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Ask Veronica: How do I cope with a food photography addiction?

Like a poached egg, it’s easy to overdo food photography. Thankfully, Veronica Belmont is here to guide you down the fine line between food photog and food paparazzi.

Oct 28, 2013

Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of etiquette lessons on mobile photography from Veronica. Have a question for her? Follow and ask her on Twitter with the hashtag #letvhelp. 

I am a recovering food photographer. No one ever paid me for it, and maybe a few hundred people glance at my snaps of impressive appetizers and lavish main courses. Yet I was compelled to take pictures of my food, whether it came from a food truck or French Laundry.

It was my husband who first let me know that I had a problem. The scene played out like this:

Food arrives. Husband goes to dig in.

"Oh, that looks good! Let me get a picture of that" I beg, lifting my iPhone off the tablecloth.

After a few moments of trying to get the low-light shot just right, he decided that my photo was not worth the wait, and dug in. My shot was ruined and he was annoyed. It wasn't until he pointed out to me how silly I looked (to him, and probably to other diners) that I really took notice.

But people followed me to see what food I was eating! I had an audience! Those people, however, weren't sitting at my table, glowering as I snapped away.

I understand the urge. I get you. Sometimes there is just a plate too lovely; a dish too sentimental to not take a photo of. So let’s walk through some of the best practices of an amateur food photographer—without driving everyone insane in the process.

Above everything else: Understand your surroundings and your camera. If photos must happen, it's much easier to take discrete snaps with a smartphone than your DSLR. I was at brunch recently when I ran into a photographer friend, sitting at a table nearby. Her entire group had expensive, professional-level cameras with them, and spent the meal snapping away. They weren't there in a professional capacity, and it was distracting to the other diners sitting around them. (I'm sure the photos are just stunning though!) Unless you're there at the behest of the restaurant, leave the Canon 5D at home.

Now that you’re seated and perusing the menu with your friends or date, you need to find a good time to broach the topic of photography. If they’ve already busted out their smartphone as soon as the cocktails arrive, then feel free to snap away with reckless abandon. However, if their phone is tucked away from the table, it’s good form to politely ask if you could take a few—a few!—pictures of the food as it comes out. Don’t interrupt a conversation to shoot, and don’t prevent people from eating their own meal (as I learned myself). Just get your shots, return the smartphone to your pocket or bag and resume having dinner like the civilized person you are. You can share your masterpieces with the internet later. 

On the subject of checking your party in on Foursquare or Path, make sure to ask first before including someone in your images. Nobody—literally, no one on the planet—looks good while chewing.

In the case of a phone, mute it (a good practice in a public setting anyway) to prevent other diners from hearing the faux snap of your virtual shutter. If there's enough light, turn the flash off. No one wants to be blinded because you needed to share your meal with the internet (and I guarantee that the pictures will look terrible anyway).

What about dark restaurants where there isn’t enough light to shoot? In this case, a little social engineering is necessary.  Ask the person working the front of the house if you can take a kitchen tour at the end of your evening. Be honest! Say you love the food, and you’d like to upload some photos to share, but you don’t want to disturb the other diners. I pulled this one off myself; though you have to be willing to put yourself out there a bit. If you’re going to try it, this might be a good time to bring that better camera, so you can take shots from a safe distance without getting in everyone’s way. A kitchen is a tight and fast-paced environment (and you don't want to be underfoot), so if you need to get closer to the dishes look for the food pick-up area. The warming light will bring a nice glow to the food, no filter needed. Remember, if your request to go behind the scenes is denied, don't take that as an excuse to start snapping away at your table anyhow!

Ask yourself why you need to photograph your food. If you're trying to capture a special occasion, ask the server to take a photo of you with your companions after the meal is served. Looking to recapture that special dish? If you're talented enough (I am not) reverse engineer the dish at home and post the steps on a how-to site like Snapguide.

However, I've learned that I enjoy myself much more when I put the camera away and just experience the moment (and we'll have more on that in a future post). In the meantime, your food is getting cold.

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Veronica Belmont