10 dishes per hour. The menu shoot. Part 2

What to expect when the food photographer arrives? Where should we put her? How much time does it take to shoot 10 dishes? Should we offer her food?

We love you

After having read my previous piece I got worried that you might think as if photographers were very demanding or hard to please. That's not true. We come to help you the best we can. And afterwards we analyze what could have been better, what we could have done differently. Only an amateur is happy with a mere pay check. An ambitious professional always wants to do the best job, show the most creativity, get the best photos be the task however trivial. The questions we ask and the suggestions we make are for your own good.

The Briefing

When I come to your restaurant we will be pleased to discuss everything about the shoot with you. If we haven't agreed in advance, please tell us what dishes you have chosen for the shoot and all your ideas how you want them to look. If possible, show photos of the dishes or the tableware that you’re going to use.

The location

Then I choose the location where I set up the equipment trying not to disturb your clients. When using only artificial light I don't have to be near the window. When using window light or combined, the place has to have a pleasing window light. When using natural light, all other light sources like lamps in the venue are not doing any good to the picture. I might ask you to switch off some of the lamps if possible.

The table (or other surface) we choose will be the main background for your photos. Usually there will be no or very little interior visible on the food photos. Setting up the lighting equipment takes about 5-10 minutes. After that I'm ready to photograph the dishes.

We won't be doing well in a very tight setting. I need some space to set everything up. The table surface needs to be at least 10 cm wider than the plate if we only shoot dishes one by one. For a larger set-up it needs to be minimum 80 cm on the longer edge. There has to be some space around the table to set up the flashes or reflectors. Ideally the table should be accessible from 3 sides.

Very low hanging lamps above the table make it difficult to capture overhead images. Sometimes we need to climb higher in order to shoot the overhead images. In this case it would be nice if you provided a step ladder or a stool, otherwise we need to use a restaurant chair to step on. We do it real nice, take off the shoes or place a napkin under the feet. In my practice it's very common to start on the ground and end up standing on a chair or even a table, so I always try to wear pretty socks.

Be realistic. If you lack space and accessories and your food is easily delivered without loosing it’s appeal - send it to our studio. We will style (re-heat if necessary), plate and shoot it in a more favorable setting. 

The Chef

Being a food photographer means working together with chefs. An experienced food photographer knows and appreciates the work of a chef. I assume that a chef is a creative person as well and he/she knows best how the dish should look like. Experienced chefs usually plate the food so that it has a front side and a back side. You can usually tell by looking at the plate. Better not trust the waiter unless the restaurant has very high service standards.

It may happen sometimes that the plating of a certain dish is an exact opposite to the way the lights are set up for most other dishes. A big element usually blocks the light and leaves something important in the shadow. Then you have to decide wether to take a time-out and reorganize the lights or ask the chef to change the plating. It is polite to not touch the food unless the chef tell you it's okay.

It's advised to not finalize the dishes before the arrival of the photographer. Sometimes we get stuck in traffic and the food will lose it’s appeal. Please prepare and bring the dishes one by one. If you can choose the first dish, may it be the one that stays fresh looking and appetizing for several minutes, because photographing the first dish takes the most time. Please let the photographer know if the dish coming out of the kitchen will loose it’s appeal very fast (ice-creams, foams, certain types of sauces etc.) and make sure he/she is ready before you bring the dish to the table.

Styling tips

Go an extra mile to make your dishes nicer than usual, especially in case you usually offer simple, fast and affordable meals. Don’t think there’s nothing you can do better. If you normally only deliver food in boxes or wrapped in paper, consider how we can display food on photo. Maybe you’ll need some plates, cutting boards, other surfaces to show how the food really looks. Keep in mind all elements that can be used on a photo: food, tableware, glassware, flatware, textiles (everything you use to set the table), surfaces in the interior, additional props. A photographer can’t make a miracle out of nothing although we try.

The photographer looks at your dishes to decide wether to photograph them from the eater’s position or from top down (overhead). If the dish is flat and plated to create a pattern it’s best to shoot from above. If the dish has some hight to it we shoot from the eater’s position (about 45 degree angle.) Plate the dish keeping in mind the shooting angle. Decide what is the front of the dish facing the eater or in our case the lens. Make the front attractive.

If shot from the eaters position the dish can't look flat. Give it some extra volume. For example if it’s a salad put more greens than usual to the bottom. Make it higher, not so much bigger. The portion has to look big enough for the viewer. The plate shouldn’t look empty if not so on purpose (in case of fine dining).

Mind the plates. If they have high edges or you serve the food in bowls or baskets we’ll shoot from a higher angle to show what’s inside. It’s better to use smaller plates for photography. Look how much space take the edges of plates! Even more if you put 2 or more dishes next to each other. This is the lost space in the frame if your aim is to show food.

If you can’t avoid large plates discuss other options with the photographer. If the dishes are shot together some edges will be cut to balance the composition. If you know what will be cut out, you can plate the dish more towards the other edge (rather than in the center of the plate).

If you have an explicit idea how things should look on the photograph, ask the photographer to show the images in the camera or on the computer screen on the set and suggest changes if necessary. We don’t enjoy showing unfinished work but we like re-shooting the whole thing even less.

The time frame

At least 10 minutes in the beginning of the shoot takes the briefing and setting up the scene. It takes me about 1 hour to shoot up to 10 dishes in a standard situation. It's a major generalization, because everything depends on the characteristics of the shoot. A standard situation means focusing on the plate, no or very little props, similar dishes, standard tableware, same background, same lighting. The average turn-around time for one dish is 5-10 minutes. It usually works out smoothly between me and the kitchen. My sessions are 2-3 hours on the average.

In smaller restaurants the increase in demand can heat things up a bit. Try to be prepared for the photo shoot in spite of unexpected demand in the restaurant. Photographers work on a schedule and they might be booked to be somewhere else in a certain amount of time.

A fun fact

The question I get asked most often is wether I can eat it all. I almost never touch the food before I've photographed everything. I prefer not loosing my focus before it's done. I get offered and accept coffee and drinking water. Honestly, if I'm really hungry I might nibble an extra french fry. I don't expect to get fed on top of the pay check. Statistically still I get offered some food more often than not. Besides getting a full stomach it teaches me a lot about the restaurant scene. You can ask questions about your dishes or other places I've been and perhaps learn something valuable. Never the less it doesn't eliminate the days when I have 3 shoots and when I finish I need to grab a hot dog from Circle K to stabilize the blood sugar.

All photos taken for Wolt Eesti.