Snapping Photos at Restaurants: Should You?

by diannejacob on September 14, 2009

It’s the last night of my husband Owen’s and my vacation in New York, and despite 10 days of eating meals at restaurants, he took shots of our food only once. I asked him to do so when I didn’t think anyone would notice, sitting at an outdoor table at  Xie Xie (pronounced shay shay, Mandarin for thank you), a casual pan-Asian sandwich shop. I wanted to experience what food bloggers go through when they’re going to blog about a dish. When we were done, however, Chef Angelo Sosa came over to say good-bye and thanks. Later Owen said the chef had been watching us. Would he have done so if we did not take the photos? I guess I’ll never know.

Let me interrupt for a moment to tell you about his sandwiches. Sosa has worked a the restaurants of Alain Ducasse and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and I couldn’t wait to taste his cooking at a fraction of the price. The two pan-Asian sandwiches I sampled were loaded with layers of flavor and texture, and to top it off, cost under $9 each.

fishThe Hanoi-inspired Cha Ca La Vong, a tumeric-laced seared fish sandwich loaded with sweet juicy onions, a layer of fresh dill, had a sriracha mayonnaise that kept the sandwich moist.

porkThe caramelized Sweet Glazed Pork in Chinese buns, so tender it hardly required chewing, was laced with a sweet and sour sauce, onion and sprigs of cilantro.

We ate well and inexpensively in New York, including dinner with David Leite and his partner at La Caridad 78, a Latin American/Chinese restaurant frequented by cops (where Michael Richards, formerly “Kramer” on Sinefeld, walked by), then set out for the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, where I gave a talk to Irena Chalmers’ food writing class about blogging.

Last night, we blew the budget at Blue Hill restaurant at Stone Barn in the Hudson Valley. I’ve been an admirer of Chef Dan Barber’s writing and farm-to-table philosophy for years, so it was a big deal to eat at his modern, barnlike restaurant at last. I was surprised by the low lighting, hushed conversation, and superb service, but I suppose all that goes with a restaurant of this quality and price range. I wondered what would have happened if Owen pulled out his camera and took flash photos of our three hour long “Farmer’s Feast 5-course tasting menu,” actually closer to 12 small courses that ended at midnight.

Today I called Blue Hill vice president Irene Hamburger to ask about it. She said no flash photography is permitted in the restaurant. For the first 1 to 1.5 years, the restaurant had no restrictions, and diners complained when the people at the next table broke the ambiance, taking flash shot after shot as each dish arrived. The restaurant management decided the “dining experience of a neighbor is as important as the blogger’s experience,” and banned flash photography after talking to peers at other fine restaurants, who have done the same. Now, if bloggers want photos of representative dishes, Hamburger shoots off an email with attached images.

I can’t say I blame her. I once ate lunch with a magazine editor who photographed every dish that came to our table as part of her cover story on the best Chinese restaurants in America. She was choosing the finalists. The manager came over and, after learning of her intent, comped the meal. Gee, do you think that might have influenced her opinion? Good restaurant reviewers try to be inconspicuous so they can represent an average diner’s experience. That was impossible in her case.

If you’re a food blogger, I’m curious to know how you handle photographing dishes at restaurants. Have you ever been asked to put away your camera? Should you take as many photos as you like, using flash? Have you received special attention and free meals as a result? Do you wonder whether your actions affect nearby diners? I’m still learning how this new world works, and your experiences and opinions are valuable.


Joseph September 14, 2009 at 9:56 pm

In the past I’ve always had the rule of never taking photographs in restaurants while working on a review, but more recently I’ve broken away from my own rule and taken up the “I’ll take photos until they tell me to stop” rule. But still I try to go unnoticed. I like to review restaurants at lunch time or early dinner and ask to be seated near a window with good light. This not only gives me great naturally lit photos, but also makes it less annoying for other diners since I am not using flash. Usually other diners will comment on my camera, but surprisingly I’ve not been asked why I’m taking pictures or to stop taking pictures. So far this method seems to work and I’ve not gotten any extra attention or complimentary meals. Even with a bulky camera in hand, I try to be as nondescript as possible. I have yet to try taking flash photos in a dim dinner setting. I’ll have to try eventually to see what happens.

