What the New iPhone Means for Your Dismal Food Photos

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You can always tell when a photo of food was taken in a dimly lit restaurant. Either it’s dark and barely visible or there’s the telltale glare of a flash, imbuing the shot with an unappetizing garishness. Or a third possibility where the image has been processed to hell and back, its exposure pushed up so much that everything turns grainy, as if it was handiwork out of a beginner’s dark room instead of the product of a thousand-dollar technological marvel:

This was par for the course until last fall, when Google debuted a new Pixel 3 smartphone featuring a “Night Sight” mode that promised to put an end to blurry, indiscernible photos taken in the dark. Food & Wine called the function “invaluable”; Gizmodo called it “your ticket to way better food photography.” Using a technique akin to HDR, by stacking multiple exposures on top of each other to produce a brighter and sharper image, Night Sight actually made darkened restaurant food photos look pretty decent — or at least good enough to post straight to Instagram Stories, if not a person’s official feed.

Today at its annual iPhone event, Apple unveiled its own night mode on the new line of iPhone 11 models, which means we can pretty much predict the end of shitty nighttime restaurant photos from food grammers on your feed (if a feature is new to the iPhone, that means it’s essentially new to virtually all Insta influencers). There will be no more excuses for grain, flash, or other unflattering ways to compensate for low-light situations. This could even fundamentally impact some restaurants’ marketing and business, as dimly lit eateries that were previously rarely photographed may now be discovered more on social media feeds thanks to photos in which food is clearly visible.

A diptych depicting a jeep in the dessert, one photo very dark, one much brighter.
Apple’s new night mode on the iPhone 11.
Photo: Apple

Another real-world impact may be on the actual behavior of food influencers in restaurants. Expect to see fewer awkward physical maneuvers to get the classic top-down overhead shot of a meal, thanks to the iPhone 11 Pro’s new, hideous, three-lens design that includes a wide camera and an ultra-wide camera. While professional food ‘grammers tend to focus on tight shots of a single dish, according to Eater’s senior social media manager Adam Moussa — who runs Eater’s Instagram account and has to scroll through hundreds of food snapshots a day — the bird’s-eye view of a bountiful spread is still a staple of food photography, one that usually involves standing up or even clambering onto a chair to capture the entire surface of the table in a single frame. That behavior has become commonplace in the Instagram era, but let’s be honest, it’s still a bit obnoxious, especially in the eyes of some restaurant owners and staff.

The iPhone fundamentally changed the camera industry and the medium itself, transforming anyone with a smartphone in their pocket into a photographer, a videographer, a documentarian of everyday life and historical events in the making. It sounds frivolous, but each new iteration impacts the photography we see on our feeds, and by extension, how we view the world. Judging by these features, the world of food we observe on our phones is going to be a little better lit, and more easily wider, going forward.