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Friday, December 23, 2011

A great no flash food photography tip for dark restaurants

I read an article on Sign on San Diego earlier this year about the phenomenon of people photographing their food in restaurants. It was quite surprising. Most of the chefs interviewed said they take it as a compliment when they see diners taking pictures of their food. And many of the chefs and professional foodies in the article admit they do the same when dining out.

The Molten Chocolate Lava Cake at Cascade Bar and Grille

What surprised me most was the gripe other diners have isn't that people taking pictures in restaurants is distracting to them (with the exception of too much flash), their main issue with amateur food photographers is that they feel the pictures won't do justice to the food itself, damaging the reputation of the restaurant when they were share the images with others. I took that to mean if you're going to take food  pictures to share you better make darn sure the pictures are good.

While daytime photography can be fairly unobtrusive, night food photography can be far more challenging. There's no arguing using a flash in a dimly lit room is going to be distracting. Not only that but often the photos don't come out very good because the flash is too bright. Take the photo below for example.

Standard flash on left. Flash turned down on right.

Both images are blown out (too bright) but the one on the left is far worse than the one on the right. The cool thing about my point and shoot (Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3) is that it has an adjustable flash where I can lower the intensity of the light often dramatically improving my end result. In this instance the image on the right is still too bright but it's better than the first one and fairly typical of the quality of food shots you'll see online.

Another drawback is that too much flash will create stark areas of contrast, brightly lit subjects next to areas with too much shadow causing the picture to look very flat and the food unappealing.

No supportive light source on the left, with supportive light on the right.

For me, one of the most annoying issues when not using a flash at night is trying to achieve a good white balance (always set your white balance indoors) so your food pictures don't come out with a weird red or yellow cast because of the interior lighting fixtures. If your camera has a Raw file option you can use it, instead of JPEG, and correct your white balance later but many point and shoots and phone cameras don't have the capability to shoot in Raw so how can you get a better picture like the one on the right above?

As it happened my friend Carl figured out this awesome little trick. We were on one of our food tours and I'd mentioned I wanted to get a little LED light pack to carry around with me so that I wouldn't have to use a flash but could instead use an external light source to photograph food in less than optimal conditions.

Just a short time later genius struck Carl! He pulled out his iPhone, turned on the flashlight app he'd installed and lit the dish. It was a HUGE improvement over flash or no flash!

 So basically I hold my phone with the flashlight in my left hand and hold and shoot the camera with my right hand. It's not the best way to take a picture but it works :)

Since then I've used this trick several times including last night when Hubby, our friend Harpreet and I went out to dinner at Pacific Catch at the Pruneyard Shopping Center. I thought it was a traditional seafood place but it's actually an Asian fusion restaurant. And when I say fusion I don't mean subtly. It may be the perfect place because I can get some tasty sushi and hubby can get classic fish and chips. This place was made for us!

For instance here's my Agave Lemonade without white balance or flash. I did increase the exposure setting to let in as much light as possible and this was as good as it got.

Bring out my iPhone flashlight and this shot improved immensely. What I love about the flashlight is I can face my phone downward on my lap and raise it up above the table without ever flashing the light at anyone at another table. It's as unobtrusive as you can get adding more light to your shot.

Instead of a basket of bread, your table is given a small dish of shelled edamame and goldfish pretzels to tide yo over while you wait for your food.

While not perfect, the results I achieve using the iPhone flashlight are quite good. While I'd love to spend more time setting up the shot, I don't want to cause a distraction for diners who don't appreciate those of us who can't resist photographing our food. For a quick shot taken at the table with a point and shoot camera I'm pleased with the end result the iPhone flashlight has been producing.

By the way, my vegetarian Sunset sushi roll was really, really good. It's a maki (roll style) filled with tempura sweet tofu, green bean, scallion & carrot, wrapped in an outer layer of avocado, rice & nori and drizzled with teriyaki sauce. And the lemonade was the best I've ever had. It was more tart, less sweet. I will definitely order this meal again.

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