The Perks and Pitfalls of Restaurant Reviews
For the last few weeks, my blog here has been a bit heavy on theory and light on practical photography advice. It was essential to cover things like aperture and shutter speed to enable me to use those kinds of technical terms in future posts without the fear of leaving people behind, but I can never teach you that stuff here in the sort of detail you would get from a photography course in Bangkok. I’d much rather focus on getting you out and taking better pictures! So, for our triumphant return to more practical lessons in photography, I thought I’d go for something which is a growing trend across the world, but particularly so in the restaurants of Bangkok – food photography. I hope this food photography tutorial proves helpful to you!
Part of my current job is doing pretty regular restaurant reviews. Before you ask, yes – getting a five-star meal for free and then being paid to write a review of it is absolutely as awesome as it sounds. Sometimes, if the restaurant isn’t too great at answering emails, I have to go along without prior permission and pay for the food like any normal customer (on company expenses, naturally). What amazes me is that, even in those conditions, no one bats an eye over my whipping out a DSLR and snapping away at my meal!
Between reviewers like me, food bloggers, keen Instagrammers, tourists and people who just love taking pictures, photographing your meal is now so commonplace that it has become the subject of newspaper cartoons and internet memes. Chefs probably consider it a slight to their cooking and presentation skills if you don’t snap a few photos of your dinner before eating it! That does not make it an easy discipline, however; it just means it is frequently done wrong.
Composing the Perfect Shot for Food Photography
Try searching the #food or #foodporn tags on Instagram. You will find a surprising number of pictures of people with no food in the frame (tagging habits can be very puzzling) but also a fair number of shots which have been taken quickly, with no real consideration for the background. At the top of the frame, you will often see the diner’s companion, taking their own #food pictures!
It is really not that difficult to find a more appealing angle. Just try leaning to your left or right and taking the picture from off to one side, giving you a wider background of more of the restaurant. Move glasses, condiments and any other clutter out of your way. Put your aperture setting low enough to blur out any background distractions so that you are focussing interest on the food while creating a prettier shot.
Food Photography Tutorial – Composing the Food
Think of food photography as a little like model photography. In both cases, your objective is to bring out the best in your subject and make it look as beautiful as possible. If you were working with a model, you would get them to pose to achieve that. The same goes for food.
In the finer restaurants, the chefs will put a great deal of effort into plating up the dish and making it look pretty. Generally speaking, there will be a certain angle from which it looks most attractive, so spin the plate until you find that angle. Even if it is a more basic place where they just pile the stuff on the plate, there will still be that one angle. Keep the taller parts of the dish towards the back of the shot, so that it isn’t blocking out the other ingredients, and don’t be afraid to prod a few potatoes into better positions or take out a few French fries to neaten things up.
Food Photography Tutorial – Lighting Your Subject
Probably the biggest challenge in taking a picture of your meal is getting the lighting right. Restaurants are rarely designed for ideal photography conditions (not yet, at least, but I’m willing to bet it won’t be long!). Most of the nicer eateries tend to be quite dark and moodily lit, and taking pictures by candlelight is far from easy. What’s worse is that using the flash is not really an option. Aside from being an obnoxious distraction for other diners, it usually reflects off the sauces, giving the food a shiny, unappetising look.
Your options are fairly limited. Firstly, you can bump your ISO up as high as it’ll go and risk making the picture look grainy. You can remove some of the damage with special Photoshop filters in editing.
Option #2 is to move the plate to somewhere with more light, which can also help with improving the background for your shot. Walking around the restaurant with your plate and a camera might get you some funny looks, though, and this is probably best left to those who have prior permission to do a review.
The third option is to use a tripod, and that is definitely best left to the professionals (we’re used to funny looks). My tripod is pretty heavy-duty, so I’ve only tried this once and, while it certainly worked well, I only got away with it because I was dining with the restaurant’s PR manager. It is also a time-consuming process, but something else food photographers get used to is cold dinners!
Food Photography Tutorial – Try Something Different
Good advice both in dining and photography – don’t be afraid of experimenting. When I’m doing a review, I always look for the signature dishes because, if they’re willing to put their name to it, it is usually something special. This did backfire one time, when I found myself photographing mushroom soup. It was very tasty, but a bowl of grey-brown liquid is not particularly photogenic!
Pizza is also a challenge. It’s one of my favourite foods, but it is pretty dull, photography-wise. I found photographing it from directly overhead to be a highly-successful experiment in using different angles.
Our next tip in this food photography tutorial: don’t be afraid to get in close. Remember that your subject is the food, not the plate or the tablecloth. You’re not obliged to get the whole dish in the shot – no one will mind that you cropped out most of the mound of mashed potatoes! If you have recently completed a blogging course in Bangkok and want to start writing about the great restaurant scene, you should consider investing in a macro lens. It will allow you to get in really close, letting you focus on tiny details with exceptional clarity.
Now your turn! Next time you go to a restaurant practice framing everything with just your normal mobile phone and try to apply some techniques you learned in this food photography tutorial. Then you will have a better idea of what works when you are ready to take the next step in food photography.