Have you ever eaten at a fine dining restaurant? You know the type of place with white table cloths, 3 different forks, and you have to have a reservation to get a table? In fine dining restaurants, the dishes look a little different; the plates are works of art! The colors, textures, and placement on the plate are all done with very specific intentions. This type of beautiful plating is becoming more widespread than you might think. No longer is it reserved for the restaurants where you know your check will have three digits in it. If you are hired to shoot at these locations, make sure to capture the beauty of the plate! Here are some tips to help you out.
What is Artistic Plating?
Above is an example of artistic and non-artistic plating. Both dishes are delicious, but the presentations are very different. On the right is an example of steamed crab legs from a beach side restaurant. With this type of styling, you the photographer can move the elements of the dish to an arrangement that will work for the camera.
On the left is an example of artistic plating. Notice how there is a decorative display of sauces and garnishes on the plate. These are there for both look and taste. The chef has created these components to complement and elevate the taste of their dish. In working with a chef, try to find out how the dish will be plated and when these sauces will be added. Sometimes a sauce will be very runny and is easiest to shoot if added by the chef in front of the camera.
No Longer A White Table Cloth
Beautiful, artistic, and purposeful plating is no longer just for white table cloth restaurants. Sometimes, a table's color can add to the image. Below is an example of a dish where the pattern and color of the table complemented the vibrant colors of the dish. For a shot that shows both of these, you can shoot from an overhead angle. Do you prefer to keep with the white theme, but don't have a white table cloth? The shot on the right shows how changing your camera angle will allow you to have the serving dish as your background.
Sometimes the dish will be plated where there is a clear center and focus to the plate. These arrangements lend themselves to great overhead shots that highlight the symmetry or linear layout of the dish. Then there are times where the dish has a more abstract layout. In these situations, I like to focus on a close-up shot of the main dish components.
Above is an example of abstract plating. Notice how the sweet potato gnocchi is placed in a non-symmetrical arrangement on the plate. With these set-ups, I prefer a shot like the one on the right. Here the focus is on the main component of the dish.
Plating Without A Plate
Sometimes you will find that a chef wants their dish to be served in something other than a white plate or bowl. In the above example, the chef built the presentation for his layered scallop dish around a glass. His reasoning behind this is to have a taste of each layer in every bite. When presented a dish that isn't on a plate, I like to shoot in a way that will highlight the container and the dish. For this example, shooting at a head on camera angle highlights both.
If you find yourself on an editorial assignment or shooting a menu for a client, talk with the chef ahead of time about the dish. Knowing the story behind their plating techniques will help you understand the components and their importance in the shot. If there are any aspects of the presentation that may be problematic with getting the shot you need, talk about them ahead of time. Like photographers, chefs are artists. Your pictures of their dishes are all that remain after the dish is gone. If you take the time and talk with them about your work, you will create a better working environment and it will help you get the shot that you need.
Want to learn more about food photography? Check out issues 1-8 of photographing FOOD.