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Photographing Your Dinner: Restaurant Dos and Don’ts

Tips & Tricks

Are you a food-for-pleasure type of person?  If the answer is yes, then I can say with confidence that we may all be guilty of snapping a few pics of our meals from time to time. Some of us seek out new and exciting restaurants that offer avant-garde food and interior design.  Others rejoice in old school pleasures of down home diners and off-the-beaten-path food attractions. Whatever your guilty pleasure is, here are a few tips and tricks to heighten your “foodie” photography.

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1) Ask Your Server if Photography is OK

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Chefs tend to be fun and playful characters with creativity in the kitchen that at times can inspire more than just an appetite. Food has long been photographed but taking pictures when your food arrives to the table is a newer fad.

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According to the New York Times, there has been a growing backlash of taking pictures of your meals while dining out. Restaurants and Chefs have been “burned” by disruptive behavior that interrupts the dining experience and have discovered less-than-appetizing images of their dishes online.

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This has become a big enough problem that there is an upswing in restaurants who have put restrictions on the photography allowed to be taken – even stealthily on your phone. This movement has gone as far as banning people from taking pictures inside the restaurant all together!

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The best way to avoid any embarrassment, as well as increase your level of comfort if you are moved to photograph your meal, would be to ask your server first.  The establishment will appreciate your consideration and will most often give you the thumbs up.  Hey, they may even show your some unexpected extra love.

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2) Eat Before the Rush

A major component of running a successful food and drink establishment is handling the “rush”. This is when the highest number of customers come in all at once and it most commonly occurs at lunch from 12:30-2:30pm and dinner from 7pm-9pm.

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The trick is to come at the later end of lunch (3-4pm) or at the beginning of dinner service (5-6pm), which will provide your with soft mid afternoon light and help you avoid server frustration by taking up valuable real estate while photographing your food.

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3) Get a Table Near a Window

Another benefit of visiting the restaurant during off-peak hours is that you have your choice of seating. If you are planning on taking pictures of your meal you will want the largest light source available. Ask for a table next to a window that you can use as the main light source.

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Backlighting the food or drink will give you appealing texture, highlights, and spill light. This easy setup can be taken a little further by introducing a mini white bounce card for fill light that could easily fit in your back pocket or purse.

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4) Bring the Right Gear

You never know when the next meal you have will make you want to break out your camera! In the case of being inspired by eating out, the smaller the kit the better. To be an unobtrusive, utilizing only available light, and to travel light you must also think outside the box.  Micro 4/3 cameras and lenses are becoming increasingly popular for their size and uncompromised image quality. They shoot superbly in low light conditions, have a fantastic selection of lenses capable of sharp images, and can be unassumingly small and lightweight.

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My favorites:

Panasonic Lumix GX7 – Sports a silent mode which disables all camera sounds for inconspicuous shooting. We’ve taken some test shots with this camera and, overall, love it. Pair this with the fast and slim Panasonic 20mm f/1.7.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 – The 16.3MP sensor is nothing to sneeze at and does tremendously in low light. There are some big benefits to shooting Olympus. Pair this with the 60mm f/2.8 Macro or the super fast 75mm f/1.8. For versatility, check out the 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO.

Fuji X-T1 – This camera has made a good first impression and is a delight to shoot with.

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5) Mind Your Backgrounds

If you are shooting with available light indoors, chances are that you will be dialed in to your fastest aperture setting. Shooting wide open is a great way to soften the background of the subject, however be mindful of how the background interacts in the scene. The out-of-focus background will transform into a color palette that, when used to your advantage, can really emphasize what you are shooting or conversely distract you from your focus.

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Simple, neutral backgrounds with little going on will create more of a focus on the subject, while pairing opposite hues or having a textured background will create a more kinetic effect. There is no right way to choose a background but it is important to consider while composing your shot and subtle changes can elevate your photo from good to fantastic.

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6) Shoot the Specials

Specials are often thoughtful experimental dishes made with fresh seasonal ingredients and are only available for a limited time. These “brainchild meals” are great to shoot because the chef is paying extra attention to detail to gauge customer’s satisfaction. Additionally, if you shoot the specials and email a few of your favorites to the restaurant they may be inclined to feature them on their social media outlets or hire you specifically for a dedicated shoot.

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It’s always a fantastic feeling to see your images have a new audience and you never know what kind of opportunity that can be a catalyst for.  As Seneca said, “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

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7) Shoot More Than the Food

Create a story. Half the experience of going out is the ambiance of where you are and who is around you. Observe how the bartender interacts with his/her customers and the show he/she puts on for them, or how the glassware is organized. Notice the details on the wait staff member’s apron or how steam rises from piping hot plates as they are delivered.

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Show how the space fills up with energy as more patrons arrive by using the available light and motion blur to portray a busy restaurant. Be creative! There is so much happening in the life of a restaurant – be open and willing to see it for all its worth.

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Conclusion

There is a certain finesse when it comes to taking pictures of your food that was cooked by a professional chef. It is important to remember that your meal is someone else’s artful expression and to approach it with respect when photographing it. Do yourself and the wait staff a favor by coming at off-peak hours if you plan on taking your time at the table. Being mindful of the time in which you dine will also enable you to take advantage of the best available light sources at the most appealing daylight hours. Bring small, compact gear to create a discrete demeanor when in the act of shooting. Ordering the specials will benefit you and also allows you the opportunity to pay back the restaurant with a bit of gratitude with some free photography. And lastly, every day there is a new story unfolding in a restaurant – pay attention to the details, don’t be afraid of motion blur, and capture all that frenetic energy happening around you.

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Cortigiano is a food, lifestyle, and event photographer with a contemporary aesthetic. She received an undergraduate degree in photography at Drexel University and has gone on to work as a freelance photographer and teaching artist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Comments

  • Tyler says:

    Great article!

  • Appreciate the insight, great article

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