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How to Take Thanksgiving Photos That Aren’t Lame

Thanksgiving turkey
Thanksgiving turkey

A real-life Thanksgiving Instagram from 2013. #vintage (Alyssa Bereznak/Yahoo Tech)

Hey, its the fourth week of November! That means youll soon be eating plate upon plate of delicious food amid your sweater-clad relatives. And I’ll bet you my first serving of mashed potatoes that you’ll take a photo of that aforementioned feast and post it online.

Last Thanksgiving, Instagram saw a record-setting 10 million turkey day posts in its feed — about 200 photos a second. Unfortunately, the majority of those photos were horrible, blurry snapshots that didnt do anybody’s beautifully basted bird justice. Thats why Im here with a handy guide to photographing your feast this Thursday.

1. No flash.

Man taking flash photo
Man taking flash photo

NO. (Thinkstock)

I get that your Aunt Gertrudes house may have the same lighting as the interior of your cars glovebox, but that doesnt mean you need to take every photo of your plate with a burst of bright light. First of all, blinding your relatives pre-feast is usually a mood-killer in a nice family moment. Second, the flash will not help when it comes to photographing food. The proof is in Martha Stewarts colorless pudding (or whatever it is she posts on Twitter). Flash in a dark room tends to wash out the color of your meal, erasing the subtle shadows that make it look enticing and washing out the color of the grub to resemble something that might be reluctantly consumed only in space.

Tweet from Martha Stewart
Tweet from Martha Stewart

This is what happens when you take a flash photo of your plate in a dark room. Thanks, Martha. (Via Twitter)

Which brings me to my second point …

2. Seek natural light.

Light streaming through a window
Light streaming through a window

YES. (Thinkstock)

Maybe your relative’s dining room is a windowless prison, but it could very well be that his kitchen or living room has a few more windows to brighten up your backdrop. If you must photograph your food, take a detour to a room flush with natural light. Not only will the privacy keep your Luddite relatives from giving you a hard time for being on your phone, but you won’t be interrupting the toast before everyone digs in.

3. Consider the medium.
Before you take your photo, ask yourself, where will I post this? Each social network has its own dimensional sweet spot. If you’re Instagramming, make sure you switch your camera to a square frame right off (or give yourself plenty of empty space for cropping). Twitter does better with short, wide-framed horizontal shots. Same with Facebook, except that you can get away with slightly roomier photo heights. 

If you want to record a short video clip with your phone, be sure to do it with the device held horizontally. This will eliminate the dreaded black vertical video bars that have become so very reviled online.

4. Filters don’t fix bad photos.
As someone who recently subjected her Instagram feed to the critical eye of a Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist, I can confirm that mediocre photos cannot be saved by adding an edgy filter. If a photo is too dark, blurred, or just altogether messy, chances are that people won’t be any happier to view it if you’ve also slapped the Kelvin filter on it. Use these effects sparingly, or they’ll soon become a telling sign that you don’t know what you’re doing behind the camera.

4. Strive for better subject matter.

Boy feeding dog under the dinner table
Boy feeding dog under the dinner table

Good boy(s). (Thinkstock)

Unless you live in some sort of strange alternate universe where your relatives don’t argue over immigration and gay marriage every time you get together, you’ll know that family gatherings are never all smiles. A few toothy snapshots are nice, but try to catch some candid shots as well: your uncle’s post-meal nap in the corner of the living room, your little brother sneaking some spiked eggnog, your baby cousin terrorizing your cat. The possibilities to display your family’s unique character, as I’m sure you know, are endless.

As for inanimate objects, try to keep these tired subjects to a minimum: The turkey or a glass of wine are good, nice things, but not particularly stunning. Those photos run the risk of adding to the background noise of everyone else’s Thanksgiving paraphernalia. But if you are going to do it anyway …

5. Choose your angle carefully.
Not all food should be photographed equally. Some dishes, for instance, are arranged interestingly enough that they can withstand the sometimes-harsh aerial photograph. Other dishes, like a lasagna, have interesting tiers that are better photographed from a lower angle.

Layered dessert
Layered dessert

Good layers. (The Primlani Kitchen)

6. Composition and timing matter.
If you’re serious about taking good food photos, these are all things you can consider before you actually plate your food. Avoid mashing it all together into one brown lump. Give each its own plate and consider how each texture and color will complement the other. It’s also important that you dont leave it sitting around for too long. Herbs and garnishes often wither when combined with the heat of a main dish. The best photo youre going to get of something will be right when you place it on your plate. And, finally, please refrain from eating the food pre-photograph. Unless you take the same dainty princess fairy bites that appear in food magazines. But I doubt you do.

(You may think this is overkill, but this is what separates the good from the great.)

7. Cropping sets a tone.

Brussels sprouts and cranberry dish
Brussels sprouts and cranberry dish

Get me out of this Brussels sprout hell. (Instagram)

Last Thanksgiving, I scrolled through Instagram and instantly felt hungry. Yes, I was looking at photos of food, but it was also because those photos were so tightly cropped around the limbs of turkeys and the lumps of macaroni that I felt overwhelmed and immersed in my friends’ meals. In other words, the way a shot is framed can change a lot about the emotion it conveys. If you want to emphasize the richness of your meal, go ahead and get real close and personal; show that turkey sweat. If you’re aiming for sophistication, give your shot room to breathe. Place it on an uncluttered surface and give it plenty of open space.


Rustic! (

8. Focus, focus, focus.
If you’re snapping photos with your smartphone, make sure you’re wielding it correctly. If you have shaky hands, lean onto a chair or table to stablize yourself. Most smartphone cameras work the same way, in that you must lightly tap your screen to focus in on an object. If you’re using iOS 8 on an iPhone or — shudder — iPad, you can adjust the exposure of the photo as you’re focusing by first tapping the screen to focus and then dragging the sun symbol next to the box up or down.


9. If all else fails, just Snapchat.
No one expects a Snapchat photo to be good. Plus, you can make it disappear after a few seconds. That way people will know you’re having a great Thanksgiving but won’t remember that you were not so great at documenting it. 

Follow Alyssa Bereznak on Twitter or email her.