Thursday, April 29, 2010

How NOT to be Mistaken for the Food Paparazzi

It’s no secret that I love taking pictures of food. But I cringe whenever people lump me in with the food paparazzi — a growing movement of so-called serious foodies documenting everything they eat in pictures, as portrayed in a recent Los Angeles Times feature.

Sure, for fun I have a “food paparazzi” feature on my blog, but that’s when I pretend to be a paparazzo after I spot a celebrity chef or famous food person in public. But the people featured in the Times article, and a similar one in the New York Times, are those who are almost obsessed with photographing their food, taking minutes to set up a shot, leaving a reservation if they don’t have the right lens, or blasting the dreaded flash in the middle of the dining room.

What I found interesting were some of the comments from chefs, a couple who were offended by people taking more time to photograph their food than eating it. Chef/Owner Grant Achatz of the famous Alinea restaurant in Chicago has vented — in the article and elsewhere — about how people photographing the food has affected the restaurant’s operations, causing an already long tasting dinner to stretch out longer because the food paparazzi has thrown off the service’s pacing.

Chef Ludo Lefebvre of Los Angeles (who also appeared on “Top Chef Masters”) originally welcomed food bloggers, even inviting them to a special tasting and setting up a portable light box for them to take their photos with the right light, but then turned on them when they took so much time taking pictures and letting their food turn cold.

I know some chefs are artists and feel their food needs to be served at the right time and temperature, but I’m of the camp that believes “I paid for that food and if I end up eating it cold, that’s my own fault.” Some chefs have now recognized that food bloggers and our ilk are a necessity of life because every time we post a photo of their food, we give them free publicity and buzz.

However, I don’t believe it’s fair for the chef, the restaurant, and other patrons when food photographers slow down the pacing of the service because they spend so much time setting up their shots.

The emergence of the food paparazzi is a mixed bag for me. On the plus side, the more people taking pictures during dinner the less I stand out when I’m doing it too. On the flip side, there’s a possibility of a backlash and I don’t like how some people stare at me wondering if I’m going to set off a flash. (And I really hate it when a server or diner next to me sees my camera and say “is that for Yelp?” Ugh, puh-leaze. I do not Yelp.)

While the media is putting the spotlight on food photographers, they’re also guilty of encouraging it. The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, has joined up with Foodspotting to see who can photograph the Top 100 list and win a dinner with its restaurant critic Michael Bauer. And 7x7 Magazine has also teamed up with Foodspotting (slut) for the magazine’s “The Big Eat” list.

In today’s world, there’s no avoiding the food paparazzi. But I do believe there should be some etiquette when it comes to photographing food. So I’ve come up with this list of rules on how to photograph your food at a restaurant that hopefully will make you less the food paparazzi and more the welcomed fooderati:

Rule No. 1: No flash. This is what gives food bloggers a bad name. The blinding white light not only turns into a washed out photo, it’s inconsiderate to those around you. The only time I’ve used a flash is when I’m traveling and I’m sitting far away from guests such as when I took this picture at a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I was sitting in the garden at night and was two tables away from the nearest diner. If you’re worried about lighting, try changing the ISO setting on your camera, which affects the camera’s film speed. For dark lighting, you want a film speed around 800. (The result might be grainier images but that’s fine if you’re only using it for the Web.)

Rule No. 2: Turn off your shutter sound. You can fly under the radar if you don’t make that snapping sound. When I carry my digital SLR camera, I unfortunately can’t turn off the sound. But when I use my smaller point-and-shoot camera, I put it on mute mode so that it won’t make a snapping sound.

Rule No. 3: Two’s the limit. When I take pictures of my friends’ dish, they always ask me if that was it because I typically take just one shot — at the most two — because I don’t want them waiting any longer to dig into their food. My rule is if you can’t get the shot in two takes, then don’t bother.

