Good ➡️ Better: Food Photos by Simon Abrams

I recently had dinner with my wife and friends at a great restaurant in DUMBO, and like basically, everyone these days, I wanted to document the delicious food I was eating. For posterity, or whatever.

That night, I happened to have my fancy Fuji X100S with me, but as is often the case, it was just more convenient to use my iPhone. Here's a picture of my entree:

Smoked Long Island duck with daikon radish, lavender, roasted apricot and duck jus

Smoked Long Island duck with daikon radish, lavender, roasted apricot and duck jus

It was the duck and it was delicious. You might even actually believe me, just from seeing that photo, but... let's just be clear, here: food photography is an art, and requires tons of skill and preparation, and at minimum, proper, balanced lighting to make it look good. It's really, absurdly easy to go from appetizing to nauseating when taking pictures of food, particularly with a mobile device, in dim restaurant lighting, which is one reason I rarely post my food shots on social media in the first place. Be realistic with your expectations, y'all.

That said, here are some steps you can take to set yourself up for success:

  • First things first: give your lens a wipe with the corner of your t-shirt before shooting. That's an easy win - your image will be much clearer if there's not a schmear of crap on the glass (that's photographer-speak for "lens").
  • Also, know your equipment. I'm shooting with an iPhone, and no disrespect to Tim and Jony, but iPhones (and most mobile devices) are happiest in bright sunlight, not the carefully curated ambience of a restaurant. Because of that, in low light situations, make sure to hold your phone as still as possible to avoid camera shake before tapping that shutter button.
  • Speaking of avoiding blur, make sure your subject is in focus. Soft edges on food = a pile of gross mush. On iPhone, tap to focus and expose a region of your scene; tap and hold to lock in those settings so you can recompose the shot if necessary. You can slide up or down on the screen to brighten or darken your image.
  • Lastly, composition is crucial. Frame your photo at an interesting angle, being sure to keep the clutter out of the frame, and create some depth.

Okay, now that I have my photo, as seen above, there are some basic tweaks to be made in my editing app of choice. If you have an iPhone, you can start with the built-in editing features in the Photos app (bonus: the edits you make will be synced with iCloud, so you can call continue to edit in Photos app on the desktop or other iOS devices).

Tap here to edit! 

Tap here to edit! 

One of the first things to do is boost the exposure of the image. Almost any image can benefit from a little pop of exposure and/or contrast. Be judicious, though.

The Photos app tries to automatically help you out by offering a "Light" slider that, in many cases will figure out the right combination of exposure, brightness, shadow  and highlight tweaks to make your image look good. Just by moving that slider to the right, I'm already in a better place than where I started.


I could stop here, but there's still room for improvement. By tapping the list icon on the right, I can edit individual properties of the image, and have more fine-grained control. Awesome. 


Indoor lights — usually incandescent — can make everything yellow, which isn't great for food photos. A quick tweak to the white-balance, or color cast, under the Color slider,  should help.


So here we are, just using the built-in tools that come with iOS:


Again, miles better than where we started. Now, because I'm a fancy photographer-dude, I sometimes like to go beyond the default tools in iOS, and use one of the myriad editing apps that are available in the App Store. One of my favorites is Lightroom Mobile, because of its advanced editing tools and desktop-syncing features (the app is free on iOS/Android, but a Creative Cloud subscription is required for syncing and some of the editing tools). Snapseed, free on iOS and Android from Google, is also a fine choice.

Lightroom Mobile's interface

Lightroom Mobile's interface

Here's where I ended up, after correcting the white-balance, performing a Curves adjustment and cropping out some of the distracting highlights on the bottom of the plate: 

I also messed around with the hue and saturation of some of the individual colors. Another thing to remember is that, much like a skilled chef cooking a meal would never use every spice in their cabinet, we must resist the temptation to be heavy-handed and use every slider available when editing our photos. Less is very often more.

Anyway, still not quite ready for Bon Appétit, and there's certainly areas that could be improved, but I think it's way more share-worthy than before. And before you ask, yes, I did snap a quick shot of my caramelized banana dessert:

So there you have it: while you probably still won't get hired as a food photographer based solely on tweaks like the ones I've made here, these simple steps you can take to get your food pictures from Good ➡️  Better.

Photoshop Quick Tips: Isolation Mode by Simon Abrams

Right-click on the canvas to view selected layers in Isolation Mode

One of the new features in Photoshop CC that might have slipped by you is a little gem that can help make your life easier when working on complex .psd files with tons of layers. Isolation Mode unclutters your Layers panel by only displaying the layers you're currently working on, and temporarily hiding everything else.

