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. 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.”

Well, darn.

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.

To conclude…

  • 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!

34 comments on “On the Subject of Food Photography At Restaurants”

  1. ionlyeatdesserts Reply

    Absolutely agree – I don’t like that argument for what gives food bloggers the right to judge food when we won’t be able to cook it. It just boils down to whether we like it or not and it is such a subjective thing. It’s not like when we look at a pretty building and critique all the things the architect has done – no we just think it’s a pretty building.

    • Michael Shen Reply

      I agree with you to a great extent. While chefs have a more nuanced view of food they eat, their opinion isn’t more valid than anyone else’s, save for ad absurdum situations. If it’s a factual matter, then chefs have authority, but ultimately, everyone has unique tastebuds.

      You like it, or you don’t.

  2. Torsten Reply

    Great tips! There’s always one person it seems, though… One who definitely won’t have read this article unfortunately!!

    I love the photo at the top of the page!!

  3. Jo | Eat in Eat out Reply

    I sometimes think people have become a bit too precious – nay don’t disturb my impossibly sanctified sangfroid with your awfully imposing photography!

    But as they are and as they have, being ninja-fast with the camera is the key!

    • Michael Shen Reply

      Couldn’t agree more – provided you’re taking reasonable steps to be discreet and/or unobtrusive, there should be no issues taken up against food photography. My biased view perhaps, but it is what it is.

  4. haceyg Reply

    As a food blogger I found this article really interesting. To only pick out the flaws in a restaurant is to be an unhelpful reviewer. If a place is really that bad I simply wouldn’t write about it. If it’s good enough to write about, its good enough to give some credit to the person who worked extremely hard to make it for you. I agree that chefs should be able to take constructive criticism but they deserve a hell of a lot of respect for the incredibly difficult job they do.

  5. Pia Reply

    Wow, didn’t realise that there was a backlash but I can definitely see the point if it becomes obnoxious for other patrons. Kind of comes down to using common sense.

  6. jenzywrites Reply

    Wow I love this insightful post. I’m pretty modest when it comes to my photos, I just use my iPhone and very lucky to have friends that understand and are patient! :p Will be checking out past/future posts!

  7. Jess Reply

    good guidelines. my boyfriend and i do take quick shots with our cellphones occasionally but i’ve never had anyone say anything to me about it…

  8. milkteaxx Reply

    great post and thanks ofr your tips, thankfully most of my dining buddies are pretty tolerating and i generally try to avoid dslrs and use use a compact or phone camera to be quick.

    • Michael Shen @ imstillhungry.net Reply

      Indeed, pretty good when your group is amenable to the food blogger haha. But yeah there is a limit where I would just not bother anymore.

      Pity that most restaurants are so dark even DSLRs might not suffice 🙁

    • Michael Shen @ imstillhungry.net Reply

      A reviewer card! That’s incredulous! Bias as we know it is going to be un-escapable if such a system ever sees the light of day…

      As for the other points – definitely agreed. Etiquette + no flash is definitely the way to go. If my photos are horrid, I also will not put up a post – in the end, I’d rather prefer to be able to eat at a restaurant, than to be able to blog about it.

  9. Clark.Z Reply

    Didn’t seem to take notice of our displeasure at Kazbah Michael when you whipped out your tripodded SLR for quite a few long exposure shots, we were all waiting!

    On the otherhand, your rebuttals are good fashioned common sense, so it’s fair enough that sometimes rules can be bent,

    • nclfrk799 Reply

      Well, it seemed like displeasure in jest – if you guys had genuinely expressed a request for me to stop tripoding, I would have.

  10. Phillip Nom Reply

    Mirrorless cameras are a dream for food bloggers. Their low light performance get better with every new model being released and are a perfect and discreet tool for food journalism.

    One tip is to balance your camera on glass tumblers or cups as a monopod provided your camera is not too heavy. You can get decent long exposure shots in those difficult low light situations.

    • nclfrk799 Reply

      Haha I wouldn’t go far as to tell people to stay away, it’s really an issue of space and everyone has their own take on it.

  11. CandC (@camerascuisines) Reply

    Very good article. Thanks for sharing. I really agree with a lot of the things you have mentioned. I personally own a mirror-less camera and I really do think it helps in being more discrete. That being said, I really appreciate the quality photos my co-blogger musters up with his DLSR. In general, when I’m out “documenting” I think I’m extra observant of my surroundings as well. Making sure that no one around me (my dining guests) is kept waiting, the restaurant doesn’t have issues with photography, and that other restaurant patrons aren’t giving me the eye. Flash and my gosh, do people really use tripods?! Well, I agree in avoiding their use all together.

    Again, great that you brought this topic up, I hope it catches the eyes of other food bloggers =).

    • nclfrk799 Reply

      Hi CandC, indeed I’ve been waiting to jump into the mirrorless scene for some time now. I’m waiting when the right one (size, weight, IQ, price) comes a long as I’m already heavily invested in a DSLR system.

      Indeed, I am actually one of those people who use gorilla pods – nearly half the restaurants I’ve reviewed on this blog have photos that simply cannot be taken without one. Most fine dining restaurants have extremely low ambient light and I generally eat out at dinners more often than lunch (besides, degustations don’t happen at lunch). So for my particular style of blogging, a tripod is a must. But yes, I do try and keep it on the low down, though there will always be people who for some reason just can’t stand the sight of one.

  12. Margaret Reply

    Great post and I agree with your tips. They are all good and I have a few of my own recommendations – phone cameras are increasingly becoming better/higher quality for photos without the use of flash. Learning how to take good shots with your camera phone can make it much less intrusive and get the job done right. After all, they are fairly small in comparison to a DSLR. Another idea is to try to sit somewhere where there is good lighting (overhead), preferably natural light coming in from a window. It makes food look appetizing.

    One last thought – taking a photo of your buddy’s plate, while they are spooning/forking etc, at the start of their meal, captures what it looks like but also a sense of action that is missing from many static food photos. When done right,

    • nclfrk799 Reply

      Hi Margaret, your advice is indeed sound, and I’ve been following it – whenever I make a booking I request either a corner table (so other diners see as little of me as possible), or a window table or a “well lit” table.

      I still don’t believe mobile phones are at the point where they can capture enough detail, colour depth and dynamic range for the quality demanded by my blog, but hopefully that day will come!
      I am looking into getting a smaller setup – something along the lines of a mirrorless camera. They’re almost as small as compact cameras, and are much less “visible”.

      I definitely should do more of the last kind of shot, I think they work great with noodles 😀

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