Why Food Photos on Instagram Are Looking Less Perfect

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For a long time, food looked one way on Instagram. It was the look of crisp, pristinely lit plates seen from above, with sprigs of herbs strewn to appear haphazard, despite the tedious work of styling tweezers; stacks of pancakes and cookies shot at exactly the correct angle to show a blur of eggs, old-timey glass bottles of milk, and an “accidental” dusting of flour in the background.

This aesthetic has worked. With its softboxes, fake prop walls, and marble surfaces, it established a generation of bloggers and Instagrammers as professional recipe developers, content creators, and best-selling cookbook authors.

I’ve been noticing something, though: This type of content isn’t doing as well as it used to. Big Instagrammers are turning off Like counts and grumbling about their lack of growth. Creators with five-figure followings are struggling to crack a thousand Likes on a photo. People blame Instagram’s pivot to video: The algorithm isn’t showing their posts, so naturally engagement is down, they argue, and in July, head of Instagram Adam Mosseri confirmed the platform’s increased focus on videos. But then, what to make of the plenty of cooks on my feeds who are doing just fine, resisting Reels and raking in tens of thousands of likes on pictures of bowls of pasta or oily bubbles of focaccia dough? With their follower counts ballooning, their work proves that photos can still perform — those photos just don’t look like what food on Instagram used to look like.

Instagram food is entering what we’ll call — by the suggestion of my colleague Dayna Evans — its laissez-faire era, a shift in both vibe and aesthetic that’s underpinned by generational changes, a diversification of food creators, and a long-simmering frustration with the platform’s entrenched culture of curation. This developing sensibility is best represented by creators like @eatnunchi, @cuhnja, @paris.starn, @suea, @tenderherbs, and @yungkombucha420, all of whom embody an approach to food that feels curated yet lived-in; but it extends to all manner of home cooks who’ve started sharing what they make online.

In place of the previous era’s perfection is food and food photography that feels weirder, messier, and more comfortable. It implies messing around at home with a phone and the midday sun, not setting up a fancy camera and a lighting rig. It is, more often than not, food that appears in a real setting — a dinner party, a weekday lunch — as opposed to food that looks studio-composed into a product. The London-based magazine AnOther has called this shift “lo-fi food,” emphasizing its focus on “minimal presentation and big flavour.” It is food that looks like it will be eaten — and enjoyed.

Maggie, a 30-year-old creator who started @coffeewithmaggie in 2016, came up during the height of Instagram curation. (She chooses not to use her last name in association with her content creation.) “You’re at a restaurant and they bring out the food and everybody takes pictures for 15, 20 minutes and it has to be perfectly staged and no one can bite it,” she says of those early days. Recently, she’s noticed the shift to the laissez-faire aesthetic. “The things that I see in photos now are really more of that photo dump style,” says Maggie. “It’s less of the perfectly curated marble studio and more interest in my actual kitchen that I actually cooked in.” That “photo dump” style Maggie describes is one piloted by Gen Z, who have — more than other generations — given up on the curated feed in favor of going weird, ugly, and unfiltered.

The more casual visuals are meant to convey a greater sense of authenticity. “What you’re hitting on is the shift in Instagram and social as a whole,” says Zoe Cohen, formerly the senior director of brand marketing at the underwear company Parade. “[The industry] started out super perfect and very DSLR, and now it’s shifted to iPhone and real and gritty and BTS and people wanting to see behind the veil.”

Parade has been — however surprisingly — one of the leading brands to seize onto the laissez-faire food look. Food posts on its Instagram, which Cohen ran until March of this year, exemplify the more art-school side of the laissez-faire aesthetic, including a shrimp cocktail stamped with the brand’s logo and a dripping, messy banana split announcing a summer sale. “The whole platform is moving away from perfection into the weird, the unusual, the authentic,” Cohen says.

This change has been building: “The Instagram aesthetic is over,” internet culture reporter Taylor Lorenz wrote in 2019, citing younger users’ desire to share photos that look candid and haphazard in response to “influencer overload.” Perfect-looking food photography is not only an unattainable standard, but its professionalized appearance also suggests corporatization, setting off the alarm bells of influencer fatigue.

“I feel nothing but relief about what seems to be the end of the era of the ‘perfect’ food picture on Instagram,” says Teresa Finney, a recipe developer and the baker behind Atlanta’s At Heart Panaderia. Finney thought the “very simple, not-a-lot-of-effort pictures” she’s been posting on Instagram for about two years would flop, but they’ve been doing better than she expected.

Amateur food blogger Alisha Saxena has found similar success: “I went from iPhone photos taken on my kitchen countertop with warm kitchen lights, to DSLR photos in natural lighting with backdrops,” she says. “Surprisingly, the posts in the middle of this journey — iPhone photos in natural lighting but less ‘staged’ food — performed the best.”

