June 16, 2009

Food Photography Guide

Restaurant Food Photography

Ichimiann Ikuradon

Ikuradon - Salmon Roe with Rice at Ichimiann in Torrance, CA

First off, let me say that most of what I shoot is on-location. I don't really shoot as much at home, with ideal lighting, and a specific place where I shoot my own food. I shoot at restaurants like many other food bloggers. Our cameras are often considered our weapon, or definitive feature, but I think we can be civil about it. I try to use my camera to take a quick snap of what I'm eating, and then move to actually eating.

It’s pretty much a no-brainer but the easiest thing to do to improve your food photos in a restaurant is: Lighting.

Nope, just because you have a big camera, a digital SLR, or an expensive Canon G11 or S90 camera doesn’t mean you will have good photos. The best thing you can do is sit where the lighting is, such as next to windows, or just go when its daylight. I sometimes just resign to not even taking photos at a super-dim restaurant. Most of the time I’m trying to enjoy my dinner with my date, family, or friends anyways, so a camera really just muddles the dinner.

Flashing (not that kind) is generally inconsiderate of other diners, but if you’re in a place where people won’t care, then I say flash away. If you have a remote flash device, or something you can use to bounce flashes off white ceilings, go ahead and be my guest. Just expect some annoyed diners next to you. I say if you’re at a relatively casual restaurant you can get away with this, but rule of thumb is – don’t use flash.

Next, focal length. For most small digital point-and-shoots, many of which are more than adequate to take excellent food photos, the problem is zooming in. Zooming in increases your aperture (think of it as the size of the hole that light goes through in the lens). Even most SLR (which means single-lens reflex, for your information) kit lenses have variable apertures that change as you zoom in. Most kit lenses range f3.5 – f5.6, which means you get a very small aperture as you zoom past 35-40mm. If you zoom in all the way, then may get a photo like this red raspberry leaf at Monterrey Spice Company.

Ideally if you have a digital point-and-shoot, just shoot as zoomed out as possible if you’re in a dimmer setting, and crop the photo.

duck confit

Duck confit at Canele.

As for SLRs, there are a few lenses/focal lens I recommend. If you can swing a 24-60mm or 24-70mm f2.8, it’s worth using if you don’t mind a massive zoom lens while dining out. I used to use this, but found that it’s not as practical as a smaller prime lens (meaning fixed focal length, or non-zoom). The next lens of choice is often a 50mm f1.8 for savvy, budget-conscious shooters, or a 50mm f1.4 for those who need that extra half-aperture (mostly useless as it just makes photos fuzzy and unclear) or think that it will really help them shoot in low light and have the willingness to spend 3-4 times as much as the f1.8.

Problem is, with cropped sensors, you’re getting an effective focal length of around 75mm! That’s a pretty un-useable focal length of shooting food photography, especially since your depth of field (the part that stays sharp or non-blurry) is razor thin. I tried using this focal length for a while but ended up ditching it after trying to deal with this difficult lens during lunches/dinners.

I’m much happier with a 35mm f2 lens, which I purchased off of Craigslist for a reasonable price. It’s an older, louder lens than the 35mm f1.8 which Nikon released for the price of $200. This lens is virtually identical to mine except that is focuses on Nikon’s lower range of SLRs.

Wonton Dumplings

Lastly, get creative! Shoot from different angles, with different subjects. Shoot people as well as food. Be funny, spontaneous, and interesting. Sometimes we're too business-like when shooting food photos.


• Rest your elbows on the table to stabilize the photos.

• Sit next to windows for optimal lighting.

• Try not to shoot a dish more than 2 ways. It gets annoying.

• Enjoy your food more than shooting it. You’ll last longer this way.

• Don’t get too food-porny unless the dish is really that attractive. Closeup on sludge does precisely the opposite of whetting appetites.

• Use your white balance by either setting it manually with an available “white” (i.e. napkin or menu), or use a preset, which will invariably be better than Auto White Balance. Even most point-and-shoots have white balance settings – use them!

Post processing tips:

In general I don’t like to fiddle too much with my photos though many people can do this quite successfully on Photoshop. I mostly use Picasa for basic editing and occasional use Photoshop for anything more serious.

If you don’t have Photoshop, using iPhoto or Picasa can help you if your pics don’t come out as ideal. First tip – levels. Bump up your levels if the photo is too dim. Then, sharpen. Most cameras, if you’re shooting with JPEG, don’t have the sharpest in-camera processor for this. Finally, adjust saturation and contrast to stylize the photo. Don’t mess with hues or colors unless you didn’t white balance your photo.

