Through the Gadling Lens: 7 tips for photographs around the meal

I’ve mentioned before that one of my favourite pastimes while traveling is eating. Oh my heavens, how I love to eat. There’s just nothing like being in a completely foreign land, trying a whole new cuisine. It’s like an adventure in every little bite.

For this reason, it sort of stuns me that while I’ve mentioned that food is one of those great iconic subjects for photography purposes, I haven’t written yet about how to shoot images in a restaurant, or at the table where your hosts are sharing their meal with you. (And besides, here in the west, we’re pretty much heading into prime gather-round-the-table-holiday mode, so the time has come, methinks.) So this week, I thought we’d take a look at ways to capture your culinary travel experience as effectively as possible.

1. Take a shot before the food arrives. There’s something about table settings: if it’s at a fancy restaurant, it’s all about the presentation and the style. If it’s at a casual restaurant or better still, someone’s home, table settings just say something about how your host has taken the time to create a comfortable setting for you to enjoy your meal. So before you sit and the setting gets a bit chaotic and difficult, steal away and take a photograph of the table setting in its pristine state, prior to the food arriving.

As you do this, be sure to look for the light. We discussed looking for the light in previous posts, and it becomes very important at this time, particularly if the light is low. You should look for reflective surfaces — glassware, dinnerware, and adjust your settings and frame your shot accordingly.

2. Capture the ambiance of the table as people gather
. One of my favourite times to capture shots is when family and friends approach the table in anticipation of a delicious meal. In general, people tend to be all smiles, eagerly awaiting the feast. They laugh, they hold chairs for each other, they ooh and ahh over the arriving food. Completely Kodak moment in the making.

During this time, you should be sure to grab your camera, and watch as the atmosphere grows around the table. Remember, at this time, you’re not so much focused on the food or the place settings, you’re focused on the faces and the energy between the people with whom you’ll be dining. As is often the case when you’re in spectator/photojournalist mode, it’s often great to turn the flash off, so as not to disturb the energy in the room, so make sure your settings are adjusted accordingly.

3. Take a few table-level shots. Once I’ve been seated, I love placing my camera on the table, setting the timer and capturing a few table-level shots. This is particularly effective if I’m sitting in a restaurant, because (a) often the people in the restaurant have no reason to believe I’m taking a shot, so they remain relaxed, and (b) in restaurants, often the lighting is very dim — by setting the timer and resting the camera on the table, I reduce the chance of camera shake from taking a photograph in a dark room.

It’s another lovely way to capture the energy and atmosphere of a dining establishment.

4. When photographing food, consider texture and light. Since a still photograph is incapable of truly capturing the smell and taste of the food, when you’re photographing any foodstuffs, it makes sense to maximize the texture and the light of what you’re shooting, so that the viewer can truly imagine what it would feel like to sample the food. I’ve mentioned a few photography tips when shooting food before, but I think it bears repeating here:

a) If you have a macro lens (or a macro setting on your point-and-shoot camera), this is often the best way to go. The beauty of good food is usually the taste and the smell; since your camera won’t be able to accurately capture either of these, maximizing your sense of sight can help compensate.

b) Make sure the food is well-lit. Otherwise, the food will likely simply look like an amorphous blob. Not very appetizing.

c) Check your background, colour and texture. Ideally, you won’t want to have anything in the background competing with the food for the viewer’s attention; similarly, when composing your shot, consider looking for patterns in colour and texture, and maximize accordingly.

5. Consider unusual angles, and play with depth of field to maximize expression. Here’s where you can really get creative with your images: do what you can do move the point of focus around, so that you can use both the foreground and the background to help convey what you’re trying to say with your shot.

One example of how you can do this is by focusing on the food in the foreground, while using depth of field (by keeping your aperture number low) to show the blurred image of someone enjoying the food in the background. Here are a couple of examples of what I mean:

In this case, notice that the focus is on the hot chocolate chip cookies straight out of the oven — my daughter Alex is in the background happily anticipating them. If you’ll notice, even though she’s completely out of focus, you can still make out her smiling eyes.

She loves chocolate.


In this image, the focus is again on my husband’s chocolate birthday cupcakes in the foreground — but you’ll notice in the back, Alex is already diving in.

Did I mention she loves cupcakes?

Anyway, the point is that shooting in this fashion makes for a more interesting shot, as opposed to if I’d just taking a photograph of the cupcakes.

6. Consider all the colours around you, to help frame your shot. When framing your shot, don’t forget to check your background — not just to make sure that you don’t have any extraneous subjects in the shot, but also to help maximize the ambiance of the shot. An example follows:

In this example, shot in a hotel bar, I was about to take a photograph of just the martinis, because I loved the colour. However, once I looked through the viewfinder, I realized that there was a lot of colour and light all around us, and it added additional visual interest to the shot. And so, I moved the martinis toward the left two-thirds of the frame, in order to maximize the light and colours in the entire shot. As a result, the entire shot looks more festive.

7. If there’s movement, don’t be afraid to capture it. Finally, restaurants in particular tend to be pretty dynamic places, and there’s nothing like a little blur to capture this. Again, because restaurants tend to be dimly lit, capturing the blur is suprisingly easy: simply rest your camera on a sturdy surface (or use your travel tripod), frame your shot and set your settings for the dim lighting, use your timer, and take the shot. The shutter will stay open longer because of the dim light (assuming you’re shooting in fully-automatic or aperture priority mode), and any movement will appear as a blur, while the still subjects will remain sharp.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

In this particular case, my husband and I had gone out to dinner, and afterwards, decided to check out a small tea house. Little did we know that as soon as we sat down with our tea, several patrons would get up to tango — a lovely surprise.

Because the lighting in the tea house was rather dim, I just used a counter to steady my camera, and pointed the viewfinder to where the action was. As the camera did its thing, the dancers moved in and around the frame, causing a lovely blur (but notice the patrons who were not dancing remain sharp):

So that’s it! Go forth and shoot great restaurant shots (and practice in places near your home when you’re not traveling). And as always, if you have any questions or suggestions, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.

Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.