And now for the final part of my Restaurant Photography Series – Part 3 – How to take good pictures of food in a restaurant. I will finally be talking about photographing the food and chefs for restaurants.
The shot above was done for Napa Valley Grille in Westwood, CA. I was hired to shoot from 2-4:30 pm. I ended up shooting from 2 – 5:30 pm. We did a ton of shots in a short time period. This is completely normal. Chefs are used to creating fabulous food quickly.
Here is a list of what I always bring to photograph restaurants
- Canon 5D Mark iii and also a Canon 5d Mark ii as a back up camera
- Canon 100mm macro for shooting food shots and drink shots
- Canon 28-105mm zoom lens for shots where the 100 macro is too long
- Canon 17-40mm zoom lens for shooting architecture shots of the space
- Gitzo tripod – I always shoot on a tripod
- Overhead tripod head extension
- Mac laptop MacBook Pro for shooting tethered
- My food styling kit
- Lighting equipment for chef portraits when I know there won’t be enough natural light – 3 or 4 strobe packs, 4 or 5 strobe heads, soft boxes, and grid spots, sand bags for stands, extension cords, strobe triggers, and various strobe accessories
- White fill cards
- Step stool for shots where the camera must be higher
You have to work fast! You have to be extremely organized and you need to have a game plan. The more organized you are, the smoother your shoot will go.
You must have a shot list from the restaurant before you consider shooting for the restaurant. You will be surprised at how many restaurants have no idea what they want to shoot and they just want you to show up and start shooting. I will not work that way. I need to know what they want to shoot to make sure that I will be prepared for what we are shooting and what to charge.
Ask your client lots of questions!
When the restaurant calls to ask me to shoot for them, I end up interviewing them to see how ready they are for the shoot. I ask them for a shot list, what they want to shoot, how many shots, and then I start asking them about the restaurant, if I am unfamiliar with it.
If the restaurant wanting to hire you does not have good, natural light (ask them if they have good natural light), you will need to bring lights to do the shoot. For many of you, this will be a problem as you only use natural light. I will address both scenarios here, natural light and artificial lights that I bring in.
Here is a great natural light scenario. This was my “set” for shooting at Cafe Del Rey in Marina Del Rey, CA. They had a separate room that had a ton of natural light all day.
Here is the shot that I was taking above – no fill card used at all and no supplemental lighting added at all because the white table cloth was filling in the shadows in the front.
I always like to put things in the background that will be out of focus to imply that we are at a restaurant. I also always shoot at a very shallow depth of field which is a small F-stop number, to make the background blurred so that it is not distracting.
Collaborate with the chef
Here I am talking with the Chef about how the Hollandaise sauce should be placed for the camera. Chef Chuck was great. He completely understood how to make the food look its best FROM the camera, and asked me first before placing the sauce. We talked about every shot before I shot it.
Here is the shot we ended up with – see the nice soft highlights from windows on the sauce? You need to position yourself so that you get all the benefits from the natural light source. Also, I didn’t even need a fill card to fill in the shadows for this shot because of the position of the sun and the white table cloth in the shot.
Learn how to shoot tethered
When I shoot for restaurants, I almost always shoot tethered. This means that as I shoot, the images show up on my laptop instantly so everyone can see the picture I just took.
I make sure that as I am shooting, the Chef and my client (the person who hired me), sees and approves the image before we move on to the next shot. I even say to them, “so, this is the shot, are you happy with this?” if they say yes, then I say, “ok, so this is your hero shot, you approve this shot and we are now moving on”. This means that after the job, if they have any issues, I can say, “well, you told me that you were happy with every shot, so if you need something re-shot, then that will cost another day”.
Make sure you are very direct and clear that after every shot, everyone is happy with it, and you are moving on to the next shot.
Incorporating people in your shots
You will get asked to get shots of Chefs and bartenders doing their thing. You really have to be comfortable shooting and KNOW your camera and how to light, in order to do this.
These four shots above were a little series I did for a restaurant whose bartender created a new drink. I had to show the process for this new drink so that they could use these images for PR. I took these shots using a tripod. Actually, I take every shot with a tripod. When doing a series, you have to be on a tripod so that your camera doesn’t move much at all. I will move the tripod head to the left or right while shooting, but I’m still locked down so that with natural light, there is no motion blur. Notice in the last shot, the pitcher he is pouring from is blurred. This is because I am on a tripod so everything stationary is nice and sharp and anything moving will be blurred.
With the following shots, I was in the back of the restaurant so I had to bring in lighting equipment to do these shots as it was very dark for taking pictures. You have to be prepared for this sort of thing. If you do not know how to work with strobes yet, then you HAVE to take some lighting classes that use strobes.
The chef above, Chef Taylor of the Napa Valley Grille in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA was very familiar with food photography and being photographed so, he was a great subject to shoot.
Here is Chef Chuck plating a salad:
Here is my set for this shot – I have three lights, two clients, and a fabulous Chef:
I took these shots for a PR firm in Los Angeles. This is a very common scenario – shooting for PR firms. I had three strobe lights on this set. I am using Speedotron Strobes. I’ve had these strobes for YEARS and you can get them for a great price on Ebay now as so many shooters are getting rid of their studio gear. If you know what you are doing, you can rent strobes as well for these kinds of shoots from your local camera rental store.
Here is another shot of my set:
My great friend and fabulous assistant Monique Ozimkoski took these behind the scenes photos. We have been working together for more than 15 years now, I think, it could be more. So, for Chef Chuck, I had to use three lights for this set up. Two lights were bouncing into the ceiling (it was white), to give me some ambient fill light. Then I used the softbox (the black rectangular thing in the foreground) to light him.
Notice there is a strobe head lying on the floor in front. That is called a bleeding head. What that means is if I can not power trim down a strobe head (make it less bright with the settings on the strobe pack), I have to add another head to the same port to make both heads half the power of light.
If this is totally confusing to you, that’s ok – the use of strobes is an advanced technique, and the only way I learned this was by going to school. Don’t forget, I have two photography degrees. Using strobes is all about the ratios of lighting. They are a great tool to have when you just don’t have enough light to photograph people.
In a lot of situations, you will be asked to photograph some of the restaurant’s signature drinks. I handle them the same way as I do food shots.
I made sure I was at a very wide open f-stop (for shallow depth of field), with a 100mm macro lens and I placed the cocktail shaker in the background right where you see it. I also asked the bartender to clear off all the extra stuff in the background that was making things look cluttered and distracting. Even though it is out of focus, if things are there that are distracting, remove them!
So, there you have it! This is how I shoot restaurants. I’m sure every professional photographer can tell you something very different from how I shoot things, so it’s up to you to figure out what works for you with your photography career.
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