Time for part 3 of the restaurant food photography series. We covered off etiquette in part 1, and getting the most out of dining with family and friends in part 2. So part 3 is all about tips and tricks for getting your best photos when you’re not in control of your surroundings.
The good news? There’s a whole host of things you can do to improve your shots, before you even pick up a camera. And there’s a lot of info here. So let’s get started.
This is particularly important for those of you who review restaurants for your blogs. Odds are good you don’t make spur of the moment decisions on what to review. You likely have a list of places you want to hit up
1. Scout out the Restaurant
Take a walk past, even take a peek in the door before you make plans to eat there. It gives you the lay of the land. You can see what the lighting situation is and what the seating is like and plan accordingly.
2. Lunch Over Dinner
If you can, choose lunch over dinner. Even better, choose a late lunch. Lunch means you have better access to natural light instead of dark and orange-y artificial light. A late lunch means the restaurant will be quieter and there’s less chance you’ll be sitting next to other patrons. That can give you a little space to move without annoying anyone.
A late lunch also means you’re likely to have a less harried server who might be able to spend a little more time with you talking about the dishes and the restaurant. You might even get to chat with the chef.
3. Make a Reservation
If you make a reservation, you can ask where to be seated. We always ask for a window seat. Window seat = natural light. In summer, it’s usually still light enough at dinner time that a window seat will give you all the light you need. Or, ask for a seat on the patio for the best light!
TIP: patios apply to dinner. Patio light at lunch time can be overly harsh so be careful.
4. Ask To Sit Somewhere Specific
Didn’t make a reservation? You can still ask for a specific seat. If the restaurant’s busy, you’re obviously going to be limited in your selection but, that’s why you planned ahead, right?
As I’ve mentioned before, Food Husband Sean is the restaurant blogger. His photography is fantastic (his images were featured in this month’s Chatelaine Magazine with their Food Truck feature!). It’s not a fluke. He’s a skilled photographer but, he’s also a meticulous planner and usually has a pretty good idea of what to expect and what he needs to do in most of the restaurants we eat in.
Have the Right Tools for the Job
While I’m usually the first to say you can take a great photo with any camera (and you can!), there are times where a smartphone just isn’t going to cut it.
Yes, you can take some really nice photos of your food with your iPhone. They work great when you have loads of natural light. But in a dark restaurant, they still leave a lot to be desired.
1. ISO Settings
A compact DSLR or a point and shoot will help you out a lot in these situations. They give you some control over your exposure and your ISO. ISO refers to your camera’s sensitivity to light. The higher the number, the more sensitive it is. What makes ISO tricky is, the higher the sensitivity, the more digital noise you’ll have. It works in conjunction with your Aperture and Shutter Speed settings to control the light in any given image. The higher your ISO is the faster your shutter speed can be, which in turn, means you’re not as likely to need a tripod to avoid a photo that’s blurry from camera shake caused by slow shutter speed.
It used to be that using anything over 400 used to guarantee you a grainy, noisy photo. But the newest cameras have some pretty incredible ISO capabilities that will let you shoot in the 3200+ range and still have a sharp, grain-free image. When I photograph in dark restaurants, I usually bump mine up to 6400 which will allow me to get a well lit image with no camera shake.
2. Lenses, f-stops, angles and blurry backgrounds
If you’re using a DSLR, and you are serious about your photos and have some extra cash, consider buying a lens that will help you with your food photos. A macro lens can be a great investment as it allows you to get really close to your food and still focus. Keep in mind that a 100mm macro lens is different from a regular 100mm lens.
A lens with a low f number (ie f/2.8) means that the widest aperture you can have is 2.8. This can be confusing because the smaller the f number is, the wider the aperture is – and the wider the aperture is, the more light you let into the camera’s sensor. So a 2.8 lens has the ability to let in a lot more light than a lens whose lowest f number is 4.0. This can be very useful in low light situations – working in conjunction with your higher ISO, you have the potential to get a great photo in low light without needing a tripod!
The negative of a lower f number is, it means you have a smaller area of focus. In other words, if you take an image with the lens set at 2.8, a smaller portion of the image will be in focus than if you shot the photo at 4.0 or, 7.0 or 22. If you are taking an overhead shot this isn’t good. With an overhead shot, you want to shoot at a high f stop – I would say at least 11 - to keep the whole setting in clear focus. Shooting at a higher f-stop means you’re letting less light into the camera. That leads to camera shake (unless you have a tripod). For this reason, I avoid overhead shots in restaurants – not only does it annoy everyone when you stand up, it’s almost impossible to get a clear photo. (the scallops at the top are an example – the tops are in sharp focus but the pea and nettle puree is not.)
