By now, we’ve all been guilty of doing it. It’s one of the fastest epidemics that not even scientists can explain. Anthropologists and historians hundreds of years from now will find landfills of objects once known as a DSLR camera, lenses, hard drives and memory cards. To their surprise, they will discover that their ancestors and predecessors have been taking pictures, tons of pictures... of food?!
Shooting food has become one of the fastest growing hobbies for hundreds of thousands of people internationally and many have made the successful leap into the professional side of it. Naturally, everyone wants to get better at it too.
But as Jeni and I have learned, growth in food photography doesn’t happen overnight. It’s easy to photograph something in your home but the variables change when you’re at a public space or restaurant. And even more so while you’re traveling.
Travel photography is a completely different beast that involves more than just the food. The best food and travel photographers out there are the ones that can get the shot they want no matter where they are. Here are some tips on getting the most out of food photography while traveling.
1. Hello, natural light!
The best lighting is the kind that is offered to you for free from sunrise to sunset and it’s always available. Few lighting specialists have been able to replicate the temperature and intensity of natural light through expensive lighting equipment. But why bother when you can simply sit by a window and shoot? Natural light can always make your food photos look great but you have to know to use it. The light on a sunny, cloudy and rainy day can change the mood and scenario entirely.
Directional lighting also produces different results in photography. As a photographer, being able to adapt to that with or without the aid of reflectors or bounce cards is essential in defining your style and getting your ideal shot.
Practical Lighting Tips
- In a restaurant, try to get the window seat. Call the restaurant as far in advance to reserve it if you really want the optimal conditions for shooting your food. Don’t hesitate to ask for another seat if your host is planning to seat you in a deep, dark corner. Wait for a better spot if you have to.
- If the restaurant doesn’t have windows, see if there’s an outdoor area you can shoot. If you’re photographing street food, look for an open, shaded area as you’ll still get that great natural light. Some photographers enjoy the look of direct sunlight on food but we’ve found that it is just way too harsh for our taste.
- Know when the sun sets and plan on eating an hour before sunset to catch the “golden hour” for beautiful soft lighting.
2. To use or not to use the flash.
Generally, we’d say not at all. You have to realize that although photographing food is on your agenda, being blinded by your flash and strobe lights every few minutes isn’t on everyone else's. We generally go with the approach of shooting things the way the human eye would see it. If a restaurant has dim lighting, you should capture that as it’s probably been done for ambiance. A brightly-lit photo taken with direct flash will flatten the subjects and you really won’t be able to capture just how romantic it was in that restaurant in Marrakech.
Practical No-Flash Tips
- Besides natural lighting, your second freebie is a candle if there is one.
- But this does require a steady hand to make sure there’s no camera shake. We recommend shooting with a faster lens and utilizing your elbow as an “elbow-pod” – a natural stabilizing system formed with the camera in hand and elbow resting on the table.
- But there have been situations and assignments where we had no choice but to use flash. If you absolutely must use a flash, try bouncing the flash off the ceiling or off a bounce card or white board.
- Tip: a menu printed on white paper or a white plate also doubles as a reflector.
- Another tip: if the lighting conditions are dismal, put your camera back into your bag and just enjoy your meal. Life will go on.
It doesn’t matter what you’re shooting with a $40,000 Hasselblad or a $200 smartphone; your composition is what matters the most and what sets photographers apart.
When shooting food, take multiple shots at multiple angles. Your goal is to widen your reader’s eyes and whet their appetite. You want them to wish the photo was a scratch n’ sniff. Some dishes might look better cropped in tighter or zoomed in, some may not. If you’re eating a fantastic dinner with a multi-dish spread somewhere in Ethiopia, an overhead shot is a great way for the reader to get a sense of just how much food was there.
Practical Composition Tips
- When shooting overheads, if appropriate, try filling up the frame with what’s already on the table such as cups, wine glasses, utensils and moving hands.
- If you’re dining with someone, try having them interact with the food with their hands or utensils. After all, food is meant to be eaten, not to simply be photographed.
4. Running and Gunning.
If you’re in a foreign country, you’re going to stand out regardless. You’re going to stand out even more if you’re snapping photos of food. When we shoot food while traveling, it is our goal to be quick and discrete like a ninja, not to cause "ripples in the pond." It’s crucial that you know your camera inside out and practice switching settings in different situations.
Try giving yourself 30 seconds max to get multiple shots of your subject. If you absolutely need more time to get your shot, it doesn’t hurt to let a chef, owner or even server know what your intentions are. Many instances we actually got better access to the inside of a kitchen or something unique because we were upfront about what we were doing.
This is different though when shooting in a foreign space as you don’t know what you’re dealing with. I’ve been approached and threatened by angry people understandably, but I’ve found that if you don’t speak the language, saying hello, waving, smiling and gesturing at the camera has had positive results. A compliment on the food is always a sure way to be diplomatic.
Practical Tips for Shooting in Unfamiliar Places
- Tip: Know when and when not to take a photo, read people’s body language. If they say "No!", they mean it.
5. Travel Light.
How many times have you walked down a street and been stopped by the presence of someone completely decked out in camera gear – camera with flash and telephoto lens, huge backpack and those “fashionable” lens vests? People will usually run away like squirrels when they encounter someone like that and you’ll lose your potential great shot. Part of being able to “run and gun” is traveling with minimal baggage, literally.
We carry our equipment in a nondescript bag so as to not draw attention and usually only bring one lens, the one we use the most. When you’ve have too many lenses in your bags, not only is it heavy, it can slow down your creative process trying to figure out which you should use. When you have one primary lens, you simply pull out the camera, shoot, put it away and move on to the next thing. Learn that lens inside out and learn to love it like a significant other.
When you travel with smaller bags, you also have more options in where you want to dine. Lugging a huge camera bag may not be very comfortable if you want to dine at the bar or at a standing table by a window.
Practical Tips for Traveling Light
- Our rule of thumb in traveling: travel minimally and only bring what you know you will need.
- Leave the "what if" items at home.
- And don’t forget to eat!
Dylan and Jeni are our guests for June — Travel Month at The Kitchn! They will bringing us tips and good ideas for eating while traveling, and finding good ways to bring your travels home to your own kitchen.
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(Images: Dylan Ho + Jeni Afuso)