The Instagram-Worthy Plate: 7 Tips From Top Chefs & Food Stylists

You've decided on the menu and cooked the food. Now, how do you make it all look Instagram-ready? Whether you want to show off for a crowd or just have a ball making dinner for one look restaurant-worthy, you'll want to know these top tips for those finishing touches.

1) Let the Natural Shine

Chef Jason Scherer consults and styles food for magazines like Sip Northwest and Cidercraft, and leans on the natural form to beautiful effect. "From natural-form torn bread to leaves, roots, meat, and bones, to beets with the tops on, let the natural look of things shine. In photos, fish that's unscaled and big rocks of Maldon salt look best." Likewise, natural textures make great backdrops, like the wood grain of a cutting board or the stone of a counter top.

Burger, potato chips, and glass of dark beer

2) Consider the Plate

When it comes to the actual plates, pay attention to what clashes. If you're serving something homey and not particularly photogenic, like Grandma's meatloaf and mashed potatoes, Scherer suggests making extra effort. "It can look sloppy or boring on plain white, but paired with a pattern or a painted dish, white purees and roasted meat can look regal."

Conversely, if you have bright garnishes and lots of small shapes, you'll want to head back to a clean and simple look. "Radiant green nettle pesto + mussels don't go with a painted pottery," he says.

Get creative with your servingware, says Scherer, when it comes to serving sides or family-style mains. "An old roasting pan or well-seasoned cast iron can make peasant food pop," he adds, mentioning too that clean household items like jars and prep bowls make cool ways for food and drinks to show up on the table.

3) Decide on a Vibe

Think about the feeling you're going for when you plate and serve food. Do you want it to look like a raucous party? A thought-out and parsed out Korean feast? A pretty and simple brunch? Figuring out your intended vibe first will help you decide how you want to plate food.

Tostadas, for example, could come out on a big platter, already prepared and ready for guests to snag a ready-made entree. Or, you could serve the crisp tortilla shell on one plate, beans in a pretty bowl, meat in another, and put toppers like cheese, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and sour cream into individual bowls. Your photos will likewise reflect these choices.

4) Balance the Plate

If you're pre-plating for your guests, you'll want to hit the right balance of colors and textures, says Portland Chef Naomi Pomeroy. "For family style, think of a garnish," she suggests. Her cookbook, Taste & Technique: Recipes to Elevate Your Home Cooking, includes a recipe for an herb salad with parsley leaves and celery leaves with oil, vinegar, and salt. She suggests whipping it up and sprinkling it on top of a roast or chicken dish, for added color, texture, and height. "There's a reason they do that stupid curled parsley on the plate at Denny's," she adds, "it brings life to an otherwise static plate."

Chilaquiles. Ashley Rodriguez

5) Keep It Real

And speaking of life, professional food photographer and chef Ashley Rodriguez teaches her photo students how to add authenticity into their photos. "I was in food before I got into photography, so I always approach the plate from the perspective of focusing on making the dish pleasant to eat. It makes it look authentic and makes the viewer want to jump in and start eating," she explains.

This means, she keeps the food from looking too "precious," leaving out twee garnishes that look like they were applied with tweezers (which are commonly used in much food photography). One way she does this is by actually eating before shooting. "Take a bite first and then take the photo. Make a bit of a mess on and around the plate." All these considerations help to make the photo more interesting in the end.

6) Listen to Your Art Teacher

No matter your approach -- messy or neat, many dishes or just a few plates -- there are a few concepts from art class that apply here. First, Rodriguez says, building a little height on the plate and leaving negative space around the food keeps the eye interested and the picture from looking overcrowded.

"Your eye needs a place to rest while viewing the image and a nice bit of white (or whatever color your dish is) plate showing in the shot helps to highlights the food and helps focus the viewer."

She agrees with Pomeroy that fresh herbs give a nice pop of color and adds that they also break up the scene. To show them off, try a bit of oil or give them a quick rinse so the water droplets will remain and give a fresh feel.

Overhead shot of breakfast at Wise Sons Deli.
Julia Wayne

7) Keep It You

When you're just getting started taking pictures of your food, it helps to know what you like as well as what you don't. Scroll through Pinterest, food blogs, and magazines and find shots that please your eye or look similar to what you're going for. Do you like top down shots, or ones taken from an angle? Are you drawn to pictures that focus on one item, or those that bring together an array of ingredients? It helps to create your own perspective if you make a board or folder of those images for inspiration, then really consider why they speak to you before you start your own photo journey.


Was this page helpful?
You’ll Also Love