is such an emphasis on presentation — the colors or shapes of the ingredients that complement each other. The color of the wine or the head on a cold beer are all indications that the food is going to taste good. For photographers, the trick is capturing that instant. While you don’t need an elaborate setup for food photography, that doesn’t mean there aren’t tricks to make it easier.
How you light the food is the most important aspect. Too little light or even too much and you can’t see the details of the food’s texture and color.
The quality of the light, meaning how hard or soft the shadows are, is another important aspect of lighting. Generally speaking, hard light is dramatic, whereas soft light tends to accentuate the beauty of the subject and ensures everything is evenly illuminated.
If you’re at a restaurant or are just taking candid food photos, you will want to use indirect lighting, which is light bouncing off another object such as a wall. Sitting next to a window is going to be your best bet, but just be careful that you are not in direct sunlight. Not only will this light be too bright, but it will also be hard and directional.
Nighttime or a dark restaurant is more of a challenge. In this case, you have to work with the light you have, but avoid adding your own. Chances are you will have only the flash on your phone, which gives a strange color cast and is hard, meaning it will cast shadows that will be hard to get rid of or avoid.
Color is part of the appeal of good food. Bright colors or areas of contrast tend to draw the eye across the scene. In a salad, for instance, the focal point might be a red tomato on the green lettuce, so putting that element either on the center of frame or on a third would be advisable.
Depending on the type of food you are eating, the contrast in color may or may not be there. But one element of a meal that almost always has vibrant colors tends to be the drinks. A well-made cocktail, in addition to being balanced flavor wise, is going to have elements that look pleasing. A good martini, for instance, is crystal clear except for the olive or lemon peel garnish, which gives a good contrast between the elements. Backlighting is helpful because of the translucent nature of the liquid and glass.
Pulling out a big camera at a restaurant isn’t a good idea. Instead, your smartphone is probably all you’ll need. A smartphone has some limitations over an interchangeable lens camera, but some of these work in your favor.
First, there is the fixed wide-angle lens. Manufacturers know that most people would rather get the whole scene up close rather than capture it from far away. In this case, the wide angle lens allows you to get close to the food, thus filling the frame. This lets you see the details of the food while keeping any clutter on the table out of frame. Conversely, if you want to see an entire spread of food or the table settings are particularly good, you have the flexibility of a shooting from above with a stand-up shot of the whole table.
In either case, it is important to keep any distracting elements to a minimum. Other diners, the floor and your shoes are good examples of distracting elements. Everything about the composition should be about accentuating the food.