Food Paparazzi

Most comfortable in my quiet “studio” kitchen, working solo and in control of every single element from food to lighting, Wednesday evening’s photography job threw me completely outside of my comfort zone. Featuring many of New York’s premiere vegan restaurants, caterers, and other food organizations, the Healthy Food in Fashion gala promised extraordinary eats from many renowned chefs. Tempted, but intimidated, I balked at the offer; Event photography is not my area of expertise, to say the least. Upon learning that there would be another shooter covering the people, and all I had to worry about was the food, let’s just say that I couldn’t assemble my gear fast enough.

Learning on the fly, I got much more out of this evening than just delicious and memorable morsels. Here are just a few tips for anyone else acting as the food paparazzi for a glamorous (or everyday) event…

Arrive early… But not too early. I showed up a full two hours before the gala was set to begin, and to be honest, I was just in the way for at least one of those hours. Most of the chefs had yet to arrive, and no one had any food prepped and ready for its closeup. It’s definitely easier to get a head-start and begin shooting before guests begin to fill the room, but don’t go overboard.

Consider more than just the food. Yes, that’s the main reason that you’re here, but there’s so much more to the event as well. Snap a few shots of interesting decor, people interacting with the food, anything of interest. It helps tell a more complete story than just a few random plates floating in an ocean of green tablecloth.

Don’t photograph people while they’re eating, ever. It might seem like an interesting “action shot,” but 9 times out of 10, it’s just unflattering. For the remaining 1 time out of 10 it’s downright gross. Plus, it makes guests feel very uncomfortable regardless.

If you’re getting strange color casts from tinted lights, don’t worry about it. Seriously, there are more important things to concern yourself with, especially in post-processing. Don’t go nuts trying to remove the blue highlights caused by mood lighting; it adds ambiance to the photo, in my opinion.

Bump up that ISO, and don’t look back. I typically hate going above 200 ISO due to the grainy quality of the images beyond that, but it’s a sacrifice worth making in such a low-light situation. Since there is really no room to set up a tripod, you’ll have to hand-hold the camera the whole time. A higher ISO can make the difference between getting a useable image, or getting a blurry, out of focus photo due to a longer exposure time. For this event, I went up to 800 ISO.

Do use flash, but don’t use straight on-camera flash. A speedlite (or speedlight, for Nikon cameras) makes a huge difference because you can change the direction of the light. Direct flash will never be flattering to food, so don’t even try it. Always send the light behind you, over your shoulder, or above you, to bounce off of [hopefully] white walls or ceilings. This will help to soften and diffuse it. Also, it helps to get further away from the food if you can’t reduce the intensity of your flash.

Bring about a million backup batteries. That external flash eats them like candy, and there’s nothing more frustrating than having it not fire after you’ve lined up the perfect shot, just because the battery is running low.

Use either a telephoto or zoom lens, to give you some distance from your subject. This is especially helpful so that you’re not jostling hungry guests out of the way, and can stand back from the tables a bit. A macro lens could work if you have nothing else, but I find them harder to stabilize and get sharp images from without the aide of a tripod.

Grab yourself a plate of something particularly lovely, take it off to the side (or enlist a helpful guest to hold it for you) and arrange it nicely. This will help to switch things up, so all of your photos aren’t just big platters of many servings. Also, since you’re taking the food for yourself, you can go crazy and touch it/style it as you wish. And then, of course, you can eat it!

For the rest of my photos from the evening, plus descriptions of the edibles in the spotlight, you can check out my album on Flickr.

Have you ever acted as food paparazzi for an event? What are your tips for securing the best shots?

26 thoughts on “Food Paparazzi

  1. I don’t know a thing about photography but those photos certainly look beautiful to me :) I would have loved to have attended, I hope you got to enjoy some of that delicious spread.

  2. What a neat opportunity – and great tips! I always shoot in higher ISO because I take all my food photos at night. 400 is the lowest I can ever go; usually I am at 800 or even 1600 with my Lowell EGO lights. But I will definitely have to look into a speedlight, I hear they’re great!

  3. The shot of the ice cream is especially great. I obviously don’t do this kind of thing, but really nice tips none the less. Although – hilarious comment about shooting people while they’re eating …”The last 1 time, it’s down right gross” – that cracked me up!

  4. Hannah, we all know that the only things that aren’t in your field of expertise are the things you haven’t tried yet :)

    P.S. Why, oh why did you not steal that sparkly shoe for me? :)

  5. Hannah, just had to concur with you on the influence (or fear of?) ISO. I too was really hesitant to bump it up for a long time (OMG, we will have NOISE!), but honestly, an ISO of 800 is not that objectionable as far as noise goes and it SO increases your options under available light shooting. I think for the past few years the photography community was just a little too snitty about this. Digital photography is still evolving, and even film photography has had to contend with noise, but it is called “grain” and for some reason seems to be more acceptable. If the composition is there, if the focus is right on, and if the subject is the star, who cares if there’s a little noise? Thanks for spreading the word that ordinary humans are allowed to enter this realm!

  6. What a magnificent experience, you have the vegan cookery and photography world at your feet, my dear! I’m glad you accepted the offer, and know there will be more to follow. :)

  7. This is an insanely helpful article! Not sure I’d ever be brave enough to venture out into “the real food world” with a camera, but it sure is cool to see your perspective (… no pun intended)! <3

  8. great information, Hannah, thank you! I am looking at speedlights right now, especially for this reason! I have lighting at home but want something for upcoming events, so it’s good to hear you say that.

    stunning photos, as always!

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