For over a year now, I've been the lead freelance photographer for Stock and Barrel Magazine, a food and beverage publication here in Columbus, Ohio. Often, assignments get thrown my way with not a lot of time to get them done before deadlines hit. That means I get to shoot a lot of places in a very short amount of time. Oh the joys of the print world! In this article, I'm going to share with you how I shoot food on location quickly. No assistants, minimal gear, during business hours, and without pissing off the chef. Let's get started.
When I say minimal gear, I mean it. When working on location at a restaurant, the last thing I want to do is disrupt their day-to-day operations. So I pack light. How light? Like really light. Here's my go-to kit when shooting jobs like this:
- Nikon D800
- Nikon Nikkor 55mm f/3.5
- Manfrotto tripod
- 5-in-1 reflector
- Wescott Diffuser from an old set that I lost the reflector side to years ago.
That's it. Really, I don't have a need for much else.
What about speedlights and modifiers, you ask? I've got plenty of those. Sure, I could use them, but the fastest way to annoy a paying customer is with the constant flashing of a speedlight while they're trying to enjoy their salmon en croûte. So I tend to leave them at the studio. Besides, taking in lights and setting them up and breaking them down takes time. Not a ton of time, but time nonetheless. If I do end up packing any lighting, 99.9 percent of the time it stays in the car, and then I wonder why the hell did I pack them at all in the first place.
Find and Shape That Light
The reason I pack so light is because it's so easy to find enough decent light for a plate of food at a restaurant. Find a window and you've got some light. Don't have a window? Take the dish outside. No place outside? I've shot food in the back of my SUV by opening up the aperture, blurring the background, and shooting tight. Remember, I often don't have a ton of time to get these shots done, so staging an elaborate scene isn't a luxury I get to enjoy on shoots like this. Find the light, arrange as necessary, and if all else fails, crop in tight in camera to really focus on the food.
Once you find the light, it's time to shape it. Food likes hard light, but not by itself and not from the front. You're going to want the light to come from the side, almost behind the plate. Then, use a fill card or bounce to fill in the shadows. For my fill cards, I use the lowest tech and cheapest piece of equipment I carry: a sheet of white paper. Take that sheet of paper, fold it in half, and boom, you have a perfectly-sized fill card that will stand on its own. If you forgot your trusty sheet of paper, no worries. Take one of the menus at the restaurant and prop it up with a glass of water. Sometimes, I'll use a larger reflector as a overall fill for the scene, and the sheet of paper up close to the food to draw out the shadows.
The majority of my food shots are with an older Nikon Nikkor 55mm f/3.5. I absolutely love this little guy. He's an all-manual lens with 1:2 magnification. I like using this 55mm over my 105mm f/2.8 macro because I can get in super tight and have more of the scene in the background than I do with the 105mm. The best part about this lens is that I picked it up at a camera swap for a mere $35. My ROI on this thing is ridiculous.
There is a newer Nikon Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 you can pick up at B&H, but the faster glass wouldn't do me much good since I don't like to shoot food at that shallow of a depth of field. I like to shoot around f/5.6–f/16 when shooting food up close and personal. Too shallow you just don't get enough texture out of the food. Too much depth of field, and then you really got to start to worry about more elements in the scene. Which takes us to styling...
I know all too well the importance of a food stylist. The problem here is that there's no time, and really, no budget to have a stylist come along. So you're at the mercy of however the chef plates the dish.
Now, I'm going to let you in on a little secret: plating food for your eyes to eat is a lot different than plating food for the camera. It's not the chef's fault; he or she wasn't trained to plate for the camera. The camera sees the dish from a different vantage point and magnification than your eyes do. This is why I shoot tight with a macro. Out of four sides to a dish, I can find at least one that looks fantastic and exploit the crap out of it. Shooting tight and with a shallow enough (not wide open) depth of field means that I don't have to worry too much about the rest of the dish. As long as the camera-facing side looks good, the rest of the dish will follow.
Not Pissing Off the Chef or the Waitstaff
Do not, under any circumstance, try to shoot this type of thing during lunch or dinner service. You want the plate to look the best possible, and you're not going to get that while the kitchen is in the weeds. Trust me, the whole restaurant will automatically think you're the bomb just by coming in between lunch and dinner service. The last and best thing I do when on assignments like these is to thank the chef and the waitstaff before I leave, and always always, always put my shooting area back in order the best I can. Little things like that will go a long way the next time you visit.
How about you? What tips can you share about shooting food on location?