We asked pro photographers to help make your table extra-photogenic this year.

By Samantha Zabell
Updated October 13, 2015
Maren Caruso/Getty Images
José Picayo

Think of a narrative.

“When it comes to composition, I try to think about the story I want to tell,” says food and travel photographer Joann Pai, whose Instagram, @sliceofpai, would make anyone hungry. For your Christmas dinner, think about what you want to convey—do you want to focus on the story of the food, or the story of the family?

For food, Pai says, you might want to get closer to the subject to fully capture texture and colors. If you’re focusing on the family gathered together, you’ll likely want to get an overhead shot that includes plates, table settings, and hands reaching for another helping of mashed potatoes.

Look for natural light.

Any photographer will tell you that light from a window is much more flattering than any artificial lighting in your home. If you don’t have large windows in your kitchen or dining room, go outside to take a photo of your favorite dish. “I can't tell you how many photos I've shot on my front stoop or back porch,” says Sarah Copeland, food director at Real Simple and the cook and photographer behind the account, @edibleliving.

If you’re eating or cooking after dark, just try to ensure that you’re not directly under any overhead lights. “Spotlights are harsh, and create really strong shadows,” says Pai. “The food will look really flat and unappetizing.” This is the same argument against using the flash on your iPhone.

Find a neutral background.

Let the food speak for itself, says Pai. “I avoid patterns or strong colors, because they hide the food rather than making the food your hero.” When photographing food, look for a clean, neutral surface—Copeland suggests a white tablecloth, marble countertop, or plain wood table.

Prep your environment.

“Your background can do a lot to help or hurt the photo,” Copeland says. “Clear away anything that won’t improve your shot.” Pai agrees—if you’re going for an overhead shot that creates a “scene,” just be sure to remove any props or items from the table that will detract from your image. This includes dirty napkins, children’s toys, or a dishtowel that landed on the table when you carried in the casserole dish.

Zoom with your feet.

“The zoom on your camera isn’t a natural zoom, it’s a digital zoom,” explains Pai. “Things become very grainy. Use your body to get the composition right.” If you want to get closer to a subject, move your body closer. Keep in mind you can always crop the photo later.

Take more than one photo.

Don’t move on after one shot—and don’t take 15 shots from the exact same position. Instead experiment with “different perspectives and angles to see which looks best,” Pai says.

Adjust exposure beforehand.

You may think you can only adjust brightness after you’ve imported your photo into Instagram (or other editing app), but iPhone users can actually adjust exposure when framing the shot. Focus the camera onto your subject, and tap the screen. A yellow box will show up around the focus point of your shot, and a tiny yellow sun will appear to the right of the box. Move your finger up or down to play with the exposure.

Don't go too crazy with edits.

Pai’s favorite editing tool is Snapseed, an app that allows you to tune your image. For filters, she uses VSCO Cam when absolutely necessary. But you don’t need to tinker with every element of your photo. In fact, if Pai had to pick one edit everyone should do, it would be to adjust the contrast. “It adds life to certain things,” she says, and makes certain colors stronger.

Dinner photos typically don’t look their best when heavily filtered, says Copeland: “Post food shots without a filter so natural colors don’t get distorted, or limit yourself to one or two filters that feel like your look, and stick to them so they all have a cohesive feel.”