Restaurant Menu Food Photography Using Natural Light

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There are many ways to approach food and drink photography, from big budget shoots with food stylists and complicated lighting setups, to low budget natural lighting setups. For a formal restaurant photo shoot, which setup would you choose? I’ve had successes doing both types of photo shoots, but in this particular example, I’ll show you super low budget ways to pull off professional, tasty-looking food photos appropriate for a menu.

restaurant photography tutorial natural lighting

Client Brief

Based in Seattle, this client is an American restaurant going in a new direction with the hiring of a new chef and his decision to revamp the menu into one with distinctive Southern and Creole flavor.  This client reached out in need of 10-20 menu photos for use in their press release announcing the rebranding efforts. I had photographed their interiors previously and knew that the multi-room restaurant and bar was vintage themed with diverse backgrounds, patterns, and lighting schemes throughout the restaurant. Based on the budgeted resources for this shoot, I decided against making it a big production with a food stylist and opted for a low budget approach.

Planned Setup

Initially, I planned a simple lighting setup using a Canon 580 EX-II Speedlite, a shoot-through umbrella, Pocket Wizards, and a compact Manfrotto 5001B Nano light stand. This is my favorite relatively compact and affordable lighting setup for everything from quick portraits to food and drink photography. However, I realized when I got onsite that I was missing a crucial piece of my setup: the flash and umbrella mounting adapter, meaning I had no way of connecting my flash and umbrella to the lighting stand. Oops…time to improvise!

Actual Setup

Since I had photographed the interiors of the venue before and knew that there were two areas that had copious natural lighting: the bar area near the front entrance with huge floor to ceiling windows, and a large room with glass panels for a ceiling. Luckily, it was a typical cloudy day in Seattle, so there was nice diffused natural light flowing through the ceiling, making these two areas the perfect spot for food and drink photography without any flash or external lighting.

In terms of gear, I shot all of these photos with a Canon 6D camera and a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. I also used the 580 EXII Speedlite on occasion when I needed some fill light.

Composing and Shooting

I photograph a lot of restaurant interiors and as a result I’ve learned that there is a lot of thought and strategy that goes into the design of the space. As a result, I like to find distinct elements of the restaurant to fuse into the food photos that I create. This does two things: 1) it highlights unique features that a designer or architect spent a lot of time working on, and 2) incorporating aspects unique to the restaurant places the dishes in different atmospheres, thus creating more diverse imagery.

Photos at the Bar

Cocktail photography

I started off with two appetizer and cocktail dishes, photographing them at the bar that was naturally lit by the huge floor to ceiling window. The white granite bar top was a nice contrast to the warm colors of the food and drinks. I shot this first image at f/4 to keep the main elements of the glass and bowl of nuts mostly in focus. The first few shots looked like they were missing some depth, so on a whim I moved the pairing in front of a bowl of citrus fruits placed at the bar. The color and placement of the fruits ended up being nice complimenting elements, contributing to the image below.

restaurant photography tutorial natural lighting

This second dish that was shot at the bar was presented on a super long wooden cutting board. It was actually too long for such a small appetizer, and I solved this problem by zooming in to the image and shooting at f/3.2 to keep the focus on the main element: the chunky shrimp remoulade topping the bread!

remoulade photography

Photos in the Dining Area

Percy's in Ballard, Seattle, WA

Another intriguing section of the restaurant that offered nice, albeit darker, lighting was the dining area. Featuring an illuminated mirror behind circular booth seats and a light colored wooden table, this was a great space to utilize for cocktail shots. This particular beverage was shot at f/2.8 to keep the glass and its elements in focus and give a nice blur of the mirror background.

FINAL-Cocktail

Photos on the Patio

FINAL-Percys 01

Finally, the bulk of the food and drink photos I shot were taken in the aforementioned covered patio area in the back. As you can see from the images below, the space has a huge glass ceiling, brick walls, long colored picnic tables, and a nicely textured wooden floor panels. All of these elements made for great textures and backgrounds for shooting each dish in a variety of settings.

