How to photograph food in poorly-lit restaurants :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to photograph food in poorly-lit restaurants

by David Peterson 0 comments

The other day, while surfing around the Internet in search of inspiration, I noticed a banner entitled "delicious Instagram food pictures." And, I did not click on it.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love looking at delicious food pictures, and I am, in general, a fan of Instagram. But this particular food photo that was used for this particular banner did not make me suspicious that there would be any actual delicious food photographs behind that link if I clicked on it. Why? Because whoever shot and/or chose that particular photograph clearly lacked some basic knowledge about what exactly a delicious Instagram food photo should look like. Do you know what makes a photo look delicious? Read on to find out.

[ Top image auto by Flickr user HAMACHI!]

This goes for all food photographs, not just those on Instagram. Just like a landscape photograph, a food photograph should be visually beautiful or otherwise appealing to the eyes. But a food photograph has a sort of additional requirement, in that it must not only appeal to the eyes, but also to the stomach. Have you heard the expression, “People eat with their eyes first?” Not literally of course, because that would be weird, but there is certain amount of truth to this phrase. Have you ever Googled for recipe inspiration and clicked on a link that did not include a delicious-looking photograph? Probably not. We decide which recipes we want to make based first on how they look, and second on what’s in them.

So that’s all well and good, but the problem with photographing food is that it’s often served in situations that are not conducive to delicious-looking photographs. Say you're out with a friend or significant other at a fancy restaurant having dinner. Your food arrives and it looks absolutely fabulous. You think to yourself, I really have to take a picture of this and put it on Instagram. So you whip out your phone, shoot a picture complete with onboard flash, and you excuse yourself from your date so you can spend the next three minutes editing and uploading the photo. You open it up on Instagram, take one look at it, and decide to put your phone away for later. Because the photo does not look anything like the actual plate of food sitting in front of you. Why is that?

The answer, as it is for so many photography applications, is the light. Most people have their main meal at the end of the day, after the sun goes down, and if you're eating indoors in a fancy restaurant the light is likely to be deliberately low whether it's daylight outside or not. If you'll pardon the pun, these are terrible ingredients for great food photography.

So what can you do?

Well the simplest answer to this problem is to not attempt to take photographs in poor light. As a general rule, natural light is best for food photography, followed by daylight-balanced artificial lights. Now, you can't use either of those in a restaurant, so if you happen to be sitting in that fancy restaurant in the evening and the lights are low, you need other strategies.

  • Canon EOS 60D
  • 5000
  • f/4.0
  • 0.006 sec (1/160)
  • 46 mm

Sushi XO Asian Cuisine February 29, 2012 1 by Flickr user stevendepolo

First, let me just back up a little and say that if you do happen to find yourself in that restaurant during daylight hours, you can do a couple of things to improve your chances of getting an awesome photo. First of all, you can request a seat outdoors. Outdoor seating is going to be flooded with natural light, and it's unlikely to be that undesirable direct light that you get at certain times of the day, because most outdoor seating is shaded for the comfort of customers. If you do happen to get a table that's in direct sun, make sure you request to be moved to a shadier table—you’ll be more comfortable, and you’ll get better photos. Failing that, or if the restaurant doesn't have outdoor seating, request to be seated next to a window. Most of the time, the window seating is going to provide you with enough decent, filtered light that you'll be able to capture a food photo that looks delicious.

But, if you are indoors and the light is low then you need to think ahead. First, I need to tell you what not to do. No matter how tempted you may be, do not use your onboard flash to take those photos. For a start, your onboard flash is direct and it is bright, which means that because you naturally want to get pretty close to that plate in order to capture a good picture of it, your flash is going to completely wash most of the detail in the food. And reducing your flash’s strength is only a limited solution to the problem, because you're still going to get unwanted anomalies such as hard black shadows, reflections off of any surface that might be wet (as food often is), or reflections off of the plate and/or cutlery. Now add to that the fact that most restaurant-goers don't want to be bothered by a flash going off every few minutes, and there are plenty of reasons why you just need to keep that pop-up flash down when you are in a restaurant.

