Friday 6 November 2009

Food blogging camera etiquette and the food blogger's perfect camera

Attica menu

In the comments section of my Marque review, reader Ecumer asked me the following question:
I have an etiquette question about restaurant photography. Do you ask permission before shooting or is it just assumed? I have conniptions every time I pull out the humble Olympus at someone else's table and often can't even bring myself to do so at high end places.

I responded in the comments section and had some interesting subsequent replies. I decided I'd prefer to devote a separate post to the topic of food blogging camera etiquette. Here's my take (edited to include a few more thoughts):

In terms of camera etiquette, I can only speak for myself. The only place I've ever asked the staff permission to photograph was at Le Bernardin, more out of deference to the VIPs who were taking me out to lunch than anything. Permission was of course granted with a warm smile.

But otherwise, I normally just take the photos without asking. In the 2.5 years since I've been blogging I like to think I've become rather adept at taking photos quickly and discreetly: I never use flash; I don't huddle over the camera but rather hold it up to the food and look in the camera screen; I wait until the waiter/waitress has left the table (but if they return to the table I'll keep the camera out and won't hide it away guiltily); and I use a camera that's small enough to fit into my jeans pocket (a Panasonic DMC-FX38, which I always have stashed in my handbag).

In fact, I think I'd feel a little silly asking for permission to photograph - like I was making a big deal out of it on purpose, to seem important.

Out of all the places I've visited, not once have I been told off or asked to put the camera away: I think (particularly with high end restaurants) food photography is becoming so mainstream these days that it doesn't seem worth making a fuss over, provided the photographer is discreet enough to not bother other customers. If any restaurant did want to ban my little camera I'd probably suspect they knew their food wasn't up to scratch and deserved a bad review!

All that said, however, I may revise my camera policy if I do end up getting a big chunky camera. They're a lot more anti-social (for my dining companions as well as for other customers), and I imagine I'd only feel comfortable using it in circumstances where the lighting is too dim for my pocket camera, or where I'm with a bunch of food bloggers and so feel less self-conscious.

What's your take on it?

After I wrote this on the Marque post, Adski from the blog Totally Addicted to Taste subsequently commented:

Hey Claire,
Nice to hear your view on cameras in restaurants. I'm always keen to hear what equipment other people use for their blogs and how they feel about taking the actual photos.
Back in the day when i first started blogging, I didn't mind pulling the camera out so much because not many people knew about blogging or bloggers. But these days, it seems everyone in Melbourne is a food blogger of sorts. So these days, I feel a little bit more apprehensive about taking photos in a restaurant.
I use one of 3 different cameras when I'm out.
Iphone: My absolute last resort. The photos are crap and I hate posting them to my blog, but sometimes I've either just forgotten to bring another camera or went out for an impromptu meal.
Canon Digital Ixus 65: This camera is ok, but I don't love it. The main reason I'd use this is to be inconspicuous, probably at a restaurant where I'd feel slightly embarrassed taking photos. Maybe somewhere dark and formal like Ezard.
Canon 40D: This camera is my baby. If I could, I'd take every single photograph with this camera. I have 2 lenses which I love and are perfect for food photography. One is the 24-70mm, which is about $1800 new. This is one big lens and to take this out, you might as well set up a photography studio at your table. It takes amazing photos (IMO) if you check out my blog, it's quite obvious which lens took the nice looking pics. The other lens I use is the 50mm 1.8. This lens will only set you back about $100, but for it's price is an amazing lens and works pretty well in low lighting. However you usually need to up the ISO a bit. This lens is tiny, unassuming and fits in the palm of your hand. A lot less embarrassing to take out with you.

When I'm taking my pics at restaurants I ALWAYS wait until the wait staff have left and are preferably not watching me. I get a bit self conscious when taking restaurant pics. Usually my little trick is to have the camera out before I've even ordered and will flick through the photos on the camera with my dining partner and maybe even take a few snaps of each other. The reason I do that is, I like to give the wait staff the impression that I didn't get the camera out just for the purpose of taking photos of their food, more just to record the night. Do I sound paranoid? Or do other bloggers think the same way?
The only time I've ever been asked about my camera or more specifically asked NOT to take photos, was at Jacques Reymond. Apparently there are these people out there called 'bloggers' and they take terrible photos and post them on the internet. Well, that's what the waiter told me anyway. You can read more about that in my review.
If you're looking at getting your first food photography lens, I'd highly recommend the 50mm f1.8. It's cheap, has amazing DOF and works great in low light situations. Fit that onto something like a canon 400D and you have a great little reasonably inconspicuous restaurant setup.

