Monday, August 27, 2007

Photography in Restaurants

I love taking pics of the meals I have in restaurants to act as a sort of visual diary on my blog, however the lighting levels are usually frustratingly low, begging the question - to use flash or not? In my recent post here you can see a mixture of pics taken with and without flash - and even when I've fiddled with them in Adobe Photoshop the levels are pretty rubbish and the colours aren't true. Obviously the ideal would be to always take pics in full natural daylight, but does anyone have any tips to improve the quality of pictures when this just isn't an option?!

This Post was written by Fahara from Souperior


Ilva said...

Now I don't know what camera you have but I would suggest to go for the highest ISO you can get. And I don't know what you do in Photoshop but I usually manage to make the white balance OK when I go in Colour lab mode and then fiddle with curves.

Anita said...

What Ilva said. :)

I find that even my little point-and-shoot Canon A710IS takes pretty good photos in dark situations with the ISO set to 800.

I find that using a flash -- in addition to being very distracting to other diners -- gives food a very washed-out, unnatural light and avoid it myself at all costs. I'd rather not take a picture than cause anyone else a moment of distraction.

stephen said...

Remember that, even if you use a high ISO number and no flash, if you are using autofocus in dim conditions most cameras have a 'focus-assist' light - either white or red - which can be just as annoying to others as a flash, and in many cameras can't be disabled if you are using autofocus.

Here's a suggestion: if you want to photograph the food in a restaurant, ask the restaurant owner if you can either take the food to a private room, or, probably better, come back when the restaurant is closed and you can use flash or lights. Also, if you ask, it will give the owner an opportunity to let you know if he or she would rather that you didn't shoot the food at all, which seems to me to be the polite thing to do before even getting out the camera in the first place...

Tana said...

This is a tough question. The answer is to get at least the rudiments of a good point-and-shoot, knowing that a high ISO may add a little "noise" (pixels of colored speckles) to the final image. (I don't know what camera you are using, so don't know its capabilities. There are lots of photographers here who could advise based on price range and so on.)

I am really fixed about flash photography in restaurants: it never looks like you want it to, and it's always a compromise. That is just a simple, painful fact, and I intend no offense to anyone in saying so. And what Anita said trumps everything: it's just rude to use flash in an intimate setting like a fine restaurant, where people are trying to have their own quiet, personal experiences. (Unless you are there with your grandmother on her 90th birthday, and then everyone will forgive you and join in the chorus of "Happy Birthday.")

In Photoshop, you can use the Mode >> Adjustment >> Shadows/Highlights to do a little compensation for dark shadows. But you can't compensate for the extremes that flash creates. (And you won't use flash any more, right?)

One trick I used to use with my old Canon Powershot was to use a wineglass or something on the table as a mini-tripod, and use a slower shutter speed. You need the stability and you need the shutter to be open longer and wider (think of your eye pupil dilating and getting used to the dark before you can see things).

Another benefit of those improv tripods was that I would get some creative angles. Shots of plates from overhead are just not that interesting, at least not artistically. If you're trying to present the dishes as a mere catalog, like inventory, then maybe having an artistic presentation doesn't matter.

My solution was to invest in a digital SLR and get a good lens (about $100 for the lens): a 50mm fixed f/1.8 lens, which is like that wide open pupil: it rocks for food (and faces and flowers). I don't speak much photography language, but to me, an F-stop is a "food stop." The lower the number, the wider open the pupil is, and the more light and less noise you get.

If none of these solutions work for you, don't post the shots you don't like—use the beautiful one, if there is only one—like your shot of the dining room at Petrus. Let your descriptions make our mouths water, and don't let the photographs that don't do justice to the beauty of the food interrupt your readers' experience.

There is a man, neither talented blogger nor professional writer, who is "famed" for his reports on the most upscale restaurants all over the world. The photography is god-awful, and I consider it a knife in the hearts of the chefs, who spend their life's energy creating delicious food that is also BEAUTIFUL...all the glowing words from on high, for me, could not compensate for that photography. I think these factors should come into consideration.

If you love a place and get a good photo or two, write it up and post the good pictures. In the case of what you posted, just the descriptions of your courses had my mouth watering. "San Francisco Gourmet" is well known for his good writing and no photography.

Sometimes less really is more.

Best of everything, really. You are a GOOD writer, with clear wit: let your strengths shine.

traderjanki said...

Well, Tana really said it all- for me very interesting and useful advice. Thank you!. My advice: Don't use flash because it distorts what the food really looks like. I just got a new camera (point and shoot) and yesterday, ate in a restaurant with bizarre, red lighting. The whole time I was trying to figure out how to take pictures (without flash, i hate flash) that didn't make everything look reddish-brown- but once I got home and ran my pictures through Picasa, the true colors came through.

Jack said...

Don't use flash. It's disruptive for other diners - that's reason enough.

Tana Butler said...

I should have amended by statement about being fixed about flash photography. Never in restaurants because it IS rude (as stated by Anita and Jack), and usually not in general because, unless you have a white card or screen to "bounce" it, it's too harsh.

Fahara said...

Wow, thanks for all the advice guys (and thanks for the compliment Tana!), I totally agree about flash being unfair on other diners - I've only used it when there aren't any around to bother, but as it doesn't seem to benefit the pictures it's something I'll totally give up now.

ilva - I've heard read about fiddling with the 'curves' in Photoshop, but I can't seem to find this option on my version - Elements 2.0 - is it a newer feature?

I shall have to dig out the textbook that came with my camera (a Casio QV-R51) and see about adjusting the ISO and go from there....

Anonymous said...

I turn off the flash and use a miniature tripod that I got at a camera store for about $20 USD. I use it with the self timer. It works amazingly well. The other thing is to turn the ISO down as low as possible it should be 50 or 100 max. The only thing with this method is you have to make sure that everyone takes their hands off the table while you're shooting or else it comes out shaky.
You can do the same thing with a big beanbag, soft-sided purse, or stuffed animal as well. The wait staff never seems to mind as long as their is no flash involved.

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