Nurit - 1 family. friendly. food. September 14, 2009 at 10:12 pm

This is why I don’t post much about food in restaurants. I don’t like the way it feels. Like I am a spy in a way. I never use flash. I bought a better camera with a good enough lens so I won’t need to use the flash. Otherwise, it will draw a lot of attention and ruin other diners experience which I would not want to do. I sure would not want to sit at or next to a table where each and every dish is being shot with (or without) a flash. It doesn’t sound like much fun at all.

Stephanie September 14, 2009 at 10:31 pm

I think that using a flash produces a terrible image. When I photograph dishes, I bring a small tripod so that I can use natural light and long shutter speeds. No flash means that I’m not terribly obvious about what I’m doing.

Kristina September 14, 2009 at 10:44 pm

It’s funny, but I usually only take photos of food in restaurants when I travel, and more often than not, that’s out of the country. But besides my food blog, I have a travelogue site, and writing about where and what we ate is a big part of that.

At home, I’m certainly more uncomfortable about it.

If I do it (anywhere), I never use flash, but I have a DSLR with a lens that works well in low light. I keep the camera in my lap, snap a photo and then we eat.

I’ve taken photos of everything from street food and markets to 3-star Michelin restaurants. In fact, at Paul Bocuse in Lyon, the great man himself came out of the kitchen to take a photo with me and my husband, signed a menu for me to keep, and even brought me back into the kitchen for a photo when he learned I used to be a chef. Then again, who knows what his response would have been if my father in law had told him I was a blogger. 🙂

kevinEats September 14, 2009 at 11:53 pm

Please, no flash. It gives all us food bloggers a bad rep.

I’ve been stopped from taking photos at one place: Mori Sushi in LA. I’ve never been back. No flash was involved.

I’ve certainly gotten special attention for my photography, though no comped meals because of it specifically. I have, however, gotten comped for being a blogger.

Kang September 15, 2009 at 12:19 am

First of all, I do not use any flash in my photography, and unlike some articles I’ve read elsewhere, I do not go to extremes to stand on chairs to get ‘the shot’ either. Everything is done while sitting down, and from the same perspective as any other diner. My objective is to be able to take good quality photographs, yet remain as unobstrusive as humanly possible.

Before we break into this ‘you know he’s a foodblogger when he does this’ , can I just emphasize that people take pictures in restaurants of fellow diners (I could be out celebrating my dad’s 54th birthday for example) and of course of the meal, all the time.

Now, let’s talk about my experience with photography in restaurants; in short it is difficult. As much of what I blog about are related to my experience in restaurants, I try not to arouse any suspicionwhen photographing. Which is why first of all, my photography does not involve flash. In fact, I don’t even own one.

Secondly, I have a dedicated camera bag which I keep on the floor just under the chair, and that’s where the camera stays most of the time. When a dish arrives, I take out the camera, snap and back in it goes. This process takes a few seconds to do , for each dish. and then, I am off eating, and that’s that.

How do I do it so quickly? Well, I have spend thousands of pounds invested into learning about photography and acquired good cameras which help me achieve that goal. I am an aspiring documentary photographer, so I admire the stealth techniques of such photography legends like Garry Winogrand, Henri Cartier Bresson and Joel Meyerowitz. They carry compact Leicas and practice good technique that allows them to shoot very quickly and to ‘dissapear’ when doing so. This is the school of thought I subscribe to with my photography.

Good technique, a ‘fast’ lens, high iso and a high shutter speed allows me to shoot hand-held and still get tack sharp pictures, including in the dark. I have a camera that is also designed for low-light photography (if you are wondering Nikon D700) , which means that even in the relative low light of a dark restaurant, I am able to take clear shots, and bear in mind this is all done without a flash, and take them quickly. How quickly, my lowest shutter speed is 1/125th of a second. That’s how quickly I can make a picture.

I’ve been doing this for over a year and in that time I have learnt that speed is absolutely essential to ensure that the other diners are not affected, and also that my own meal is not affected, because, afterall, I am there to enjoy too.

