You know you need to do it, but every time it crosses your mind, you get a nervous tingle in the pit of your stomach. Hiring a professional photographer and food stylist to take that perfect photograph of your dishes — the face of your restaurant, really — can be completely out of budget for most businesses.
The alternatives are limited: Downloading images from the internet is illegal. Stock photos feel fake. And images of anything other than what happens between the four walls of your restaurant could leave the wrong impression with customers. The solution seems simple. But can photos you take yourself really sell your menu to the casual internet browser?
The answer is yes! While it’s never been more important to have high-quality photographs readily available for potential diners, it’s also never been easier. Technology has progressed with the consumer desire to see, do, and feel as much on the internet as they would in real life. So today, the average person already has in their possession everything they need to take stunning photos that can be shared with the world.
With just these few tips in mind, you’ll be taking amazing photographs of your equally amazing dishes in no time — without costing you a fortune in the process.
Use your smartphone.
There’s an entire industry out there waiting for you to spend money on equipment and do-dads that promise the most perfect photograph in the world. Except you’re not a professional photographer. You’re a restaurant operator and have an entirely different job to do. Unless you have an amateur passion for the still image and happen to love cameras and everything camera-adjacent, I recommend pulling your handy-dandy smartphone out of your pocket and giving it a try before spending any hard-earned cash on professional camera equipment.
The last two versions of the iPhone (5 and 6) have both featured superior cameras that take better photos than a lot of traditional SLR (single lens reflex) cameras. The same is true of Android models and other modern smartphones in the market. Still rocking a flip phone? Odds are you have a server or sous chef who would be happy to lend you a hand — and their technology — if asked nicely.
Clean your plate.
Literally. There’s nothing more unappealing to a potential customer than drips, drops, and residue hanging off the side of a bowl or plate. After you plate your dish, wipe all the edges with a clean, damp cloth, leaving no streaks or smears behind. Replate if necessary, taking care to slowly pour or position food into place. Be deliberate, but gentle. Do all of this at the site of your photograph if carrying an already plated item (like soup) without sloshing or sliding is too difficult.
When you set up your photographic scene, isolate the plate of food and try not to have too many extraneous items in view. Remove water glasses, silverware, napkins — everything except the food and the plate it’s served on. You don’t want anything to distract from the main course! But if you are going to leave utensils or glassware in the shot, make sure they’re clean and unscratched, and not reflecting the camera in the final photograph.
Light it up.
Whenever you photograph a plate of food, indirect, natural light is best. Light from the sun is going to give you the most even tone and best clarity of color. Keeping it indirect (or diffused with translucent shades) will also prevent harsh shadows from running across your image. It’s alright to have some dramatic shadowing — and can even produce a strong visual effect — but you’ll want to avoid having sharp lines diverting attention from the main focus of your image.
No matter what, however, never use the flash on your camera. It will flatten your subject, blow out key details, and produce a very unflattering effect on the food itself. You also want to avoid photographing under tungsten or fluorescent light bulbs as much as possible. The light from these bulbs will produce a yellow or green cast over your food that is impossible to fix, even with the best Photoshop skills. If you absolutely can’t shoot with natural light, swap out your bulbs with daylight-balanced (blue-toned) ones, available at any hardware store. The difference will be extraordinary.
Make sure you focus.
I know this seems self-explanatory, but bear with me. It’s important that the focus on your photos is sharp. People want to see the details of the food you prepare. Unlike the customer experience in your restaurant, which is formed through sight, taste, smell, touch, and maybe even sound, the photograph you’re taking only has one thing to offer: a visual experience. Just by looking at this photograph of your food, the customer needs to be able to imagine the amazing smell and mouthwatering taste.
And that only happens if the photo is crisp and in focus. Keep your grip steady (use an inexpensive tripod and timer if you have jittery hands) and tap the center of the food on your smartphone screen to align the focus if it’s not doing so automatically. If you can’t get the focus to appear on screen, you may need to move back a touch. You can always crop (in camera, even) later on.
Say no to filters.
Instagram filters are tempting. They make everything more fun. More funky. But they rarely give food the natural, appetizing look that you really want. What’s great for nostalgia-inducing selfies will leave your restaurant feeling old, washed-out, and fake.
If you aren’t getting the quality photograph you really want, filters are not the way to go. Instead, try a different location. Get an employee or friend to help you out (a different perspective can sometimes go a long way). Or move on to another dish. It could be that the plate of food you feel is so enticing just needs more than a flat photograph to exude all its charm. There’s nothing that says every item on your menu needs to be in pictures. Pick your battles and put your best foot forward. Showcasing five incredible photographs is better than 15 so-so ones in every case.
Great photographs are only one part of making your restaurant launch or relaunch a success. Check out our essential list of things you need to do (and when to do them) to open a restaurant: