How-To: Photographing Food In A Restaurant (and Elsewhere On The Road)

This article is not about the technical aspects of food photography per se: I'm certainly not the best food photographer/blogger out there. It's more about how to take decent photos of food in restaurants and other public settings, in both social and technical respects from my experiences. It should be of interest if you are a food blogger, or just like to share pictures of interesting or pretty food you encounter. I used a lot of these ideas on my recent road trips.

I take all of my food photos with one of three cameras. The bowl of peaches (and one apricot) was shot with each camera under the same daylight conditions, from the same angle, using the Auto setting on the cameras. (On the camera phone there is only an Auto setting.) Each is reduced in size to 400 pixels wide at a 72 pixels/inch resolution, but otherwise I've left each photo untouched by Photoshop or any other image editing software.

  • The workhorse is a 6 year old Nikon Coolpix 880. This is a small automatic camera with some manual overrides, a basic zoom lens and autoflash. It does show its age, but is still very useful. The photo is a bit oversaturated but that is something easily correctable in Photoshop.

    peaches_coolpix880.jpg
  • My most recent acquisition is a digital SLR, the Nikon D70s. I use this with the basic lens that came with it, a 18-70mm zoom lens. Even with this rather mediocre lens, it still takes great shots.

    peaches_nikon_d70s.jpg
  • The final part of my camera set is a Sony Ericsson W800i phone. This is a 2 megapixel camera phone, with a digital 4x zoom. I chose this camera out of the "free" camera lineup offered by my cell phone service provider, Orange, because of the good quality of its camera. As you can see, it takes fine if rather 'flat' pictures.

    peaches_sonyw800i.jpg

Here are some more food photos shot with the W800i, or the K750i which has similar camera capabilities, in indoor/low-light conditions:

w800i_cakes.jpgThrough the glass of a display case indoors

w800i_hamdinner.jpgTaken at dinner in a restaurant (indoors, incandescent light)

w800i_cheese.jpgTaken indoors at a market (flourescent lights)

When I'm shooting food at home, I now use the D70s exclusively. However it's a big camera that's very obvious, especially when using the zoom lens. It also has one of the loudest shutters I've ever heard.

That being said, whenever there is any doubt I ask if I may take photos, especially at a restaurant. Most of the time there hasn't been a problem, and I just pull out the chunky D70s and shoot away. In certain situations though, you want to be more discreet, out of courtesy to other diners at a quiet restaurant for example. In such cases, I go for the Coolpix or theW800i camera phone. The Coolpix still takes better pictures, but the phone is the most discreet of course (you can pretend to be looking at something on the screen while you shoot away).

When shooting discreetly, the first thing to remember to do is to turn off the auto-flash. You should never use a flash when shooting food indoors anyway for picture quality reasons, but a flash is very distracting and annoying. The sound of the shutter can be as distracting and attention-getting as a camera flash; fortunately the Coolpix has a silent shutter, though the zoom lens makes a whirring sound when it's in action. The W800i has a loud digital shutter sound, which can be turned off by activating Silent Mode. If you are in the market for a new camera, test out the shutter sound.

Sometimes an establishment will simply tell you not to take pictures, period - this happened to me in the Globus department store when I was researching my Food Destinations article. If that happens I stop taking photos and don't post them on my site either. As I've already stated, it's pretty rare that people tell me to stop shooting. (If you are Asian like me, telling the waiter you are genetically incapable of not taking photos may help. Sort of kidding, but it did actually work for me once.)

Some people, such as market stall vendors, are simply camera shy; if that's the case just focus your lens on their products. Including the people who brought you that food experience in your photos is always nice though.

Some tips for shooting "on the road":

  • If you're having lunch, try to have it outside, or at a brightly lit window. Daylight is your friend when taking food photos.
  • Never ever ever ever use flash for indoor food photos. Without adjustments, flash-lit food simply looks awful in most cases. Even if you end up with an underexposed picture, it will still be better than flash-lit, and you can probably adjust it in Photoshop or similar image editing software. (Flash can be useful in some outdoor situations but that's getting off topic.)
  • Put your plate a a bit away from you to get a better overview, rather than shooting it from directly above. This also helps to focus on the food better with the automatic camera options. It's most important to keep at least a portion of your plate in focus.
  • Use the table to steady your camera in low-light conditions for longer exposure times.
  • Use those pristine white napkins, and your dining partner's torso, as a handy reflector or neutral background. Have him/her tuck the napkin in his/her collar and spread out the napkin on his/her chest and belly area as flat as possible.
  • Don't forget to shoot the table decorations if they are exceptional!
  • For shooting through glass, such as through a display case or a shop window, either try to put the lens almost directly on the glass or shoot at an angle, minimizing the reflection of you the photographer.
  • Shoot a lot of photos, not just one or two - this increases your chances of having a good one out of the bunch.

[Update:] L at Still Life With... has posted a terrific article about how to improve those low-light photos you take at restaurants and such with Photoshop.

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