Just thinking about food and food photography. Mexican Style.

Lane (right) hired me to make photographs of food and lifestyle for Manuel's Restaurant.  It was one of the most fun photo projects I've done all year long.  Lane's direction was flawless and his attention to fun is addictive.

I love food and I love photographing food.  If it's well done it's a joy to all the senses and, as the great anthropologist Margaret Mead pointed out, sharing food is a bonding ritual that brings people together and makes them part of a shared tribe.  Have you ever wondered why the best sales people are never in the office huddled over a hot Facebook page?  They are all out at lunch with their clients, building bonds and closing deals...

When I shoot food I like to do it with big, soft lights.  But that shouldn't surprise you as I love to shoot just about everything with big, soft lights.  In this case I was slamming photons through 4x4 foot Chimera diffusion panels with 18 and 28 inch beauty dishes powered by Elinchrom monolights.  One on the left, one from the back right and always with a little bit of passive (bounced) fill from yet another panel.  The final light is a gridded fixture on the that yellow wall in the background.

While I love all my little, pixie cameras I really like the way my bigger Canons bite into food with a combination of high resolution and sharpness, tempered with the ability to do narrow slices of focus.  I'm pretty sure I was shooting with the 1DS Mk2 for all but the available light set up shots like the one of the hands, below.  Those were done with a Canon 5D Mk2.  I used three lenses:  the 24-105L, the 70-200L and the 50mm Macro 2.5.  Next time I'll also take along a 90mm Tamron SP macro or a Canon 100mm 2.8 L.  Just for a tighter, closer point of view---when needed.

Since the images would be used together on a website I tried to keep the lighting uniform and to keep the post processing as uniform as possible.  While every dish asks for its own "special" lighting the reality of most commercial food assignments, whether they are for cookbooks or websites, is that the images all need to work well together and seem to have come from the same chef and the same kitchen.  Continuity trumps novelty.

Usually I don't ask for input from my assistants but Amy has such a good sense of color and balance that I found myself including her in art direction and styling decisions.  An assistant is great to have on a shoot that lasts for hours and hours.  Sometimes we take turns having fresh viewpoints and so keep the energy high.  We took our overall creative cues from our client, Lane and his collaboration with chef, Juan José Garcia.  While I was "in charge" of the lighting and compostions the authority for the look and feel of the food definitely came from them.  And that's only fair given that they are the ones who will eventually have the responsibility to implement the images into the marketing.

We began our set up around two in the afternoon and started shooting food about an hour later.  The hard part is setting up and getting everyone to agree about the initial lighting and styling because those decisions will set the stage for the entire project.  We wanted clean, unaffected, images of food without any nod to campy, mainstream Tex Mex cues.  No sombreros.  No primitive earthenware.  No accessorizing with frosty margarita glasses.  Just the pure food.

While the cuisine at Manuel's is Mexican it harkens more to the more refined ethos of interior Mexico and environs like San Miguel de Allende.  No re-fried pinto beans or orange rice.  Just premium ingredients done with an eye for simple and elegant presentations.  The restaurant is classic modern-urban-chic.

Once we start rolling everyone on the team develops a sense of rhythm and timing.  We work a dish until we find angles we like and then work it some more.  We move on when the next dish comes hurtling out of the kitchen, steaming hot.  It's always accompanied to the table by the chef who fine tunes the plate and determines the right "point on the compass" we need to aim for.  Then he steps back and we start to play, and rotate the dish, and work with camera height and angle.

I've done food every which way and I'll be the first to admit that some of my favorite images have come from a medium format square cameras with a long lens and an extension tube (or two).  That, and transparency film.  But time moves on and we shoot differently now.  We're looking for multiple points of view and magnifications and we know that the images will head towards a web page a lot more often that they will head to a full page in a magazine or a point of purchase poster.  In this regard the full frame 35mm style camera is a great compromise and, for most stuff, all we need.  

