Restaurant Shoot: The Granola Bar (Fairfield, CT)
I did it. I took a tremendous leap of faith, which required a healthy dose of confidence in myself, both as a professional photographer, but also as a person who can sometimes be weary of stepping outside her comfort zone, and successfully completed my first two restaurant shoots.
Well, mostly successfully. There were trials and tribulations along the way.
What I love most about working in a creative industry is the fact that no two jobs are the same. When I shoot at home in my studio, even if I’m utilizing the same props and familiar foods, the lighting varies, the shadows change, there’s always a constant flux of motions. The results are that no two setups look exactly the same. Now of course there are ways to manipulate your set, lighting, and (perhaps most importantly) your editing process to create mirror images when necessary (like when needing to reshoot a setup), but my joy in photographing food is in part due to freedom in letting the creative process just… flow; in challenging myself to shoot one set of cookies completely different than another set of cookies. To think outside the box.
Recently, I had begun to feel complacent in my work. I had reached a stride where I was receiving a steady stream of income from brand work, shooting for bloggers, even a bit of social media influence. I have wanted to diversify myself for a while now, and branch out into uncharted territory, but it wasn’t until I had a bad week and hit a professional speed bump that I built up enough courage to put myself out there. Cautiously, but out there nonetheless.
And so last week I tackled my first restaurant shoot.
There’s a restaurant in Westport, CT that my family has been enjoying for years. It’s a relatively small joint whose niche is approachable food that caters both to health conscious crowds, as well as those adhering to allergen-related diets. The food is colorful, nutritious, and makes you feel good. It was a no-brainer to reach out to them, and I was thrilled when they opened the door to their Fairfield, CT location for me.
Now it won’t always be the case that the managing staff welcomes you into their space with open arms, but I felt nothing but support and encouragement throughout the process at The Granola Bar. That went a long way in making me feel comfortable and in control of the situation.
The lighting was mixed: lots of windows on two sides of the dining room, so airy and light throughout, but also it was a very sunny day. The occasional cloud passed through, and I’m certain those are when I got my best shots.
I first met with the store manager and Director of Operations who happened to be on site that day to select the menu. They had already discussed items they wanted photographed. I merely suggested that we ensure the selected items varied with regards to height, color, and plating. I wanted all around variety. From their drink menu I requested lattes and smoothies to help fill in the spaces between the food.
It took a good 20 minutes before the first plate came out, so I snapped a few pics of the restaurant, as well as the staff working. I hadn’t intended to do this (not sure why), but I love how they came out.
Also, I need an avocado toast sweatshirt, stat.
I asked that a table be brought over by the front window so I could shoot nearest to natural light. Once the first plate arrived, a new dish was brought out roughly every 5 minutes or so.
Here are some of my biggest mistakes or things I wish I had done different:
- I should have brought my diffusor. The light by the window was changing drastically depending on whether a cloud was passing by, and I had to wait (sometimes with staff helping me for the shot) until the harsh light faded. This was a waste of both of our time, though my assistant did not seem to mind. See below.
- I did not turn off a single overhead light. I just assumed because it was a beautiful sunny day, and there were plenty of windows throughout, that the light would not be overly yellow or red. Scroll up and look at the second image of the smoothies photographed at the bar. Look at the surface and you’ll see a reddish-yellow tint. That’s from the overhead lights. No bueno. Also in the two below:
The image with the hand pouring the maple syrup on the french toast could have been great! But all I see is a huge lighting fail. It’s inconsistent. But trust me, this is one lesson I won’t forget.
- Additionally, I kept having to switch out my lens. I brought a 50mm and a 100mm macro. They’re useful in different ways, but it was clear by the end of this marathon that I wanted to take the plunge and splurge on a high quality zoom lens. I bought the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L the same day. (P.S. This may sound erratic and spontaneous, but it was a long time coming — I view this as an investment in both myself, my business, and my restaurant photography journey.)
I realize it sounds like I’m beating up on myself, but I know I got a lot of things right that day.
- I moved the table constantly to work with the sunlight coming in. Don’t be shy about moving things around!
- I worked within the basic principles of food photography to capture complimentary angles of the food and beverages, to photograph the light, and tried to bring my own creative eye to their already beautiful space and dishes. If there’s one thing I’m most satisfied with, it’s the composition of the frames.
