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The secret to shooting sumptuous food photos

Eigensinn Farm Pork Steak with Green beans cooked with speck and garlic scape at Haisai restaurant in Singhampton on Sept. 6, 2013.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

In March, I attended a food-photography workshop in Sicily with Béatrice Peltre, author of the cookbook La Tartine Gourmande. The true value was in watching Peltre work: endless adjustments and retakes, extreme pickiness when selecting produce and the patience to keep trying until the shot was right.

Martha Stewart, one might think, would know all of this, with her extensive media experience and general air of OCD. And yet her Twitter feed of late has had the look of being hijacked by a half-blind toddler. The images, collected and spread far and wide by BuzzFeed, range from out of focus and badly lit to earning comparisons to the origins of penicillin and the contents of certain bathroom fixtures. Not a good thing.

Food photography, for all the derision it receives, isn't easy, especially when shooting with a smartphone. Here's how to do it right.

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Don't use your flash: "The best food under harsh lighting conditions won't look appetizing," says Vancouver photographer Joann Pai. "Never use the flash on a smartphone." If it's dark, look for external light sources, such as candles or a lamp. In daytime, shoot near a window, with the subject out of direct sunlight.

Don't stop at one: "You're never going to get it on the first shot," says Vancouver photographer Shawn Taylor. "Try the same thing with little tweaks: lighting, where you place the focus, exposure, angle."

Think about angles: "For me, the best angle is top-down," says Pai. "It gives you a chance to style what's around the table." Taylor agrees, and says that trying different angles is key to getting a creative shot. "45 degrees is boring because that's how you see your food when you're sitting at the table."

Don't centre everything: "The fact that we can move the phone quickly to what we want to show is really empowering," says Peltre, who suggests playing with cropping and what appears within the frame. Pai is a believer in the classic rule of thirds, placing the subject one-third of the way in from the photo's edges. "I like to place my subjects off-centre."

Don't post straight online: A little adjustment of your image can go a long way, whether it's via a photo-editing app (see sidebar) or just an Instagram filter. "When you've got bad light, sometimes the filter fixes things," says Taylor.

Apps to try

Joann Pai suggests thinking outside the Instagram frame when shooting with your phone. Here are her three essential apps:

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ProCamera 7 (iOS, itunes.apple.com)

Use this app to control camera functionality while taking photos, including manually adjusting shutter speed, focus, exposure and white balance – and displaying live ISO and shutter-speed data.

Snapseed (iOS, Android, Chrome, snapseed.com, itunes.apple.com)

Adjust ambience, brightness, and more in this mobile- or Web-based photo editor that's been owned by Google since late last year.

VSCO Cam (iOS, itunes.apple.com)

Pai likes this app for its filters, which she prefers over those in Instagram as they're more food-friendly. "Filters should alter the mood of the scene but not take away from what the food actually looks like."

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