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 This is older and has been replaced by the S95 and S100.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: Melisse

Restaurant: Melisse [1, 2]

Location: 1104 Wilshire Blvd.Santa Monica, CA 90401. (310) 395-0881

Date: March 3, 2010

Cuisine: California French

Rating: Awesome, but heart stopping.


I’ve been going to Melisse for years but I could never convince a whole table to try the chef’s “Carte Blanche” menu. Even my ever-patient wife wasn’t up to it. So I went last March with two other glutton gourmands (my Foodie Club) and we went to town. We even added in some supplements. This meal was 7-8 months ago so I apologize for lapses in my memory, hopefully made up for by pretty pictures.

The first Amuse was grapes done two ways, on the right covered in goat cheese and a nut, and on the left spherized.

I brought wine from my cellar as usual. A meal of this magnitude called for a Grand Cru burgundy. In this case a 1995 Mazis-Chambertin. I’ve long been a burg-hound, and this didn’t disappoint.

Melisse has excellent bread in the modern French style. I’m particularly partial to the bacon bread. This meal was also used by both my friend Erick and I as beta testing for our DSLR based food photography. After having to stand back from the table and annoy other guests with a big flash I went out that week and bought a 50mm compact macro lens and a macro flash ring. Now I’m golden. Food is a tricky subject because while it doesn’t move, the natural habitat is often dark and it’s a small subject that must often be filmed from very close (normal lenses don’t like to focus under two feet).

I can’t say I remember what this amuse was, but the Japanese pottery is pretty. If I had to guess I’d say herring or mackerel of some sort.

I think this was Fennel Flan, Valencia Orange Gelee, Cashew Froth. This is the kind of dish Melisse excels at. Things involving cream.

I can’t remember this either, but it’s a good bet here that when something looks creamy or buttery, it tastes great.

“Egg Caviar, Lemon Creme Fraiche and American Osetra Caviar.” A Melisse classic. This has a wonderful creamy/eggy ness.

“Trio of Melisse Foie Gras. Dated Confiture, Pineapple Gastrique, Tarragon.” Because one fois isn’t enough.

In no time the three of us had plowed through the Mazis-Chambertin and I had to pull out the 1989 Lynch Bages. This was the first great wine I ever bought when I began serious collecting (and drinking) in ’96. It’s remained a nostalgic favorite of mine ever since. Parker gives it 95 points and says, “The style of the two vintages for Lynch Bages parallels the style of the 1989 and 1990 Pichon-Longueville-Baron. In both cases, the 1990 is the more forward, flattering, and delicious to drink wine, in contrast to the more massive, backward, tannic, and potentially superior 1989. The opaque purple-colored 1989 is less evolved and showy. However, it looks to be a phenomenal example of Lynch Bages, perhaps the finest vintage in the last 30 years. Oozing with extract, this backward, muscular, dense wine possesses great purity, huge body, and a bulldozer-like power that charges across the palate. It is an enormous wine with unbridled quantities of power and richness. The 1989 requires 5-8 years of cellaring; it should last for three decades. These are two superb efforts from Lynch Bages.”

This is the “Truffle Egg.” It wasn’t on the menu, but I’ve wanted to try one for some time. We were going to each order one but the waiter wisely convinced us to share. It’s a crazy poached egg like thing in a truffle butter sauce with a buttery foam on top. Then…

Fresh black truffles are shaved on top.

Voila! It tastes as good as it looks.

This single shrimp and single stalk of asparagus from a specific California farm was quite excellent. The shrimp was almost lobster-like. Buttery sauce of course.

I think this was a mushroom/scallop soup with a Japanese-like flavor pallete.

And this was a monkfish with various vegetables and sauces.

Sonoma duck, config of leg, and breast. Quail egg. This was really tasty, particularly the breast and everything when smeared in the egg yolk.

Beef of some sort, including the marrow.

And the Carte de fromage. My favorite. Melisse has always had one of the best cheese carts in town.

Get a look at that runny Vacheron or Epoisses in the middle (the orange round one).

We ended up with these.

This was basically strawberries and cream. It was amazing. The strawberry is in gelato/sorbet form.

I think this was “Frozen Passion Fruit Souffle. Pistachio, Coconut, Lemongrass Broth.”

Lest we forget the chocolate, we each got like five kinds. The soufflé had it’s own injector. It’s called “Chocolate, Chocolate, Coffee. Chocolate Souffle, Chocolate Peanut Butter Crunch, Coffee and Mascarpone.”

Here in tripple form. Remember this is but the third of several deserts, after the cheese!

Wafer thin mint anyone? These petite-fors were actually a bit lackluster, but who had room anyway. The wild strawberries and creme fraiche were good.

We started at 8pm and left close to 1 am. Look how the dining room appeared during our final courses. This was a very (modern) French meal in a lot of ways, following the classic rule of “never too much butter, never too much cream.” It’s very very good though, if a bit on the rich side.

For another Melisse meal, click here.

Or for other Foodie Club meals, click here.