Foodie Photography 101

As is fairly obvious from my umpteen food reviews, I take a lot of pictures of food. For such a static target, for a number of reasons, the plate isn’t so easy to photograph. Mostly this comes down to light and distance. Restaurants are often dark and food is fairly small and right in front of you. This distance factor throws it into the realm of macro photography (subjects at very near distances).

I use three different cameras. I’ll go over them all here, in ascending order of size, weight, and quality. As a general rule of thumb the bigger and more expensive a camera is, the better the pictures. It’s also worth noting that all food photos below were processed in Adobe Lightroom and are not “as shot”. I’ll discuss this at the bottom of the post.

The cellphone camera is ubiquitous these days, but for me only an option of last resort.

This sushi pic is about as decent as a good (iphone 4) camera will take, and even with post-processing, that isn’t very good.

And in a dark restaurant, you’re stuck with these hideous flash shots. The flash on these tiny camera has a range of about a foot and an ugly falloff. If you have to use the cellphone, try and hold it very steady, and home it’s lunch time and the window is behind you (keep the light behind the lens).

Next up, and pretty acceptable, is a snapshot camera that is good at macro photography. I use a Canon S90. This is older and has been replaced by the S95 and S100. Any of the three are good, the newer ones are better. They are among the only small cameras to shoot in RAW mode and to focus well at short distances. The S90 is small enough to pocket and I use it for casual meals.

A typical flash shot from the S90. It’s not bad. The camera has a small aperture and hence a very large depth of field which makes for easy focusing (but a flat look). It’s very useful to zoom the camera in and pull physically back so the flash doesn’t get too close to the food and easily blow out the image (overexpose).

My third camera is my “real” camera, the amazing Canon EOS 5D Mark II. But any Canon or Nikon DLSR should do fairly well. While the DSLR is much larger and heavier, it takes a MUCH better picture. Not only is the resolution higher but it handles low light far better. Still, shooting food with a SLR isn’t easy.

This is a typical bad result. A normal lens can’t focus on something less than two feet away and so you have to step way back. Without a flash (and a normal flash doesn’t work well on food) you can easily end up with a soft image like above.

The solution to this distance problem is a macro lens. I usually use the Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro. This is a very sharp prime lens (on a full frame camera 50mm is good for food, it might be even better on the more common crop sensor cameras, but you might have to pull back a bit). This lens is even cheap for a macro at $284, as many of Canon’s macro lens are two or four times that. It’s only problem is the non-USM focusing that’s slow as a dog. Food, fortunately doesn’t move.

But in a very dark restaurant (and despite the appearance of this color and exposure corrected photo, Pizzeria Mozza is very dark) one ends up at f2.5 and a high ISO. Combine that with the very short distance to the plate and you get an incredibly small depth of field. Hence, crust in focus, pizza blurry.

This and the light problem are nicely solved by the bulky Canon MR-14EX Macro Ring. Ideally, you’d want a light box (a big soft glowing box) but this is not practical in restaurants :-), but the white LED light from the flash ring is less directed than a regular flash (which will also do in a pinch).

It makes for a honking big rig, but with the macro lens and the TTL flash exposure adjustment it takes great close up pictures in a pitch black room (the flash can be used as a focus light too).

Hence this lovely photo, with just enough depth of field to give the dish some character and depth. Still, you have to watch the distance and f-stop, even with the flash, but you don’t have to pump the ISO up as high as without it.

Which finally brings me to Lightroom. Significant discussion of post processing is outside the scope of this post. Photoshop and many other products can allow you to clean up your images, but none do it as easily and quickly as Lightroom. Going through a 60 photo meal can be tedious, but with Lightroom you can do a decent job in five minutes, then quickly batch upload via a vast array of plugins.

To give you an idea how important this is. Check out this image right out of the camera, taken using the 5D and the macro lens, but no flash.

With light three clicks I fix the white balance, the exposure, and correct for lens aberrations. I see so many food bloggers uploading dim orange photos. There’s just no need.

Hopefully this quick little tutorial helps you get the most out of your food photos. Even if you don’t have a big fancy camera, the trick of pulling back and zooming in with a snapshot flash helps both exposure and dealing with the “too close to focus” problem.

Find all of my food reviews here.

Food as Art: Bistro LQ

Restaurant: Bistro LQ [1, 2]

Location: 8009 Beverly Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90048. (323) 951-1088

Date: October 12, 2010

Cuisine: Modern French

Rating: Food was very good. Service lagged a bit behind.


This restaurant is a year and a half old, and the chef, Laurent Queniox, is French, having worked at Maxim’s in Paris, and then at the Hôtel Négresco in Nice (My wife and I ate there on our Honeymoon, but it was probably long after his time). He bounced around through various LA joints, including his own Bistro K in Pasadena, before opening this one. The food itself is very much like what modern one and two star Michelin places in France are doing, with a 25% dash of California thrown in.

We went with our usual Foodie friends, and hence only considered the 7 course ($70) versus the 10 course ($90) tasting menus. We settled on the 7 course after the waiter told us the 10 course was A LOT of food. They have a 7 course vegetarian menu too which very much excited the vegetarian member of our party.

