[sticky] On the Subject of Food Photography At Restaurants
For another well-written post from a fellow blogger on this topic, click here.
A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran an article on the topic of food photography. It highlighted the fact that there is a increasingly growing crowd of food bloggers (yours truly included), who have begun to chafe with diners who are simply at restaurants to enjoy the food and company. Another article proffers the opinions of Tim Ross who speaks out against food photography, making several salient points. As a food blogger, I have my own opinions to proffer. I’m going to be biased, but that’s what an opinion is after all.
By the way, do read the two articles and perhaps their comments before actually reading this post, it contextualises everything.
Food Photography sullies restaurant ambience, and thus the dining experience.
This generally applies more to fine dining restaurants, but really any eatery is game. So here are my thoughts and guidelines on how not to be an annoying food photographer.
Rule number zero - don’t take photos if the restaurant expressly forbids it. You are really asking for trouble if you keep it up.
- Flash Photography – Public Enemy #1
Flashes are horrible. I wouldn’t recommend them even if it wasn’t an issue to diners. these photos look so bad, my appetite goes down. but in the end – flashes are very annoying. Do NOT use them. Do not use it in any modest-or-fancier restaurant (if you’re going to go nuts at a food court…borderline acceptable). If you do not have the necessary equipment or skill, just eat your food and leave it to other people. For the record, I’m also against people who use flash to take photos of their dining companions – people pictures have more sentimental value than food, but unless the restaurant’s ambience clearly allows flash photography, don’t. Manners are more important – for example, take your graduation dinner photo outside the restaurant. Remember that in the end, there are other diners eating in the restaurant, and they paid just as much as you did and expect the same level of service – service that is marred by your flash photography.
- Going to great lengths to take the shot
Standing up on seats being the example of choice. Do I even have to address this? Don’t be an idiot. If you stand up to take your shot, you should probably fall over, just so you could be taught a lesson. Don’t do it – learn to hold a camera properly so you don’t have to stand up – once you become intimately familiar with how wide your lens is and the other capabilities of your camera, you should be able to take any angle you want without leaving your seat.
- Preventing your fellow diners from eating until you’ve taken the shot
This is a bit tricky, and it depends on how desperate you want your photos. Personally, if I’m eating with a group that isn’t accepting of food photography, I do the sensible thing and just eat. I’m lucky to have friends who, for the most part, tolerate and allow me to do it. If you’re desperate, prepare to lose yourself some dining buddies, or more constructively, eat with friends who don’t mind.
- Taking too long to take the shot and/or too many shots
I address this issue in two parts. Part 1: don’t style your food. Fine dining restaurants plate the food up in a way that’s already incredibly impressive to look at. Even if the restaurant is run of the mill and doesn’t care about plating, you should still try and take a pic of the food as is. After all, you could even make a comment about plating in your blog. Part 2: don’t take so long to take your shot. You should practice at home so at a restaurant, you’re done within 30 seconds. Try taking a minute to take a picture of ice cream. There is one exception to this rule however – tripod photography. Presuming the restaurant allows it (Momofuku is the only place I’ve been to that forbids it), your tripod photos, by definition will take many seconds depending on how dark the environment is. Yes, this directly conflicts with rule #3, and that does take precedence. I only ever take tripod photos if my dining partners will be happy sitting there waiting for my exposures to finish. If not, then I enjoy my food.
- There is just one too many a food photographer at a given restaurant
This is another bit of a gray line, but if a restaurant has too many food photographers snapping away, I may actually not bring out my own camera. I’d rather return another time with less DSLRs being toted around so as to draw less attention to myself. This may seem counterintuitive, but I always can’t help but shake the feeling that I’m noticed by more people, the more photographers there are in the venue. One way I’ve combatted this to an extent is to request my bookings to be in corner/window seats. This minimises yourself from the diners as much as possible. Sure, a diner can still see you, but you’re that much further away, so they can ignore you more easily too.
So when it comes down to it
-Don’t use flash
-Take few good shots and don’t take long doing them
-Your dining buddies come first
-Take seats at innocuous locations to avoid attention
-Respect any and all restaurant rules regarding photography
But that’s enough about the technical stuff. Next we move to a more complex reason why food photographers are beginning to feel the backlash.
Food photographers are seen to be increasingly pretentious in critiquing their food.
As Tim Ross puts it, food photographers/bloggers have become the new “wine wankers”.