Crop and save at optimal size before posting on Flickr, Photobucket, or whatever. Try to resize since you don’t want people trying to surf your site to have to load 18 megabytes of photos every time they load the URL.


Camera Guide

My recommended cameras:

Nikon D40/D40x/D60 – Definitely older now but no less useful for good food photography. I generally don't like to get the earliest model of a camera because they're usually not as revolutionary as camera companies want you to think. You could easily slap on a Nikkor 35mm F1.8 for a mere $200 (or less) and take stunning photos.

Nikon D5000 – The “quiet” mode makes it one of the most quiet cameras in the market. Could be elegantly used at your friendly-neighborhood Michelin starred restaurant, when paired with the excellent 35mm f1.8 lens.

Nikon D90 – Probably my favorite overall camera, with its gorgeous 3 inch screen (which has 920,000 pixels, which is as good as the $7,300 D3X professional grade camera). I use a D50 since I haven’t had the opportunity to splurge on the D90, which has excellent low-light capabilities in its sensor. I would argue that the D90 is the most ideal camera for shooting food photography since it combines a great sensor with wonderful ergonomics in a smallish package. A D300s, D700, or D3/D3X is overkill for food photography, unless you’re a pro/semi-pro.

Steak Tartare from Anisette Tonkotsu Ramen

Canon S90 – Overpriced but its F2 lens makes it the ideal compact camera for low-light photography. If you cannot fit an SLR in your purse or pocket, which is most people, then this might be a sensible option.

Canon SD780 - I like its miniature size and HD video capabilities. Not bad if you are on a budget.

Canon SLRs – generally I don’t recommend them because they’re more expensive than Nikon SLRs. You can use the difference of price on lenses or a meal at Urasawa. While certainly very good, I prefer Nikons since they’re better to use (easier button layout, better menus, more comfortable in hand), but Canon SLRs do have the advantage of being able to autofocus any lens made after 1986. Nikon’s lowest line of SLRs can’t autofocus a lot of lenses. If you were to get a Canon SLR, I like the T1. The 50D/7D is too stodgy, big and overpriced, the 5D MkII is professional grade and probably out of reach budgetwise for most people. If you can swing that much on a camera, you’ve got other priorities than food photography.

Other sundry cameras – Sony point-and-shoots are decent. Canon’s larger point and shoots might even be better than the SD line, at a cheaper price. Fujifilm’s known to have some good low-light cameras but they’re also more expensive. Nikon’s point-and-shoots are okay, especially the lower line, for the money. Pentax SLRs are pretty great, especially their line of prime lenses. Olympus and Panasonic are decent, though not head-shoulders better than anyone else (except some of Panasonic’s high-end cameras). If you use medium format on food photography I might hurt you for wasting the film (maybe Holga is okay). I would LOVE to see someone lug a 4x5 view camera (used for landscape) into a restaurant. I would snort out my milk or sangria in laughter.

Lenses: 35mm on cropped sensor; kit lenses are swell; 24-60mm or 24-70mm. Sigma makes some good macro lenses and zoom lenses that are more reasonably priced than Nikon’s or Canon’s. If you get a $1600 24-70mm f2.8, you must not be shooting food photography for fun. Email me at mattatouille (at) gmail (dot) com if you want a more tailored lens recommendation. I won't promise the quickest response, but I'll try to work with what you have/what you want, and we'll go from there.

Macarons and Profiterole Sweet Rice Cakes

In the end, the point of food photography is for us to enjoy once more what we've consumed at the table. It's about showing others what we've delicious (or sometimes not) eaten at restaurants, eateries, bakeries, coffeeshops, and joints. I hope all of this makes it easier for us to do that, as fellow foodies, bloggers, and gourmands alike.


MyLastBite said...

Wonderful tips. Thanks!

weezermonkey said...

Love this post.

And I love my new 35mm f1.8!

Kung Food Panda said...

Great review. It feels like we talked about this after our Rose Bowl run. I definitely need some suggestion with my next lens.

Sharon: I like it too. I almost wished I bought a Nikon, just for that lens! LOL

pleasurepalate said...

Great info, especially the tip about the white balance. Javier was trying to show me how to use it with my point and click camera, but I think I need to work on it some more.

mattatouille said...

Jo: I'm glad you like them, your photos are actually quite good.

Weezermonkey: i used the 35mm f1.8 briefly and its a fantastic lens that I'm sure many Canon users could only wish was available at that price.

Danny: i did recommend your camera. It's a great little camera for food photography. Maybe you should look into a Canon 60mm macro. I hear those are amazing, and many food photographers use it.

Abby: getting proficient at taking good photos takes time, but again, as with Jo, you already take some great photos. Sometimes a little tweaking and tips here and there are helpful.

