Food Photography - A Food Critic Must

Grant ChenApril 23rd, 2008
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A picture is always worth a thousand words - especially when it comes to food.

It's one thing to pen a gushing review about that succulent, slow-roasted and spice laden squab that was pure heaven in your mouth, and it's another thing to simply take a picture to share with the world. That's why even the best food writers, who can conjure up epic descriptions of each tasting adventure, still use images to enhance the narrative.

As a reviewer, learning how to properly take pictures of food has been a learning experience from the start. Taking a beautiful photograph of a trussed up, gorgeous red salmon fillet with side of grilled asparagus, fingerling potatoes and a splash of hazel nut oil is easy - if you're a professional photographer holding a $3,500 digital SLR camera in a well-lit studio.

In the real world, attempting to capture the unique tasting experience of a particular dish on film without having the restaurant detract from the picture is difficult at best. Issues that an amateur food photographer has to deal with include:

  • Pocket-sized cameras - sorry, no professional 35mm cameras or tripods
  • Dim lighting, in sometimes cavernous spaces
  • Messy arrangements of food on small, crowded tables
  • Intrusive attention and curiosity from servers, managers and owners

Camera selection

We have a Canon EOS 30D SLR camera at our disposal, which instantly turns the most mundane imagery into rich pictures with deep color and stunning clarity. Unfortunately, the SLR is also the size of a football, which means sneaking it into a front pocket would make for an attention getting bulge that would make even Tom Jones blush. Because of this, we use my pocket-sized, reliable Canon PowerShot S400 instead. I like Canon cameras, as they have a long history of producing high-quality cameras.

Even though I have no problems with my S400, I'm already thinking of upgrading to the new Canon PowerShot SD850. The reason is that my current camera tops out at ISO 400 while the new Canon tops out at ISO 1600. Higher ISO speeds make it easier for a user to take pictures in the dark, which can be a very useful feature in dimly lit restaurants.

Low level lighting food photography

Linguine Martino from Tropea

As seen in the picture above, low lighting conditions can ruin a picture of a perfectly prepared dish. Another example is our dark pictures from Yarrow Bay Grill. Nothing is wrong with the food at all; it's one of my favorite restaurants to date.

However, with a bit of photography research, I discovered that having a high ISO was the magic solution. Higher ISOs let in more light, but as a result, also create more noise in your photographs. Most current consumer cameras have speeds of at least ISO 400 or ISO 800, though different brands experience varying noise levels. Noise is what causes photos to turn out grainy and speckled, which is often what you will see in night time shots.

For most restaurants, a speed of ISO 200 works well to strike a balance between lighting and noise. However, I've found that my Canon Powershot handles noise fairly well even at ISO 400 speeds. Here is one such shot taken at extremely low light at Wann Izakaya in Belltown.

Sake bottle at Wann Izakaya

As most of you likely have your own digital cameras, the next time you are in a low light situation, switch to manual mode and set a high ISO to take great night pictures. Don't be that guy using flash in the pitch dark, or at a concert thinking that the light from your camera will work, because it won't.

Don't attempt use a flash in a restaurant either, otherwise you'll end up with washed out photos at best, while attracting all sorts of unwanted attention. Here's an example of what happened to the paella at Tango Tapas when given such treatment.

Paella at Tango Tapas

Dealing with table clutter and obstacles

Salmon Ciabatta at Salute

Professional photographers have the convenience at their disposal to arrange an entire table setting around one particular plate, like a deep red wine in the background to provide the perfect accent to a tomato tipped pasta, with a garnish of green parsley against a white linen backdrop.

In a restaurant environment, we're lucky to have enough room to take a picture of one particular dish without another plate, glass, bread, salt shaker or a person getting in the shot. In the picture above, careful observation shows a dirty bread plate and also a coffee cup marring an otherwise pleasing image.

