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How to photograph food in a restaurant

So your torched dover sole with a cola reduction and parsnip foam comes to the table, what do you do? Whip out your digital camera to prove the rest of the blogosphere how incredibly cultured you are for eating such a bizarre looking, sounding, and tasting dish, of course! (Bordieu, eat your heart out. Or you know, pigs tails are very popular too.)

I am not a professional photographer by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve been photographing just about everything novel that I eat, from chocolate eclair ice cream bars to luxe sushi dinners, and I’ve picked up a few rules of thumb along to way to guide me into making sure the photographic proof ain’t too blurry. Or dark. Or just plain unappetizing.

To canonize your meals, give the following tips a try. A shoutout to Adam Sidman, Crimson photo chair, for teaching me some of these.

1) Use a tripod. This is essential in dimly lit restaurant settings. I have a miniature tripod for my digital camera, but the best way is to get a low drinking class or some other prop and hold your camera very very still. Incredibly still. Even the floor shaking a bit from a waiter walking by can throw off the perfect shot if there’s not enough light.

1a) Put your camera on two-second timer (non essential). Once you’ve located a tripod, put on the delayed shot so that the camera doesn’t wobble as you’re pushing the button. Then hold your breath to keep it very, very still.

2) Use natural light whenever possible. Don’t create obstacles for yourself – you’ll have better pictures and better memories if you sit by the window or if you sit a better lit bar. Lunchtime is obviously the best time to be snapping photos, but if you’re in a dark corner and feel particularly shameless, try getting up and taking the photo near a window if it’s a casual cafe. People might look at you funny, but hey, they just don’t take themselves seriously enough. Jk. Not really.

3) Set your white balance. This is not as technical as it seems, and your digital camera, no matter how crappy, will most likely have this color setting. Select the option that sounds something like “manual.” You’ll then aim the camera at a light-exposed white surface (not the shadow of a white thing), click (the button will vary according to camera), and the color will adjust so that the whites are true. The best place to aim, in the case of food photography, is your plate. Assuming it’s white, or slightly off white. Now, you can avoid photos with overwhelmingly orange casts… Hurrah! See an example below of what happens when you DON’T fix white balance:


Yeah, that beef isn’t sitting pretty.

4) Set your ISO setting low. I forget the technical explanation of this, but in the interest of making this a non-intellectual post, I’ll just say that I set it to about 200 in a dimly lit restaurant and it works just fine. Otherwise, if there’s a lot of natural light, auto is better bet.

5) Hit below the belt. Food, especially well plated food and food that comes in little mounds or nicely crafted pieces (i.e. sushi, peaky toe crab timbale, most desserts, drinks, etc.) will look better if you get it from nearly table height up close and personal. Which brings me to my next point…

6) Macro is your FRIEND. This will make a world of difference in any closeup shot. If you want to make beautiful, beautiful food porn, macro will focus in on a close object and capture all its happy little pores and sweat. It’ll make the parsley garnish pop.

7) Take many, many shots from many, many angles. Chances are, half of them will be crap. Do not waver – keep shooting away like a madmen. Use a lot of crooked angles for extra visual interest. Get up on your chair and shoot from above to appreciate the geometry of circles and squares. Find your molten chocolate cake’s best angle. Your blog readers will thank you later. Your friends will eventually get used to it and think its cute how obsessive you are. If they don’t think it’s cute, get new friends. This can be a liability when you go on dates, but it’s also a great way to weed out non-food-blogger-friendly guys. A dating litmus test, if you will.

8 ) There’s nothing wrong with plastic surgery. Once you have your crisp, clear, color-balanced photos, upload them and edit them in a basic image editor – I like to use Google’s Picasa as a photo manager. Fiddle with the fill light, highlight, and shadow sliders, or try hitting “I’m feeling lucky” to see what happens. Sharpen the photo if necessary. Boosting color saturation can also make a meal look livelier, although this may exaggerate the quality of your meal. We’re not exactly photographing political a war-torn country here – we’re going for the visceral.

You can probably tell by now that following all of these tips will make you a very particular kind of dining companion. You can allay this issue by becoming friends with other foodies armed with cameras and you can turn dinnertime into a kind of pseudo-paparazzi experience, fussing with the plates, craning your necks at weird angles to yeah, catch the plate of fried bull testicles in picture-perfect light. Shameless.

You’ll find that dining out with friends will first be an exercise in reminding them to restrain their primal urges so that you can catch a perfectly plated entree before it’s been ravaged with a fork. But it’s ok. Action shots are good too.


Friend Crystal Coser taking a photo of fried bull testicles at KO Prime.


3 Responses to “How to photograph food in a restaurant”

  1. You actually want to set your ISO high as possible without introducing noise. Depending on your camera, this may be as low as 400 for a point and shoot to 1600 for a mid level DSLR.

    Posted by Wleung | September 20, 2010, 8:33 pm
  2. Hi
    Its a nice and interesting blog in my niche specially the topic that how to photography in restaurant, interesting idea you gave really, now I’ll move on this idea and will get some interesting and tasty snaps there. Please let me know which essential camera accessories do you prefer when outside?


    Posted by camera accessories | April 1, 2011, 6:36 am
  3. Good post!

    Instead of carrying around a tripod I like to lean my elbows on the table or on the back of the chair to help eliminate the camera shake. Also, when I’m in a low light situation I bump UP my ISO to at least 800 or higher. It makes for a grainier picture but it helps gives me a faster shutter speed!

    Posted by Katie@The Key To Taking Pictures | April 16, 2011, 3:36 pm

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Lana Lingbo Li

I'm a world traveler / enthusiastic eater who's now blogging and producing videos over at HelloLana.com. Visit me there!

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