How to photograph food in a restaurant
There are two core reasons why you might like to take photos of food in a restaurant environment;
1) you're visiting the restaurant as a customer and you want to share the shots of the food on your social media, or 2) you have been employed by the restaurant or a 3rd party (e.g. meal delivery service) to capture shots of the food. Both scenarios offer their own set of unique challenges.
1) Shooting food in a restaurant for your own social media
It is notoriously challenging to take good photographs of food, particularly in a restaurant where you have no control over the lighting environment. Some restaurants have even banned customers from snapping shots of their food, because they are worried that poor images will give a bad impression of their menu. Other restaurants have even gone to the extreme length of adjusting the restaurant lighting to optimise the results for food photography. The problem here that is lighting a restaurant optimally for food photography doesn't offer an inviting aesthetic for patrons!
Lighting is the most crucial aspect of getting a great shot. In the case of food photography, natural light is always the best option, so visiting the restaurant during the day is infinitely preferable. However, even during the day, many restaurants have poorly lit areas, so make sure to reserve a table by the window in advance. To make the most of the natural light, you can watch my free online video masterclass The Food Photography Crash Course here>
Many restaurants are not open in the daytime, or the dish you'd like to shoot (or eat!) might only be available on the dinner menu. So, what can you do if you have to photograph food a restaurant at night? Well, the short answer is - you can really only do your best to make the most of a bad situation.
If you're going to work with available light — ie. the artificial lighting in the restaurant — you can try to position yourself in a location with the least quantity of lights close-by. Your intention is that your shot will be directly influenced by only one main source light, rather than having multiple light sources which will produce multiple shadow sources and a very compromised result.
Try not to position the light directly overhead. Positioning to one side will produce a superior result. If the light is very bright, try diffusing it with a white napkin.
Learn about adjusting white balance in your camera to counteract the unflattering yellow or green tones that will result due to artificial light sources. It is possible to adjust white balance on a phone camera also, by utilising a camera controls app that offers manual mode features. Moment offer a great little app as well as an interesting range of lenses that can be attached to mobile phones. (Thanks to my student Birendra for this recommendation)
Be prepared to edit the shot afterwards. An app like Snapseed for mobile phones or Lightroom for SLRs will offer you the ability to rescue poor restaurant shots to a certain extent. You'll be able to increase the exposure level, reduce 'noise' from high ISO use and improve the colour balance.
Buy a tripod (even for a phone camera) so that you can take advantage of slow shutter speeds to facilitate sufficient exposure in a dark location.
When you're composing your shot, consider including some of the restaurant environment to convey an overall sense of the space, rather than just shooting the food, so that the resulting shot is more 'forgiving'.
If you want to get fancy about it, bring an off-camera flash (and be prepared for the weird looks!) and diffuse it substantially when you're capturing your shot.
Accept that you're unlikely to achieve the 'perfect' shot and do the best you can with what you've got.
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2) Shooting food in a restaurant as a paid photographer
The quantity of restaurant shoots available to semi-professional and amateur photographers has increased substantially due to large meal delivery services requiring high quantities of images, to publicise the restaurants on their books. The downside is that the pay rates they offer are extremely low, and their quality and turnaround expectations are high, so this type of work that is only suitable for 'practise' and building a folio. Anything beyond that is essentially offering yourself for exploitation for extremely modest pay.
Restaurants also directly employ photographers to shoot their food, usually with either one of two key objectives, i) to generate content to support their brand, e.g. brochures, website, menus, press releases and ii) for social media use. The budgets available for the latter are inevitably lower because the images are much more 'disposable'. Quick and cheap is the priority. For brand images, much more time and care can be spent upon producing the best shots possible.
If you're shooting for a restaurant, you will more than likely shoot during the day while the restaurant is either quieter or closed to the public, therefore natural light is usually feasible. If it is one of the rare locations that doesn't have any source of natural light, then you will need to be competent using an artificial light kit. If you're shooting with natural light, make sure that any artificial light sources are switched off in the area that you're shooting in. If it's an open restaurant with patrons dining while you're shooting, you might have no choice but to work with an artificial lighting kit to counteract the artificial lighting in the restaurant.
Significant things to consider when you're shooting in the restaurant;
Make sure that the restaurant has a realistic expectation in terms of quantity of images versus quality of results. A non-professionals perception of how many food shots a photographer might be capable to produce in a short time-frame is based upon their own experience of snapping a few shots with their mobile phone. Educating the client is paramount.
