How to take photos of food in a restaurant
I recently read a blog post by Nicole S. Young on tips for photographing food in a restaurant. Nicole is fantastic at capturing food and I love her work. I own, and reference, her well-written book on general food photography. I was anxious to read her restaurant tips, as most of the time when I take food photos I’m seated in a restaurant. Her advice is excellent, but as I read her article I realized that the type of photos I take in restaurants—and the reasons I take them—are a bit different than hers. I thought creating my own post with tips on what I’ve learned taking photos in restaurants might be useful to anyone who wants to shoot food for the same reasons, and in similar places, that I do.
My partner and I enjoy eating at many different types of restaurants—from casual places to hidden gems to fancy establishments that have earned Michelin stars. It’s the latter—the high-end restaurants—that I think require a bit more consideration. I appreciate good food and getting the chance to try new and innovative preparations, but photographing in such places is as much about the unique experience as it is the food. The art of presentation, service, and hospitality are all part of the equation. So, for me, when photographing in a restaurant, I often feel like I’m capturing a special event, not just good-looking food.
I feel like there are two main challenges to taking pictures in a nice restaurant. The first is whether or not I should even bring a camera in the door. If the environment is too formal or I feel like it might be impolite to be clicking away with a big camera, I won’t even bring one. It’s sometimes hard to know ahead of time, but a quick peek at the restaurant’s website will at least let you know if there’s a policy against cameras. I usually read a few reviews to see if someone hints one way or another and I’ll also see if I can find others’ photos from the restaurant. If there are already photos online there’s a good chance it’s ok. But regardless of whether or not it’s “ok” if the vibe doesn’t feel right, I’ll leave my camera in my bag and enjoy my meal. I get this feeling a lot in Japan, especially with sushi. It just feels impolite to use my big camera in a tiny sushi bar and then eat with my hands!
Once the camera is in the door and I’ve decided it’s ok to use, the second biggest challenge is light. Food usually looks its best in bright, white light. Take a look at the images in food magazines and cookbooks! Unfortunately, only very rarely do I find myself in a fancy restaurant where the table is lit for a proper photo shoot, and of course I’m not going to bring my own light (please, do not use a flash in a restaurant!). So, I make do with what I have. My partner already knows that if one seat at our table has better light I get it, but apart from that I can only be prepared with the right camera and right lens. Although smart phones are small and convenient, taking photos in a dark environment with an iPhone is probably not going to yield the best results. This is why I carry my big DSLR to dinner. The big, full-frame sensors in the newest DSLRs perform amazingly well in low light, capturing plenty of detail with little noise. I feel like a camera with a big sensor and decent ability to focus in low light at least gives me a fighting chance.
I’ve used a few different lenses for food in restaurants in an attempt to find something that works well. When deciding on a lens a number of factors come into play such as: minimum focus distance, field of view, and maximum aperture. The most important might be minimum focus distance, and it’s probably the one that most people overlook. When seated at a table, my eyes are about 18 inches away from my plate. This means that I need my food lens to be able to focus closer than 18 inches (ideally, less than a foot) so I can shoot without needing to lean back or stand up. Second most important factor, and the one that we normally think about when choosing a lens, is field of view. As in portrait photography, most food photographers like to use a long-ish lens when shooting food. Dishes can start to look weird and distort if shot too close with a wide-angle lens, plus the compression from a longer lens is usually nice. The problem in a restaurant, of course, is that we want to remain seated. That 70-200mm is out of the question! Lastly, maximum aperture. Going with a prime lens with maximum aperture of f/1.4-f/2 is probably the best bet. If I’m in a dark environment, being able to open up to f/2 or more is a nice crutch. For food, most of the time, I like to stop down a bit if I can. I get more in focus and generally a sharper image overall. However, if there’s not enough light, I do like the ability to open up wide. Also, there are more creative options available at the wider apertures.