If I had to choose one lens it would be a 100mm focal length.  Perfect for tight shots and more formal looking constructions than shorter lenses and, at close focus distances it does narrow DOF just right.  Funny,  I own (and like very much) the Tamron 90mm macro but, while I was sitting here writing this, my drug pusher.....I mean my camera salesperson at Precision Camera called "just to let me know" that they'd gotten a lightly used Canon 100mm 2.8 IS L macro lens in on trade.  He put it aside for me "just in case it was something I might need..."  No wonder Belinda and my accountant have voodoo dolls of him on their desks... (I kid but I love to hear about inventory I might want.  That's where so many bargains reside.)

Every once in a while I'd head over to the kitchen and watch the chef and staff prepare the next dish, or, since we were in a working restaurant, the dishes they were sending out to their customers.  The Chili Relleños above and below were shot at some sinister high ISO like 6400 as they came out thru the pass. The IS in the 24-105mm L is the savior of those who are addicted to coffee...

All during the shooting we were sampling the dishes we'd just finished shooting and washing them down with a chaotic mixture of good coffee and better wine.  We wrapped up the food portion of our project around 9:30 that evening and then sat down in the patio to share a wonderful meal and three or four bottles of wine with the owners and the marketers.  We talked about food and wine and travel.  It was a lovely day.  The kind I wish we could have liberally scattered through each year.

There's something so much more comfortable about a slow, happy meal, under strands of lights and with good friends than anything you might find on your computer or on TV.  And the memory lingers like those from a vacation.  And that's just what I want from a fine restaurant.

We went on to shoot lifestyle a few days later.  But that's another story...


  1. I may be a little OCD, but some of those shots with the plate cropped asymmetrically bother me.

  2. Govis, on sunday I posted a link to the website where these were used. And cropped. Please go and see the final use. When we make images for commercial use we often include more area to give our designers options. We assume they'll be cropped. Sometimes I agree with the choices and sometimes not. But it's nice to see them used...in context.

    Thanks for mentioning.

  3. Kirk, great photos. I would really like to get into food/restaurant photography. Do you have any advice on approaching these kinds of customers?

  4. Yes. Be really into food. Don't approach any restaurant as a client if you haven't eaten and enjoyed their food. Create a series of photographs of food that you can show. Read magazines about food and cuisine to learn what the prevailing trends and styles are. Go in with a smart proposal showing them what you can do, how much it will cost, and all the different ways they will be able to leverage your art.

    But foremost, really love food. It makes it a heck of a lot easier to eat it.

  5. Good advice. The best images come from shooting things that you really like. I think a famous blogger just wrote about this a few days ago.

  6. Brian, last sentence should say, "....it makes it a heck of a lot easier to shot it."

  7. Kirk, great shots,food looks good enough to eat [pun]

  8. I've done a number of sessions similar to this. The most difficult with ice cream but we'll save that for another time. Every time I did one of these the old Andy Rooney quote comes to mind...

    “I don't like food that's too carefully arranged; it makes me think that the chef is spending too much time arranging and not enough time cooking. If I wanted a picture I'd buy a painting.”

  9. Anyone else hungry? I am! Nicely done.

  10. Kirk, I live in Germany, where they still have a proper system of apprenticeships, complete with journeyman (or -woman) year and masters. My step-daughter took an apprenticeship as a commercial photographer, and her master was the guy who did all the photographs for Paul Bocuse's books.

    She likes your photos :-)

    Please keep up the great blogging, I really appreciate well-written, marketing and fluff-free articles like yours and Mike Johnston's.

  11. Christmas time is coming, we'll spend a lot of time sitting at a table and in the kitchen. Inspired by the photos in this thread I'll try to make a photo story about our food during the next few weeks....
    PS: being only an amateurl photographer and an amateur cook I'll try my best but not sure about the quality! But for sure it will be fun !


Comments. If you disagree do so civilly. Be nice or see your comments fly into the void. Anonymous posters are not given special privileges or dispensation. If technology alone requires you to be anonymous your comments will likely pass through moderation if you "sign" them. A new note: Don't tell me how to write or how to blog!