Twitterer fennb then weighed in on the discussion:

On the topic of camera policies and food bloggers, I've been musing about "The perfect food blogger's camera".

Obviously, you could rock up with a Canon 5D mk II with a 17mm tilt-shift lens, but that's likely heading towards the point where the restaurant (or for that matter, other punters) my start caring - it would be big and somewhat loud (and inconvenient). It would also cost $6500.

So, what small, compact camera would be perfect for food?

Basically, the features you want are good macro/wide angle and excellent low light performance.

Two cameras instantly spring to mind:

1) The new Canon G11. It has less megapixels than it's older sibling, which was purposefully done to provide extended ISO (12800) low-light performance that canon has until now restricted to DSLRs.


2) The Ricoh GR Digital 3. This camera has a fixed length lens (so no zoom) BUT is 28mm (perfect for food/restaurant interiors) and can go as fast as f/1.9 (that's fast). This should make it great for low light/closeups, which is perfect for food.


Both cameras can shoot RAW (afaik) which is hugely helpful for low-light situations and both cost $500-$600.

I have no personal experience with either of these, but interested in people's experiences/opinions as it might help other keen food bloggers make a decision :)

And here's Ed's take:

Fennb, I've got the GR Digital 2 which is pretty amazing especially it's macro with a tiny focal length which is ideal for close up restaurant shooting. I wish for the GR3 because of the f.1.9.

The Ricoh's also have a great build quality too.

Thanks, fellas. Very useful camera information to know, particularly as my 30th is coming up and I'd reeeeally love a sexy camera for my birthday (nudge nudge). :)

Does anyone else care to add your nomination for the food blogger's perfect camera, or your thoughts on food blogging camera etiquette in general (whether you're a food blogger, a food blog reader or working in restaurants)?


Zoe said...

I'm in the market for a new camera too, the little Ixus 55 is pretty aged. I've heard good things about some of the Panasonic Lumix cameras in the under $1k range and would be keen to hear if anyone's used one.

Rilsta said...

I use my DSLR in restaurants to take photos of food, but it is one of the smaller DSLRs out there.

I was thinking it was perhaps more polite to ask wait staff if it was okay to take photos, but decided against for the questions I may be asked.

I do the same as you and wait until there are no wait staff around, and like Adski, take photos of my hubby and him of me to look more like a night out, rather than just taking photos of food.

I used to be embarrassed about taking my DSLR out at restaurants, but I think you get used to it. I still get stares from other diners when they see me taking photos because I have to hold it up to my face to look in the viewfinder, but so long as you are discreet (absolutely no flash) they shouldn't have a problem.

I find my small compact camera can't compare with my DSLR in terms of low light picture quality so that is why I always bring my DSLR.

Fitzroyalty said...

Great topic! I had two Casio Exilim Z1200s (12mp, 3x optical zoom) but eventually both broke - it's a bit fragile (though surprisingly heavy) for a compact digital, especially one used daily, repeatedly, and stored in jeans or motorcycle jacket pocket. Had good macro and low light performance.

My new toy is the Pentax Optio W80 (12mp, 5x optical zoom) which has no external moving parts and is very rugged (optical zoom is entirely within shockproof body). Has amazing macro (and super macro for perfect shots 1cm from subject). I am still evaluating its low light and general performance but it seems promising.

On policy, I usually ask if somewhere is new and I know I will be publishing the first review of the place, especially if I am alone in there and look conspicuous. I usually don't ask otherwise.

I diplomatically don't use flash in places where it may annoy other diners. Sadly this is usually the low light places where you need it most!

For me there must be no impediment to having the camera with me at all times. If it isn't small enough to slip into my pocket as I walk out the door then I may not have it on me when I need it.

Lachie said...

I have also moved from a small, compact camera (Canon IXUS) to a DSLR which at first I thought would be a lot more disruptive to my dining companions. However something that often gets forgotten is the time it requires to take a photo, especially in low light.

My DSLR (Canon 30D) focuses and captures extremely quickly, the zoom is also much quicker making photographing companion's food (with their permission of course) much simpler without having to juggle plates around.

I still use my compact from time to time, but if there's any way I can use the SLR instead I'll always opt for that.

(Also, I've never asked permission from the restaurant, and it's never been brought up)

Jetsetting Joyce (MEL: HOT OR NOT) said...

I don't subscribe to the idea that DSLR is best. The most incredible food blog photos I have ever seen are by World Foodie Guide ( She uses a compact Leica D-Lux 4 and started off with a mobile phone camera!

Personally, I switch between an iphone, compact and DSLR depending on my tolerance for embarrassment.

