It’s one of the tenets of menu design that if you own a restaurant that aspires to be something classier than a TGI Friday’s or Applebees, you shouldn’t include photos of your food on the menu. It’s tacky, they say. Personally, I don’t think there should be a strict rule about this. It’s not that the photographs are tacky; it’s the food itself that’s the problem. There’s nothing classy about chicken tender close-ups under studio lighting.
So right there, if you own a restaurant that aspires to be classier than a family food trough mega-chain, you’re already ahead of the game. Chances are you’ve got food worth photographing. Maybe you want pictures for the menu, or maybe just for your website. The next thing, then, is more easily said than done: don’t take tacky photographs. Photographing food is an artform unto itself and not just an exercise in attaining proper exposure and focus. The photograph should exude a complementary style to the food itself, and the way it’s composed and lit should never overshadow (figuratively or literally) the food itself.
Melanie Gregg, an artist of many hats, is a pro with 20 years experience—the go-to photographer for many chefs and food journals in Southern California and beyond. She’s got some advice for those of you looking for tasteful and artistic photographs of your restaurant’s fare: hire her. Failing that, she offered up a little free advice for those do-it-yourselfers out there who want to bring out the best their cuisine has to offer visually.
Always “make the food the star, versus competing with the atmosphere,” Gregg recommends. To accomplish this, she generally favors an aerial view of the food—shooting from above and straight down. Shooting at food level brings distracting elements from the surroundings into the picture, even if they’re blurred backgrounds meant to highlight what’s on the plate.
Gregg recalls her work with Chef Brendy Monsada of Left Bank Brasserie in Menlo Park, CA as an example of why she favours this approach. “He brought this beautiful Asian flair to a classic French restaurant and produced edible works of art,” she said. Shooting from above mimics the view of the person who’s just been served, the view Monsada plates for to begin with. Even if you’re not at Chef de Cuisine level with your food, this is still how your customers are going to see it when they dine with you. If you can’t make it look good this way, the problem might not be the photograph.
Of course, sometimes making the food the star means getting in really close. Pit barbecue is the perfect example of this. Slow cooked meat might be one of those foods that looks less appetising the further you pull away from it. Also, if you’re serving authentic barbecue, a top-down view of the plate is going to include baked beans and coleslaw, maybe some corn bread—that’s a plate that just can’t help but look tacky no matter how good the food is. For chefs like Monsada, the art is in the full presentation. For skilled smokers, though, the art is in the meat itself.
To get this shot of pulled pork, Gregg zoomed way in. “Pull back and you just see a slab of torn meat,” she said. “Get close and you can see the details that the smoker produced, giving glory to the chef.” Those gradations of colour, from the meat to the perfectly red spice crust and crispy bits of bark, are the hallmarks of a skilled smoker. That is not easy to attain, which I can tell you from experience. I used to smoke cold turkey in the backyard, but could never get it right. So I quit smoking cold turkey. Not everyone shares this experience with me, though, so recognising where the chef deserves credit and highlighting it is key to successful food photography.
Sometimes photos of the finished product aren’t always required. Many restaurants are now just as much about the story behind their ingredients as they are of the meal itself.
Farm-to-Table places, or those that features ingredients grown right on the premises, have become popular as the local food movement continues to grow. If you’re going to talk the talk about what goes into your food, you might as feature it on the menu or your website. In fact, this could be seen as the “classy” alternative to pictures of the food on the menu. Raw vegetables, whole spices—if they’re part of the story, they wouldn’t look out of place scattered around the menu, and could even contribute to the tension of that story: This is what it looked like before. Wait till you see what we serve you. This kind of tension is important. You want to leave your audience wanting more than just the visual. Remember that you can’t actually recreate the experience of eating one of your dishes with a picture; the photo should be a tease of the real thing, not an attempt to replace it.
Bad food photography is to good food photography in the same way that a trashy romance novel is to Romeo and Juliet. In each case, the former is an artless rendition, a one-dimensional copy of a sensory experience. The latter doesn’t try to replicate, so much as evoke responses within the viewer. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, someone watching might feel the highs and lows of those star-crossed lovers as they navigate the final days of their lives. And in the case of your food, someone looking at pictures of it ought to feel tempted to shovel heaps of whatever you’re serving down his hungry gullet.