Instagram was created in late 2010 by a pair of developers in San Francisco. In September 2015, Instagram announced that more than 400 million people use the app every month. Users share images of their friends, pets and, of course, their food.
But it’s not just restaurant guests who are photographing their meals, nor should it be. Photographs from chefs and restaurants are incredibly popular, and it makes sense to incorporate them into your marketing machine.
Sharing photos of your own restaurant not only catches the attention of potential diners, but also controls the visual conversation. Instead of potential customers seeing photos from fellow diners, they get to see the dish how you imagine it, with you overseeing the lighting, plating and colors.
Here are five tips for using Instagram in your restaurant:
“It has a very direct effect on business,” said Scott Schroder, chef at American Sardine Bar and the South Philly Tap Room. “It gets a lot of attention – that part is very easy. It’s free PR. It’s amazing that with such little effort and zero cost I can get these kinds of results. I put a daily special up on Instagram and people come in for it that night.”
Schroder said he encourages others in the company to take photos, too, including his sous chef. Then they can cross-promote by liking or retweeting one another. He also regularly retweets and comments on photos from diners.
Timing your photos can also be crucial to getting the most eyes and, therefore, likes, comments and diners. If you’re running a special, send that out around 5:00 p.m., when people are leaving work and thinking about their dinner plans. Send brunch photos early on Saturday or Sunday mornings.
Once you’ve built up a good following and you’re feeling bold, consider letting a favorite diner take over the Instagram account for a day or a special event.
Nicole Franzen, a food and lifestyle photographer from Brooklyn, said that lighting a dish correctly is one of the most important elements of capturing a good photo.
“Natural light is best for food,” said Franzen. “Shooting in the dark is horrible. A lot of diners try to take photos of their food while eating out and it doesn’t do any justice to the food; you’ll never get the color right.”
Franzen continues, “Because our iPhones don’t have white balancing built in, shooting at night, our camera reads [white] as orange, which means the whites aren’t white, and dishes can look unappetizing.”
Franzen recommends taking a dish out of the harsh, sometimes intense kitchen lights and placing it on a table near a window in order to capture that natural light. Both Franzen and Schroder recommend never using your phone’s flash.
Because the filters on Instagram (or other photo sharing apps) can distort colors and brighten, darken or intensify contrast automatically, Franzen said she doesn’t use them. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them,” she said. “But food doesn’t look good in sepia. Keep to filters that have subtle enhancements.”
In order to get the most out of your non-filtered photos, Franzen recommends keeping a very steady hand and tapping to focus on the highlight of the dish. Additionally, tapping on a darker area of the screen will cause the camera to adjust, making the image lighter. Conversely, tapping on a light area will darken the image.
When staging your dish photos, don’t just look at what’s on the plate, but also what surrounds it. Use a white tablecloth or a bare wood table depending on the aesthetic of the restaurant. Add or take away a fork and knife. Include salt and pepper shakers or a small vase of wildflowers. These simple additions can really add to your photo.
Franzen said, “You want it to feel lived-in and not forced. Aim toward simplicity.”
Capture your food at interesting angles. Shoot from above if possible, paying attention to not include extra shadows.
Taking selfies, or pictures of oneself held at an arm’s distance, are also popular among the social photography set. According to Franzen, “People use Instagram to get closer to a person, so they like to see behind-the-scenes photos.”
“At some point [chefs] became cool, which doesn’t make any sense – we were all reclusive nerdy kids,” said Schroder. “We went to the back of the house because you could hide there. And in the past five to 10 years, cooking has become so popular that we are treated like rock stars. It’s strange, but I think people are interested in what chefs are up to.”
If you want to take photos of the kitchen, Franzen recommends using the black and white filter. The focus in the back isn’t on the food itself, but more the environment of the kitchen. Imagine gleaming stainless steel appliances and spotless counters, a view of the pass-through, a line cook on her break, etc. They all look more stunning in black and white.
Beyond Instagram, there are lots of other food photography mobile applications out there, including:
Some fun restaurant and chef Instagram accounts include: