Shooting your dinner

Photo: adactio/Flickr

Restaurant photography. The new “hang up and drive?”

Do you take photos in restaurants? Are you bothered when others do? Do you drool with envy when looking at other people’s snapshots or do you avoid looking at blog posts and galleries to maintain some of the mystery of a place you’ve never been, to experience the plating and atmosphere of a restaurant for yourself?

I have wondered about this from both sides of the restaurant table, as a diner and server, even from behind the kitchen door of a restaurant. Now that almost everyone seems to have a digital camera, and many blog about food, are there too many people taking too many photos?

I don’t think there’s any question that constant flash photography can be distracting and bother other diners at the table and in the dining room. But should restaurants step in and put an outright ban on flash use, or photography in general?

To gain more insight into the question, I asked MC Slim JB, a busy Boston restaurant critic, what his take on the issue would be. Here’s part of his email response:

“It’s a matter of degree. Nobody complains if somebody snaps a few “happy birthday” pics in a restaurant, but photographers who take ten pictures of every dish throughout the meal can be intrusive. There are certain places I’ve come to expect it, like O Ya, where the beauty of the platings is a big part of the experience; even the restaurant seems to be used to it (and probably values the free marketing that photo-centric food bloggers provide). When I see the would-be food-stylist types snapping away, the thought often crosses my mind: “You know, your food’s getting cold.”

“As for photography taking the thrill and mystery out of eating out, I don’t buy it. I read a lot of heavily photo-illustrated blogs and magazines, and they’re likelier to tantalize me, fire my imagination, or satisfy a curiosity about places I’m unlikely to be able to visit myself. That kind of armchair tourism is practically the backbone of the travel and leisure writing industry. If you want to avoid dinner “spoilers”, avoid reading those sites, the same way you do with movie reviews.”

My own experience in the kitchen of a restaurant (with fairly elaborate plating) was that diners who photographed their meals, while flattering to the kitchen staff to a certain degree, diminished the primary experience of eating and sharing the meal with their companions. It’s one thing to retain a memory of the evening out, another to eat preoccupied with the next blog posting.

What’s your take, as a blogger and a diner. Do you bring your camera when you eat out? Do you use, or avoid, flash? Are you bothered by other guests who ‘shoot their dinner’? And what of the photos themselves–do you read blogs with pictures of the meal, or avoid reviews that have too much visual description? Share your thoughts.

6 thoughts on “Shooting your dinner

  1. Pam

    I think to do it well and still enjoy your meal takes some practice. I usually take only one or two shots of each plate with the flash off, and I will only take a photo with flash (from way back so the photo doesn’t get washed out) if it’s wicked dark. And yes, it’s possible to get shots in without letting your food get cold.

  2. Kristen

    I agree with Pam that it does take some practice to integrate a snap or two into the pleasure of the meal. I do one or two quick shots, no flash and try to be as discreet as possible.

    I think that if you’ve got the right mindset, taking a photo or a note or two on your meal can enhance rather than diminish the experience. It makes you slow down for a moment and focus on the enjoyment of the food in front of you; savoring the details of what it really looks, smells and tastes like.

    Photos within a review or a blog are eye catching and can provide the reader with a greater understanding of the subject, so if restaurants were to ban non-intrusive photography, they would also be banning the publicity that those photos might create.

  3. Maggie

    I agree that taking subtle photos are fine. I always have a camera on me, with no flash in use, and always snap 1-2 photos in a very subtle manner.

    I also always ask permission, just in case… I feel it’s always better to ask – as they’re usually more than welcome to accommodate.

    I did dine at Hakkasan in London last year and before I took a shot, was asked to put my camera away. There are some spots that are just too cool for the camera, I suppose. :}

  4. Finn McSweeney

    I think it’s fine to take a snapshot or two when you get your meal — the visual aspect of food is an important one, and restaurants always honor that by ensuring (or trying to) that your food looks good. If you want to document that, fine.

    If I owned a restaurant, I’d think it was great — I’d be proud of how my dishes looked, and I’d be confident that instead of plating the food for one person’s enjoyment, I’d be reaching possibly many, many more people through that photograph.

    And yeah, though it’d personally annoy me if a person was taking photo after photo instead of, you know, eating the food, that’s just my personal attitude on it. I can’t wait to scarf my meal down, but other people can, and really, if a person wants to order a dish, photograph it, and then leave without even touching it, that’s (unfortunately) their right. Until we make it a crime to waste food, at least.

  5. Lauren

    When I initially started my blog, a food journal perspective led me to photograph everything I ate – including restaurant meals. I never got to the point where I felt completely at ease publicly photographing my meals, so I would quickly take a few shots before settling in to enjoy the food I would later blog about.

    Now that I’ve adopted more of an occasional recipe format for my blog, my camera is no longer a dining companion. I find that I enjoy my meals more fully now that I’m unburdened with setting up the perfect “shot”.

  6. Rachel Blumenthal

    I play it by ear…I’ve brought my camera to a few places where it stayed in the bag because it just felt obnoxious to take photos (very fancy, next table very close to mine, etc.) Other times, if I’m tucked in a corner or it’s a pretty casual place, I’ll take a bunch of photos. It really depends on how awkward it feels at that moment. I never use flash in restaurants; I manipulate the candles on the table as much as possible, but if nothing’s working, I give up pretty quickly and just enjoy the meal. And I always, always apologize profusely to my dining companions…especially if I make them wait a few minutes while I shoot THEIR food!