It helped that the items they brought out were already beautifully plated. It helped tremendously, actually.
All in all, I left feeling successful and satisfied with my work. Are there lighting issues? Of course, but that is my biggest complaint. Comically, these lighting issues are nothing compared to what I faced in the following space…
Restaurant Shoot: Kawa Ni (Westport, CT)
Oh my god. This shoot will stay with me for a very long time. Kawa Ni is one of my absolute favorite restaurants in the area. The food is stellar, the chef is very well respected within the community, and it is not uncommon to wait 2+ hours to get in on a weekend (been there, done that, worth the wait).
What I’m about to show you will leave you questioning my authority as a photographer. You’re going to raise your eyebrows, scratch your head, and think maybe I picked the wrong industry. Let me say this: I KNOW. I should have literally picked up a table and walked outside to shoot these dishes because HOLY HELL the lighting was tragic. Here’s the space:
There is a long horizontal window at the front of the restaurant, and then one tiny window off a back room near the bathroom. That’s it. Everything else inside is illuminated by string lights, box lights, and general overhead lighting. While it creates a fun, vibrant feel for diners, especially in the evening, it’s less ideal for photographing in.
Case and point — this before-and-after tragedy:
So many things to point out: FIRST omg why did I not increase the f-stop. Why??? For sure should have focused on the bottles instead of the stools. Want to smack myself for this repeatedly.
Second, my battle with ISO was intense. I tried to go from an almost entirely dark yellow image to what I eventually settled on in the above left image pre-edits. Literally I stood in one spot and took the same image over and over, only increasing my ISO, until I landed on something I felt I could work with. At ISO 2000 (!), I stopped.
The bar is iconic in this space, particularly because of their Japanese whiskey collection, and I so badly wanted to capture it. But with minimal natural light reaching back to the bar, I was at a standstill (and horrified as I looked at the resulting images on my camera). Even accounting for all the white balance adjustments I made in Lightroom, this one is tough to look at.
And yes, learning from my experience at The Granola Bar, I did request that overhead lights be turned off throughout the shoot. It was just way, way too dark without them on to get a good shot. So I did the very best I could with the light I was working with.
Again, I left this shoot with the feeling that my composition was not bad. I was telling a story within the space, and while looking back I wish I had tweaked a few things, I am overall happy in this regard.
The editing tripped me up so badly, though. Between the counter tops appearing too orange or red from the overhead lights, or the faint tint of the food reflecting off the menus (which I used as a backdrop in multiple frames), I was playing with far too many settings in Lightroom for my liking. Just compare the above image with the below. It’s inconsistent, and it kills me.
Thank god for Lightroom. Thank god. While that’s what it’s there for — to help make your photos their possible best — in general, I want to be importing strong images that can stand on their own with minimal editing. For instance, this banh mi.
But it was a struggle to get images like this; they were few and far between. I shot at various spots within the restaurant, hoping for magic to happen, when in reality, I need to understand light and my camera settings so well that I am the one creating the magic.
Moving forward, I need to make sure that I am arriving at restaurants while there are enough sunlight hours to shoot EVEN IF ALL INDOOR LIGHTS ARE OFF (it was approaching sunset when I left). Above all, I need to find the -best- location within the space to capture natural light.
On the plus side, I didn’t change my lens once! 24-70mm saved the day!
I am so grateful to this team for allowing me to practice in their space, because it’s one of the most challenging locations I could think of with regards to lighting and ambience (also part of the reason I reached out to them, I want an experience like this in my repertoire). And honestly, I am hoping they invite me back at some point in the future so I can tackle this again. I think it will be a night-and-day experience if I re-shoot in 6 months.
Even though this is incredibly long, I feel like I rushed through. PLEASE feel free to reach out via email (email@example.com) or on IG (@wellseasonedstudio) with specific questions about either shoot!
I, of course, welcome any and all constructive feedback or tips/tricks because, quite frankly, I know this could have gone better. I believe in myself enough to know that I will improve with every single restaurant shoot (I mean hell, look at my food photographs from 1 year ago compared with today!). I study my photos critically, I acknowledge my mistakes, and I never assume that I’m done learning. I think the best way to push myself forward down this path is to get in as many restaurant shoots as possible. I’m sure each will teach me something different, and I for one can’t wait to get back out there.