Finally, I have paid for the meal, I take pictures of the meal I paid for, and am respectful to other diners and to the staff, ie, if they catch me using a camera and they tell me to put it away, I put it away. I do not complain because I want to show people (and the internet by extension) that I am a respectful person. Food bloggers get a lot of stick for their etiquette around the table, and I want to play that part that changes that point of view. I may not have taken the same path as many food writers have done and I do not claim to be a professional food writer, but I want to show people that I can be professional and be graceful when it comes to the controversial mechanics involved with creating blog posts.

Yes, I have even been told to delete my pictures on the spot before. And I have gracefully done so as well, and I do this because I go to great lengths to reassure diners and restaurant staff that I respect what they do, and if they want me to delete a picture, I will gladly do it. But that also means that I probably won’t write about it.

Well, there you go. That’s my thoughts about restaurant photography, at the end of the day, I love eating it, and the last thing I want to do is show it in bad light – part of what I do is to make sure restaurant food looks great, because that’s how I see it.

I hope this helps shed some light about what foodbloggers do, and that we do respect neighbouring diners and restaurant staff.

e_ting September 15, 2009 at 12:34 am

I seldom use flash in food photography, or any photography for that matter, as it often destroys the photo with a blinding, unnatural white light. This is particularly relevant to food photography, when macro is so often used and the flash is so close to the object. In low light situations, I just adjust my shutter/aperture etc. settings accordingly and make sure my hands are still (sometimes leaning on something for support). In the 7-8 years that I’ve been doing this for my blog, I’ve never received any more than bizarre or curious looks from waitstaff or fellow diners – never a comp meal or ‘extras’, nor a request to put away my camera.

I find flash photography in restaurants quite annoying, be it for food or otherwise, so I never use it and don’t particularly like others using it. I’d never use ‘representative’ PR/marketing photos from the restaurant either – kind of defeats the purpose of blogging your own experience, in my opinion.

On another note, I don’t ever let food go cold/melt because I’m trying to capture the ‘perfect’ picture for it – after all, blogging isn’t just about the photo, I need to taste it at the state the chef expects/wants me to (at a suitable temperature etc.) in order to give fair comment.

Daily Spud September 15, 2009 at 2:43 am

I relatively rarely take photos of the food I eat in restaurants and, if I do, I do not use flash. Depending on the lighting situation, it can be very hard to take a good photo in a restaurant situation and, whatever about other diners, I often find that I’m the one who is not entirely comfortable with pulling out my rather chunky SLR camera before I eat. It’s bad enough that I often let my dinner go cold at home while I photograph it, it seems a shame to let the same thing happen in a restaurant. If I do take photos in a restaurant, I’m certainly not looking for any special attention if I do, nor, to date, have I received any in that situation.

Celeste September 15, 2009 at 4:23 am

No flash photos! Non-flash photos are okay in less-formal settings, provided that you’re unobtrusive. Obviously, if you’re attempting to write a legitimate restaurant review, you need to leave the camera at home. As you learned, once you snap a photo (flash or not), you will attract undue attention. “Real” reviewers aren’t snapping pics.

Nani September 15, 2009 at 7:54 am

I have yet to see a food blog with decent photos taken in restaurants or “this is what I just ate” approach-(sorry Owen, they just wouldn’t cut it here, in my book); most blogs we see these days are people shooting at home the food they’ve cooked or recreated, and some of them have experience with using a good camera.

If you can be inconspicuous with shooting, I supposed it shouldn’t bother anyone, but if it does-put it away. More than 10 years ago, when I was building a cafe I used to document the meals and things I like in restaurants, but this was long before it was a rage. I might find it annoying today. Kind of like cell phones; there’s a time in place for them, and most often they don’t belong in restaurants.

Michele September 15, 2009 at 8:10 am

I do take photos and I have never been asked to put my camera away. I try not to draw attention to myself. I don’t spend a lot of time on the shot because I don’t want to be a distraction and let’s face it … I really just want to enjoy my meal like everyone else. I never really noticed anyone noticing me. However, there was one occasion when I visited a tapas restaurant and our server asked if I was a spy. When I explained that I was writing a review he shrugged and said “ok”. My after dinner drink was comped, but I doubt that had anything to do with the review.

I prefer to include photos with my reviews even if it means that I’m not a “real” reviewer. In my opinion it adds something to the piece.

