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The culture of food is a huge part of our lives in every corner of the globe. Photographing restaurants either in your home city or abroad during travel can be a great “sneak peak” into this cultural corner. Many of the same ideas and principles to travel photography also apply to restaurant photography. You really have to capture the essence of a place – the food, patrons, staff, setting and anything that makes the place unique. Whether it’s gritty down and dirty home food or luxury linens and pampered plating, think of it all as telling an editorial story. Here are a few things to look for if you’d like to bolster your restaurant photography.
Who is making and bringing the food and drinks to your table are a big consideration. Look at any magazine featuring a restaurant and you’d be hard-pressed not to find an image of the chef or a server. Especially when either are decked out in some form of uniform or theme-wear. Simply, we want to know the people who are making and serving what we’re eating. If you’re there on assignment from a magazine, you probably have pretty good access to staff.
If you’re there trying to build your personal portfolio you probably just can’t start snapping away. Find someone and ask for a manager and ask permission from each person to photograph them. Sometimes you’ll get turned down, other times you’ll find someone who finds it exciting and is more than happy to let you snap away – as long as you don’t get in the way of kitchen business or paying customers. Remember you’re dealing with people who aren’t in front of the camera too often, so try cracking a few jokes or giving them a compliment to try and set them at ease and crack a smile. No one wants to go to a restaurant with a grumpy chef! Bring out those beaming smiles.
Food and drinks. It’s why we go to restaurants. Something different than what we can make at home on our own and often in the company of friends.
There’s an immense science to food photography, and I’m not going to try and dive into all of it in this article. It just won’t fit. However, let’s go over some of the basic pointers of what to look for when you’re on location with minimal equipment.
If at all possible, I always try to find or ask for a table near a big open window. A nice big, soft natural light source is the best for photographing food and maintaining its coloring. Avoid as best as possible using flash on food. It tends to give it a very surreal, flat feeling while distorting the colors. Crank your ISO a bit if you need to and try to find something stable to brace on.
Shoot a lot of angles – overhead, flat on, tilted, straight, etc. The more the better because it mixes up the feel and you never know what might be just the right tilt for each dish.
Get overhead and close down your aperture to get the maximum depth you can, or get down low on the same level as the food and shoot very shallow, highlighting one specific detail of the dish. Careful where your focus spot lands here though. I like to try and keep it to the front or first item in view and let the rest fade into blur in the background. Sometimes getting in the middle can work well if you frame it right, but shoot a few frames to check because your eye may feel cheated if that first item in view isn’t in focus.
Do your best to capture the appropriate presentation of the food or drink. Try to nudge an item or two here and there, ask for a little extra seasoning if it gives it a nice flair and ultimately try to order photographic and colorful dishes. Pair it with items that go together, like the photo here with mussels, fries and white wine – common sides to this dish. Or add items like the different arrangement of sauces at a beer and brat house.
If you have access to the kitchen this can be a great place to get slightly blurry photos of food being flipped in a flaming pan or chefs, fry cooks, sauciers, etc. running around in the daily hustle that is working in a kitchen. Also look for prepped trays stacked next to buckets of ingredients and spices. Expect a bit more grain and much more wide open shooting here because lighting is usually very low and falls in and out of spots from overhead. If you can, try to brace yourself in the corner and shoot at a slower shutter, maybe somewhere between 1/10-1/30 of a second depending on how fast everything is moving. Be sure you’re staying out of the way. Neither you nor one of the chefs wants a face full of burning hot or oily food because you kept moving in a common walking lane.
Don’t forget to capture the overall feel of the restaurant and especially anything that sets it apart from the competition. This can include table settings, tiny decorations, the front of the restaurant, patrons, a sweeping spread of the dining hall, etc. If it’s a festive atmosphere like the photo on the left, find a way to show smiling faces and activity. If the restaurant has a more somber or romantic feel, look for ways to pull that out of the shots. Give the viewer a sense of place. What’s it going to be like when I go here?
If you can answer that question with three to four images than you’re on your way to capturing better editorial restaurant photography.