Have you ever sat down to eat at a restaurant and wanted to take pictures of your food but don’t because you just don’t think you could make it look good? These tips will help change your mind and get you to take your camera out of your bag so you can share what you ate and make your friends want to go where you went and eat what you ate.
I pretty much always take pictures of what I eat when I’m out at a restaurant. Even if I don’t have my camera with me I’ll at least get an iphone shot of my food. These days I don’t have that problem anymore because since I got the Olympus E-PM1, I always have my camera with me. It fits nicely in my purse with the 20mm pancake and it goes wherever I go. Now however, I have an Olympus OM-D that goes with me wherever I go. I use the Think Tank Retrospective 5 as both a camera bag and a purse and the E-PM1 is on the shelf next to my E-P1.
If you ask any photographer what is most important for making a good photograph, they aren’t going to tell you it’s the camera. The most important thing in any type of photography is light. The lighting is what makes the picture and it’s no different with food photography. Without light, you have no picture so don’t be surprised that the first four tips are related to light.
Finding the Light
The first thing you should do before you even sit down is request a table by a window or even outside if that is an option. There’s no better light than the sun. Obviously this only applies when it’s still light outside. The last thing you want to do is sit in a dark corner in the back of the restaurant with poor lighting.
Diffusing the Light
You found a seat with plenty of light, now what? The more light that is available, the more options you have. I know not everyone lives in Seattle where the cloudy skies provide a nice diffused light. If you’re sitting by a window or outside and you have bright, harsh sun beaming down on you and your food, you are going to get some ugly shadows. You need to find a way to diffuse the light to soften the light and shadows. The best way to do this is to get a small 12″ collapsible diffuser. These little diffusers are perfect because they collapse down to less than 5″ in diameter, making them easy to fit into a pocket or small camera bag. When held in front of light it creates a shadow but doesn’t completely block the light so you still get some light coming through which softens the shadows. If you don’t want to carry around a diffuser, the next best thing is a simple napkin. Just have your dining companion hold a napkin in front of the light and that would make a good diffuser too.
Reflecting the Light
Another option when you have too much light is to reflect it. There are 12″ collapsible reflectors available, much like the diffusers mentioned. They are available in white, gold and silver. I have the Photoflex LiteDisc which is white on one side and gold on the other. Another option for reflecting light is a small mirror. I prefer the collapsible discs because they are easier to carry. Reflectors don’t let light pass through it and instead is used to reflect or bounce light back onto the subject. This works great to get rid of unwanted harsh shadows. You will have to play around with the positioning and angle of the reflector to get the light to shine exactly where you want it to.
Making the Light
There’s a good possibility you will not be able to get that perfect window seat or you are eating in the evening when no outside light is available and the restaurant lighting is horrible. Whatever you do, DO NOT use on camera flash. Not only does it not make a good photo but it is distracting to other diners and you might get a talking to by the staff. Some people use the light from their cell phones which might be better than nothing but it’s not going to be great. So what should you do? Get an LED flashlight and carry it with you wherever you go. They are also great for backlighting on drinks to make them pop.
You will want to find a flashlight that has a wide beam (flood) so the light isn’t so harsh. Even flood flashlights can be a little harsh or might have a hot spot in the center and if that’s the case you can always diffuse it with a napkin or a collapsible diffuser if you have one. When using a flashlight in a restaurant or anywhere, be very careful not to shine it in people’s faces. Even a flood light can be very bright and should never be directed at anyone’s eyes. You should find one that produces a white/neutral light, unless you want to spend a lot of time correcting color in post processing. Here are just a few flashlights in different price ranges that are popular for photography: ZebraLight H51W $64, SureFire U2 $299, McGizmo Mule $410. I opted for the most expensive one in that list. It’s priced higher than the others because it’s made of titanium so will last forever, it’s water resistant, the flood of light is pretty even, it includes a tripod clip upon request and well it just looks awesome.
I used to have a tendency to always shoot my food at about a 45 degree angle and I think most people do because that is how their eyes see it. Try to break away from that habit and use different angles like from above and at eye level. The rule of thirds also works for food. Use props already on the table like a candle or a drink in one corner and put your plate of food off center in the opposite direction.
Instead of just shooting your plate of food, shoot wide and get more than just the food in your shot to give the photo a sense of what the restaurant setting looks like. Be sure to shoot other areas of the restaurant too like the entrance, the bar and the kitchen if you can see it. You can even get some action shots in restaurants. For example, a bottle of wine being poured into a glass or spoons digging into a dessert. Don’t be afraid to take your camera to the bathroom with you too. Some amazing and unique restrooms can be found in restaurants.
Don’t be afraid to take your camera with you to a restaurant, just be mindful of the other diners and don’t blind them or get in their way trying to get a shot.