Final-Kale

Salads can be a bit tricky to shoot because there can be so many competing elements to focus on. In the case of this kale salad, I chose an aperture of f/5.6 to make sure more parts of the salad were in focus other than the shredded cheese and mustard seeds.

Final-Chicken

The winning dish of them all was this epic made-from-scratch fried chicken entree with rice and beans. Again, lots of different parts of this dish competing for attention, so I used an aperture of f/8 to make sure the most important parts were clearly in focus.

Wrap Up

Overall, this photo shoot of 10 dishes, each paired with cocktails took me about two hours to photograph. I had a bit of a challenge by forgetting one key piece of my lighting kit, but was able to improvise thanks to copious natural lighting and using my handy 580 EXII Speedlite. All photos received light post-processing treatment and were turned over the next day for the client.

What do you think? Is a lighting kit essential for professional food photography, or is natural lighting the way to go?

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Suzi Pratt is an internationally published Seattle event and food photographer. Her photos appear regularly in Eater and Getty Images. She is also a blogger who teaches others how to run a successful photography business.

  • Michael Owens

    Nice to see an article from inception through to final shots. I’ve never shot food, for a client or otherwise. But this gives me faith I could attempt it.

    Your images here are stunning. Thanks for sharing.

  • Anytime! Thank you for the comment. Food photography is fairly easy to get started with. I seriously got a lot of practice by setting up a DIY studio in my kitchen and photographing my breakfast each morning. Great time for natural lighting.

  • John James
  • Yes!!! I am so glad you posted an in-depth story. This is informative, and I love that it is about food photography.

  • Mark Verschelden

    Great article, nice photos. Don’t forget you can always use a piece of foam core from any hobby shop to reflect some light back into your shots, it may have save me in the past 🙂

  • John Lappe

    Fantastic shots, proving that you don’t need lots of fancy equipment if you understand how to work with natural light!

  • Cassio Silva

    Congratulations!! I love your photos! The Light was so beautiful!

  • joelluth

    Fun, helpful article. Thanks!

  • rwhunt99

    nice article, but was pretty light (pun intended) on information about lighting. You mentioned trouble, but never explained if you added flash and how you used the flash, and you specifically focused on aperture values.

  • rwhunt99

    That is a good tip!

  • fortune

    Took this while I was actually out doing a shoot for a model in the streets

  • Anthony

    I have a shoot meeting in a french restaurant and I plan to go with natural light 😉 Just because I haven’t yet the lighting material needed 😉 I’ll go with your advices ! Thanks Suzi !!!

  • David Wood

    Took this while just setting down to a pint 🙂

  • David Wood

    Took this while setting down to a pint 🙂

  • pete guaron

    Thanks, Suzi, for not being one of those patronising professionals who thunders at the audience that if they don’t use artificial lighting, it’s because they are too lazy to learn how to, and can’t or won’t come up with the cash to pay for the gear that’s needed.

    As the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said – “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

    Because I took up photography as a study of light and shapes – and, later, color and tints – I have a preference for using natural light.

    When it is appropriate. And of course, that isn’t “always”.

    When it’s not, I have two remaining choices – natural light “on supplements”, like fill in lighting – or strobes, flash or whatever in the way of artificial lighting.

    To some degree, the choice depends on which lens and/or which camera I am shooting with, because those choices can and do affect the colors, tints and contrasts that are recorded by the sensor.

    And also the choice of format – JPEG or RAW. Shooting RAW, the more important issues become issues of light and shade, and the colors produced by the lighting used are of less importance. To my great amusement, I find RAW images in general require far less retouching in post processing than JPEGs. I am not suggesting that’s a universal outcome, it may be peculiar to my photography, but it’s a blessing, whatever the explanation.

  • Thanks for your insights, Pete. I completely agree that camera choice can definitely affect the outcome of the photos. From my personal experience, shooting natural light food photography JPEGs with my crop-sensor mirrorless camera (Sony a6300) turns out nearly perfect images that need very little retouching, but that isn’t always the case with my Canon 5D Mark III. Like you said, not a universal outcome, but definitely an interesting factor to consider.

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