So, which lens then? When I had a cropped-sensor D300s I used the 35mm f/1.8 DX. It’s small, has a minimum focus distance of 12 inches, and an equivalent field of view as a 52mm on a full-frame camera. Great! This will result in some nice close-ups—it might be hard to capture a full plate with this setup—but that’s ok, food usually looks good cropped in some and you can play with composition. When I bought a 24mm f/1.4 I used it with my D300s too. This lens can still focus less than a foot but it’s obviously wider. I actually preferred the ability to capture a bit more and crop later. It also gave me a better view when capturing restaurant interiors. I’d say on a crop-sensor camera anything between 24mm and 35mm is good and any lens in this range should focus close enough.
On a full-frame camera the situation is slightly more complicated. The 50mm lenses (which would have a similar look to the 35mm on a cropped body) generally have a minimum focus distance of 18 inches. I tried this once and it was just too uncomfortable. I had to lean back at the table to get anything to focus; it just wasn’t fun. I also tried my 24mm f/1.4 but found it to be just a bit too wide overall. I didn’t have a 35mm full-frame lens but also didn’t want to shell out almost $2K for the 35mm f/1.4. I was really hoping Nikon would refresh their 35mm f/2.0 lens and add vibration reduction, but instead they announced a new 35mm f/1.8. I picked one up right away and it’s become an excellent food lens. It focuses under a foot, is wide—but not too wide—and is physically small (relatively speaking).
As far as camera settings go, the first thing to determine is an appropriate shutter speed. I already know there’s not going to be a lot of light, so I figure out the longest shutter speed I can hand-hold without getting blurry images. Using the “reciprocal rule” I should be able to hand-hold a 35mm lens at 1/40th, but with a 24 megapixel sensor and shooting close (and maybe with a little wine in me), I feel more comfortable at 1/50th. I shoot in aperture priority and set the Auto ISO feature on my camera to allow ISOs as high as 6400 without letting the shutter speed fall below 1/50th. In practice, this means the shutter will always be at 1/50th and ISOs will vary with the amount of light and chosen aperture. I also know that I always increase the exposure of food shots in post processing, so I’ll set the exposure compensation on my camera to +0.7 if I can (I’ll need to watch for blown highlights if I do this though). I usually use matrix metering and auto white balance. I always shoot RAW.
When the food comes I’ll typically try to take a number of photos of each dish. I want to be quick so I don’t disturb too many people, but I also want to have a number of options to choose between back home. Depending on the amount of light, I’ll usually bracket aperture. There’s no automatic setting for this, so I’ll shoot a few wide open, a few at f/2.8, and a few at f/4, changing the aperture manually (it’s good to be able to know how to do this quickly, without looking). Whether or not I need the extra depth becomes a function of the subject itself and the amount of light available. Usually, the f/4 shot has a lot of noise (and the shutter might have even dropped below 1/50th if it’s really dark) but of course will have more in focus. The f/2 shot will be cleaner but could look a bit weird if only a sprig of parsley is in focus. I take everything and decide what I like back home. I use single point autofocus and move the AF point around to get it where I want in the composition. I take a few shots at each aperture just to be sure I get one focused where I wanted.
I admit that I don’t spend too much time worrying about what’s on the table around the plate, but really I should. My favorite images end up being those that not only show off appetizing food, but are nicely styled beyond the plate. A well placed fork or glass can make a huge difference. I usually shoot just below normal eye level. If there’s a tall bowl that I need to shoot into I might try to get a little higher but the classic overhead shots are too awkward when trying to be discreet with a big DSLR.
Throughout the meal I try to capture a few photos of the restaurant interior too. Showing the atmosphere helps to tell a better story. I do try to be cautious of others’ privacy. My fellow diners are out for a nice dinner, not to feel like they’re being hassled by the paparazzi! I try to include a chef, or server, if possible in my images. Given that I’m setup to do 1/50th I might even get a little motion blur which makes the restaurant feel full of life.