But! Yes, there’s a but and it’s a good one! The positive of a lower f-stop is… you have a smaller area of focus. I know… I just said that was a negative. Confusing, right? Yes, for an overhead shot, a small area of focus is a drawback. But when you photograph a dish straight on, that small area of focus (it’s actually called a shallow depth of field) is what can give you that dreamy out of focus background, which can be great for food shots (and for blurring out your dining companion sitting across from you!)
All of these things are very hard to control with a smartphone, and in some cases, with a point and shoot. But it pays off with much sharper, better lit images.
Get Creative – Random Tips
Sometimes, the setting just sucks for taking images and there’s very little you can do about it. So you have to get a little creative.
TIP: Find something you can rest your camera on to steady the photo in low light – I’ve used my purse on multiple occasions. And, I always carry a book with me. The book is actually for reading but it can double nicely as a stable surface with a little extra height.
TIP: Get your food to go. It won’t be plated as nicely but we’ve done this many times and then found a park to photograph it in with better light.
TIP: Wear a white shirt. Really. Built in reflector. I spent 10 minutes trying to take an overhead photograph of a white cupcake a few weeks ago and it kept getting a pink caste to it. Changing my white balance didn’t help. Then I realized I was reflecting red light from my shirt onto the cupcake. I changed the angle I photographed it at, and got rid of the pink colour. If I’d had a white shirt on, it would have reflected a nice bright white light onto the photo. When it’s dark, any bit of white light is useful.
TIP: Learn how to change your white balance. For the love of pete… if you take one thing away from this, learn how to change your camera’s white balance. Often, the light in restaurants is fluorescent or tungsten. So turn the dial on your camera to one of those settings before you take your photos – it will help neutralize the orange cast the artificial light will create. If you forget, then fix it in post processing. Check out this post for a little help with your White Balance in poor light.
TIP: TURN. OFF. YOUR. FLASH. Ok, I know if said if you took away one thing from this it should be fix your white balance. But what it really should be is: TURN. OFF. YOUR. FLASH. Ok? It does nothing to help your photos. You are shooting at too close a range and all that happens is you get a blown out, orange, unattractive image of something that may, or may not, resemble food. And you tick off the restaurant guests.
TIP: Take the time to compose and frame the shot. Be aware of what else is in the frame that might distract from the food. Look at where your cutlery and glasses are. Make sure the image is straight and that you’re not cutting off any thing critical to the dish.
TIP: If you have a DSLR, shoot in RAW. It’s not scary and gives you a lot more flexibility in post production without damaging your image. For more info on shooting in RAW (and for basic post processing steps) check out my tutorial on Basic Food Photography Processing.
TIP: Form a relationship with the restaurant. This one may not work depending on what kind of blog you’re writing. If you like to remain an anonymous reviewer, your options are limited. But if you can, get to know the staff and the chef. Don’t be obnoxious and all “i’m a big important food blogger and you should treat me better than everyone else because I write a blog and I want a free meal”. Instead, visit a few times, leave the camera at home , chat with the staff about the food and by all means, let them know that you write a food blog after you’ve established a rapport. This can pay off in dividends down the road if you also take great photos. You might get invited for a new menu preview with your camera. If you take outstanding photos, they may even want to hire you to shoot their menu. For some great tips on how to build a relationship (with a bit of humor) with the chef, check out Food Network Canada writer and food blogger Dan Clapson’s article for Food Bloggers of Canada.
If the restaurant is really dark it’s a good bet that it’s probably not the right setting to bring out a camera. This is where I give up and just enjoy the meal. You do have another option here though… ask the restaurant if you can come photograph the food at a later date with better light. You’d be surprised how often this works!
Don’t Ignore Post Processing
Photography doesn’t stop when you click the shutter. Not even when you shoot film. Film photographers have dark rooms. Digital photographers have Adobe Lightroom (or Photoshop, or Photoshop Elements, or even software that comes with your camera).
This is where you can fix small mistakes, decrease any noise you got from using a high ISO, adjust white balance if you forgot to do it in camera, sharpen the image and give it a little bit of kick. I’m not talking about major alterations here. I’m talking about spending 2-3 minutes on your best images to refine them a little bit, just like you would in a dark room setting. it will take them to the next level. You can check out my Basic Food Photography Post Processing Tutorial for the basics and then look at some of my Before & After tutorials for more tips to polish your images. Craft and Vision has a great guide to Lightoom that you can download as a $5 e-book.
You’ve got a lot of information there to absorb and so, that brings to a close my series on Restaurant Food Photography. If you missed part 1 or part 2 be sure to check them out. And in the meantime, keep practicing and be thoughtful of others around you when you wield that camera!
Do you have any tips that serve you well when you photograph in restaurants? Share them in the comments!
***A special thank you to Executive Chef Thomas Heinrich from the Vancouver Hyatt Regency for letting me photograph elements of his spring tasting menu – and a few other dishes – at the Hyatt’s Mosaic Grille for use in this article. (I went in at 2pm and sat by a window )
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