The rise of food photography

Food photography and social media reviews are a fact of life. They are now commonplace and not just for bloggers and reviewers! You cannot ignore them. And ultimately, people posting pictures of good food on social media is great marketing for your establishment.

By Jeremy Ryland


Let’s discuss food photography. Pictures so good it makes you say “Yes. Give me more!” and makes you feel guilty just for looking at it. This phenomenon that has taken dining by storm over the past few years due to Instagram and other social media.


Taking pictures of food is not new. Food has been depicted in art in many different ways from the earliest cave paintings to modern art. Most artists learned their art by painting still life images of fruit, etc. Food has been photographed ever since photography was invented and has been widely used in advertising to stimulate desire and sales.


Today, taking pictures of food is commonplace, not just for bloggers and reviewers, and is a sign of gratitude and a form of “selfie”.


Showing what we eat is a form of self-identification and describing ourselves. As Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said, nearly 200 years ago, “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are”. Today we show people what we eat.


This trend has grown with the advent of social media such as Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest, together with ever-more powerful and versatile technologies, such as mobile phones and digital cameras with specific settings for shooting food. Amateurs can now shoot the trickle of sauce, the sensual curves of a tomato and the close up of an egg oozing over toast.


Today, pleasure for the eyes is just as important as the pleasure for the taste buds. This is the essence of food pornography. As with human pornography, it is the image that excites. And the more the photo makes people’s mouths water, the more it will be shared and “liked” on the social media sites. And this can be positive for the restaurant as well as the diner.


Several years ago, I went to an upmarket restaurant, that sadly, no longer exists. It served amazing food, beautifully prepared with fabulous presentation and exceptional flavours, a real experience and one of the best meals available at the time. I took a couple of photos with my mobile phone camera – no flash, no fuss – it did not interfere with other diners. But I was asked to stop as the chef did not like his food photographed.


Many restaurants still have a ban on food photography saying that it takes away from the dining experience and upsets other diners. Others have strict rules such as no flash, no video and only in your “personal space”. Chef David Chang doesn't allow cameras at his wildly popular Momofuku Ko restaurant in New York. But he says that's only because the intimate, 12-seater restaurant simply isn't big enough. "It is intrusive on other guests." At his other restaurants, there's more space and he doesn't object to cameras.


Some chefs are positive… "People should be allowed to take photos; restaurants should not only see it as a compliment, but also a potential word-of-mouth recommendation to 20-30 people on average, and I think it's in restaurants' best interests to accommodate them just a bit more, better lighting for example," said American food blogger Chuck Arendt.


Heston Blumenthal once told The Telegraph that he would prefer it if diners didn’t take photos and “just enjoyed themselves and certainly not take them throughout the whole meal.” However, at Heston’s restaurant in London, his staff not only let me take photos of the food, they even gave us a brief tour of the kitchen allowing us to take photos. 


There was even a pop-up restaurant in London that encouraged customers to pay by pictures, not with money. Customers were asked to take a picture of their dish and publish it on Instagram as part of a promotion for a food manufacturer.


But it can be annoying. "It's a double-edged sword for everybody," says Grant Achatz of Alinea, Chicago. "The guest makes the choice whether or not to prioritise documentation of the food, of the experience, and perhaps subject themselves to a lesser experience, or a less complete absorption of the vision of the restaurant or the chef."


Personally, I believe that you should be able to record the moment and enjoy the food, so long as it is subtle and does not annoy other guests, including those on your own table. Taking photos as mementos of a memorable meal is part of food tourism and is also a form of praise to the chef. It is also a great business and marketing opportunity for restaurants, with the guests becoming active ambassadors.


Consumer tips:


If you are discrete, most restaurants are quite accommodating. But take care, research from the US has shown that photographing food can make it less enjoyable to eat. 

Photographing meals can also become pathological. Joe Catterson, the general manager of Alinea restaurant in Chicago, recalls, “One guy arrived with the wrong lens or something on his camera and left his wife sitting at the table for an hour while he went home to get it.”


So, if you have to take a photo of your meal, think of your fellow diners, turn off the flash and the annoying faux camera sound, be quick, and think hard before sharing the snap online. 

·      Be polite. Remember this is a restaurant: the other diners around you are paying good money to enjoy the food experience.

·      Ask the restaurant if you can take pictures – you’ll be surprised how many will be accommodating, even inviting you into the kitchen.

·      Ask for or select a table with a bit of space. Corner tables are often good.

·      Pick a table with good lighting: use natural lighting if you can.

·      Place yourself with your back to the windows.

·      Turn off the flash: if you must use light, bring a small LED torch. It is less intrusive.

·      Turn off the camera sound.

·      Be subtle, be quick and don’t make a fuss – don’t stand on the chair!

·      Focus on the food: compose the photo and make sure it is sharp.

·      Put the phone/camera away when you have taken the picture.

·      Finally – only post the good photos showing great food – poor photography reflects on you as well the establishment.

But above all, remember, the real reason you go out to eat is to EXPERIENCE the food. You have to respect the place that you're in, the people who are there, the chef who has worked very hard to produce a lovely ambience.


And a photograph is to record a memory – so you have to live the moment to get the memory!!


Restaurant tips:


Food photography and social media reviews are a fact of life. They is now commonplace and not just for bloggers and reviewers! You cannot ignore them. You can try to ban them but that can result in negative reviews and lost sales. And ultimately, people posting pictures of good food on social media is great marketing for your establishment.

·      Assuming you have enough space, you should not discourage photographs. However, affirm any rules firmly and politely.

·      It is best to try and ensure that the resulting pictures are good.

·      Make sure your food always looks great.

·      If someone is taking lots of photos, advise the kitchen to make an extra special effort.

·      Some restaurants – when they know they have a food blogger in the house – will plate on special crockery if requested.

·      Restaurants can also provide tables with more lighting or encourage bloggers to sit up at the kitchen bar.

·      Sure, a lot of them will not be great. But all marketing is good marketing!

·      And remind the guests they are here to dine and to enjoy the meal!