Great food and drink photography is more important than ever for restaurants. No longer reserved for family-style menus, restaurants need eye-catching imagery to promote their drinks and food on their websites, Yelp and social media. A gorgeous image of a cocktail practically sells itself.
But as anyone who’s tried to snap a quick pic of their food for the Gram knows, it’s easier said than done. Simply pointing your phone’s camera at a dish and snapping a photo often leads to bland, unappetizing results.
I spoke with professional food photographer David Schub of Schub Studios in the Los Angeles area to get a better idea for what goes into capturing perfect food photos, and how restaurants can achieve them without all the expensive equipment. Schub found his niche with mom-and-pop/independent restaurants helping them tell a visual story of the food they create to make their drinks and food look their best.
How do you photograph beverages to highlight their unique characteristics?
Photographing drinks and cocktails is another art in itself. A good image of a drink should also evoke some kind of emotion.
Think about the style of how you want the drink and the props shot. How do you want to capture the drink? Do you want it bright on a white backdrop, or do you want it dark and moody with less light with the back of the bar as a backdrop? How do you want to present your drink for customers to see?
Every drink, cocktail, and beer has a specific glass, whether a stein glass, a tumbler, a wine glass or Martini glass—you get the idea. Not only do you want to highlight the drink, but you want to highlight the glass it’s in.
Tell a story with props, including a garnish, such as a cherry, olive or lime, and even include a bottle opener with the cork to the side. There are tricks to make a beer look more bubbly (add a bit of dish soap), and to make the mug have more condensation (spray glycerine on the outside of the glass).
Why is high-quality food photography important?
Great food photography is an art and a science. It’s supposed to evoke your senses—your sense of sight, smell, and, of course, tastebuds. The curves, shadows and grill marks of the food item I photograph—I want to make it look like you can eat it off the menu or website.
What’s plating, and how do you do it well?
Plating is how you arrange the food on the plate to create the best, most appetizing picture. For example, take a hamburger and fries. You want the burger to be the hero and make that stand out rather than the fries.
The color of the food on the plate is also important. There are the colors of food on the plate that will either complement or contrast each other. So warm colors such as reds and yellows can be paired with cool colors on the other side of the spectrum like blues and greens.
How do you light your shoots?
To me, less is better: I don’t need three lights. I use one light with an umbrella on it and then a stand with a reflector.
I find an area in the restaurant away from the windows without much natural light. That way, I can control the direction of light with my lights and use a reflector. I also don’t need to worry about the time of day and the sun.
How can amateur food photographers, who maybe don’t have specific lighting equipment, achieve more professional lighting with their shots?
For now, I’d say use natural light. You have less control, but light from a window will generally look much better than light from an overhead bulb. Using a white foam board or lining a foam board with foil is a cheap and effective way to reflect light onto your dish from the opposite side.
What do you think about when composing a photo?
My first rule is to keep it simple. Don’t overdo it. You don’t need the extra props, you don’t need the hands in frame holding a fork with a piece of food on the fork. Capture the food, and let it sell itself. Beyond that, I always try to incorporate the rule of thirds.
The rule of thirds basically splits a photo into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, to create a grid of nine squares. Think of a tic-toe-board. Where those lines intersect are the four points of interest. That’s where people’s eyes are drawn, which is important to keep in mind when deciding where to position the food in the shot.
Do you have any other tips for restaurant owners to capture the best photos of their food?
Depending upon what the food is, I’ll find the right angle to shoot it at. The first of three major angles is the 90 degree angle or birds eye view, shooting something overhead. I’d use that angle to photograph quesadillas with salsa and sour cream on the side.
The next major angle is at a 45 degree. I’d use this angle shooting a hot dog or Philly cheese steak sandwich, so you see the ingredients in it and see some depth to it.
Last would be eye level, or a 0-20 degree. This is the angle I’d use to shoot a hamburger or stack of pancakes to see the height or all the ingredients in the sandwich.
Another item I keep in my camera bag of tricks is a little paint brush. Depending on the food, it can dry out and look old quickly, like a piece of fish or a burger. To make the food alive, I’ll lightly paint some oil on it to appear fresh and right out of the kitchen.
The biggest compliment I can receive from my work is when someone says, “That chicken dish looks delicious, you’ve made me hungry.” Then my job is done.
Mark Plumlee is the senior editor at MustHaveMenus, an online service that helps restaurants and bars design and print professional-grade menus and marketing materials.