Why smartphone food photos look horrible

Smartphone cameras are amazing these days. So why are food pictures so unappetizing?

Martha Stewart wants to show you horrible pictures of nauseating-looking food for some reason.

I find this personally vexing. Why? Because I've always held up the Martha Stewart "brand" as the gold standard in beautiful food photography. Stewart's books and website show fantastically lit and photographed food shots like these, and they've done so for years.

My wife is a food writer and I'm her "staff photographer." I've always looked to Stewart for ideas in how to light and present myownfoodphotography.

So why is Martha Stewart taking and posting pictures like this and this on Twitter?

Stewart's food photos on Twitter are so bad that one became an Internet meme recently.

But I've discovered that she's not alone. Another food diva, Nigella Lawson, is having her own struggle on Twitter, with food pictureslikethese.

I find it astonishing that two brilliant women whose reputations depend in large part on their images vis-a-vis food would post such horrible-looking pictures.

These TV chefs aren't alone. In fact, it's astonishing how bad some online food photos are, given the incredible tools most smartphone users have at their disposal.

The recent Thanksgiving holiday sent a torrent of unappealing pictures through the social networks.

I see a lot of people complaining about food pictures, with some getting really upset about it. I wondered if opposition was to the concept of food photos -- too trivial to merit attention -- or about the quality of those pictures. So I took a (spectacularly unscientific) poll on my Google+ page. The results, which you can see here, show that most people either like food photos in general or (with the highest response) only like the good ones and don't like the bad ones.

So let's share only good food photos. Because most people really do want to see them.

Here are my tips for taking better food photos for sharing on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Pinterest and elsewhere.

Let's start by addressing Martha Stewart's problem: She uses a flash in dark rooms.

The key to great food photography with smartphones -- the key to all great photography -- is to remember that you can't take pictures of people and things. You can only take pictures of the light that reflects off of them.

Amateur photographers tend to focus on what they see in their minds, rather than what they see in their eyes and through their cameras.

When you're in a dimly lit restaurant, your amazing eyes and incredible brain can appreciate the beauty of well-presented food. However, your camera may be unable to convey to others what you think saw in person.

If you don't use a flash, the pictures can have almost no color. Even if you enhance the brightness later, it probably won't look good.

But if you do use a flash, you'll probably get the Martha Stewart problem where the flash adds blues and greens to the images, wrecking the color of the food and making it incredibly unappealing.

Food is probably the single most unforgiving subject for low-light photography. The reason is that a good photo needs to look appealing to the viewer. Color is one of the main cues our brains look for in food to determine whether it looks good enough to eat, or is best left alone. If the colors are off, turned grayish by darkness or greenish by flashes, there's often no way it can look edible.

Another option is to buy an iPhone 5S, which has a color-correcting flash. It can detect how off-colors may wreck your shot, and it changes the color of the flash itself to compensate. This helps, but doesn't always solve the flash problem.

Nigella Lawson's bad food photos have two problems. First, they tend to be out of focus. This may also be caused by low-light conditions, as most smartphones focus more slowly in low light.

The solution to this problem is to use your smartphone camera app's "select focus" feature, which lets you tap on the screen to tell the software where the camera should be focused. If you don't have one, then just do your best without it. Also: Take several shots -- five or six might do it. Chances are at least one of them will be in focus.

Lawson's other problem is that she tends to cast a shadow over the food, which will usually ruin a food photo.

In general, favor diffused natural sunlight or bright ambient light. Most of all, if your food pictures look bad, don't post them!

Another major tip: Use Google+!

Unlike the other social networks, Google posts your pictures at full resolution (Facebook and other social networks compress photos, degrading their quality). Just uploading pictures from your smartphone (which can be done automatically) will run them through Google's incredible photo editing tools that automatically improve food shots without any action by the user. These automatic editing features actually detect that your picture is of food, and will apply conservative improvements that boost the color in the right way, compensate for the flash and do other things that would normally require skill and experience with a photo editing tool. Google+'s built-in manual tools can make photos look even better.

Even if you choose to post on other sites, like Facebook or Pinterest, I recommend running photos through Google+ first. Simply install the Google+ app on your phone and set up Auto Backup (which uploads your pictures to a private area -- they won't be shared until you share them). If you want to post your pictures on another site, just use the menu option on Google+ (when you're looking at the photo) and download them, then upload them to the service of your choice.

Use Friends+Me to auto-post your pictures from Google+ to Twitter. There's no reason to post on Twitter by any other means. Only Google+ will improve your pictures automatically, and Friends+Me posts look exactly like direct posts. And they're posted with a link to the full shot on Google+ in all its full-resolution and auto-improved brilliance.

So if you love food, and want to share your passion online, do it right!

Don't take food pictures in low light unless you have Apple's new flash. Make sure you focus on the right part of the shot. Don't cast shadows. Process your photos through Google+.

And when all else fails, just don't post the picture.

Most people want to see well-photographed pictures of well-presented, delicious-looking food. But hardly anyone wants to see dull green, over-exposed, blurry, shadow-obscured photos wrecked by Instagram or Facebook.

And speaking of social media, please send this column to Martha Stewart and Nigella Lawson!

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him on Google+. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

This story, "Why smartphone food photos look horrible" was originally published by Computerworld.

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