Professional food photography can be used very effectively to promote and market your restaurant, but it comes at a price. Joanna Wood finds out how you can save money by taking photographs yourself
We live in a visual age. From computer games to blockbuster films, television programmes to websites, we are ruled by pictures. Speak to any professional photographer and they will claim that a good picture is worth a thousand words when it comes to grabbing the attention - in print or online - and, much to every journalist's annoyance, they are probably right. So it stands to reason that photography should always be integral to a business's marketing strategy, part of its branding.
This is particularly true in the restaurant world, where food is the pivot around which everything else revolves. Food has the ability to entice and seduce its viewers. "A good food shot will do more than 500 words of adjacent copy to get media coverage," confirms Maureen Mills, whose company Network London is one of the capital's leading restaurant-centric public relations (PR) firms.
The trouble is, good photography costs money - usually about £500-plus a day for a specialist food photographer - and this presents a real difficulty for small independent restaurants with tight operating budgets. The way around this can be to do some photography yourself.
The great divide
However, this route comes with a health warning: you have to be careful where and how you use your own photography as it is often, naturally, of a lower standard than that of a professional and, if used unwisely, can actually undermine your branding. The art of using photography successfully is in knowing where the "great divide" is: where you can use amateur photography; where you have to use top-notch professional photos.
There are many outlets through which you can market your restaurant, all of which benefit from photographic imagery: online (your own website/blog/newsletter, online publications), in the print media, and through social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Gushcloud, Foodgawker, Tastespotting, Flickr) - some of which you control directly, and some that relies on the decisions of others. The basic rule of thumb is: when targeting the media, you need quality - ie, professional - high-resolution (300dpi) digital images. Otherwise, you won't make it past an editor's default filing tray (the bin).
You also need quality food photography for your Facebook profile and your own website. Both of these are primary marketing sources where professional skill is needed. Clever, sophisticated photos on these will underline how serious you are about your food. For social media like Twitter, quality control can be relaxed a little. Twitter is, after all, an immediate means of communication - "instant gratification", as Mills says. So an iPhone snap is acceptable.
This is certainly what Madalene Bonvini-Hamel, chef-proprietor of the British Larder restaurant in Bromeswell, Suffolk, has done. A self-taught photographer who also founded and runs a website, she estimates that 20% of her social network sites are devoted to photography. She says: "My images are an advertisement of my cooking style. They showcase my ethos and are a representation of my abilities." And she estimates that her clever use of food photography on social media brings in around 15% of custom through the door. While down in Bodiam, East Sussex, the Michelin-starred Curlew's owner, Mark Colley, admits: "If I put an image on Facebook or Twitter, I get an immediate response. And when we do our monthly eâ'newsletter, which is quite image-heavy, the phones go mad for three or four days."
Regular professional shoots
Bonvini-Hamel has achieved an exceptional level of skill for an amateur photographer. But she's achieved this over years and, in fact, put herself on a five-week part-time digital photography course at the London School of Arts. Most independent chef-restaurateurs don't have the time or inclination to do this, so it's advisable to have regular professional shoots whenever you can afford it. You could probably get away with hiring a professional photographer once a year.
And it's vital to have a professional set of photos at your fingertips when you launch. If you don't, you won't get a big push in the media and you'll be totally at the mercy of bloggers' photos, over which you have no control.
After your launch - and in between your annual professional shoot - is the time to infill with your own photos. To help you do this and advance your base-level skills, we've collated the practical advice on these pages. One final thing: don't forget to always credit the source of your photography, whether it is yourself, a professional photographer or even the occasional image sent in by a customer.
â- Most of our practical information and advice has been kindly supplied by Adrian Franklin, director, Hospitality Media; with additional input from Madalene Bonvini-Hamel, chef-proprietor, the British Larder, Bromeswell, Suffolk.
Caterer and Hotelkeeper would also like to thank the Curlew, Bodiam, East Sussex, for allowing us to take over the restaurant for our photoshoot.
