Now, there are many photographers who shoot nothing but food, and have a vast experience of tips and tricks to make food look scrumptious. However, they are usually working from a studio with lots of space and lighting options, and a food stylist helping them to make every dish look gorgeous.
As a travel photographer working with lightweight gear on location, you cannot usually hope to produce these kinds of images. Often there is very little time, and space is tight as you are shooting it right off the restaurant table.
If at all possible I try to get access to the restaurant before they open for lunch or dinner, meaning I get a bit more time and space to make the shots, but other times you will be there during busy meal times, relegated to a table at the back so as not to disturb the customers. Getting appetising food shots in these conditions is not always easy!
Style If you flick through a recent cookery book or food magazine, you will see that the current fashion in food photography is for overhead shots with very soft lighting. While these look great, they are often not a realistic proposition on location.
When working off a restaurant table there is usually not much space or time to get the shot. The low-angle, shallow depth-of-field shots that were all the rage 3-4 years ago are actually much easier to shoot under these conditions. Get low down, use a macro lens to allow you to focus close, and light from the side or from behind to bring out the texture of the food. Depth of field is critical, I find shooting at f/4 on a 100mm lens about right - because the distance is so short, depth of field is very shallow. Use a wider aperture and so little is in focus that it is hard to tell what it is!
Even through the shutter speed may be high due to the wide aperture, work from a tripod as framing and focus are critical. Try and vary your shots a little between very tight close in shots, and some from further back which include some of the table setting. Placing a fork or other piece of cutlery on the plate can help provide context and something to lead your eye into the frame.
Lighting The big challenge when shooting quickly like this is lighting. If I'm lucky enough to be shooting during the day and there is a large window nearby, then I will use natural light. Indirect sunlight gives a lovely soft yet directional light that is very flattering to food and makes everything look delicious.
However often you don't get these conditions, especially if shooting in Europe during winter when it might well be dark by 5pm. When that happens then you need to provide your own sunshine, and break out your flashguns.
Given the space and time constraints of shooting in a restaurant, and the limited amount of gear you can take on an editorial travel assignment, I only use one light on a lightweight Manfrotto stand with a shoot through umbrella. This is placed to the side or even a bit behind, with a small reflector on the opposite side for fill. This produces similar soft yet directional light which, while not as beautiful as window light, is the best you are likely to get when working quickly on location.
Normally you will want to keep your shutter speed close to your synch speed (e.g. 1/250th) to prevent any ambient light influencing the exposure. The colour temperature of the restaurant lighting will be different to that of your flash, and nothing makes food lose more unappetising than mixed lighting where the highlights are lit by neutral flash while the shadows are lit by ambient that looks orange or green.
Yes, you can gel your flash to try and match the ambient light, but in practice it is hard to do this exactly, and while you would get away with it for a typical interior shot, even the slightest difference makes food look dreadful.
Mixing it Up The advantage of working this way is that it is very predictable - you know you will be able to get an acceptable shot. The disadvantage is that all your shots begin to look the same!
So always be on the lookout for food shots that provide something a bit different - ingredients, people making or holding things, whenever you get the chance. Although they are more unpredictable they will often end up your favourites.