behind-the-scenes: shooting at restaurants

May 13, 2019 Portland, OR, USA


This post was done in partnership with Canon U.S.A, who sponsored this post by providing the compensation and the Canon EOS RP camera kit to make it happen! I've exclusively used Canon cameras and lenses since the start of my blogging career; learn more in my previous post about shooting a recipe. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own, and thank you for supporting the sponsors that make Hummingbird High possible!


While most of my food photography happens at home, I also dine out in Portland frequently and find myself wanting to share my beautiful meals on Instagram (or maybe a fully-fledged blog post as part of a travel guide, like this one for Lisbon and Porto). I’ve noticed that, more and more, sharing your food on social media is now the norm — there are large social media accounts dedicated to nothing but sharing meals from restaurants all around the world, and restaurants themselves have even started designing dishes and interiors specifically for the camera. I say we embrace it!

But of course, it’s easier said than done. How many times have you snapped a photo of your beautiful meal on your phone, only to find that it looks far less attractive and nothing like itself in your photo? 🙋🏻🙋🏻🙋🏻 This used to happen to me all the time, but over the years, with lots of practice, I was able to improve my restaurant photography. Similar to the guidelines I follow when I shoot recipes at home in my makeshift home studio, I find that following the six principles below enables me to take great photographs at restaurants:

1. Use the best and most versatile photography equipment.


If you want to take your photography to the next level, you MUST upgrade from your phone. While it’s true that most phones have pretty decent cameras these days, nothing can really compare to the quality of a real digital camera. A digital camera will give you much more control of your photograph. Besides — unlike studio photography, where it’s easy to control all elements of the photograph, restaurant photography is a lot less flexible and you’ll need to work with what you have. That sometimes means shooting in dim lighting conditions and cramped spaces. A camera that gives you full control of your aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and even zoom enables you to shoot perfect photographs in these less-than-ideal conditions.


Besides my phone, I’ve used nothing but Canon cameras since the start of my photography journey. For restaurant and travel, I specifically like to use the Canon EOS RP. It’s Canon’s full-frame mirrorless model, which means that it’s much lighter, more compact, and generally much more nimble than a bulky DSLR camera. The best part? The Canon EOS RP is a full-frame camera and gives me the exact same quality photographs as my DSLR at about half the size and weight. It’s much more convenient to carry around and shoot with when I’m out and about.


2. Chase that light.


In my previous post about shooting a recipe, I talked about how light was the biggest factor in guiding my photography and that I would plan entire days around when I would be able to shoot in the best light. Apply that same rule to restaurant photography. If it’s possible, make a lunch reservation, or go for happy hour when the sun is still in the sky (pro-tip: peak golden hour usually happens around happy hour).


Ask for a table by the window, and try to avoid shooting directly underneath pendants and spotlights — these will cast unsightly shadows in your photographs.


3. Tell a story.


One of my favorite parts about restaurant photography is that you can (and should!) tell a story that goes beyond the food. Because in addition to the menu, most people also choose a restaurant for its ambiance and setting. So keep that in mind while you take photographs and be open to shooting other subjects beyond your plate. I like to focus on thoughtful details like picturesque and unique interior design elements to give a complete portrait of the space and entice people to check it out. Look for things like interesting wallpaper, or even an interesting textured wall to use as a backdrop for a drink.


Don’t be afraid to add human elements—hands in photos reaching for food and drinks, waiters and bartenders serving dishes and making drinks—to capture the actual life and vibe inside the restaurant.


4. When all else fails, keep it simple.


For the most part, restaurants do a great job of plating and presenting their food in a way that’s already appealing and photogenic. But there are still other things you can do to make the food look even more camera ready, all without a professional food styling kit. If I’m focusing specifically on a shot of the food, I like to keep it simple and take away any unnecessary clutter surrounding it (think: menus, drinks, cutlery, napkins, salt and pepper shakers) and wipe down any unsightly smudges or spills before taking my shot.

This minimalist approach works especially well for flat lay shots, especially if the restaurant has a pretty tabletop made from wood or marble. But it can also work for portrait-style shots where you’re shooting from a straight perspective:


For these types of shots, I like to shoot at a large aperture to blur the background, creating a minimalist setting via the bokeh.


5. Or go the opposite way: go big or go home!


Alternatively, if the minimalist approach isn’t your style, that’s okay too! There are some restaurants — especially ones that have a large, diverse menu and are great for big crowds and/or serve family style meals — where it’s more appropriate to go big. At these types of restaurants, I love to take an abundant overhead tablescape shot to really show off all the food and action at the table. Even if you’re with a small group, you can “fake” it by styling your plates together in a tight frame.


Work in a set of odd numbers, like placing three plates in the frame as opposed to two or four — odd numbers create a natural triangle that is pleasing to the eye.


6. Always be respectful and mindful.


And finally, perhaps the most important thing to remember when shooting at a restaurant, is to be respectful and mindful. Always ask servers and customers for their permission and consent when taking their photographs.


You are not the only customer there! Never be rude and disturb others’ dining experience with your photography — that means shooting on silent to minimize your camera’s shutter noise and avoiding flash photography. Work quickly to get the shot that’s needed so you can sit down and enjoy the food too.


Cheers!

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