Restaurant Food Photography – Part 1: Etiquette

restuarant food photography etiquette | www.eyesbiggerthanmystomach.com

Today is the start of a three part series on restaurant food photography.  I’ve been asked a few times to offer up some tips on how to take solid photos in restaurants where it feels like you have very little control over the surroundings, lights and food presentetion. It’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a while.

Lately, however, it seems there’s been a bit of a firestorm and a backlash over bloggers taking food photos in restaurants, with some restaurants going so far as to ban it.  So I thought it might be interesting to do a series on restaurant photography and look at three different key components:

  1. etiquette
  2. dining with friends and family
  3. tips and tricks for making the most of your surroundings

Today in part 1, we’ll look at the stickiest piece of the puzzle – etiquette.

Etiquette is a touchy one and the one that seems to raise the most hackles but it’s really very simple – it comes down to one thing:

Respect

That’s right, have some respect.  Respect for the chef, for the restaurant itself, for your fellow diners, for your readers and for yourself.

Respect the Chef

Chefs are skilled professionals and artists.  They take a great deal of pride in their work and their creations.  You are a blogger.  Odds are good you take a great deal of pride in your blog and the efforts you put into crafting your words, images and overall site.  Are you seeing where I’m going with this?

Bloggers are the first to scream blue murder when somebody takes their words, their photos or their recipes and plagiarizes them or twists them into something they weren’t meant to be.  So have the same respect for the chef when you enter a restaurant with your camera that you expect readers to have for your work on your blog.  It’s your creation – a piece of you.  Just like a chef’s creations are to him or her.  Do your very best to show a true representation of the work they produce.  If it’s amazing, your photos should reflect that.  If it’s not, your photos should reflect that too.  But put forward your best camera work.

Salmon tacos at the Hyatt's Mosaic Grill

Respect the Restaurant

I hear two things over and over again by bloggers who get up in arms when they are challenged about their photography:

I have every right to take a photo in a restaurant if I want to, I don’t care what they say

or

they should be thankful for all the free publicity/marketing/etc. etc I am giving them

First of all, no you don’t have the right to take a photo in a restaurant.  I’m no legal expert but I well remember my days working retail where one of the first things new employees were taught in training was “this is private property – you have every right to ask somebody to leave who is behaving inappropriately”

Yup, that’s right.  You are a guest in a restaurant, albeit a paying one.  You can be asked to leave any time if you are disturbing other paying guests or staff (that’s right – everyone else there is paying for their food or just trying to do their job).  Don’t like it?  Well, you have every right to show your displeasure by not patronizing that establishment ever again.  That’s how it works.  But chances are if you’re behaving in a way that’s respectful of those around you, you’ll be left alone.

Second, yes, as a small business owner, free publicity or marketing can be a very good thing if… that’s right… IF… it shows my brand in a good light and it fits into the direction I want to send my business.

Let’s say somebody wrote a positive piece about my company and how they enjoyed working with me and they used my logo in the piece:

Fine Lime Designs

Melissa is great! woohoo!

Nice! Yay me and my company!

Now let’s say somebody else did the same thing… only this time they used a lousy replica of my logo that was blurry, orangey and blown out:

Melissa is great! uhhhh...

Melissa is great! uhhhh…

Uh… I’d be ticked.  Really ticked actually.  That is not a good representation of what I’m about (I hope!)

So ask yourself – are my photos top quality?  No?  Then don’t post them.  Are they ok?  Yes?  Think twice about posting them.  Are they a true representation of how amazing (or not) the food looked?  Yes?  Then post.

I, quite frankly, am not motivated to go to a restaurant where the only photos I’ve seen of the food are dark, grainy, orange, blurry or blown out.  It’s not appetizing.  If the conditions aren’t right for a photo, don’t take one.  If your smart phone isn’t up to the task of low lighting, don’t use it.