Pre-planning is your best friend. If you can, make contact with the chef and see some snapshots of the dishes they want to shoot in advance. In this scenario you have a head start to anticipate problems and come up with solutions. Discuss the rhythm of the shoot, and the order that the dishes will arrive in, so that you will be presented food when you're prepared. There's nothing worse than a row of 'dying' food lined up waiting for you, when you have barely finished your light test.
Encourage the restaurant to select dishes for their aesthetic value rather than their perceived flavour. Vibrant colours, fresh produce, and delicate presentation will always look best on camera. Brown gunge and big hunks of meat are inevitably the most challenging.
Find out of there are any dishes that are likely to 'disappear' on the plate. For example a meringue dessert with cream on a white dish might look delicious to a dinner, but it could look like a white blob of nothingness in a shot. Consider an alternative to the usual plate colour in this scenario.
Make sure that the restaurant cooks the food fresh on the day that you're shooting. Too many venues maintain the idea that producing the meals for camera the night before will work. 'Tired' food is evident from 100 paces.
Always request that supplementary garnishes are at the ready so that you can refresh quickly if necessary. Fresh coriander placed on warm food has barely a 2 minute window, before it starts looking sad.
Find out if you can feature alcohol, teas or other drinks in your shots and if yes, what vessels are available. Glasses with too long a stem are difficult to include in an image. You might like substituting with a stemless wine glass. Also be clear about if there are attractive accompaniments/small dishes, salt & pepper dishes available, etc.
Be on the lookout for recipes served with sauces that will separate or congeal quickly or meats that will 'run' juices. Make sure your shot is completely setup and ready to go before the pour. You can even capture a few shots of the pour 'in progress' for a nice 'action' element.
From a styling point of view, generally you need to use props and surfaces from within the restaurant itself, and the furnishing in the environment will be all that you have to work with. Having said that if they have poor cutlery for example, you could supplement with a few additions. Having an advance knowledge of the environment and available props will assist you to make the best of the job. Make sure to review their existing brand material so that you achieve the correct colour, lighting and styling aesthetic.
If you need hands to feature in your shots, agree with the client in advance whose hands will be used, and make sure they are nicely moisturised and manicured in preparation. (Seems obvious, but you'd be surprised at the grubby, injured 'paws' you might be presented with!)
Find out in advance where the images will be used. For example, if you shoot all portrait format images, but the primary intention for the images is to appear in long, narrow website banners, you'll disappoint your client. It's more than likely that they will require the images in multiple formats, ie. long narrow landscape format for websites, square for social media, and portrait format for ads etc. You'll need to make sure you can deliver a broad enough range of images to suit these needs.
Produce images with a variety of angles of view. It's a rookie mistake to take every shot super close-up with a very large aperture. While the attractive bokeh might initially excite you, a whole series of shots of this nature is boring and does very little to tell a story. Consider the optimal angle of view for each shot and make sure there is plenty of variety in the zoom level and composition.
Be prepared to shoot some images of the restaurant environment also, even if it wasn’t part of the initial brief. It’s a lovely value-add to supply a client with some extra unexpected shots that you can easily add in, while you’re waiting for a dish to arrive at the table. You’ll need to bring a wider angle lens and ideally a second tripod so that you don’t need to disturb the position you’ve already set for the food shots.
Ensure that you're very clear in advance about crediting on social media platforms. Most restaurants are under the misconception that they only need to credit a photographer that has supplied an image for free. They consider the credit as a form of 'payment'. In fact the opposite is valid. You are entitled under copyright law, to be credited for all the images that you produce and you should state in advance how that credit will appear, regardless of whether you have been compensated or not. Funnily enough, if you possess an enormous quantity of followers on your social platforms there is much less resistance to the idea!
Do you have any other tips to add? What has your experience of shooting in restaurants been like? It would be great to receive your thoughts in the comments below.
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Hi I'm Fran, a professional photographer and designer based on the Gold Coast in Australia. I’m a lifelong creative, passionate about producing drool-worthy images that provoke emotion and make you hungry! My obsession is teaching others how to achieve the satisfaction of realising their creative vision. I also love to produce high quality visual books (especially cook books) for my clients.