As for asking permission, 50% of the time I will ask and explain I write a blog. I find that explaining what I'm doing normally leads to interesting conversations with waiters, chefs and owners.

Jetsetting Joyce

jamesbluntknife said...

panasonic produce the lumix lx3 (which is a rebadged leica d-lux4). this has a leica f2 lens (i think 28mm) and shoots in raw as well.

if you have a fast lens on the camera you don't need high iso and it will normally make the photos very grainy.

i have a pentax k20d (soon to be upgraded) with a sigma 30mm/f1.4 lens. this is capable of shooting at iso 100/f1.4 in most restaurants, but if it's too dark will go to iso 400.

so far i've had waiters comment on me taking photos (they were just clowning around and posing for the camera) and had one owner tell me off for taking photos, saying that bloggers do not have a right to discuss restaurants as they don't know enough about food (i've named this restaurant in the past and don't feel theneed to do so again).

i'd never use a flash, but i do feel bad using a dslr in a restaurant at times - with a battery grip they are not exactly small!

itpleasesus said...

Perfect timing with your entry. I have only just started food blogging (1 week in!) and have found the whole photographing in a restaurant thing really embarassing.

Like you, I have been whipping out my pocket sized camera (Nikon Coolpix s225) but I feel uncomfortable taking the pictures. I have also been taking photos without the flash, so as not to disturb other diners - but its pretty tough to get a decent picture.

At home I have been using my brand new Nikon D90 which takes great pictures (if I say so myself). I wish the picture quality with my little camera was as good, but I don't think I will bring myself to pull the SLR out in a restaurant - that would be taking things to a whole other level!


Reemski said...

I originally used my nokia with 5 mp camera which was great and discreet except for the loud camera clicking noise that's now compulsory on all camera phones to prevent sneaky pic taking.
I've now got a Canon G10 which is still handbag size, but is also fully manual, but doesn't perform the best in low light. I wish I'd known, but apart from that is a bloody good camera.

cp said...

I only have the one camera, it's a Nikon D60 and I love it. So if I'm taking photos of food, that's what I use. But I usually don't feel comfortable taking it to a restaurant unless the food will be secondary to more social photos.
That said, I adore other people's quality photos of beautiful food! I mainly try to make my own food look good at home.

Agnes said...

In restaurants I only use my point & shoot (or my iphone) - mostly so I'm discreet, but also because I don't tend to carry my dslr around everywhere (I used to once upon a time, but it gave me back pain!). Oh, and I've never asked if I can take photos, I just do it.

The only time I use the dslr in restaurants is when I'm overseas. This is because I generally already have it with me, but also because I'm not embarrassed about pulling it out since I'm already a silly tourist. :)

Barbarella said...

Thanks everyone for your comments, I'm looking at getting a new DSLR because I want something I can use discreetly and not need a tote bag to lug around.

I've been using Canon IXUS8is but hate it for close ups, I've realised I need something better for low light and with good macro.

This is the result I'm after:

If anyone can tell me how these were taken I'd love to know, one of the few bloggers who don't list their camera or answer questions about it!

Barbarella said...

As for photography etiquette, if you're discreet isn't it a compliment? Can't be any worse for the waiter than waiting with arms full of plates for a group to finish leaning in and posing for the girl standing back from the table going 'oh wait..Sarah moved. One more time...'

fennb said...

Hey @Barbarella,

I had a quick look at the photos from the aixxx website and managed to get the metadata out of the photos. It doesn't tell us exactly what camera it was, but we can make a few educated guesses, EXIF data:

The key bits of info was it was shot at f/1.4 with 30mm focal length. This basically means it's a DSLR (well, the f/1.4 bit does) as I'm not aware of any compact camera that goes this fast.

It also means it's a prime lens, as no zoom I'm aware of can do f/1.4 either.

The most popular 30mm f/1.4 lens is the sigma:

But they fit on a bunch of different cameras.

So, with some confidence, I can say those photos were taken with a: Canon/Nikon/Pentax DSLR and a Sigma 30mm f/1.4 lens :)

Anonymous said...

perfect time of this post!!! i generally love to take photos of food just for memories, really, not even for blogging with, and most places are usually quite happy, though bemused when you do so. Got a shock of my life when the staff at Shocolate said no photography was allowed " to protect their new concept", whatever that may be... was wondering how fitzroyalty managed to get photos there.

fitzroyalty said...

I asked permission to take photos in Shocolate. The staff member did not know if it was allowed, so went to ask the owner, who came out to talk to me.

He was hesitant at first but warmed to the idea as I explained what I do, and he then became enthusiastic and showed me around, introduced me to the chocolatier, etc.

