Food Photos: Bane or Boon for Chefs?

When a photo is good, it elicits drooling. When a photo is bad, it’s revolting. We react so viscerally in either direction to photos of food that they're now a vital part of doing business for restaurants. With social media and apps driving restaurant discovery, food photography has the power to sway a diner to spend their time and money at a particular venue–or to go somewhere else.

January 21, 2015 ● 3 min read

As the truism goes, we eat with our eyes first. And chefs have their reputations to maintain.

In fact, restaurants that disseminate their own images often attract business as a direct result of the quality and credibility behind the photos.

Jamie Bissonnette, executive chef of Toro in New York City and Boston and Coppa in Boston, maintains active Twitter accounts full of photos for both venues in addition to his own personal feed—which works a little too well sometimes.

“I’ll make a dish that’s not on the menu yet and post it, and then a guest brings in their phone and says, ‘that’s not on the menu.’ Or maybe it’s something I shot at the other restaurant and forgot to mention where I was,” Bissonnette says.

It’s proof that people are paying attention to what he puts out. But Bissonnette also embraces the… less appetizing looking photos he sees of his food posted online by diners.

“It’s more real,” Bissonnette says. Alternatively, “you go online and look at an ad and it looks so fucking delicious. Then you get it and it doesn’t look awesome—it’s like someone stepped on it. It’s always nice to make a photo beautiful but we like to make our food look the same all of the time,” he explains, whether you’re eating it in real life or viewing it on Instagram.

While it’s easy for restaurants and chefs to control the content on their own sites and social media feeds, it’s nearly impossible to control the blogosphere where amateur reviewers and photographers “chronicle” every mundane detail of their “epic culinary adventures” in [fill in the city].

Some higher-end restaurants have started banning table-side photography—or at the very least, restricted the use of flash—to minimize the risk of disrupting other guests’ experiences, such as at chef David Chang’s Ko in New York City which made headlines for its stance on food photography in a New York Times article a few years ago.

On the other hand, encouraging guests to snap and share photos can be a powerful marketing tool for more casual spots, said Noah Bernamoff of Mile End Deli and Black Seed Bagels in New York City.

And that mindset seems to be paying off. Black Seed Bagels has gained over 10,000 followers on Instagram since opening less than ten months ago.

“Not everything’s great but when you do see a really great (photo), the idea of retweeting or regramming something is powerful because you send a message that you celebrate other people’s achievements in food photography,” Bernamoff said.

And the terrible photos? He’s not worried about them.

“It’s more detrimental to the photographer to take bad photos. Someone who takes good photos probably has a lot of followers,” he said, which is good both for his business and gaining more followers on social media.

So help a chef out and you might get a little boost yourself.

We talked to some professional food photographers—including Daniel Krieger (New York Times, Eater), Chris Rochelle (Chow) and our own Blake Smith (Chefs Feed)—to put together this list of helpful tips so your photos do justice to your dinner (and the chef that cooked it).

1) Let there be light:
One of the biggest mistakes people make when photographing in a restaurant is overexposing the dish with the flash. “Lighting stuff from the front, that’s definitely the worst,” says, Rochelle, because the image becomes washed out from direct exposure of the flash. Forget the flash entirely if you can: Natural light is best if you can get it, says Krieger. Then pay attention to the direction of the light, says Rochelle: “don’t set the food in the light. Set it next to the light. You want it to be coming from different angles or from behind.”

2) Get your composition on point: Composition is everything, Rochelle says. “That’s how you create dynamic images. Square images (such as on Instagram) are more static than rectangles but they’re easier to digest.” However, rectangles allow you to utilize the rule of thirds to compose. “Take a moment to style it,” Smith says, and don't forget to move yourself around, too, until you find the right angle to shoot from.

Play with symmetry and interesting depths of field (differences in focus). It can also help to focus on one particular thing, instead of the entire spread on the table. Finally, “take the entire frame into account, not just what you think is the primary focus,” Krieger said.

3) Edit tight: A good photo can get lost in a sea of other shots of the same dish. Edit tight to showcase your best work. The rest is noise.

“Take a bunch of photos of one thing and then choose the best. Which one best represents the dish? Which one has the most vibrant colors? Which one has the best lighting?” Krieger says. Instagram has some nice built-in filters and editing software now but “there’s only so much you can do with editing,” Krieger says. “It’s important to get the right shot right off the bat.”

4) Get inspired by other photographers and chefs:
Follow Jamie Bissonnette on Instagram at @jamiebiss
Follow Noah Bernhoff on Instagram at @mileenddeli and @blackseedbagels
Follow Daniel Krieger on Instagram at @DanielKrieger and at his website
Check out Chris Rochelle on his website and at Chow
Follow Blake Smith on Instagram at @hi.blakets.

Food & Wine has a Tumblr full of amazing food shots, too, and of course, follow us on Instagram at @chefsfeed for shots of food from our contributing chefs across the country.

After all, imitation isn’t just the highest form of flattery, it’s a great way to learn new techniques.

By Sara Bloomberg