When I’m not shooting I put my camera on top of my bag on the floor and make sure it’s out of the way. If I’m lucky enough to have a bench seat, I’ll just set my camera next to me. Putting it on the table is a big no-no. If I’m at an elevated counter seat my camera goes between my legs or I don’t use it at all. It’s a bit uncomfortable, but that’s the only way it works.
Back home, I load my photos into Lightroom and take a look at each one at 100%. For each dish, I flag the one that has the best compromise between focus, depth, and noise. Of those flagged, I choose one to work on. White balance and exposure are the most important settings to get right. Shooting RAW means I can set the white balance to whatever I want in post. I’ll take a look at what the camera chose automatically and compare with a few Lightroom presets like “Auto” and “Tungsten” but I usually just use those as starting points to set something custom. I usually feel that “white with a bit of warmth” feels right for a restaurant food image. Once the white balance is good I’ll move on to exposure, highlights, shadows, contrast, color, noise, and sharpening. I want a bright exposure, without blowing the highlights, and usually a lot of shadow fill. I like colors that pop, but still look real. I reduce the noise but not try to get rid of it completely. Once finished, I’ll copy those settings to all the other photos in the set to use as a starting point with them. It’s usually close, but some tweaking to each photo will always have to be done to create a cohesive set. I spend a good deal of time finding the right crop for each image too. Some food shots can almost look like abstract art, so getting a nice, balanced composition is important.
Although one of the biggest challenges in restaurant food photography is learning how to deal with a lack of light, if I find myself in a situation where I have a lot of light things get much easier and I can be more generous with my camera settings. I have some great photos I took of dim sum in Hong Kong where we were seated right next to a giant window in the middle of the afternoon, shot at f/5.6 and 1/100th. I also had good success early in our dinner at Meadowood since it was still light outside when we were seated and we found ourselves next to a row of windows. (Of course this meant that as the sun set the white balance changed on every shot…so it was a bit more work in post-processing.) At Momofuku we were seated at a counter which was open to the kitchen. This was nice for two reasons: first, the light was a little brighter and whiter being so close to where the meal was being prepared and two, I was able to get some great shots of the chefs in action!
There are a few things I’ve not tried yet that I would like to in the future. First, there are some great, small, full-frame mirrorless camera coming out these days that would probably be great for photographing in dark restaurants. It would sure be nice to use a camera I could carry in my pocket instead of a giant DSLR! As long as the image quality is comparable to my D750, I’d give it a go. Second, a longer, macro lens might be fun to try someday too. Nikon makes a 60mm f/2.8 macro with a minimum focus distance of under 8 inches. This would have me zoomed in quite a bit, but for the right food and with enough light could be interesting.
I hope these tips are useful for anyone considering taking a camera to their next special occasion dinner or for someone who may have tried previously but was disappointed with the results. If you have specific questions that I didn’t address here, feel free to leave a note in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer!
For more inspiration, here’s a list of links to restaurant photos from my galleries, along with the camera and lens used. I’ve got a few more food galleries coming soon. Watch out for them!
- Guy Savoy, Paris: Nikon D300s + 35mm f/1.8 DX
- Lung King Heen, Hong Kong: Nikon D300s + 35mm f/1.8 DX
- Cyrus, Healdsburg, CA: Nikon D300s + 35mm f/1.8 DX
- Meadowood, St. Helena, CA: Nikon D300s + 24mm f/1.4
- Cyrus, Healdsburg, CA: Nikon D600 + 24mm f/1.4
- Atelier Crenn, San Francisco, CA: Nikon D600 + 50mm f/1.8
- Tickets, Barcelona: Nikon D600 + 24mm f/1.4
- L’Astrance, Paris: Nikon D600 + 24mm f/1.4
- Yam’Tcha, Paris: Nikon D600 + 24mm f/1.4
- Quince, San Francisco, CA: Nikon D600 + 24mm f/1.4
- Momofuku, Sydney: Nikon D600 + 35mm f/1.8
- Atera, New York, NY: Nikon D600 + 35mm f/1.8
- Saison, San Francisco, CA: Nikon D600 + 35mm f/1.8 (Coming Soon!)