H. C. said...

I LOVE that you used "whetting appetites" (instead of the more common, and inappropriate, wetting) -- makes the English major in me moi happy.

I also get this way with piqued interest, as opposed to "peaked."

mattatouille said...

HC: though most people wouldn't know, I'm as much a wordie as a foodie. I love words, their meanings, their different characteristics, etc. I think I'm a pretty mean scrabble player (sometimes), and I'm getting used to things like cryptic crosswords. I guess I'm not as much of a stickler when it comes to my own blog, but I'm pretty keen on evaluating prose or diction in other writing. Maybe I don't voice it as much because I don't want to be hypocritical. I just try my best to best interesting with words, though I must say that sometimes my sentence structures are pretty choppy. Blame my lack of English degree :)

Food, she thought. said...

Thanks, Matt. I know I have been pestering you recently, but only because you are so knowledgable. This gives me some further info, and I think I am going to cave on a refurb of a Nikon rather than a new Canon. UR-a-SAW-wa.

mattatouille said...

Lizzie: you know it's funny, I hear republicans generally choose nikon and democrats choose canon :) I'm not a republican so it doesn't matter, but I'm just more into Nikon's pedigree, reliability, and overall lens compatability. Also the cameras are just better when you use them. Canons take great photos but fiddling with their controls can be a little off-putting, personally. Plus what I consider to be the best food photography lens, 35mm f1.8, is only available on Nikon. In the end, cameras are ephmeral and replaceable, lenses are much better longterm investment. Both canons and nikons have great lenses across the board so you it really doesn't matter which way you go if you're in it for the long haul.

mattatouille said...

Oh one last point Lizzie, right now Nikon's low-end cameras are outselling Canon's line of low-end cameras. Overall Nikon is outselling Canon, and their products are bit more groundbreaking and relevant for the industry. Canon had their heyday from 2004-2007, but Nikon is making the bigger strides in the industry.

kevinEats said...

Here's another tip: overexpose! That is, dial in +2/3 to +1 EV of exposure compensation. I've been doing this ever since I started using my DSLR.

This compensates for the whiteness of plates fooling the sensor into thinking that the scene is brighter than it is, and tends to reduce noise to boot.

The downside to doing this is, of course, that your shutter will be slower, so don't do it if your lens is on the slow side.

mattatouille said...

Kevin: I feel you on the EV, which is a tad more simple when you're in program or Av/A mode. However, the white plates do tend to give your light meters confused when you're trying to shoot them. Menus give the same problem. My solution is going into manual mode and fussing with shutter times using the light meter, as I think that gives a slightly better result. The EV bump is perhaps the more straight-forward solution, so good tip.

Food GPS said...

Good point about using your camera as a weapon. I never take photos of dining rooms when people are there. That's rude, unnecessary, and the times I used to do it is when people questioned and complained. Better to be unobtrusive and limit photography to what's on your table.

I will definitely refer back to this post. I'm getting the hang of a new Canon. Even if Nikon is outpacing Canon at this point, Canon is still a hell of a lot better than Olympus.

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Cori said...

Thank you for this article. I'm a n00b in both photography and blogging. I bought my Nikon D80 while in Maui on my honeymoon - my point and shoot camera was ruined in the ocean, so we scoured CL for any camera that was a decent deal and came across the D80 ( a year or so old in superb shape) with a lens and lots of other goodies for SUPER cheap. A great find and I'm having fun experimenting with it, but this article helps immensely.

I'm in the market for a new lens now. Thanks for the info.

Food, she thought. said...


I, a raging liberal democrat, have returned to this post so many times while continuing to research my first DSLR. I think this and other research couple with the economy have convinced me to to Nikon d60 refurb with the Nikon 35mm f1.8.


Anonymous said...

Matt, Thank you some much for sharing your knowledge. I've learned a lot by reading your Food Photography Guide.

Aaron said...

Thanks for the advice. I'll keep it in mind for my new camera shopping.

triplescoopdesserts said...

Great tips. I like Nikon's too!

Sylvia said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
mattatouille said...

Sylvia, I completely understand your sentiment when it comes to new DSLRs. They come with some many gizmos and features that most users don't really know how to maximize their cameras. In a way, I've almost eschewed DSLRs for this reason - I find that I become a better photographer and take better photos when I have less features to work with.

I recommend reading through the entire user guide, and then just start with Program mode to take photos. As you become more familiar with the camera, you can eventually start to introduce new techniques to your reportoire. It also helps to consult a professional or semi-professional photographer (which is what I did because I am neither) and ask about certain features. Cheers.