Finney once found inspiration in the photos from major food blogs and big magazines. But crafting the perfect photo is no longer how Finney wants to expend her energy, especially as a freelancer doing the work of “about four jobs,” she explains. “People want realness and not some ideal of a tablescape that seems like too much work to execute after a long day of living through a pandemic, especially if the picture is from a person and not a brand,” Finney says. “People still want vibes, but the vibes have relaxed.”

The pandemic feels inextricable from the rise of the laissez-faire aesthetic. As more people began to cook at home, a community of diary-like cooking archives (of which I have my own) sprouted on Instagram, including many of the accounts mentioned above; simultaneously, home cooks like Emily Mariko became sensations on TikTok. Like food bloggers in the industry’s early days, they aren’t necessarily food pros.

That’s part of a larger cultural shift, according to Sue Chan, who was previously the brand director of Momofuku. On Instagram, Care of Chan, Chan’s “food culture agency” that oversees events, brand partnerships, and marketing, shares photos that exemplify the laissez-faire aesthetic. Chan explains that when she started in the restaurant industry, she saw a spectrum with David Chang on one side and Thomas Keller on the other — fine dining versus casual and punk. “By the time I left, you had David Chang and Thomas Keller on one side, and the Laila Gohars of the world on the other side,” she says, referring to the artist behind surreal designs that often involve food. (Gohar has been a Care of Chan client.) As people from backgrounds like art, fashion, and design increasingly enter the food world, Chan says, “I think we’re starting to see a variety of aesthetics influence the food industry.”

When styled according to the new aesthetic, food is usually presented simply, without the accouterments of the blogger bloom. On @eatnunchi’s feed, the background for a layered jelly cake is a rumpled cloth; on @cuhnja’s, shoes and scuffed floors peek from behind a composed vegetable spread. The writer Ruby Tandoh — always comfortably unfussy with her cooking — recently extended this approach to her Instagram, posting slideshows of in-progress messes (garlic skins, emptied cans in the sink).

As Tandoh wrote on Instagram:

“there is an art to making a kitchen into a photography studio, and i havent mastered it nor do i have any intention of trying. however, i’ve turned a corner and realised that if i can’t make my cooking look cute, i might as well lean into the ugly and use that camera phone flash and be honest about this space that i cook in and the realities of using it and the truth of how things end up looking.”

Of course, leaning into ugliness — or at least less obvious curation — is still an aesthetic choice, intended to signify an irreverence or a rejection of norms. On Instagram, a “photo dump” that looks candid still requires you to select photos while achingly aware of how those photos will be perceived. As Alicia Kennedy writes: “‘Bad’ photos are in, but the thing about them is that they’re not really bad or even insouciant: They’re just a different approach, less big bright lighting, a little grainy, still beautifully plated.”

Laissez-faire’s creep into the corporate space via adoption by brands like Parade and agencies like Care of Chan poses a conundrum: How weird, unusual, or authentic can an aesthetic be when it comes from brands and professionals still trying to sell you on something? Is it not just creating a new standard making the thing that was punk a new norm?

And yet, by slowly shifting the standard for Instagram food and decreasing the sense of expectations around it, I think the laissez-faire aesthetic still provides a welcome change for cooks and eaters. Even restaurants — like New York’s La Mercerie, which previously relied on the predictable perfect photo — have shifted to a style that feels more real and free; the latter is food I can imagine myself eating, a scene I can transport myself into.

This trend toward DIY-looking food also opens up the door to greater inclusivity, according to Jonathan Katz, who blogs as Flavors of Diaspora. He’s seen the photo style increasingly in disability cooking groups he’s a part of. For disabled and neurodivergent people who have trouble with fine-tuned decoration or people with disabilities who live with inaccessible kitchens where it’s hard to cook, much less stage a meal, “the shift to DIY helps with the pressure,” Katz explains. “I feel like there’s something about the general cultural shift that supports that — folks are way more into ‘does this look like something I can do?’ and ‘look at this thing I made — it’s not glamorous but it’s delicious!’”

Had you asked me two years ago if I felt comfortable posting my cooking on Instagram, I would have said no — my plating skills and photography weren’t on par with everything I scrolled past. But seeing other people with the same passion for food be unafraid to make work that looks amateur, imperfect, and unprofessional has given me a sense that it’s okay to do the same.

The food accounts I follow and interact with are all people who seem guided by a desire to inspire, not to sell a product or to pretend our kitchens are always clean and our food always perfect. The pressure of showing the “right” thing on Instagram isn’t entirely alleviated, but I’ve found a space where it’s okay to have realistic ambitions — perhaps it is even the weird, messy, imperfect side that now draws people in.

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