Cameras do not make great photos, the photographer does.

With the cell phone photography wars raging (#ShotOniPhone #ShotOnSamsung), if you’re not using your phone to keep up with your restaurant’s social media then you’re probably feeling just a tiny bit behind the curve.

It’s true, cell phone photography has taken over our world and it is pretty awesome technology has come as far as it has. It’s also frustrating because that just means, along with your laundry list of daily to-dos for your business, you’re now expected to take photos as good as the pros simply because you own the newest smartphone.

Don’t worry, pretty much everyone in the industry is feeling that pressure and I’m here to explain why owning the newest phone and taking pro-level photos don’t go hand in hand and reveal the No. 1 cause of bad food photography, so that you can start taking better food pictures right away. 

First, let’s clear up the widespread belief that owning a “newer” smartphone with the “world’s best camera” in it will magically make your food photos look like the pros.

Think about the last time you worked with a professional photographer—you’re on set and they stop to show you their images, which look gorgeous. How many of you can recall thinking to yourself or maybe even saying to them, “Wow! You must have a really great camera!”

Now, think about dining at a restaurant, having just enjoyed one of the best meals you’ve had in a long time, and the chef comes by to ask how your meal was. Would you think to yourself or perhaps even respond by saying, “Wow! You must have a really great oven!” Absolutely not! 

That’s because you’re well aware of how much effort was put into the making of your experience in that restaurant, as well as the enjoyment of that chef’s menu—to which, the oven, played only, a very small role. 

The exact same is true for photography, whether using a professional camera or the newest phone on the market. Cameras do not make great photos, the photographer does. Just like cooking, photography comes with a multitude of components. In order to make a great photograph you’ve got to learn how to combine all of the components into one simple and repeatable process.

A few of the key components of photography include framing, angles, exposure, color, texture, lines, layers, shapes, and mood. But, above all else, there’s one essential ingredient that will make or break every photo you take and it’s the top culprit behind every bad food photo you’ve seen. Any guesses what it might be?

Like salt to a chef, light is to a photographer.

Light is the single most important ingredient in all of photography. Seriously, you could have all the other elements perfect, but get the lighting wrong and your photo is ruined. 

Now, some of you might be thinking, “this is about to get too technical for me” But, stick with me, I promise you, you’ll be shocked by just how easy these two photo lighting tips are.

First, have you ever taken an image that’s turned out way too yellow/orange or way too blue, and have no idea why that happened, let alone how to fix it?

That’s because light is what gives color to your photograph. Think about the filters in Instagram. When you apply one to an image, suddenly your image takes on that filters color. Light is the exact same, only it’s been around a tad bit longer than those all to famous IG filters.

Light, whether from the sun or from the man-made bulbs in your space, is measured on the kelvin scale where 10,000k represents blue tones and can be found in the early morning hours or those frigid winter months. Then you’ll see a bit warmer light, mid-morning around 2,000/3,000k, moving into pure/clear light 5,500k at mid-day, back into warms mid-afternoon 2,000k, sunset 1,000k and finally closing with more 10,000k tones after the sun has set. 

Leigh Loftus graph on colors.

Most restaurants have the following types of lighting:

  • Natural lighting from any windows: Which will follow the scale changing throughout the day 
  • FOH: Tungsten/Edison or something similar for the interior lights of the restaurant measured around 3,500-2,000k
  • FOH: Candle light measured around 1k
  • BOH: Fluorescent in the kitchen which is a 100 percent man-made light and it tends to be a combo of 6,000k + 3,500 & 2,000
  • BOH: Heat lamps 1000k

Let’s review natural and tungsten lighting first.  Below I have an image that was taken for a Chicago restaurant, mid-winter, early morning and the color of the image as you can so easily see is very blue:

Leigh Loftus Image Of Food

Next, we have an image that was shot for a St. Paul restaurant, basically no windows, all tungsten/Eddison bulbs and you can see that the image is very yellow/orange toned:

Four Seasons Hotel And Private Residences New Orleans

Neither look is good/bad or right/wrong, but for argument sake, let’s say you didn’t like the way one of them looked, how could you fix it? (Without spending hours on a computer learning the ins and outs of PhotoShop).

Time for the fun part. Our phones, both Apple and Android have built in editing tools that most people didn’t even know existed. When you’re on an image in your gallery, there’s an option to edit the photo. Once you open the editing tools you can scroll through until you land on the two tools called warmth and tint, these allow you to adjust the overall color tones in your photos. 

Warmth covers the blue/yellow spectrum and tint covers the green/magenta spectrum. For the sake of time, I focused on the warmth tool, but you’ll see my tint adjustments below. 

Taking our image that was too blue, I can correct that by using the warmth tool, sliding it to the right, which adds more yellow/warmth and in turn balances the colors of the image to be more accurate.

(For accurate color representation, my rule of thumb is when you have whites in your image, such as the white plate below, it’s good to start with aimging for those whites to look white in your final photo).

Leigh Loftus ImageLeigh Loftus Food ShotLeigh Loftus Image

The same thing applies to our image that was too yellow, only in the opposite direction, we add more blue. 

Leigh Loftus Drink ImagesLeigh Loftus Drink Images

It’s so simple that literally anyone can do it, it takes a minute or so and can change the entire look and feel of your image, pretty awesome right.

That’s all for our first tip, but if you recall, I’ve still not shared the No. 1 mistake being made in restaurant photography. I’ve got one more example to cover and once you learn this your food photo game will be forever changed.

Take a look at the image below. As you can see I’ve used two different colored arrows. Any thoughts as to why?

This image was shot in two types of lighting at the same time. It was shot near a window using natural light BUT this restaurant’s interior lights were edison bulbs, which are very yellow as demonstrated above. Therefore, the image itself has two contradicting color palettes. 

Leigh Loftus Plate Of Food

Based on what you just learned, if we wanted to correct the yellow being seen in the food, we would use the warmth tool to add blue. But when we do that, the blues in the image are going to be way too blue and if we try to correct the blues, then the opposite is going to happen. As you can see in the example below, no matter what I do, the color is just off. They look muddy* and the food itself looks less appetizing the more I try to correct the colors.

Leigh Loftus Three Dishes

*Muddy colors: Muddy color is also frequently used with negative connotations to describe a color we are not happy with as it appears wrong or out of place. This could be any color, not just gray or brown. Source:

So, how do we fix that?

The only way to fix that is through knowing, NOT to shoot it like that to begin with. The No. 1 culprit to bad food photography is shooting with two different light sources.

The simplest way to get the best quality cell phone photo, every single time, is as easy as turning off all your overhead/man made lights and physically placing the subject closer to available natural light. That’s when the “smarts” of your smartphone’s camera will really shine and that’s when your food photos will start earning you the use of the coveted #ShotOnPhone.

Now you know the No.1 cause of bad food photos, how to avoid it altogether, and how to quickly and easily color correct any images of yours that might have been too blue or too yellow/orange. 

If you enjoyed this article and you’re interested in learning more about cell phone food photography, I invite you to join the Chef Shots Community

Leigh Loftus is a 12-year-professional F&B photographer and the founder of The Chef Shots, an online curriculum teaching the culinary world how to master their smartphone camera, create “drool-worthy” content and captivate their audience. 





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