The first Amuse, “Sea urchin tapioca pudding with yuzo kocho,” tasted like it sounded. The food was exciting out of the gate, but we did have minor service issues. For example, even though we’d gone over the whole “vegetarian” bit at length with the waiter, out came an Sea urchin Amuse for said party. Bus service brought them, and a request for a vegetarian varient took… awhile.

More goodies from my cellar. If you’ve been reading my posts you will notice I don’t screw around in the Burgundy department. Parker gives this Jadot 1997 Grand Cru Chambertin Clos de Beze 94-96 points, saying “harvested at an unheard of (for Burgundy) 14.2 natural potential alcohol. This black/purple-colored benchmark-setter displays saliva-inducing cookie dough and cherry syrup aromas. Immensely ripe and concentrated, yet pure, fresh, and noble, it conquers the taster with unending layers of jammy compote-like fruit flavors. Awesomely dense, deep, fresh, and refined, this stunner has the potential to ultimately merit a score in the high 90s. It seamlessly combines the New World’s over-ripeness and fruit-forward characteristics with Burgundy’s trademark balance, elegance, and structure. The lucky few that will secure a few bottles of this nectar should note that it should be at its peak of maturity between 2003-2015. Bravo!”

But, again the service had some issues. He triggered one of my pet peaves and took awhile to get the bottle opened. I nearly pulled out the Screwpull I keep in my case and took care of it myself (I have no problem beating waiters to the job). He got the bottle open, but I did have to pour for the table the whole night. I don’t really mind, but with food of this calibre a glass should never go empty, it certainly wouldn’t in France.

“Venison Tartar, Green Chartreuse Gelee, Pomme Frite.” The frites were a tiny bit soggy. But the tartar! Yum!

It deserves a closeup. The little quail egg is dumped on top and eaten with the raw venison. Slimy in a good way, rich, and delicious.

“Haddock, from Scotland, marinated in olive oil, Blinis Pancake, Ricotta Lemon Mousse and American Sevruga Caviar.” Nothing wrong with this dish either — although it wasn’t the tartar.

This was a vegetarian vegetable soup. It tasted of fresh veggie, as it should have.

Salted Cod, Lentils, Octopus, Smoked Duck Wing, Morcella, Piquillo Pepper.” This was a very tasty combination of… a lot of flavors. The richness surrounding the cod made one able to half think it was lobster.

“Salmon, Cippolini Onions, Braised Carrots, Smoked Salt, Wild Mushrooms.”

“Red beet, and burrata sorbet.” A slightly criminal use of Burrata (which I buy by the tub from Bay Cities Deli and make into my own treats — I’ll post sometime), but excellent nonetheless.

“Artichokes, Goast Cheese Curd, Confit Tomatoes.”

This was a kind of fried sweetbreads (veal or beef I think) in a corn soup/ polenta like meal. It tasted VERY good. Sweetbreads, however, are one of the few dishes that give me a minor case of the willies, so I had to pretend they were something else. I also kept imagining my rising uric acid levels.

This was a vegetarian something I didn’t try, but it looked good.

Hanger Steak, Served with Glazed Shallots, Sweet Potato Smear.” This didn’t suck either.

The 2008 Flor de Pingus, which I had written about bringing to Bazaar (this actually was first), deep inky, but silky smooth. Parker gives it 96 saying, “The 2008 Flor de Pingus had been in bottle for 2 weeks when I tasted it. It offers up an enticing nose of smoke, Asian spices, incense, espresso, black cherry, and blackberry. On the palate it displays outstanding volume, intensity, and balance. Rich, dense, and succulent, it has enough structure to evolve for 4-5 years and will offer prime drinking from 2015 to 2028.”

The cheese. They had a good cart, including some really nice stinky ones, and Eppoisses.

And the condiments were REALLY good, with a variety of different “sauces” and toppings. Walnut and hazelnut, Roasted Cumin Seeds, Canneberges Chutney with Cloves and Walnuts, Apple Gellee, Huckleberries Gellee, Bell pepper Mustard, Tomatillo and Figues Compote, Pumpkin Ginger Truffle honey, Homemade Green Ketchup.

The honey, cumin, and nuts were on a separate plate.

“Pot De Creme. Espresso and Chocolate, Butterscotch Bread Pudding, Vietnamese Coffee, Hazelnut Ice Cream.” This was REALLY good too.

The Petite Fours were also top notch.

Look at these. The marshmallow had a lovely citrus flavor. There was a nice pate de fruits, macaroons, and even little cupcakes with cream-cheese icing. It was all great.

Food-wise, this was a meal worthy of 2 Michelin stars, I’ve had better or worse at such establishments in France depending on how the wind blows. But Bistro LQ needs to get their service up to snuff with the food if they want to play in those leagues. Although, to tell the truth, it didn’t really bother me. The waiter was very nice, and he left the wine bottle on the table so I could self pour. Certainly there was no attitude, they just didn’t show the flawless professionalism of the kind of staff that this sort of food usually commands. But then again, it doesn’t have the prices either (a Paris 3 star can sometimes be 220 Euros for one dish). All in all, we were very satisfied, and will be back to tackle the 10 course.