An Introduction To Restaurant Food Photography
Have you ever been assigned to take pictures of a chef’s creations in a restaurant? Photographing food on location at a restaurant is a very common assignment for a food photographer. I have an editorial client that sends me to 4 or 5 restaurants every month to take pictures of the dishes. Through these assignments, I have discovered that most restaurants are not designed with the photography in mind. They will often be very dark and have a myriad of light directions and color temperatures. In these situations, you will have to bring your own lighting gear. There are other occasions when there will be large beautiful windows for natural light. If you have never been to the restaurant before, then you have to be prepared for both scenarios. Here is an example using two light sources with the same dish.
The Natural Light Look
When I first set foot into a restaurant, the first thing that I look for is a large window like what is pictured above. This is the best case scenario you can have when walking into a restaurant. Here is a picture that I took using this window as the key light.
For this example, I backlit the dish and filled back in with a white foam board reflector. Notice how the top of the table has a white highlight from the window on it. Most restaurants will have wooden table tops that have a reflective finish to them. The large window light source is able to fill the entire table with a highlight. If you are working with a smaller window or a different table top material, this highlight may not extend the whole way. You can always adjust your shooting angle or change the direction you are lighting from to find the best amount of highlight for your image. Just keep in mind that most tabletops will be reflective.
Here is a picture showing the lighting set up and the image.
This is the simplest of set-ups that you can have. It is very quick to set up and I know that I will not be in the way of the staff preparing for that evening’s service. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the scenario. Here is a look at the other side of the restaurant.
The Artificial Light Look
You can see that there is a wall on the left that blocks all of that beautiful window light. If you walk into a restaurant and there is no window or the window light won’t reach over to the table, you will need to use an artificial light source. There are a countless number of light sources you can choose from. Whatever you do choose, remember that in a restaurant smaller is better. Before service, there will be waiters bustling around doing a variety of different tasks. This isn’t a photo studio. Waiters and other restaurant staff aren’t used to having a photo shoot going on before service and the last thing you want is someone tripping over your lighting equipment of cords. When shooting at a restaurant there isn’t always a lot of time. The quicker that I can break down and pack up, the better. I usually shoot with a Canon 580 EX II, pocket wizards, and a Wescott 43″ Apollo Orb
as the light modifier.
Here is the image taken with artificial light.
Notice how the tabletop is a dark wood colored and not picking up a highlight like it was in the natural light example. For this shot, I have a different angle to my light and a different sized light source. The white highlight on the table to the right of the dish is from the dish reflecting off of the table. Here is the lighting diagram to go along with it.
Notice how the part of the table that is right next to the light source has this bright highlight. If you moved the dish closer to the light source and re-framed the image, this highlight would be in your image.
If you find yourself shooting food in a restaurant environment, make sure that you are prepared for both a natural and artificial light set-up. The Apollo Orb is a light modifier that I have found to work well for me, but it is not the only possibility. Whatever you do use, make sure it is small enough to stay out of the way of the hustle and bustle that occurs in a restaurant before service.
For more tutorials and ways to improve your food photography, check of Issues 1-5 of photographing FOOD.