Danielle September 15, 2009 at 8:53 am

We dined at Manresa a few weeks ago and I brought my DSLR along with a macro lens designed for low-light conditions. Pictures were still a challenge because the restaurant was dimly lit, but I still refrained from using flash. In fact, I never use it at all because I find it destroys the picture, and yes, it would annoy other diners in a restaurant. I limited myself to 3 quick shots of each dish to be unobtrusive as possible. I was initially hesitant to bring the camera along considering Manresa’s intimate ambience, but it helped that the couple at the next table were also photographing their food (without flash). It was my first time photographing dishes in a restaurant so I plan to do it a couple more times before deciding whether to continue with it.

Nikchick September 16, 2009 at 11:54 am

I’ve taken thousands of food photos for my personal blog over the years. I try to be quick and unobtrusive about it. My friends and co-workers not only know that I do this but have come to expect me to do it; they comment on it when I *don’t* photograph and frequently offer their plates even when I don’t ask. I’ve never been asked by a restaurant not to photograph but I also don’t engage in any crazy antics to stage photos or use flash… I’m always disappointed when the lighting in a restaurant is too dim to take decent photos but I never resort to flash. I took non-flash photos of every course during my trips to The Herbfarm (similar to your Blue Farm experience) and bothered no one while doing it.

SinoSoul September 16, 2009 at 3:38 pm

Sat thru Blue Hill Stone Bar’s 8 course tasting on the 11th. While gifted with rain-softened NY light at 5pm, by the time the ACTUAL first course came, my table was devoid of sun light. Nonetheless, I used the SLR w/ unabashed enthusiasm. The staff served around my camera and voiced nary a complaint. 13 “amuse”, 6 savories, 3 desserts + petit fours. I only missed picture of the petit fours. No flash ma! Face Bacon

Kim September 18, 2009 at 5:06 pm

I’m so thankful for this post and all the thoughtful responses. I have been trying to decide how much photography is okay at restaurants as I’ve been learning and practicing a lot recently.

I’ve always taken photos of beautiful plates well before I had a food blog, so I never associated it with an annoying food blogger habit until recently when I got my SLR camera. I no longer felt inconspicuous!

I agree that using a flash is bad form and maybe I should make a self-enforced 2 or 3 shot per dish rule. I’ve never been told to put away the camera, but then most of the pics I take are of my very photogenic son and when they’ve “caught” me before photographing the food, I just say something about how beautiful the food was presented and the waiters always smile and complement the chefs.

I dare say that comping my meal would be a great way to get me not to do a review. I hope I can fly under the radar enough for this not to happen.

My Carolina Kitchen September 22, 2009 at 6:26 am

Thank you for addressing this subject. I don’t yet feel comfortable photographing food in a restaurant. I’ve done it only once and asked first if they minded. They said “yes, of course” so I took a couple of pictures. I would love to know more about how to do it and I’ve enjoyed reading the comments here.

Parisbreakfasts September 27, 2009 at 3:09 am

For 7 years on and off I shot the chefs, the plates, the prep, the guests at the James Beard House, so I’m not too intimidated to shoot in a restaurant. But I would NEVER EVER use flash. Aside from being intrusive and rude, it blows out the dish in an unpleasent way – no natural shadows. It does happen that occasionally I’m enjoy the food too much and completely forget to take a shot before diving in….ahem.
Certainly asking first is a good idea.

Selba October 3, 2009 at 7:20 pm

Just last week, when I had a lunch at a Japanese restaurant, the manager didn’t allow me to take pictures. I guess the restaurant is afraid that I might from a competitor restaurant.

It’s been always a challenge when taking pictures in a restaurant or food on the street. It might attract other people curiosity to see someone is busy taking food pictures. Some food vendors are happy being captured and some other are showing hesitant and unwilling to cooperate. As for my friends when I dine with them, mostly, they feel annoy because I’m busy with taking pictures of the food instead of directly eating and enjoying my food,

Well, frankly speaking, sometimes I do feel shy or uncomfortable when I take pictures in restaurants although I’ve never used flash when I take food pictures. Sometimes, I might ask a permission first or explain to the waiter that the purpose of taking pictures is for my food blog, but then sometimes I don’t ask permission if I think the restaurant probably is already familiar with people taking pictures of their food in their restaurant.

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