How to take Vacation Photos like a Professional Instagrammer

Part One — Overheads: Food & Product Knolling

This post is the first of a few on how to take photos on instagram like a professional. Hopefully this series will give some good insight and tips into how you can take great photos while only distracting you from your travels for short amounts of time. The point of these tutorials is to take less than 5 minutes from set up to shot to editing to post.

Most importantly, you do not need an expensive camera for any of these.

Part One: Overhead Shots, Food & Product Knolling

What you need: An iPhone or Android device. The VSCO Camera app from the Apple App Store/Android Store. I would also recommend paying up to $10 for their additional paid filters. I, personally, have the Limited Edition Collection + The Aesthetic Series.
First off, I am not a professional instagrammer. I am an advertising creative director who used to be a professional photographer in NYC. I love instagram and I love photography but, most importantly, I simply love documenting my day-to-day adventures and my travels. I don’t look at my posts as a way to create influence but more of a way for me to document experiences and moments. You can check out my feed here.

I’m doing this tutorial series because people constantly ask me how I take my photos when I travel. Several people assume I take photos with a DSLR and then spend hours editing for a post. News flash: I don’t! I spend max five minutes on one post. I actually DO like to enjoy my vacations when I travel :). This tutorial will show you not only some editing techniques, but also fundamental photography principles.

I’m starting with overhead photography because from an aesthetic and creative standpoint, they can be the most technical and complicated. Below are overheads taken by some friends of mine.

Clockwise from Top Left:,,

They are gorgeous. However, they are also all shot with a DSLR professional camera and, in some cases, use studio lighting. My friends who took these photos are professional instagrammers & influencers which is why their quality is so great and frankly they’re getting paid to take these photos so they need to be great! The time spent to craft these images and then edit them is part of their jobs. I don’t have all that time though when I travel so I have to make due with my iPhone. Here’s a couple of my overheads I’ve taken with my trusty iPhone 6 + VSCO in the past!

Not bad right?

In this first section, we’re going to focus on a more technical tutorial of how to take overhead shots.

Lighting is almost everything for a photo and finding the right light can be critical. For food photography, specifically, here’s some advice for when you’re traveling (or just at brunch) — request a seat near a window so you can get tons of natural light. You do not want to use indoor lighting for overhead shots of food and you don’t want to use your iPhone’s flash. 9/10 it’s going to make the food look gross and shadowy. Natural light is your friend. If you’re in a dark, indoor restaurant, just skip the food photo and don’t annoy your neighbors with your flash.

Once you’ve found the natural light, use the above guide as a tool as a for the ideal location of the light source. To create really appealing food or to make your products more interesting, you really want to get side light. Overhead light will not work because your hands will inevitably block the food with a shadow (duh). Ideally you’ll get the light coming in from 9 to 10 o’clock. (10–11 is also okay as seen above). The reason you want side light is that you’ll get really beautiful shadowing on your food that will make your food have multiple pigments because the light will hit it on one side and it will be darker on the other. Make sense?

One of the biggest mistakes people make when they take food photography is they think that the overhead shot has to look pristine and perfect — FYI it will usually look very staged when you do this! Instead of trying to fit everything into your shot and instead of trying to center it and align it perfectly, go crazy with your angle and throw in some items in there too to make it feel more authentic.

This is the second big mistake people make. The reason that overheads look amazing, sometimes, is because, for the most part, they’re taken at a perfect 90 degree angle. Yes. This does mean that you have to be that person who’s standing up and holding your phone out. Honestly, practice makes perfect and I’ve learned how to hold my phone steady with my arm at length without looking at my screen so I only need 10 seconds at most to take an overhead shot of a table of food. This is really a critical aspect of overhead photography.

All icons c/o The Noun Project

Okay. Finally something not food related! Here’s the deal with product knolling. It takes a LOT of patience and time to get the above left image perfectly done and, to be honest, they often look like ads in an instagram feed to me. I prefer to have a more relaxed strung out layout where it looks more like I’ve just tossed items onto a surface and snapped a photo. The same lighting principles as above apply and your surface you choose to put things on is almost as important as what you put on it.

Insider Tip: Instagrammers have been known to purchase marble contact paper as well as several types of 2' x 2' stone and wood samples for these sort of photos.

Cropping, Adjusting & Editing

Woo! You’re ready to start taking photos! I’m going to give you a step-by-step process of how I edit my photos.

Here is a photo of a local lunch I had when I was in Cartagena this past weekend. I got the food and snapped this photo simply because I wanted to see what the light was like. Survey says: It’s good!

My very kind and sweet boyfriend now just proactively starts helping me arrange food when it arrives — though to be fair, he’s also started enjoying taking overhead shots as well. Meanwhile, I’m still just snapping away while this is all happening. This photo is still just in the “it’s okay” category.

Okay. I’ve found my photo. I like that he’s holding his glasses and I’ve put my shades down as well. From here it still just looks a little to0 regular but here’s where the magic comes in.

Note that the light is coming from the north end of this photo and it was about 2pm and the light was pretty overhead but we had shade from palm trees which made the difference.

Here is probably what you’ve been waiting for more than anything (if you made it this far). I used VSCO’s A6 preset (a paid expansion pack) and then you can see my additional adjustments. It seems like a lot, but I have it down to a science now.

Here’s your final product. I was pretty happy with it but when I opened up and uploaded it to instagram, there was something about it that I just wasn’t loving so I started playing around with the crop and angle.

And here’s your final product! I decided to rotate the image so it looked more like from the perspective of where my boyfriend was + the fish also look better being at this angle. A short little, witty caption and in less than 3 minutes I was happily scarfing away at my lunch (side note: it was delicious and that rice was coconut sticky rice — OMG SO GOOD).

Certainly the quality is reduced because I’m running it through my phone and a post processing app but when you’re looking at it in your hand, it looks crips, bright, colorful and it continues to make my mouth salivate even four days later :-)

Be on the look out for Part Two: Fundamentals of Portrait & Landscape Shooting soon!

Check out my instagram at! Feel free to drop any questions you have into my DM box. I check my messages regularly!