To get a nice picture, you can either adjust your shot to get closer to your food, or clean up the table. Let me tell you, however, nothing looks more bizarre to a server than seeing a table of diners all suddenly lifting their plates and rearranging their dishes for no apparent reason.

More often than not, taking a close-up shot will hide other items on the table and also bring out the features of a dish. Close shots work best when taken at less than a 45 degree angle; many of our best shots were taken at a 10 degree angle.

Corned Beef and Eggs at Woodinville Cafe
(Sloped angle: Corned beef and eggs at Woodinville Cafe)

Corned Beef and Eggs at Woodinville Cafe, low angle
(Low angle: Much more intimacy with food and better detail)

Open face chicken sandwich at Meze
(Close up shot of open chicken sandwich, subtly hiding plates and other table items)

Odd plates and camera unfriendly foods

Bacon Wrapped Dates at Sazerac

One of the hardest things in food photography are certain dishes that seem almost impossible to photograph. This is where a trained eye and professional skills come in handy, as a photographer can make the best out of difficult situation.

Seeing how I know very little about photography theory, I do what I know best - take a ton of pictures and hope one of them comes out well. The above picture is of bacon wrapped dates at Sazerac, which seem fairly unappealing to the eye at first glance. However, here is the dish again at a different angle and perspective.

Vertical angle, bacon Wrapped Dates at Sazerac

The photo lighting has been enhanced with Photoshop (FYI, most of our food photos are retouched for lighting), but you can easily see that angle and perspective can completely reinvent a photo.

Celery root soup at Veil

Sometimes though, a dish will simply have you beat when it is has too many obstacles working against it. Above is a picture of a celery root soup at Veil at Queen Anne, which is a restaurant I particularly enjoy.

This dish poses a few problems. First, the type of bowl used prevents any low level angle photography given the high edge. Second, because the bowl is so large, it's difficult to take a picture of just the dish without including the rest of the table to some degree. Last, because the subject is a soup, it's also naturally level and foils high angle photos as it appears flat. My theory is that soups are simply hard to photograph unless in small bowls.

Black cod at veil

This black cod dish is excellent for photography, as it's simple, clean and set on a white plate with gently curving edges. It screams to have a close-up shot that sells some sizzlingly seductive food porn.

Unfortunately, what is good for Veil is not necessarily good for us as reviewers. We feel that we have a mission to show the food in a pleasing, but accurate manner as well. This means that sometimes, we will sacrifice a better shot in order to show portion size. Normally, portion size is not an big issue and it rarely comes up, but occasionally it rears its head. I personally had no problems with Veil's portion size or value, but I can't speak for the rest of the Chef Seattle team.

Our team did agree that the portions were small at a particular Mexican restaurant, which you can see with our not-so-subtle salt shaker to show relative size.

Mini Tacos

(This "combo meal" was an unbelievable $5. Even this picture has a hard time really portraying the tiny portion.)

Spy photography without being noticed

First, I hope you read the earlier part about not using flash. Second, you'll have to face that if you have a competent server, they will see that you're photographing the food at some point or another.

When we first started our food adventures, we thought that we could be asked to leave (legal), asked to hand our camera over (not legal), or come face-to-face with a suspicious manager. Luckily, none of these things has ever happened to us. Personally, I like to think my Asian ethnicity gives me a free pass of sorts to wield a camera without attention.

When taking a photo, I don't make it a point to be obvious, but I don't try to hide it either. Sometimes I'll point the camera at a fellow reviewer and have them smile with their food if I think a server's eye is on me, but otherwise I just swiftly snap away.

If you have any doubts, simply ask your server if you can take pictures of the food. We've never asked, so we don't know the success rate, but we assume most restaurants will have no problem with it. As I said though, confidence is the key - if you act like it's ok, others will most likely leave you alone.

So, have fun with your newfound knowledge and start sharing your mouth-watering adventures with your friends and family! If you want to learn more about food photography, I recommend you check out this book, Digital Food Photography, by Lou Manna.

A colorful salad from Pomegranate
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