Food Photography in Restaurants

I get a lot of questions about my food shots that I take in restaurants.  When food arrives at the table, I take a few seconds to whip off a snap or two and then we eat!!  My friends who have been eating out with me for years just habitually pause for a moment or two while I do my thing before they dig in. I appreciate it! 🙂  Most people want to know how it looks so “bright” in my photos when it’s normally so dark in restaurants. Truth is, photography isn’t rocket science. It’s just all about light, and how much you let into the lens.

I can’t speak for a point-and-shoot camera (although in the past I have had lots of fun with my Canon PowerShots!). These tips are for DSLR cameras.  Normally for my food shots that I do for clients in the privacy of my own studio (a.k.a. home), I prefer my 100mm 2/.8 macro lens. But it’s just not practical to take to restaurants due to the physical distance from your chair to the food on the plate in front of you. You’d never fit it in the frame!  My next preference would be my widest lens, the 17-40 f/4 but that 4.0 aperture is just not wide enough to capture the dark ambiance that you find in so many restaurants (edited to add that since I now have the 24-70L 2.8 I really never use this lens anymore….for anything).  So what then? You need your fastest glass, and your widest glass.  This combination for me is in my 50mm 1.4.  Which incidentally, is what I use for pretty much everything anyway, so I don’t know why I bother even taking it off my camera.  It’s not really all that wide, in fact, it’s just “standard” which means it’s pretty much the same focal length as what you see out of your eyeballs. So that, my friends, is my big complicated process of elimination of how I arrive at which lens to use.

100mm 2.8–too long
17-40 f/4–wide enough, but not enough aperture
50mm 1.4–just right, usually

The next part is the fun part. I stuff my camera into my purse and go to dinner, and when the food comes out I can never resist the urge to get a few shots before I eat. I shoot in manual, and I choose an aperture that’s pretty wide, and I choose an ISO that is as low as will still get me a decent shutter speed.  Higher ISOs can be detrimental for a good shot, because you don’t want all that noise (aka “graininess”) to make your shot look like crap.  Luckily my 5D is awesome with noise at high ISOs so I don’t have to worry about it too much. I frequently use 1600 if I need to, just for my personal photos and I’m happy with them.

Here I am about a month ago at Amos Mosquito’s in Atlantic Beach, NC. My friend Kelly ( was nice enough to take this shot of me taking a pic of my friend’s martini. How nice to be in a picture! I never end up on the other side of the camera very often, so it’s a nice treat.   So that’s me taking the photo, and beside it is the end result of what I was shooting.  Exposure was: ISO400, 1/320, f 4.0.  We were eating out on the patio that evening so light was not an issue. It was beautiful!

NH Food Photographer

It’s not always that easy. In some restaurants, like this one time when we went to The Melting Pot, it is SO dark in there that I really had to pull out all the stops. I don’t remember for sure, but I may have even had to manually focus because it was so dark my camera couldn’t find anything to focus on.  For all of these shots, I used ISO1600, 1.4 and I hand-held a shutter speed of about 1/40 for these. LOL.  I have a pretty steady hand.  That’s waaaaay too wide of an aperture for this situation but it was the only way I could get the shutter speed up, and as a result you get some heavy-duty bokeh going on. Which is normally very nice and desireable, but this is a lot. It almost looks like the entire shot is out of focus, but it’s not. It’s just lot of bokeh. Bottom line is, if you think it looks cool (and I did), then it works.

That’s the joys of being a natural light photographer. Knowing how to manipulate the light in a wide variety of situations, and make it work.



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