For The Love Of Food

This is one of those perks I really like about the profession. Food reviews. I have photographed many dining reviews for Harbor Style Magazine. I have seen just about every kind of food imaginable…including octopus! There are times that I’m glad that I’m not the reviewer, just the photographer.

Food can be challenging to photograph, especially when it’s real. This may sound kind of strange but, most of what you see on TV is fake. One of the famous stand ins for ice cream is…Crisco. This will not melt while you are working with it. All of the food that you see in Harbor Style Magazine is what the reviewer actually ate. The goal of dining reviews is to get people to go to the restaurant and buy something. That is the goal with any product or service. I like to go and eat after the review and see what the article did for them. I get responses like, “The locals came in with the magazine and ordered off the magazine page!” I have also heard from some restaurant owners that their revenue up up as much as 30% for the quarter.Hearing this tells me that I did my job. What goes into a typical food shoot? Keep reading.

First, I like to go and meet with the restaurant owner. This initial contact immediately tells me how the night is going to go. I like to ask what they will be serving, how much and do they have any special qualities that sets them apart from all of the other restaurants in the area. I also look for a place to photograph the food. I like to be seen, but not in the way. This is great advertising for the restaurant. Usually, I like tables that are close to the kitchen. I will explain more on that later. After the initial contact, it’s time to go outside.

You might be thinking, outside? When you are photographing for any type of media they like options. Sometimes one of the coolest features is how or what the building is constructed out of. I start with exterior photographs of the building. One time I had the kitchen staff stand on the roof next to their sign. You never know what the owner will come up with! Once all of the exterior photos are done, it’s time to head inside and take some interior photographs.

This is where it can get tricky. Some reviews are done later in the afternoon or at night. Most restaurants are dimly lit. They say that this creates “mood”. I think it’s so you don’t have a stroke when you see the prices on the menu. You know your in for it when all it says is “Market Price”. I digress. When I shoot interiors like this I look at two options, light it with flash or HDR. If I can light it with flash I will as that saves a lot of processing time. However, this is not always the case and due to what the scene is, I may have to use HDR. This is where a good sturdy tripod and electronic release will come in handy. Since I’m trying to sell the interiors space as a wide open, warm feeling, bring your significant other, I have to get creative. I like to use a 12mm-24mm lens. This lens gets me a wide angle view with minimal distortion. I also shoot at f/16 so I have great depth of field. I choose different angles of the restaurant and finish the interiors. Then it’s time for the main event…the food!

Here is the real world situation with food shoots. Everything that you see on packaging at the store, those photographers had DAYS to create those shots. I have to get the food to the review as it came out of the kitchen. So how long do I really need? About 60 seconds. This is the beauty of using manual mode on the camera and on the flash. Once it’s set up, I can bang them right out.

How I photograph food…
Here is where it all comes together. First of all know this, we are selling what the chef’s create. Not table cloths, silverware, little candles, salt and pepper shakers, you get the idea. I have to clear off the table completely. Some times this is harder than you might think. It’s not uncommon to have “help” from the staff. This is where your people skills come in with being a diplomat. I’ll take a couple the way that they want then move everything over to the side to get another one for “insurance” purposes which will actually be the one that will run in the magazine.

Now that the table is cleared, I set up my off camera flash on a light stand with a shoot through umbrella. Depending on the location of the table, this might be on the left or right side. Next, I pull out a $2 piece of foam board. This helps fill in any shadows so the food is well lit and vibrant. Before any food comes, I reach for the salt shaker that I just moved. Why? Salt is white so I can get my exposure setting. I know when I have my exposure when there are no “blinkies” on the salt shaker. Once that is complete, the salt goes back onto the other table.

When the first plate comes out, I might adjust my camera and/or flash exposure to dial it in. I find that darker food like mussels, need more light than say a salad. I usually spend about 15 seconds or so doing this. Once it all looks good, I take some wide angle and close ups. Take a couple at each view and it’s off to the reviewer. This is the way I handle the whole meal.

Sometimes the photographic gods are on your side. Like in the photo above, you can see some of the blue light coming from the bar area. I thought that is would make a great background for the food. This is where I “dragged the shutter”. If I was to keep my exposure at 1/250 of a second, I would have had a black background. Since I wanted to incorporate that blue light into the shot, I slowed down the shutter to 1/15 of a second. This did not effect my flash exposure since I had the flash set for “rear curtain (Nikon) or second curtain (Canon)”. This means that the flash went off at the end of the exposure. Also, the flash only cares about the aperture. But that’s another post. Click on the layout thumbnail to see exactly how I set this up.

This is how I approach my food photography. Yes, it’s down and dirty, but for the allotted time, this works and looks great on the printed page. If you want to be inspired, head over to Flickr and search for “Food Porn”. No, I’m not kidding. That is what they call people who are obsessed with taking pictures of food. What can I tell you.

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


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