Food photography and restaurants are inseparable. Each restaurant sooner or later will hire a food photographer. If you are seriously thinking about getting into professional food photography, knowing how to work with restaurants essential.
This post is written by Jackie Alpers. Jackie is a professional food photographer, and in coming weeks, she will be sharing her advice with us on this food photography blog on variety of topics.
If you are interested in writing a guest post and connecting with food photographers and food stylists, visit guest post page to learn more.
Let’s welcome Jackie…
Food Photography for Restaurants
Although these techniques apply to other situations as well, in this article I’m going to walk you through my process for photographing food in a restaurant for a magazine article. Editorial assignments are interesting experiences because there are so many unknowns factors. You may not know what the chef is going to bring you, or what the plate is going to look like. It’s different than shooting an ad or a cookbook where every detail is planned in advance. I use natural lighting and minimal equipment, so for me it’s a lot like photographing food on a regular night out.
Pre-production starts with my first call or email exchange with my client and ends on shoot day. I get all of the information that I can up front. If I’m shooting a magazine article that’s already been written, I’ll get a copy and highlight the parts that inspire me. If I’m working with an author on a work in progress, I’ll call and discuss the themes and details. It’s my job to illustrate and elaborate on the writer’s story while keeping the photo-editor or art director’s vision in tact.
I go online and find out as much as I can about the location before hand. I visit their website, read their menu and online reviews, and see how the food has been photographed in the past.
I always call the restaurant myself to schedule a shoot date and to talk to the chef and/or the general manager. I explain what my goals are for the shoot; I discuss which menu items will photograph the best, requesting dishes with strong graphic shapes and beautiful colors; and I go over location options. I decide if I should schedule the shoot while the restaurant is busy so I can capture the atmosphere, or if I think it would be better to shoot during their off-hours, which are before lunch and between lunch and dinner. Sometimes I am able to work very closely with chefs in preparing the food for the camera and sometimes I have to photograph the food as served. Either way communication is key.
The Shoot Day
I almost always feel a little nervous as I pull up to the location on shoot day. It doesn’t matter if it’s my favorite restaurant or one I’ve never been to before. The energy and anticipation is a little overwhelming, like I’m just about to go onstage. I’m excited to make some images I love and I want everything to go smoothly. Even though I’ve planned and done my research, I know that there are always unknown factors… I’m embarking on an adventure.
If I’ve never been to the restaurant before, the first thing I do is scout for a location. Sometimes the restaurant has already reserved a table for me, but if the lighting or atmosphere isn’t right I’ll ask for a different one.
Working With Restaurant Staff
There are so many amazing and talented people working in the food service industry, and I am fortunate to have worked with many of them. Some of the servers that I have encountered in restaurants have been the best assistants I’ve ever had, and some chefs, the best food stylists.
I believe that it’s every chef’s dream to have their food photographed. Sure, creating food that people actually eat is nice and all, but having your creation documented forever for everyone to see, is something special. Usually food is devoured before getting the chance to be visually appreciated.
In editorial assignments the chef usually takes on the role of my food stylist. Plating food for the camera can be very different than plating it for restaurant patrons. In the camera, I’m designing a two dimensional layout, translating it from a three dimensional plate of food. To do that I need to follow basic design elements of having dominate and sub-dominate graphic shapes. That said, I often still get food that’s plated in a way that doesn’t fit my suggestions.
The chef may have worked with photographers in the past that have a different style than I do. Once, I arrived at a shoot and found that the chef had painted fake grill lines onto the chicken breast and corn on the cob, a “trick” he’d learned from another photographer. I asked him to instead plate the food the way he would on a good day – say the way he would if he knew a restaurant reviewer might come in. I also explain to the chef that I might rearrange the food on the plate, or actually eat it – so please make sure it’s cooked throughout. It’s surprising how many chefs think that food doesn’t have to be adequately cooked if it’s going to appear in a photo. I tell them that the best looking food is food that is well prepared.
The Restaurant Owner or Manager
Owners and managers are used to being in charge. Let them help you, but also gently remind them, if necessary, that they did not hire you, the magazine did. I was once in a situation where a restaurant owner threatened me, saying that I was going to be in “big trouble” if I didn’t include their white styrofoam logo cup in every shot. I wasn’t sure if that meant she was going to punch me, or call the magazine and try and get me fired. I decided both were unlikely, so, I sat her down and told her that we both had the same goal, which was to make a good photo, and ultimately get good press for the restaurant. I explained that creating imagery for a magazine article is different than an ad. My photos are not only about the “product”, they are about the experience, and in this case it’s about MY experience because that’s what I’ve been hired to illustrate.
Then, I took a few shots with the cup to make her happy.
Always tip your server! Remember that it is not their job to be your assistant, and they often have several other tables to help.
The Restaurant Patrons
I keep my camera and equipment to a minimum so I rarely disturb the people around me who are trying to enjoy their meal. If I notice people paying positive attention to me, I’ll go up to their table, explain what I am doing and ask them if they mind if they happen to be in the background while I take photos. I explain that if they do show up in the photo they will probably be blurry. If they seem excited at the prospect, I ask them to sign a model release, if not, I leave them alone, and out of the photo.
Part of the joy of eating out is the atmosphere. Find something to appreciate in every experience and photograph that thing.
View challenges as part of the fun
I’ve been sent to jaw-dropping 4-star restaurants, mom and pop diners; and to places that looked like the should be condemned, with peeling paint and broken out windows. I’ve had grey-green, congealed blobs of food set in front of me, that smelled terrible and looked worse. I’ve worked under buzzing florescent lighting; and in almost pitch black darkness – at a speakeasy lit by candlelight. Each time I found a way to make it work.
Be a problem solver
If a dish really looks bad, ask for something else. If the restaurant insists, saying that it’s the speciality of the house, photograph it anyway and say that you might be able to get two dishes in the article. Then, look at the menu, or what other people are eating, pick something else and try again. If you sit and watch long enough you will find something charming in every situation.
Use lighting consistent with your style
Once the food is in front of you, the lighting style is up to you. Be yourself. I am a documentary style food photographer, so I use real food and natural lighting, but I also color correct. It’s ok for the photo to take on a warm glow, it’s not ok for it to have an unappetizing green, blue or yellow tint.
I hope you enjoyed this post from Jackie. Here’s more about Jackie and her website.
Jackie Alpers is a photographer specializing in food related themes. Her images have been featured in Knack Mexican Cooking, The Low Salt Cookbook, The Calorie Counter Cookbook and in numerous articles and ads. She works both on location, and in her Tucson, Arizona studio. Visit her website at http://www.JackieAlpers.com
More on Photographing for a Restaurant
What are your questions about photographing for a restaurant? What else would you like to learn about working with restaurants? Have you worked with restaurants before? What did you learn from the experience?
All photos copyright property of Jackie Alpers.