Snap! Flash! Ack! I can’t see! I just jabbed myself with a fork.
Ever have that happen when you go out to eat? You’re trying to enjoy a nice dinner when two tables away, someone decides that they are the next Annie Leibovitz of food photography? How annoying is that?
When did taking pictures of our food become a “thing?” I guess when we have social media, advanced cameras on our phones and the “foodie” movement, this is what happens.
Before you start screaming at me, “Craig Jones, aren’t you the pot calling the kettle black?” Yes. I am. I take a ton of food pictures. However, I try to be very respectful of my surroundings and other patrons.
Now, I don’t know how long this food picture trend will stay with us, but I do know that we need to set some ground rules.
First of all, let me address the issue of your surroundings. You are not the only person in the restaurant. That means you need to be considerate of other people. Plain and simple. And by other people, I mean other diners —with you and around you — as well as the staff at the restaurant. Creating a scene or making the wait staff literally wait while you take pictures is not being considerate.
Here are some tips that I’ve learned over the years to get great food photos with your phone and keep harmony in the dining room.
DON’T USE FLASH — EVER
If you think that I’m shouting at you because I’m using all caps … well, I am. Never use flash for food pictures. The bright flash usually washes out the picture, makes the food look bad and you’ll likely get a flashback glare from white plates or silverware. More importantly, the flash is disruptive to everyone else in the vicinity. Flash is indiscriminate. It bounces everywhere. And it really invades people’s privacy.
I remember dining at Restaurant Marc Forgione in New York City back in 2013. There was a guy in the corner of this stylish, dark restaurant with a 35mm camera using an external bounce flash. Every picture he took was like a jolt from a bolt of lightning. This happened during our entire dining experience. By the way, it happened to be our 20th wedding anniversary, so this guy was disrupting something that was very important to me, just so that he could get some good pictures for his blog. Two years later, and I’m still a bit angry. But, I also learned the annoying impact that flash can have on others. Don’t be that guy.
Sit by the light
If you are planning on taking pictures, scope out the place and try to sit where the food will be well lit. I can’t stress this enough. Natural light is always best, if you can make that work out for you. During the day, sit by a window. You can also use supplied candles for light and use the menus to direct the light toward the food. That may sound crazy, but it works.
Bring your own light
Another great option is to bring your own light. This sounds odd after my rant on flash, but I’m talking about something completely different. There are two lights that I can recommend. One is a tiny 16 LED light that plugs into your phone audio port or can be handheld (approximately $8).
The other is a 56 LED video light (approximately $18). Both of the lights are dimmable … and that’s the key right there: You can dim the light to just the amount of extra light needed for a photo. The 16 LED light is about 1-inch-by-1-inch with an internal rechargeable battery. The 56 LED light is about the size of your palm and takes three AA batteries that last for at least eight months of active lighting. The way to use either light without disturbing others is as follows:
▪ Start with the light face down on the table.
▪ Turn the light onto its lowest dimmable setting.
▪ Slowly bring the light up, illuminate the food and take your pictures.
▪ Place the light back on the table, face down, and turn off.
Very easy. No extreme lighting flashed indiscriminately throughout the room. No confusions with the Studio 54 disco ball. Just a quick, easy, picture without disturbing others. I’m not saying you won’t get some strange looks using a light. Sometimes, others are intrigued by the “food light” — my reference. But other people’s interest is much different than a full-on, unwelcomed, “flash assault.”
Spend some time exploring the options of the camera settings on your phone. Some have a “Food” setting; some have a “Low Light” setting. And if your camera phone has an HD setting, use it. Colors will become much more vibrant. Practice with these settings at home using similar restaurant light conditions to decide what combination is best for you and your phone. If you practice at home first, you can spend more time eating and enjoying your food instead of re-taking pictures and fiddling with your phone.
It’s important in low light situations to be very steady while taking pictures. In a restaurant, I’ll use the table to slightly lean against, mid arm or elbows, to ensure blur-free pictures. We all have that friend that just hasn’t mastered that yet. Don’t be that guy, either.
To capture the overall dish, many people take a picture from the top. That works for some dishes, but not all. Consider a 45 degree angle from above to capture the experience from your eyes’ perspective. Try taking a picture from a lower angle to accentuate the height or 3D qualities of the dish. Maybe take an extreme close up if you want to show off fine details or textures. One bit of warning, though: Close ups get old after a while, and can make the food hard to identify. Again, that all depends on what your food photography goal is.
Rotate the dish
Before I start shooting, I’ll usually rotate the dish a few times to decide where the best shot is. Sometimes I’ll even take a few pictures at each turn so that I can make a better determination later on which picture I want to use.
Take more than one picture
Take a few pictures at each angle versus just one. Why? What happens if you get home and find out that the picture that you really wanted is just a bit blurry? No amount of color correction can fix a blurry picture. If you are sharing the picture, you don’t want to make your friends guess whether that was dinner or another Sasquatch sighting.
Focus on different points of the food
Most phone cameras will let you use your finger to decide where to focus. I like to focus on a few different areas if there are different points of “interest” on a dish. Depending on your phone, this technique sometimes can add a “depth of field” quality to your photos.
Use some props
Sometimes the photo can be made better by using background props. Maybe something interesting that sticks out or is unique. I’m thinking of the kitschy salt and pepper shakers at Happy Gillis, for example. Sometimes we’ll even use part of the menu in the background of a photo for an effect. It also helps you remember where you were.
I try not to spend more than 30 to 45 seconds taking pictures of each dish. After all, the point is to enjoy your food, not just take pictures of it. Oh, and this should go without saying, but I’m saying it anyway: If your food gets cold, you cannot sent it back. Think of the motto, “less tweeting and more eating.” (Adapted from Josh Eans, chef/owner of Happy Gillis and Columbus Park Ramen Shop).
Be courteous to your dining partners
Not everyone will be as enthusiastic about food photography as you might be. It’s during those times, that you must decide whether or not to even take pictures. If you do want pictures, don’t take pictures of your friends’ food. Just let them eat.
Be courteous to the wait staff
While professionals in the hospitality industry are tolerant and used to people taking pictures, I like to make a point about never making the server wait on me. If your server approaches the table, put your phone down, and wait until after the interaction to take pictures. They have a job to do, and you are not the only patron in the place, so your server is juggling your service with many others. They don’t need further delays.
I have one memory where I had a very tolerant general manager wait for me to take pictures before he opened and poured the wine. I still regret that moment. Sorry, Tony Glamcevski. I’ll never do that again. You are a true gentleman.
Eat and enjoy your food
And after all of this, be sure to eat your food and enjoy yourself. Sure, it’s fun to preserve the moment for later, but there is something to be said about just living in the now. This moment, this point in time, will never happen again.
I hope these tips help you to take better food pictures and “play nice with others” (as my wife says). Happy snapping and bon appétit.
Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS BBQ judge, a student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.