The Etiquette of Restaurant Photography

By Daniela Bowker @ Small Aperture

The etiquette of photographing food in dining establishments has been a hot topic of conversation over the past few weeks. It started when the New York Times reported on the number of restaurants that are banning their diners from photographing their meals, whether with a dSLR or a smartphone. Then various photography sites picked up on the news and before you knew it, the BBC was offering six tips on how to better photograph your food. And now I'm talking about it. 

© Daniela Bowker, The DebutanteIt's a debate where both sides have points; so as someone who adores food–I love to cook, and to eat–and as someone who never goes anywhere without a camera of some variety–dSLR, compact, or smartphone–I'm here to argue for the middle ground. 

For the dining establishments, their primary concern appears to be the disruption that photography causes to the meal being served, to diners on other tables, and to the restaurant staff. When they cite people using flashes and examples of diners rearranging furniture, to the extent that they climb on chairs to get the shot that they want, I can sympathise. Using a flash in a confined, probably dimly lit, environment will cause horrible disturbance to other patrons and the staff. It's unpleasant on the eyes and jarring to the atmosphere. I certainly wouldn't want to be carrying a tray of drinks when a flash goes off unexpectedly close by and I recall the flow of conversation being interrupted by flashes going off when I've been enjoying a meal somewhere. Furthermore, from a photographic perspective, flash does terrible things to food, such as give it nasty shiny-looking patches. Why would you want to record a beautiful dish of raspberry and mascarpone creme brûlée with brandy tuile not looking at its best? And I can understand restaurateurs getting upset when bad photographs of their delicious food start to turn up all over the internet. it does nothing for their reputation. 

As for standing on furniture or order to get the shot that you want, if you really believe that to be acceptable behaviour, I'm afraid that I think you might need to go back to nursery school and sit down to eat a few meals with some three year olds. They understand that standing on chairs during mealtimes is rude, distracting, unhygienic, and unsafe. So should everyone older than them, and eating in public.

Whether or not you want to go out for a meal with someone who's more interested in checking Twitter and reading their Instagram notifications is up to you; but if I'm paying money for a meal that I'm enjoying in company, I want to enjoy both the meal and the company. That means the focus should be on the conversation and on the food. It shouldn't be on the reactions of people half way across the globe, some of whom you probably wouldn't recognise if they were to walk in and sit down next to you, received via an electronic device that fits in your pocket. Making them jealous of your perfect porterhouse steak with peppercorn sauce can actually wait until you're on your way home. 

On the flip-side, however, comes my desire as a diner and as photographer to capture the meal and to distil its essence into an image. For me, food photography is an important element of telling the story of my travels, or recording special occasions, and of sharing experiences. I'd be very upset if I were informed by wait staff that I were not permitted to discreetly photograph the courgette ribbons with tahini, sultana, and pine nut dressing that I enjoyed in a bar in Norwich last week. It looked gorgeous and it tasted delicious and I wanted to be able to record that. One flash-free photo taken with my iPhone didn't disturb anyone else, it didn't interrupt the flow in conversation, I didn't spend so long trying to get the perfect picture that my meal went cold and became unenjoyable, and I'm able to share it with you now.

© Daniela Bowker, The Debutante

© Daniela Bowker, The DebutanteIndulge me with another anecdote, if you will. I was in Hong Kong in June 2012. One evening I walked into a chop house, sat down, and ordered a meal by pointing at what someone else was eating that looked good. I don't speak Cantonese and the proprietors didn't speak English; this was the optimal means of communication. When my meal came, I duly photographed it. Partly because I had no idea what I'd been served, but also because it was important to me to have an image that accompanied this traveller's tale. To be fair, I had probably created enough disturbance in the restaurant that pulling out a camera and taking a picture of my dinner was the least of the proprietors' worries. 

When a plate of food that is presented to you looks good enough to eat, why wouldn't you want to photograph it, for aesthetic and sentimental reasons?

Restaurant photography is then, a balancing act. It requires restraint and discretion on the part of the diner-photographer so as not to disturb or irritate their dining companions, other diners, and the staff. It also demands a little understanding from restaurateurs: for most of us taking a photograph of our food is not intended to be an imposition, it's a compliment. Please accept it as such.

© Daniela Bowker, The DebutanteDaniela's five tips for discreet restaurant photography:

1. Ditch the flash. It disturbs other diners and will in no way enhance your food. 

2. Get in close. If you can't sense being able to touch and smell the dish through the photograph, you're not close enough.

3. Choose an unusual angle and a shallow depth of field. Shooting from lower down than you think you should often yields great results and if you have the ability to control your aperture, use a fairly large one. Not only will it help to get more light on the subject, but a shallow depth of field looks pretty good, too.

4. Take the photo and then put away the camera. It doesn't need to be edited and shared with Twitter immediately.

5. Give it a quick edit, after the event. Don't forget to crop out any extraneous table clutter and correct the white balance before you share it. But don't do that at the table!



Daniela Bowker is a writer and photographer nominally based in London. She started taking photos aged about five, and writing a little bit before that. Since then, she has taken a few hundred thousand pictures, edited the photography news site Small Aperture, ranted extensively about megapixels, written two books, helped with several more, and contributes regularly to the photography website Pixiq.

When she's not wading through press releases, drooling over new kit, or out and about taking photos, you can usually find her messing with her whizz-bang kitchen gadgetry or bouncing around at a gig. You can follow more of her camera-related shenanigans on Flickr (Daniela Bowker) and Twitter (@smallaperture).

She has a mild shoe obsession, is in search of the perfect camera bag, and has a bicycle called Elspeth.