Food photography do's and don'ts
â- Photograph your popular dishes: the ones that bridge seasons, with garnish tweaks
â- Photograph desserts if you have a great pastry chef
â- Photograph a variety of dishes and ingredients, and link to seasonal references in blogs, social media, website, etc
â- Photograph colourful dishes
â- Use good daylight. North-facing windows are best to set up by
â- Frame your shots properly. Ask for a second opinion if necessary
â- Always use a tripod
â- Work clean: avoid drips, spots, smudges on plates and lenses
â- Plate food carefully
â- Be careful with aperture settings: f3.2 will give you focus on a particular part of a dish while slightly blurring the rest
â- Front-light your subject from the direction of the camera if using lights
â- Use props occasionally to add interest
â- Take a variety of images from different angles
â- Keep a back-up of your photos on memory stick or other external storage device
â- Watch out for shadows: natural shadows, carefully used, can create mood. But built-in flash and unskilled use of artificial lights can create horrid shadows
â- Get arty-farty: style over substance is distracting and less impactful
â- Cram the frame with too much on the plate
â- Use bright sunlight (it creates strong shadows)
â- Take blurred photographs
â- Use too many props
â- Use dirty plates, linen or tableware: thumbprints are a big no-no
â- Take photographs with a built-in camera flash
â- Photograph dishes with too much brown (makes for a dull image)
â- Use black slates or plates (they can produce flat images, because there is no reflection)
â- Have anything in shot that will reflect unwanted light (eg, translucent bottles)
â- Photograph against stainless-steel work surfaces (too much reflection)
Canon EOS 1100D (pictured)
Allows you some control over exposure; about £350 including lens
Similar to above; about £365 including lens
16.5 megapixels; quite easy to work with; about £400
18 megapixels; about £600
24 megapixels; about £529
â- The key thing to consider when choosing a camera is to pick one with a manual facility. As your skill level develops, this facility will become increasingly important.
â- Where to buy? Shop around - on the high street and online. Don't just look at photographic specialists; try computer companies, too. Good kick-offs are: Calmut (www.calmutphoto.co.uk), Jessops (www.jessops.com) and www.jigsaw24.com.
â- DSL (digital single lens reflex) camera with manual settings and good 50mm lens.
â- Sturdy tripod, eg, Manfrotto 055XDB (head required, about £100) or Velbon DV7000 (about £90).
â- Good lighting (see below).
â- Computer software, eg Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture.
Good lighting is essential. Daylight is best and costs nothing. If you want to take a step further and invest in basic lighting, you will need two "soft box" lights (eg, Bowens Gemini 400, about £250 each) and some accessories, such as a reflective brolly. A good basic lighting starter pack is the InterFit kit at about £409 (includes soft boxes and brolly).
A strong carbon-fibre tripod that doesn't move is best - preferably with a pan-and-tilt head. Beware of the fact that some don't include a head. It should always be taller than an average table, so that you can shoot over a plate of food.
A lens with a good macro facility (ratio of 1:1) allows you to get close to your subject. A 50mm lens is a good start - you can experiment with a 60mm once you are more experienced. A 35mm lens gives you a bit of extra wideness without distortion.
Props can add mood to a photo, but need to be used sparingly. Some ideas are: â- Glasses of wine
â- Wine or water bottle
â- Different presentation plates (including mini-casseroles, copper pans, etc)
â- Different coloured table linen for background (but use cautiously, as this dates)
â- Wooden tables instead of linen for background
â- Tableware (including antique knives and forks)
win a food shoot
In need of a professional photographer's services? Caterer and Hotelkeeper has teamed up with Hospitality Media, which specialises in food photography and videos, to give away a free food photography shoot, WORTH £600, to one lucky Caterer and Hotelkeeper reader. All you have to do is answer this simple question.
Q Why is good food photography beneficial to your business?
Deadline for entries is 30 September and the winner will be selected from the best answers.
Images from the shoot will be provided digitally and can be used for promotional use only. The shoot will take place in the morning or afternoon and include a range of up to four dishes. To enter, visit here.