“When they finally stop playing food stylist and actually eat their dish, they give a running commentary on the standard of the food, talking as loudly as possible so fellow dinners can marvel at what they’ve learnt from watching three seasons of Masterchef. When they finally shut up and split the bill with the aid of a calculator, they scurry off home to publish their illuminating restaurant review that will be read by at least four people.”
And then the last three paragraphs really drive the point home; re-pasted here for your convenience:
“What happened to a bit of old fashioned respect for the chef? When did phrases like “This is a beautiful thanks David and yes I’d love another glass of Koonunga Hill,” suddenly become passé?
It wasn’t all that long ago that doing Jamie Oliver’s roast chicken or knocking up Bill Grangers ricotta hotcakes would have everyone raving.
These days, serve those up and you might as well have dished up Kantong or Hawaiian steaks. Mind you, I’m sure one of those hot young chefs is probably reinventing one of those right now using pork belly, organic grown pineapple and Himalayan Yak Mozzarella and somewhere a food blogger is ready and waiting to pounce.”
I make it my business to know as much as I can about the exotic stuff out there – that’s a trend that’s part and parcel of the food industry itself. Food bloggers are a response to that. We wouldn’t have any credibility if we didn’t have the knowledge. Some of us become chefs just to further our food passions (I’m surely going to go down that path soon). But does it get pretentious and annoying? Evidently so, according to some.
Most opponents of the food blogging trend tend to tend to pick out the fact we seem to criticise everything, as there’s no perfection. I have never said a restaurant was perfect, which is the point. There is no pinnacle, there is always room for improvement. Top chefs know this – that’s why they’re top chefs in the first place. Nobody gets to the top by resting on their laurels.
But the difference – and this is what I think Mr. Ross is really getting at – is that food critics in general, tend to slam the chefs for not reaching perfection, for not satisfying our taste buds for all that they can taste. We’re unforgiving because the chicken skin is too soggy, or because that fondant is not runny enough. We don’t seem to respect the chefs any more, and we’re pretending that we’re doing them a service by pointing out all their cooking flaws so they can improve, when really we ourselves couldn’t cook a medium-rare steak to save our parents’ lives.
So what’s the alternative? Do we happily accept the work of the chefs when they’ve done something that we genuinely feel could be improved? Or do we sit there lavishing the chef with praise, and delude them into thinking they’ve mastered perfection?
I’m not sure who said this, and I’m probably paraphrasing it as well – but if you’re not prepared to take criticism for your passion, don’t get into it.
I truly do believe that food bloggers and food critics contribute something to the industry. Being a chef is incredibly hard work, a very high-pressure job. There are two ways of getting feedback – one is from yourself, and the other is from…well, other people. You can only take self-feedback so far before you let persona bias cloud your judgement. Thus, feedback from others – from bloggers, from critics, from the chef’s family members, is critical.
Perhaps most importantly of all – give credit where it’s due. More often or not, you will like the food you eat out, even if you’ve always somehow have had “better” elsewhere, what you eat that day at that restaurant is still probably quite good. Give credit for that.
The obvious counterargument to my posit is that most bloggers aren’t chefs, or if they are, aren’t anywhere near the level of the masters. Thus what gives us the right to judge? I shudder whenever I hear this argument anywhere – we can’t cook, so we don’t have the ability to taste? That’s not how it works.
In the end, it doesn’t hurt to be gentler, particularly if you’re judging the cooking of your friends/family. Remember in the end, tact is king.
- Food photographers do some pretty stupid things with their photography in restaurants that disturb other people, but with a little bit of discrete technique and respect, much of this can be allayed. As a diner, if you still have a problem with the person who’s using their phone to snap their dish in the most discreet way possible as per my guidelines, then I can’t help you there – you’ll just have to shut up and bear with it. It’s not against the law to photograph your food if the restaurant does not forbid it. Besides, why should it annoy you?
- Anyone has the right to criticise, provided they have the basis for it and it is constructive. The key is tact. Constructive criticism should never be shunned. To the bloggers: chances are, if you continue blogging/photographing, you’ll eventually come across people who don’t like what you do, think you’re pretentious, etc. It doesn’t matter – you have your opinions, they have theirs. They cannot tell you to stop, so don’t let their stares stop you if you’re truly passionate about what you’re doing.
There’s no reason why food photos or restaurant reviews have to be left to paid professionals – if you can do one, the other, or both well, why should you be slammed for it? Get out there and keep the good stuff flowing.
Comments are welcome!