Demand for quality food photography has exploded in recent years. Restaurant culture is on the rise and visual platforms like Instagram are an essential part of the dining experience.
Commercial food photography has traditionally been shot in a studio. Photographers had access to a high-tech setup and a stylist on-hand. This shift towards food photos for everyone, (no matter the business’ size or budget), has made shooting food onsite much more common.
The challenges of shooting food on location
1. Short time frame
Unlike other still life subjects, fresh food has a short time frame when in which it looks appealing. Food photographers have to work fast.
There are some tricks of the trade that can increase this time frame. Rumours abound about shaving foam, mashed potatoes and motor oil making an appearance in food photography. At a restaurant though, you likely don’t have access to much more than a spritz of cold water to revive a wilting salad.
Food that’s been sat out for longer than 10-15 minutes will start to look tired, so you have to work quickly and creatively when shooting onsite.
The subject of food makes fast shooting paramount, but so does the nature of a bar or restaurant. It’s best to shoot at venues early in the week, (Monday or Tuesday), and to start as early in the day as you can – when the venue is likely to be quiet.
You may want to get atmosphere shots when the place is busier, but for shooting food, coming in on a day when the venue is quiet means that:
- No customers are interfering in the shots
- You can set up at the prime table by the window and spread out as much as you need
- The chef can focus on making gorgeous dishes for you to shoot (and not on their actual job of serving up food for customers)
[Related Reading: Photography Tips | The Four Best Lenses For Food Photography]
2. Styling is paramount
At least half of food photography is styling, but there is probably no budget for a stylist for this type of shoot.
Different chefs plate up differently. If you have an eye for design (which you likely do as a photographer), ask the chef to send out the individual ingredients (or the garnish) for you to plate yourself. It’s also worth asking the chef to take some artistic license. Okay, this dish may not come with sauce and a sprinkle of herbs, but let’s plate it up that way for the camera.
Not only do you need to be flexible in terms of the type of photography you’re shooting, but you also need to be able to style those shots, accurately capture the atmosphere, and have great timing too.
The presentation and styling of food can have a huge impact on the end shot, but it can vary wildly.
Even if you’ve seen or shot that exact dish in that exact restaurant before, the presentation can depend on which chef plated up and the quality of ingredients available on the day.
Food itself as a subject can be unpredictable, but so can a restaurant as a location to shoot.
[Related Reading: Photography Tips | Six Food Photography Tips In Two Minutes]
You never quite know the lighting setup. Even if you’ve been to the venue before, the quality of natural light on the day is dependant on the weather.
The nature of bars and restaurants can make it hard to control who or what is in each shot. Even if you arrange to shoot on a day that ‘should’ be quiet, restaurants and bars are quite chaotic at the best of times.
Experiment, be flexible and make decisions quickly. If at all possible, get several different shots of everything – more really is better in this scenario.
4. Gear limitations
Usually, when shooting onsite, you don’t have access to the same range of photography gear you would in a studio.
You likely have to be able to carry all your gear. Most of the restaurants I shoot at are in the City, with no parking nearby – so I need to be able to load all my gear into a backpack.
My onsite food photography setup
In a restaurant or bar setting, I try to shoot a number of dishes in batches. Food tends to look tired quickly, so shooting 3-4 dishes individually, and then in group shots is a great way to get more mileage out of each dish. I then repeat this a few times over with other groups of dishes. When I’ve shot the food, I’ll move on to atmosphere and action shots around the venue.
Like many food photographers, I use natural light wherever possible.
Set up near a window and turn out the house lights. Use a diffuser if you need to (I use a white sheet), to avoid harsh light and shadows.
Back/side lighting works well for food photography, so this is a great lighting setup.
[Related Reading: Shooting Tips | Cheap Artificial Lighting For Food Photography]
I have to be able to carry all my gear when I shoot onsite at restaurants and bars. Most of my gear fits in this photography backpack.
It has a compartment in the bottom for my camera and lenses. I use a 50mm prime lens to capture the detail in food photos. My 18-55mm gives more flexibility for atmosphere/event-style shots around the venue. I can also fit a white sheet in the bottom compartment, to use as a diffuser.
I use the top compartment to carry wires and other extras:
- Spare camera battery and charger
- Tether cable and a converter connection for my laptop. My Canon 1300D has wireless tethering features that work in a pinch but aren’t perfect without strong WiFi. Much of the time shooting onsite, I shoot untethered, so I can quickly move and change angles. I tether a few times throughout the day to check that most of the shots are suitable.
- Laptop and phone chargers
- Remote shutter button
- Clips to secure tether cables, diffuser sheet, etc.
- An atomiser for cold water spray
- Tweezers, q-tips, cocktail sticks and pipettes for styling
The bag also has a full-length pocket at the back which fits my laptop, so I can tether throughout the day.
My tripod straps to the bottom of the backpack. I use a Manfrotto with a horizontal arm. It’s sturdy enough for an unpredictable environment like a bar or restaurant. It can also shoot at multiple angles, so it’s easy to get overhead shots and to shoot in cramped or awkward spaces.
For overhead shots, I tend to shoot on the floor, or set the tripod up at full height over the shooting table or surface. I’ll borrow a step stool or chair from the venue to get the height I need.
My 3-in-1 reflector can also hang from the handles of the bag. I usually carry a white tri-fold cardboard too, which I can use as a hands-free reflector.
The thing about shooting onsite at restaurants is that it isn’t just food photography. This isn’t a long setup and style to get one or two highly stylised, perfect shots of a single dish. You have to be fast and flexible to get several types of shot: dishes on the menu, loaded tables, behind-the-scenes shots at the bar, event-style photography to capture the atmosphere.
Shooting onsite at restaurants, bars and other venues is becoming more popular, but with these clients, you are likely shooting for social media. One or two perfect shots won’t cut it.
Instead, you need to be flexible and adapt to the environment.
Shooting at local restaurants can be rewarding though – you can see the practical application of your work on social media almost immediately.
Guest Post by Zoe Pickburn
Zoe Pickburn is a blogger, content marketer, photographer & all-around foodie. She’s a self-taught photographer, and has been shooting food since she started her first blog in 2015. Zoe shoots & writes about food photography at figandfennel.photography.