To enter Isolation Mode, with the Move tool active (press the V key on the keyboard), select the layer or layers you want to focus on, either by shift- or cmd-clicking on them in the Layers Panel, or by command-dragging (ctrl-drag, if you're on Windows) a selection around them on the canvas. With your cursor over the canvas, right-click and choose Isolation Mode from the resulting contextual menu.

Alternately, with your layers selected, you can click on the Filter menu at the very top of the Layers panel and choose Selected as the filter type.

Another way to enter Isolation Mode is to use the Layers Panel's Filter pull-down menu to only show selected layers

Right-click in the Layers panel to release a layer from Isolation Mode.

To remove a layer from the isolated set, right-click it in the Layers panel and choose Release from Isolation (if you don't see that option in your contextual menu, make sure your Move tool is active).

To add another layer to the isolated set, hover over it on the canvas, right-click, and select the layer.

Finally, to exit Isolation Mode entirely, you can always clear the Layers Panel's filters by clicking on the Filtering On/Off switch (it's the little guy at the top-right of the panel that turns red when filtering is on).

This is one of those great features that you probably didn't realize you needed, but now that it's here, you'll wonder how you ever got by without it. 

Layer Tags by Simon Abrams

Design superstar Marc Edwards of Bjango (makers of fine apps including iStat Menus) has a great post over on the Bjango blog about taking advantage of a fantastic new feature of Photoshop CS6: layer search. His tip includes tagging layers with information that makes it easy to filter and update multiple layers at a time. It's one of those things that seems obvious when you see it in action - in fact I feel kind of silly for not having thought of it myself. Anyway, I definitely intend to incorporate Marc's tip into my workflow, and you should too.

My Pinterest is Piqued by Simon Abrams


I’m still trying to figure out the usefulness of Pinterest in my own workflow, but in the meantime, I came across this “Pin” that I found really useful. It leads to a post full of useful photo retouching tips on Smashing Magazine. There are some really quick and easy retouching tips in there, as well as some general-usage Photoshop pointers. Good stuff - even if I don’t eventually figure out Pinterest, I’ll at least be using some of these tips in my own photography workflow.

This is a (Re)sampling Sport by Simon Abrams

Bicubic Automatic is a new sampling algorithm added to CS6

One of the new additions to Photoshop CS6 that will likely have slipped by you is a new addition to the way resizing images is handled. In the past, when using the Image Size dialog box to reduce an image’s size, you’d have to specify that you wanted Photoshop to use the Bicubic Sharper algorithm, which applies some sharpening to make images look their best when shrunk down. On top of that, it wasn’t a “sticky setting” - no matter how many times you selected that option, it Photoshop wouldn’t remember it, and you’d have to choose it every single time.

In CS6, although it’s still not sticky, Photoshop defaults to a new option called Bicubic Automatic. As you’d guess from the name, Photoshop intelligently chooses the best resampling algorithm for the job at hand (but you can still go in and override that choice if you like). As a bonus, Adobe has added the resampling options to a pull-down menu in the Options Bar of the Free Transform command.

You can now specify a resampling algorithm while Free Transforming an object

(Kudos to you if you got the Public Enemy reference in the title of this post.)

PS Quick Tips: Spring-Loaded Tools, Bird's Eye View and More by Simon Abrams

Photoshop Tips: Spring-loaded Tools, Bird’s Eye View and Interactive Brush Sizing from Simon Abrams on Vimeo.

It’s been forever, but I finally decided to demo and upload some more Photoshop tips. In this video, I cover Spring-Loaded tools, Bird’s Eye View, and a couple of other quick tips that were introduced back in Photoshop CS4, but that may have slipped under the radar.

Aperture Quick Tip: Update Your Metadata Presets by Simon Abrams

Aperture’s metadata is saved in an XML document and can be easily updated.

Aperture users: Are you using Metadata Presets? If not, you should consider it - they’re really handy for entering metadata on large numbers of images, particularly at the point of import. I have one fairly generic preset that just has my copyright info, country, and name, which I use for everyday shooting, and come up with others depending on the shoot (travel, events, etc). What I realized when the new year rolled around was that my copyright still said “©2009 Simon Abrams. All Rights Reserved.”, and that I had no easy way of changing it, due to Aperture’s woefully spartan interface for managing or editing metadata presets. In Aperture’s current incarnation, all you can do is add, rename or delete a preset; you can’t edit any of the text within it.

So what to do? Well, a little poking around in the Application Support folder (specifically ~/Library/Application Support/Aperture) reveals that Aperture’s metadata presets are (quasi-)conveniently contained in an XML document. Simply opening up the file in your text editor of choice enables you to make changes to the metadata content, save it, and voila, you’re in business. Of course, ideally, you’d be able to make these simple edits in Aperture itself - maybe we can add this to our wishlist for (the increasingly vaporware-ish) Aperture 3.