I think it was a combination of timing, politeness, luck and not defining myself as a 'food blogger'. This seems to be a dangerous label at the moment.

I usually say I publish a site about Fitzroy, which is generally considered by people new to all this to be less threatening than the work of those uppity food bloggers ;-)

Johanna GGG said...

great post - I have wondered about if you asked permission to take your photos in the past because I remember some in Hellenic Republic that looked like your were behind the counter - (though after hearing about george's views I guess they would not be so blogger friendly) your photos are always great

I don't ask about taking photos and try to be discreet - no flash and no fuss if I can. Love daytime meals because there is better light, and sometimes choose a table which is better lit just because the photos will be better

I wish I had seen this post when I bought my camera early in the year - but it seems to do the trick and works much better in low light than my old one though still not fantastic - canon powershot xs110 is

OohLookBel said...

Thanks for starting this discussion. I've enjoyed reading what type of camera others have, and have to agree that being discreet when taking photos is the best policy.

p said...

I'm not a blogger but I do read a few of the food blogs with interest. Personally I'm uncomfortable taking photographs of my meal, and the more high end the restaurant is, the more uncomfortable I would be (not that I've been to that many high end restaurants). I'm happy that others do though. I suspect I'd get annoyed if the flash was being used anywhere near me.
I think whether an SLR is better than a point and shoot depends on a couple of things. You really need to understand a little about what you are doing with an SLR and you also need to take a bit of time to set up the shot (particulary in low light situations). Some of the small cameras do produce some pretty good results and they are quicker and more descreet.
I was lucky enough to eat at Arzak in 2008. Two of the people on my table wanted to take photos and asked the waiter whether it was ok. They were more than happy for us to take photos.
I've been to a couple of the better Victorian restaurants in the past couple of months. I didn't notice a single camera at Momo, but did notice a couple of people taking photos at the Royal Mail.

stickyfingers said...

Zoe, Both my cameras are Panasonic Lumix. The new teeny-weeny waterproof number is brilliant in low light conditions & shoots HD video footage too. They both have Leica lenses that are equivalent in zoom to long telephoto lenses.

I don't bother with a DSLR even though part of my professional training involved 4 years of photographic study. If I was setting up a studio shot I'd use an SLR, but not for blogging, where the image is low res, and IP thieves abound on the internet.

Lisa said...

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penny aka jeroxie said...

Another great post. H and I share a D80 but it is really hard to share a camera so I just stick to my little Canon IXUS980IS. It takes really good photos but fails when it get too dark and I have to use the flash.
But am considering getting a D5000. Just like to get more into photography and not just food blogging.
I do not usually ask to take photos at restaurant and I just do happy snaps. I have learnt to ignore the stares but I am pretty quick as I am usually with friends and they don't appreciate cold food ;)

delhimoguls said...

Hi there, lovely blog! Wanted to enquire if like to post on suburban restaurants in Melbourne? We have a fabulous Indian restaurant in Mount Waverley which we would love for you to visit and cover :)
Let us know and we can discuss further.

Eating Melbourne said...

I just use a little Canon IXUS 90IS. It's small and fits in my handbag easily. I never use flash.

Here's what I want to know though: how do other bloggers handle photography etiquette when it comes to their dining partners or companions?? My partner and I had a bit of a tiff at Izakaya Den the other night where he announced he was sick of me taking "bloody photos of everything we ate". Ouch! I think he was tired and grumpy at the time, but nevertheless he does get sick of it.

Anyone else had similar issues?

Anonymous said...

Ah yes..
I'm kinda with him. My husband and I photographed everything we ate and basically everything we saw whilst away in Japan. We both did it! But, where I would take one photo and be half way through the first course he would still be clicking away. It was the same everywhere we went (ooh, let me take 50 photos of this bolt coming out of a brick wall!!). Seriously, by the end of the first week, we had more than a little tiff! Just don't go overboard. Did you go to a restaurant to take photos of the food or to eat it?
Just in response to the first comment from Zoe; I have the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ7 - used it all through our trip for blog photos. It was awesome, couldn't fault it! Just don't get it too close to steaming food, with the macro. I had a little problem with a steamy patch on the lense at one stage. It disappeared after a day or so!

Sharking for Chips&Drink said...

I know this is way late but you have a very good blog. i have a few Q's I was hoping you could answer if you have the time?

What probgram do you use to edit yout photos i.e. your photos look great and love your header and wondered how you got that created?

I am just getting into the blog scene over here as I previously had one in London. can you give any hints or tips at all?

Many Thanks and keep up the good work.

p.s. do you have a twitter account?

Sharking for Chips & Drink