Rule No. 4: Leave the tripod at home. I can’t believe anyone would even bother carrying around a tripod to dinner along with the camera. But some people have gotten so serious about this that I’ve heard that’s what some people do. Don’t. There are other ways to steady your camera, such as placing it on top of a vase or salt shaker, but don’t bust out a tripod at the table no matter how small. It just says “geek” in so many languages.

Rule No. 5: Don’t stop the server. At some restaurants, the server will prepare some food at the tableside or do things like pour a soup or drizzle some sauce at the table. I always think that’s a nice touch, but when it happens, do not stop them so you can turn on your camera and take a photo. If you want to take this “action” shot, then have your camera turned on and ready. (This means planning ahead and thinking about your shots after you’ve ordered.) Telling them to stop just throws off their rhythm and pacing of the courses, as well as make them more self-conscious.

Rule No. 6: Ask first. When I’m dining with friends, especially for the first time, I ask them if it’s all right if I photograph their food instead of just pulling out the camera and snapping away. It’s just a way to respect their personal space and put them at ease when I do bust out my camera. But after they’ve dined with me a couple of times, then they just expect me to take a picture.


Chris C said...

Huh, it's funny that I use these same rules when I'm doing event photography.

Nice looking food by the way, as always.

Chris C said...

Oh, another thing is white balance - most restaurants use all kinds of colors from their lights and if you're not careful you can get a blue tinted meal.

Ravenous Couple said...

great comments and we agree with you whole heartedly...personally the LA times article was a bit negative and didn't really represent things fairly...the event was a blogging event for bloggers and sponsored by, a restaurant review site--this wasn't mentioned in the article. So of course photography was encouraged and expected. As far as I could tell pretty much everyone ate their foods promptly--I sure did. Most photos were taken from a separate dish in the lightbox.

Single Guy Ben said...

RC, I saw that you were quoted in the LA Times article! I did feel the article slanted toward the negative, that's why I worry about backlash against all photographers. I think the event you went to for bloggers is one I consider "all bet's are off" which I mean you can do whatever you want because the event is specifically to feature the food for photos. Those events are the most freeing! :)

张玉燕 said...

It is kind of frustrated when the restaurant is dark inside and you can't use the flash.

Carolyn Jung said...

Amen to all of that. I've heard people suggest using a tripod. But I just can't imagine ever doing that. It's way more obtrusive than I would ever want to be.

I also can understand the chef's point of view about the food getting cold or wilting or whatever. It's like when I cook at home and serve friends and family. If they're slow to move into the dining room when the food is ready, I tell them to hop to it! Hah. After all, I want them to enjoy the food at its best. If you care about what you make, you can't help but feel that way.

Kim said...

What's wrong with Yelp? I love it - it's turned me on to as many different restaurants as your blog has!

Single Guy Ben said...

Kim, I just think Yelp comments are so polarizing. I'm not saying I don't read yelp to check out what people are saying, but some of the comments are so extreme. Plus, Yelp is sometimes accused of odd things like stories of people Yelping in exchange for comp dishes at restaurants, and I don't want people to think I'm doing a review to get some free food in exchange for a good review on Yelp.

foodhoe said...

hehe, there you go, outing me for what I am... I am oh so very guilty. But that's not going to change anything is it? The LAT piece cracks me up, the paparazzi making fun of the paparazzi?

Single Guy Ben said...

LOL, oh Foodhoe, I just used that photo of you taking a picture because it's the only one I have of someone shooting food! It in no way was implying that you're guilty of being a food paparazzi! ;-) But if you want to embrace that label, then more power to you! (Just kidding!)

Foodnut said...

Great rules to follow. The one regarding delayed eating doesn't apply here. I've been know to take a bite and forget about shooting because the food looks so delicious. You should post these rules on Yelp..!

Flash photography is one of my pet peeves... Newer point and shoot cameras like the Canon S90 have a f2 lens for stellar low light performance.

Another trick is to carry a tiny single led flashlight and train your fellow diner to quickly shine it in a strategic place. An iPhone's with a light app will also work. Just be quick.