In this article, I will give you some advice on how to create indoor photos for food features, with very little (even coloured) light, in a discreet manner that won’t disturb the guests.
When I have to do food features, I always try to be as non-invasive as possible; I don’t want to ruin the culinary experience for those around me, be it either a simple restaurant dinner or a big event. The thing that really irritates people who are enjoying a meal, or those who are working and cooking, is the continuous and repetitive flash of a camera. Therefore, I take my pictures with whatever light I can find and adapt to my situation.
Often, the lighting in such occasions is low, suffused and warm, to create a relaxing atmosphere and, though this may be lovely to the naked eye, it is often a nightmare for the camera. With little light, images are more likely to come out shaky, so the first thing you think of is using a tripod, but that could end up being as intrusive as a flash: imagine the scene of a restaurant full of people sitting at tables and you turning up with a bulky camera bag, pulling out your tripod and standing there taking pictures… They would all hate you within seconds, the chef included.
So, the only thing you can do is opt for a very luminous lens, such as an f/1.8 or an f/1.4. Take the photo with a very wide aperture which, as well as giving you more light, will also help to isolate the subject and blur the unwanted surroundings. At events, you don’t have any control over the setting and you can’t start moving people, tables or objects around. Furthermore, I think it’s always best to go as unnoticed as possible because, the more people feel they are being watched, the less naturally they behave. If you are taking a photograph of a plate of spaghetti, then the problem doesn’t exist, obviously; but, if you want to take a picture of the chef at work, or a few shots of the whole event, you could find it difficult if you turn up with a massive camera lens. A big lens also requires a bigger bag, which means more weight to carry about with you, and, in some situations where a certain elegance may be required, it could be useful to be able to turn up with a bag of more discreet dimensions.
Another problem may be the colour of the lighting. In restaurants, the warm lighting is often a yellow-orange; at events, you might find decorative lights in blue, pink or red and they may even change colour throughout the evening (I will be so happy when dynamic lighting goes out of fashion!). Again, in this case, seeing as you don’t have the time to get out your grey cards to measure the right white balance in every shot, it’s always best to do it photo by photo, by adjusting the colour temperature value directly from the camera. If the dominant colours are very strong and you can’t find a way to neutralise them by adjusting the colour temperature, try to twist it to work in your favour, by making the dominant colour a characteristic that adds value to the photo by creating a different atmosphere; it may be less realistic but more vintage, poetic or ‘dreamy’, as the Americans like to say.
If you’re not sitting at tables because it’s a buffet event or, for whatever reason, you are able to move about with your plate in your hand, try to find the spot with the best light. If the room has ceiling lighting, place yourself directly below a light source so that the dish is well-lit without creating ugly shadows. If, instead, the subject cannot be moved (such as the whole ice cream tub in the photo above) and the light is flat and uninteresting, do more post production work, adding light to the central part of the image and darkening the edges with a little vignetting. Be careful not to go over the top, otherwise it will end up looking too fake.
Another thing to be careful about is the background. Try to make sure that your background is neither of the same colour as, nor of a similar colour to, your subject matter, otherwise its shape will lose definition. Change the angle of your shot if you have to, you don’t have to be directly in front, or move a few, small objects to get your desired result. In the photo above, for example, the icing sugar on the cream puff wouldn’t have been so visible with a white background; so I moved some black napkins behind it to create a chromatic contrast and highlight the contours.