Use a fast lens

So what else can you do? If you know you're going to be seated after the sun goes down, bring a faster lens. A 50mm prime lens is a great lens to have for low light photography, because most 50mm prime lenses have a maximum aperture of somewhere between f/1.8 and f/1.4. Even a zoom lens with an f/2.8 maximum aperture should be enough to allow you to take great food photos in low light. Now remember, that anytime you shoot with very wide maximum aperture you will lose some depth of field, but with food photography that's not always a bad thing because you generally do want to isolate part of the food from the background, especially if it's a busy background such as what you might find in a restaurant.

  • Nikon D7000
  • 100
  • f/5.6
  • 0.6
  • 120 mm

Three's Restaurant Food Shoot by Flickr user Peter Liu Photography

Use a tripod

Another great thing to have on hand when photographing food indoors in low light is a tabletop tripod. Now, I'm talking about one of those flexible tripods that lets you position your camera fairly close to the surface of the table. The reason why you need this is because you generally want to shoot the food from the perspective of the table rather than how you see it when you're looking down at it. It's just going to make for a more compelling photograph that way.

You will find that you can also use the tabletop itself as a means of stabilizing your camera, but you have a lot less flexibility this way since you can't make fine adjustments to your composition if you're just leaving your camera on the table. It will do in a pinch, though, especially if you have something else on hand that you can use under the lens to help change position (like a pile of those cardboard coasters that some restaurants leave at every table). The important thing is to keep your camera stable, because you may find, particularly in very poorly-lit restaurants, that you will need to use a longer shutter speed in order to capture a well exposed photo.

Turn up your ISO

Another alternative is to turn up your ISO, but I generally recommend doing this only as a last resort, since higher ISOs can produce quality problems such as noise and poor contrast. Now, this changes every year as digital camera technology improves, so this is really a matter of preference and should be based on your own camera’s ability to produce photographs in low light at high ISOs. If you generally don't notice a big difference between those ISO 3200 and ISO 200 images, it's probably not going to matter too much if you dial in a higher ISO when it's needed. But again, you should select the wider aperture and tripod-mounted camera as your first alternative before switching to a higher ISO.

  • Canon EOS 7D
  • 6400
  • f/1.8
  • 0.001 sec (1/1600)
  • 50 mm

Grand Marnier Sour Dough French Toasties by Flickr user maubrowncow

White balance

One of the things that really can make food look unappealing is an incorrect white balance setting. Many restaurants use incandescent lights indoors, which tend to have a yellow cast. And even if it's naturally yellow-looking food, that extra yellow cast sort of has a sickly look to it that really doesn't make the food look like it would be very tasty.

  • Nikon D60
  • 800
  • f/3.5
  • 0.067 sec (1/15)
  • 18.3 mm

Curry-Katsu with rice and salad - Momotaro AUD12 by Flickr user avlxyz

In restaurants in particular it can be challenging to get the white balance correct if you are just using your camera’s white balance presets. If you use the auto setting, your camera could guess completely wrong, because the auto setting can only ever make an educated guess about the color of the light. You might have better luck with the incandescent setting, but that's only if there isn't any mixed light in the scene. Mixed light can happen if there's a combination of incandescent lights and florescent or daylight balanced lights, or if there is natural light coming in through a window, competing with the incandescent lights the restaurant uses. A quick look at the conditions around your table should give you a pretty good idea of what sorts of lighting challenges you might face, but even if you are certain that the light is all of the same type, it's still a good idea to use a custom white balance setting in this situation.

Now, all cameras have a slightly different procedure for setting a custom white balance, so you will need to check your manual for instructions on how to do this with your camera. But in general, the procedure involves taking a photograph of something that is a true white and telling the camera to use that photograph as a reference point for white and for all the other colors in the image. You can use a white plate or some other white object you find at the table, or your date’s white shirt, but this isn't always going to give you the most accurate color. And really, you want the most accurate color because with food in particular even a little bit of off-color can destroy the whole image. So your best bet is to pack a photographer’s white card in your purse or back pocket and use that to set your white balance. Remember that you'll need to set the white balance while you are in the specific lighting conditions where you will be taking the photographs.

Conclusion

With enough planning and careful thought, you can take photographs of food even in poorly lit restaurants that will delight your friends, make them hungry, and might even make someone like me click on your Instagram photo in the hope of finding more delicious images.

Summary:

  1. The light
    • Request outdoor or window seating
    • Avoid flash
  2. Use a fast lens
  3. Use a tripod
  4. Turn up your ISO
  5. Set a custom white balance

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Difficulty:
Beginner
Length:
14 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.