Respect Your Fellow Diners

Why is this so hard?  I just don’t understand.  Time and time again I’m out to eat and I see atrocious behaviour by food bloggers trying to get a photo in a restaurant.  And I’m a food photographer and a blogger – I have a pretty high tolerance.

I have seen bloggers elbow fellow diners in the back of the head while trying to get a photo.  I have seen bloggers move furniture around to get a shot.  I have seen them push people out of the way to get a picture.  I have heard of bloggers standing on chairs at their table to get an overhead shot.  I have seen flashes go off.  I have seen full on video rigs get setup.  I have sat in a restaurant where a group of bloggers were so disruptive that the entire restaurant stopped eating and was watching them.

Where did we get this sense of entitlement that this was ok?  It’s not!! It’s why restaurants are saying “no… you can’t eat here with your camera”.

Here are a few rules to follow:

  1. Don’t stand on the furniture.  This is never ever acceptable behaviour in a restaurant.  You wouldn’t do it if your boss took you out for dinner.
  2. Don’t move the furniture around.  This is not your house.
  3. Be cognizant of the space around you and where your fellow diners are.  Hitting a person with your elbow or your gear is inconsiderate.  If space is that tight, put your camera away and sit down and eat your food.
  4. Pushing is never ok.  Do like your mom taught you and use your words.  The ones like “please”, “thank you” and “excuse me”.
  5. Keep the noise level down.  So you’re a blogger.  Big deal.  So am I.  The person at the table next to you might be a mechanic, a nurse, a teacher or your boss’s wife.  All of them are just as important as you are.  They don’t feel the need to broadcast to you that they saved somebody’s life today, or taught a child to multiply or fixed your car for a lot less than you had expected.
  6. Turn off your flash.  It annoys people and it guarantees you will have a picture that is not good enough to go on your blog.
  7. You don’t need to set up a tripod, pull out a reflector or use a lens the size of a small child.  If you want to do that, contact the restaurant after hours and make arrangements to shoot their food then.  You might be surprised by how receptive they are to that.
  8. Don’t tweet inappropriate comments about other restaurant patrons.  Yes, I’ve seen bloggers do this – it’s not cool and it’s not difficult to attach the tweet to that guy who was taking photos and figure out who they were talking about
  9. YOU DON’T KNOW WHO IS AT THE TABLE NEXT TO YOU.  Three times in the last three months I have found myself sitting next to tables of people with whom I discovered I had social or professional connections with just by hearing their conversations.  I witnessed poor social behaviour at two of them that have been filed away in my brain for future reference.  You never know who is sitting next to you so be conscious of the impression you are making on your fellow diners.

Chocolate Cake at the Hyatt's Mosaic Grill

Respect Your Readers

Your readers don’t want to see lousy, blurry photos of unappetizing food.  Like many of you, I live in a city full of restaurant bloggers.  Most of those who do well have great images as well as balanced reviews.  And yes, there are secrets as to how they do this.  We’ll talk about that later in the tips and tricks post.  If you want your readers to come back over and over, write solid, thoughtful reviews and have strong images.

Respect Yourself

Be proud of the material you produce for your blog.  Yes, there’s a learning curve and taking great photos is not something we are born knowing how to do.  But make an effort and be courteous and considerate when you are taking photos.  You don’t need to take a photo of everything and if you don’t have the gear to take great photos in poor conditions, consider thinking outside the box (more on that coming in the tips and tricks!)

Perhaps another way to think about it is – how would you behave if you were having dinner with your grandparents?   It’s just a matter of being considerate of those making your food, those serving your food and those who are dining around or with you!

I’ll be back soon with part 2 – dining with friends or in groups and part 3 – restaurant food photography tips and tricks.

All images for this post were taken at the Hyatt Regency Vancouver in their Mosaic Grille Restaurant.  The images were all shot on a Canon 5DMII with a 24-70 2.8L lens.  I didn’t stand up, I didn’t bump anyone in the head and I didn’t re-arrange the furniture (just the plates!).  We had a lunchtime reservation and asked for a table by a window.  Nobody was harmed or asked to leave – in fact, the chef came out to visit!

