So Hot Right Now

The Not-So-Secret Secrets of Making Instagram Gold

May 24, 2016

We're living in a time when it's hard not to know what to expect before you get to a restaurant. Find the website of a café you've heard about recently and you'll just as quickly find its menu, then be hurled onto its Instagram page, where you'll see photos of its most beautifully-positioned dishes posted by the legions who've made the pilgrimage (myself included).

Constant image-sharing means fewer surprises, and it also means that trends in design and in food (some of these, I fully admit to reveling in... whoops!) boil over as fast as hot milk—so fast that it's hard to know where they began in the first place. And that it's hard to remember a time before them.

Spicy Egg Salad

A photo posted by Mr. Donahue's (@mrdonahues) on

And so scrolling through Instagram—if you follow the "in-the-know" in New York, L.A., San Francisco, Austin, London, Toronto...—is like looking through soft light-, marble surface-, creamy latte-, and drippy egg-colored glasses. You don't even need to check the account to know that there will be probably be succulents.

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Places without this aesthetic (or that only operate in hours with little natural light—dive bars, I'm looking at you!) might not get as much attention, but I like to think that those remain the hidden treasures.

If there were a trendy restaurant filter on Instagram, here's what it would look like:

  • If Michelangelo were alive today, he'd be sculpting marble surfaces with exactly the right gray to white ratio for optimizing overhead shots:
  • For more rustic, less sleek, go with wood—reclaimed preferable; planks should be rather wide.

Lunch with this girl @nicole_franzen 👌🏼

A photo posted by Max Poglia (@maxpoglia) on

  • The menu should consist, if not entirely of eggs, then mostly of eggs:

My morning: first gym, then this. So far, so good. 💪🏼🍴🍳😋

A photo posted by Patrick Janelle (@aguynamedpatrick) on

  • But God help you if there isn't toast...

A photo posted by BuvetteNYC (@buvettenyc) on

  • ...and eggs on toast.
  • In multiple iterations.


A photo posted by Christian Poschmann (@theposch) on

  • If you do not serve avocados, do not expect your follower count to exceed 10,000.
  • Salads should look tie-dyed.

Lunch today 😋🍴💕 repost @brunchonly 🙏🏼

A photo posted by Café Henrie (@cafehenrie) on

  • And if you can fit all of that into one frame, that's ideal. (Please note matcha latte peaking in at the 12-o'clock hour—we'll get to that later.)

What better way to celebrate #MothersDay than a Two Hands brunch! 👋🏼 #HappyMothersDay @alifewortheating

A photo posted by Two Hands (@twohandsnyc) on

  • Every latte should be served with subtle latte art (on aforementioned marble surface).


A photo posted by Molly Tavoletti | NYC (@mollytavoletti) on

  • For matcha lattes, you'll get bonus points.

Banana bread and #MondaymorningMatcha for breakfast

A photo posted by CHALAIT (@chalaitnyc) on

  • A latte (iced) with a marble surface (round) and a pop of color as well as the right amount of neutral tones in many different materials? It's perfect.

the #solution to a loooong day 💪🏼☕️

A photo posted by Marni Danielle Harvey (@styleontherise) on

  • Introduce adorable drawings and typefaces.
  • Food should fit comfortably within the frame and be naturally graphic and saturated...
  • and/or easily held in one hand (please note: egg on toast, a variation):

Saturday is looking pretty good from our perspective. 📷: @bellybible

A photo posted by Black Seed Bagels (@blackseedbagels) on

  • And in that regard, a good floor is just as important as a good surface:
  • One last thing: cute succulents!

Such decor

A photo posted by Heather Warning (@hjwarning) on

🐨 brunch @ a little Aussie/bedstuy gem

A photo posted by Lizzy 💭 (@lizzyvogan) on

While I'm happily seduced by the tactics listed above (and have reproduced many in my own apartment), even I could use some change: Dear restaurant designers and PR teams, where are your new ideas?

What are you tired of seeing on Instagram? What do you want to see more of? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • elevi1022
  • 702551
  • cbforesman
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


elevi1022 May 25, 2016
I agree process wor/prep work, a half finished meal, or a messy kitchen "during" cooking is more interesting.
elevi1022 May 25, 2016
702551 May 24, 2016
Oh, and photos of latte art? That screams three things: "This is the 7,361,935th photo of latte art. It looks pretty much the same as the other 7,361,934 photos. And yes, I am in *AMERICA*!"

Don't expect latte art in Paris or Vienna.

702551 May 24, 2016
I stopped taking pictures at my farmers market a couple of years ago. Why? I realized I was taking the same pictures that I had taken about twelve months prior. I've printed a few as greeting cards, but let's face it, a bunch of pattypan squash look the same year after year.

I don't dine out much these days. I really don't need to take pictures of restaurant food. At any given restaurant visit, there are generally several people taking photos of the food, better ones might be on Instagram, Flickr, worse photos on Facebook, Twitter, Yelp (unless the person is a serious photographer). Plus, many of the restaurants here (SF Bay Area) have a substantial social media presence, so it's not like I'm lacking for imagery.

I cook a lot at home, so I still take the occasional food photo. The one thing that I find lacking even today in 2016 is the small number of images showing the process of making the food. This site is an prime example, almost all of the photos are taken of the final product, whereas in many cases, one or two photos of key steps says far more than the fourth view of the same slice of cake.

A few times, I have take photos of my mise en place place on a sheet of butcher paper and scrawled basic notes like "10 g. kosher/1 kg. ___" or "325 deg 20 min." and that's my "recipe."

For example, here's someone's photo of grilled shishito peppers:

Sure, the final product looks nice.

Next, let's look at someone else's photo:

Okay, they have used a metal skewer for the roasting. A little more information.

Finally, let's look at one more person's photo:

Aha! Here the person has used two skewers and wrapped part of them with foil to avoid charring the bamboo. Now if you've ever roasted shishitos like the previous photographer or made similar kabobs, well you'd know that the peppers tend to spin around on one skewer (and metal skewers are slippery anyhow). By using two bamboo skewers, you can prevent the peppers from spinning like a propellor.

This last photo is far more informational than the first shishito photo which only shows a dish of grilled peppers.

If you want a photo to tell a thousand words, you need to think about what photo to take.

A lot of people *still* don't get it. And it's not like the old days when you had to pay $8 for a 36-exposure roll of film and another $20 to have it developed and processed so there was a cost consideration. Today's photos are basically *FREE*, but a lot of food bloggers still don't know that there are other good and helpful food photos that aren't just a beauty shot of the final product.
cbforesman May 24, 2016
The de rigueur scrap of artisanal linen draped across every single food blog photo - it just kills me every time. Make it stop.