Food Fight

I enjoy shooting food. I don't do it well enough for Bon Appetit to come knocking on my door with an assignment, but I do get hungry when I edit.

Food—particularly the dishes served in restaurants—should be among the most attractive (and thereby photogenic) subjects you'll encounter during the course of the day. Chefs—big chain burger flippers included—go to great lengths to make their plates appeal to the eye. I can't recall any ugly food that tasted good, with the possible exception of sauerkraut. But I can certainly name a number of foods that looked terrific but tasted less so. Therefore, one would expect it to be easy to find lots of good looking edibles to photograph, and by extension, a snap to come home with a bag full of good food images.

Like photographing brides on their wedding day (who are similarly at their peak of eye appeal) there are many reasons why producing outstanding food pictures is challenging. At the root of this problem (and for that matter, at the root of most photographic problems) we can point an accusing finger at the poor lighting conditions. Restaurants tend to be dark. Some have strangely colored lights. Most discourage you from bringing in your own lighting setup. Tripods are likewise shunned.

There is one simple solution: eat only during daylight hours and always sit near a window. Alternatively you can buy a miner's headlamp that's daylight balanced (5500 degrees Kelvin) and wear it nonchalantly as you would a tiara. Fortunately, many camera makers are of like mind in that they provide a Food Mode or Cuisine Scene on their compact camera models. And they work quite well.

If your camera doesn't have such a setting, try the Close-up Mode with forced flash and, if possible, slightly juiced Saturation. Practice at home (on real food of course) using the crummiest lighting you have. If you don't have any crummy lighting, build a tent of old, yellowed newspapers and place it over the plate. Steady yourself by doing exactly what your mother taught you not to do—plant both of your elbows firmly on the table. Exhale and shoot.

As much as I enjoy digitizing my meals, I recommend against shooting your food under certain conditions. For example, you should leave the camera at home when you're on a blind date or job interview. Fried chicken joints are a no-no as well, unless you have a grease-proof point-and-shoot. And some of those hoity-toity places may think you’re trying to steal their recipes or China pattern or something; whatever it is they think you're up to, they may ask you to stop.

Sorry—got to run. Bon Appetit has come knocking on my door…