 

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19 Responses to Restaurant Food Photography – Part 1: Etiquette

  1. Jan April 30, 2013 at 7:21 PM #

    “don’t stand on furniture”. It amazes me that people think that standing on a chair in a restaurant is okay because they want to get a certain shot. Haha! Ridiculous! Also, about getting more light, I think at the FBC 2013 conference, the point about wearing a white shirt to at least attempt at reflecting more light onto the subject was a great suggestion!

    • Melissa April 30, 2013 at 7:29 PM #

      I didn’t hear any of the photography session but yes, a white shirt would help! I was taking photos of a cupcake in bad lighting the other day and kept getting a pink cast on it. Took me a while to figure out light was bouncing off red in my shirt!

  2. Stephanie April 30, 2013 at 8:42 PM #

    Your restaurant food photos are always so lovely! Nice to know that you aren’t building a ladder out of other people’s chairs and elbowing them in the head on your way up to get a nice shot ;)

    • Melissa May 5, 2013 at 1:48 PM #

      hahaha… I have this image in my head of a cirque du soleil display of chairs stacked precariously on top of each other with me teetering on the top! Nope – I’m scared of heights :-)

  3. Misty April 30, 2013 at 9:55 PM #

    Great tips and pictures! :) I haven’t witnessed any of the freaky behavior you mentioned but I would find it hard not to comment if I did. Outlandish actions are obviously not required to get professional shots. I’m looking forward to the rest of this series!

    • Melissa May 5, 2013 at 1:49 PM #

      It is hard to keep quiet sometimes!

  4. Liliana May 1, 2013 at 7:15 AM #

    Thanks for the great tips! Any chef would be proud of your food photography. I am looking forward to reading your next post.

  5. Paula May 1, 2013 at 1:27 PM #

    This is going to be a great little series. Excellent first post.

  6. Morgan Wood May 3, 2013 at 10:14 AM #

    Thank you for a great article. Well said.

  7. Sue May 3, 2013 at 2:28 PM #

    I can’t believe people actually stand on a chair to take a picture at a restaurant! I always try to get a seat next to the window if I can. Great post! Look forward to your next article.

    • Melissa May 5, 2013 at 1:50 PM #

      aha! see? a little thought before you go in and you’re half way to getting a great photo. We always ask for a window seat!

  8. Kate@Diethood May 3, 2013 at 6:01 PM #

    So helpful!! Thanks, Melissa! xo

  9. Jennifer barnaby May 4, 2013 at 12:51 AM #

    Your post made me LOL. I have a food blog and hubby is always saying how much he loves my cooking but he never gets to eat anything while it’s hot because I’m always taking pictures of everything first! I think you make really good points in your post. I find that asking both the server and your dining companions permission to take photos is a good policy too.

    • Melissa May 5, 2013 at 1:51 PM #

      absolutely! a little politeness and consideration for everyone involved goes a long way.

  10. Dani May 4, 2013 at 1:51 AM #

    Great post. I look forward to reading the rest in the series. It comforts me to know that no humans were harmed in the taking of your superb photos! :-)

  11. Maureen May 4, 2013 at 11:59 PM #

    I can’t believe people stand on chairs. That’s just crap upbringing. These are the sorts of people who’s hairlip hell if they were dining sans camera and someone else played tricks like that.

    Wonderful series.

  12. Marlene May 6, 2013 at 11:45 AM #

    Such a great post, Melissa; I look forward to the next two! It’s hard to believe that people do some of the inconsiderate (boneheaded?) things you mention … wait, actually and sadly, it’s not that hard to believe.

  13. Rhonda May 17, 2013 at 9:01 AM #

    All excellent points! Personally I rarely take a photo in a restaurant, mostly because it’s my time off. Even photographers need to put the camera away once in awhile.

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