Photography provides the perfect excuse for enjoying sumptuous, delectable meals without remorse. The joy of sampling local delicacies while traveling is a great reason for dismissing your stringent diet. After all, passing up French cheese in Paris or Teppanyaki in Japan would be unjust and wrong.
I love to photograph food whenever it looks presentable. This is somewhat unfortunate, as it means that the best food often gets cold by the time I get around to relishing it. If you can tolerate lukewarm food and some occasional curious stares, food photography can be fun and add valuably to your travel chronicles. If nothing else, it also lets you justify dining at a fancy restaurant that serves an exquisitely presented dish. If you worry that you might look too odd or awkward snapping away at your food, get crafty and request a table at a quiet corner where you’d be more inconspicuous.
Of course, professional food photographers enjoy freedoms that may be out of reach to ordinary fine food connoisseurs. They often coat food with oils to improve its textures and add sheen, however artificial and concocted. They microwave soaked cotton balls to make steam; some even attempt dry ice and cigarettes! And yes, in desperation, they will resort to shooting fake food, however flagrant or rude.
But taking intriguing food photographs is possible even for those who refuse to cheat. It just takes some creativity, planning, and pompously exquisite, delicious food.
Dress It Up
To capture an intriguing photograph, the food and its surrounding tableware must look neat and elegant. You might have little control over how the food is presented, but you can certainly arrange its surroundings by organizing the silverware, shakers, napkins, flowers, and wine glasses. Consider everything on the table and see how they might fit in. Also pay attention to the table surface and include more or less of it depending on how well it complements your dish. I like to compose shots by including different items in the foreground and background to see what works best.
A mushroom pie at the QV Bar Café: Ironically, what I miss most about Sydney is its ubiquitous collection of savory pies. You can find them everywhere you go, in any variety you can imagine. I ate more pies here in a week than I normally do in a year. Here, my mocha and glass of juice are convenient props.
As with any genre of photography, light is important but often uncontrollable. To make things worse, we are often so close and we want enough depth of field, that fast lenses can’t help much. We simply need to find more light, one way or another. If I’m shooting for a restaurant, I use studio flash and life is good; if I’m dining in as a guest, I can often make do with a flash or a small table tripod.
Quiet, romantic steakhouses are the worst; they are so thrifty with photons that you may well be forced to bounce your flash, feel self-conscious, and garner the attention of the whole restaurant. Alternatively, a table tripod might come in handy for the more timid. During the day, I would request a table by the window to get some natural light; shooting in mixed light almost always messes up white balance, but shooting in RAW helps me deal with it.
Fish and Chips: This café serves quick, simple food, so I wasn’t expecting to get any good shots. The food turned out much better than I’d imagined, so I quickly relocated to a table near the window to get more light.
More often than not, photographing food means that we forfeit the right to enjoy our meal at its best. We need to work quickly because our appetite can’t wait. Neither can food. Sauces run, butter melts, and crusts soak through, really quickly. A bit of preparation is key to making the most out of our food’s limited half life.
I always try to get my shots within a minute or two, and if you’re well prepared, that should be plenty of time. I rarely get bored waiting for food to arrive because I always find myself playing with silverware and shakers like a restless child, rearranging them endlessly in hopeful preparation. I’d shoot a stand-in—an empty plate, a glass of water, my watch, anything, really—to get my exposure and white balance right. When the food finally shows up, I’m all ready to go.
Breakfast: The pancakes came with an inconsiderately large scoop of butter. It was almost wrong and rude. I had to work quickly before it melted and ran.
Of course, different dishes are best portrayed differently, so it’s worthwhile to try different angles to see what works best. An oblique angle works well at revealing details of foods and their layers, but getting enough depth of field might be challenging if you need to shoot wide open in low light. A good alternative is to use a vertical, overhead perspective, which often requires less depth of field. This works particularly well for arrangements of many items on a plate, or mostly "planar" foods like soups and stews.
Crawfish pasta at the Père Antoine Restaurant: It was tough to find anything that wasn’t deep fried in New Orleans, even though the food was generally good. On my last day here, I finally got to taste crawfish that escaped the deep fryer. An overhead view works particularly well for "flat" dishes like this.
Poached eggs over toast: One wouldn't normally associate Sydney, Australia, with food, but I enjoyed amazing culinary delights here. My favorite meal was a breakfast of poached eggs over toast. It wasn’t very filling, but it was simple, delicious and exquisite.
Pick Your Glass
A macro lens is a good bet since you are typically shooting up close. Nikon’s 105mm f/2.8G VR and Canon’s 100mm f/2.8L IS are both excellent, with fields of view that are quite suitable for photographing food on a full frame. (On a cropped frame, try the Nikon 60mm f/2.8G or the Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8.) Without a macro, you might have to move your plate to the far end and stand away a little. Fast lenses help in dim restaurants, but the depth of field might be too shallow when shooting wide open, especially when focusing up close. If you want to get enough detail of multiple planes, you might have no choice but to stop down and use a flash or tripod. And now that you’ve found another reason to enjoy great food, bon appétit!