Restaurant Food Photography and Natural Light

While high quality writing is important to any blog, so is the quality of the photography.  In my eyes a picture really does say a thousand words and a great photo of a dish can outshine any menu description.

I find that a bit of planning, some straight forward camera knowledge and a little insight into food photography can really pay off when you’re documenting your dining adventures.  When I dine out, I keep my shooting style in mind.  I find that by doing this I’m going to get pretty good pictures.  When I have been in situations at events where I don’t have any control over food presentation or seating choice, my pictures come out less than perfect.

Lighting and Seating:

Shooting in the daylight and using natural light is the ideal situation.  The natural tones of the dish really shine through and you can showcase the item a lot better.  Most people would opt for a table right by a window and it’s a great choice if the sun isn’t shining directly in.  But direct sun can wash out your photo and no matter how much post production you do, it won't look right!  So I opt to sit just out of the direct sun.

A cafe with window seating

In the setting pictured above I’d choose to sit at the lower table to avoid the washing out of the detail in my photos.  By positioning your food towards the light you'll get that perfect source of indirect natural light. The other secret is not shooting towards the window but instead, keeping your back slightly towards the window  (I’ll describe this in more detail below).

submarine type sandwichHere you get enough natural light to highlight the sandwich and all the ingredients.  As I said above, photographing away from the light enables your camera to focus on the food and not the outside light. If you had photographed towards the window, the sandwich would be completely black and shadowed with the outside being light and bright. The photo below illustrates this with the smoked salmon rolls being extremely shaded.  Both images above are completely untouched or edited and shot using my Nikon’s AUTO No Flash setting, the image below has been edited for contrast and watermarking.

smoked salmon rolls in the sun

Focus Points and Food Focus:

Auto focus on cameras tends to use the highlights on a subject and will focus at those points. To avoid your food being out of focus or the wrong detail featured on the dish, try picking the part of the subject you want to showcase. When you select the point of focus, then the camera will adjust the shutter speed to capture from that point and your photo will clearly focus where you want it to.

I tend to think of a photo in thirds when I’m composing it if I’m looking to highlight the whole dish.  I want the area I want to feature to take up 2/3′s of the frame.  This goes for capturing a whole item or focusing in on one area when using your macro mode for instance.  If your shot is pulled out more I find you lose focus of the featured area.  The photo above has been adjusted for contrast and watermarking in Lightroom.

Focusing With Different Types of Cameras

Some general tips for focus and different types of cameras that I learned from a colleague and fellow blogger and photographer in Orlando, Florida, Mr.Julius Mayo Jr are:

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• Touch screen camera phone – select the focus point by tapping on the area of food you want in focus -  the camera will do the rest. Sometimes it will take a few tries to focus, but be patient and hold still until it is done focusing.

• Point & shoot – for up close food shots, use the macro mode, hold the shutter button halfway and let the camera focus on the food.

• SLR camera – pick a focus point (I use the center focus point) and direct it to the area of the food you want to focus on. Press the shutter half way to focus, and then recompose the frame. The camera will stay in focus at that point as long as you have the shutter pressed half way. After you have your desired composition of the dish, click the shutter all the way down to capture the shot.

• With any camera you use, take a few shots, change the angle, and always pick your focus point. Sometimes you want the front of the food to be in focus and at times you may want the center of a dish to be in focus. There are many ways to be creative by picking your focus on the plate or on the food itself.

A Few Final Tips For Your Restaurant Food Photography

Some quick tips I ‘d like to leave you with are:

  • If you have a DSLR, shooting RAW pictures really does pay off in post production with the extra data that is captured.
  • Shooting in some kind of AUTO mode is usually a better option and used my many professionals in a restaurant situation. The fact of the matter is your food is only hot for so long and being quick getting your shot makes for a more enjoyable meal-trust me!
  • Take a couple more pictures than you think you need. Having a bank of images to choose from will guarantee you get the shot you want.  I find if you have 3 different final shots of dishes that will be enough. I usually take a total of 9-12 pictures.

Restaurant Food Photography and Natural Light was written and photographed by food photographer Sean Neild.  A born and raised Vancouverite, Sean’s on a quest to find the best food Vancouver has to offer.  With a background in the video game industry, he combines his love of technology, photography and good food to bring his blog to life. Sean is also the BC regional FBC ambassador and contributes to Eat In Eat Out Magazine and is Silver Spoon for the Food Network show Eat St and also writes and reports on local food truck news and vendors for the official Eat St blog on  You can find Sean on twitter: @YVRBCbro


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Jo Ann

Beautiful pics and great tips. I’ve gotten some nice pictures from my iPhone – now that I figured out how to use the camera properly. When I plan ahead, my Nikon J1 takes excellent pics too. Thanks!


This is a really useful and interesting article, and has made me challenge the way I look at food photography. For example, if I was taking pictures in a retaurant, I would almost always ask for the window seat, and then wonder why the photos were washed out. That’s learned me now 🙂

Thanks for taking the time to share your tips, Sean!


Right, thanks so much. It is really hard not to get those food photos looking too contrasty. But the biggest question is… what to do at night? !!

Martin Adler

Hello there,

Nice looking food, but i dont know the taste of it yet. But i definitely try to make my own like this.
Thanks for sharing that type of good looking food.


Your article is helpful! But more importantly how do I get my hands on that chocolate dessert in the photo above?!? Yum! That looks delicious (or maybe it’s just the great photography).


Thank for the tips on taking more photos than you think you will need. I have often wondered how many photos I should take. I will definitely do a better job of taking just a few more photos in the future.

Sev @ Layla Cafe

Thank you for the tips. I just bought my DSLR few days ago. I am planning to add galleries of foods on our website so customers could see all the foods that we are serving. Pretty excited to play with it.

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