There is no magic formula or prescription for how to take better cafe & restaurant photography. And that is because you restaurant is unique in terms of its:
Guests - the "Guest Avatars" you are targeting and what they want to see.
The layout, architecture and perspective of your main dining area or service area.
The location of windows and other natural light sources (or lack thereof).
Ambience and mood, especially at the peak of service.
Context such as surrounding location and neighbourhood.
Drink and food menus and their dishes.
And that is just for starters. You may have multiple "Guest Avatars" you are targeting depending on your breakfast, lunch and dinner service. For example, a trendy inner city cafe might target different types of guests between breakfast and dinner.
1. Don't Use Your Mobile Phone
This is a common mistake, and understandable in some respects. Most cafe and restaurant owners have the latest phones with great cameras.
You already know how to use it, and aren’t phone cameras these days just as good as some professional cameras?
The simple answer to this question is, no — they are not appropriate tools to shoot good restaurant interior advertising photography.
The only thing I recommend using your mobile phone camera for is social media photography, or if you are trying to convey “authenticity” or “immediacy” which works well on social media like Facebook.
The problem with mobile phone cameras for restaurant photography include:
The poor low light quality due to the tiny lenses, leading to noise and grain in photos as the camera tried to compensate.
The lack of a variable wide angle meaning no options for framing.
The narrow depth of focus at small automatic apertures in lower interior light and lack of sharpness caused by automatically slow shutter speeds in auto mode.
Lack of powerful flash lighting options to enhance and brighten up your interiors.
The difficulty in stabilising and levelling the camera.
General lack of vibrance and contrast to food shots, making them look unappealing. This has improved over the years, but you can't be the large sensor found in a full frame camera.
Muted colours in lower light (which makes food look dull and stale).
The mere fact that mobile phone cameras are not great in low light is reason alone to not consider using them.
You want to be able communicate the most information possible within one primary hero image, and an additional gallery of photos, and this can’t be done effectively with a mobile phone camera.
2. Hire a Real Professional Photographer
The first problem most restaurants and cafes make is trying to do the photography themselves or by using a friend or family member who has a "good camera".
It is really worth engaging a full-time professional photographer that specialises in business, architectural, advertising and commercial photography and has all the right equipment for the job.
When you hire a professional photographer they normally come as a package with their equipment included in their creative fee or quotation, but that will vary depending on your local market.
Therefore, it’s important to know what equipment your photographer should have available for the shoot — so you are not compromising.
Your friend might be a very talented photographer, but if they don’t have the right gear — they will have to compromise.
The gear to shoot a restaurant properly includes:
The right professional camera (normally full frame) and at the very least a good medium, long (telephoto) and macro lens. The addition of a fast prime lens is also very useful.
They may as a bonus also have "Tilt Shift Lenses" which offer even more creative and framing options due to the ability to change the focus plane and shift the lens without changing perspective.
A suitable tripod for stabilising the camera and making sure it’s level, and there are no converging vertical lines in interior shots (i.e. wonky or distorted images). Tripods and light stands in a live restaurant environment need to be sand bagged for safety, but you really should be shooting without customers in the room.
Proper lighting suitable for the size and space of your venue. That would normally mean "off camera flash" pointed towards the ceiling if it’s a neutral colour such as white, or possibly lights with shoot-through umbrellas otherwise. These lights are large and expensive, and not many hobby photographers have these in their kit.
Most restaurant spaces are so large that they require the use of more powerful strobe lights for best results, and not just small "on camera" lights. Technically speaking, these lights should be at least 250 watt seconds.
My main point here is that all of this equipment is required to do the job properly. The photographer must have the right camera, lenses, tripods and lighting and know how to use them.
The reason I make this recommendation is that I constantly see restaurant interior photography that does not show off the space well.
It doesn't make sense to spend thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars on your interior fit-out and then show it in drab and lifeless light.
Flash photography makes colours and contrast pop, makes spaces more appealing and inviting and is simply essential for commercial photography.
3. Don't Rely on Natural Light
This is a follow on from the previous tip, but deserves its own mention. In any restaurant dining space that involves interiors, you simply can’t rely on natural light 100%.
I am not talking about food photography here, but actual photos of the dining room and public areas.
There will always be problems like distant dark or dingy areas in photographs, and you are capturing the image using interior lighting which is not "daylight balanced".
That means (unless your restaurant is in a basement) the exterior daylight which is about 5500 Kelvin temperature will be mixing with your interior light which is normally much “warmer” at around 3600 Kelvin.
As the two light temperatures are not balanced, one part of the photo will either be too warm, or too cold. Again, that is not putting your best forward in terms of a warm and attractive photo!
Relying on natural light 100% is normally the domain of portrait photographers who can shoot outside with the aid of reflectors and diffusers to control the sun light. It doesn't work for interior commercial photography.
Find a professional that has a range of lighting equipment to supplement (and if required) overpower the ambient or natural light as required.
4. Don't Rely on Random People
Firstly, with any commercial photography that is used for advertising or commercial use, it is necessary to get a model release from anyone who is identifiable in photos as best practice.
The risk is that a random customer in a photo could come back to you and demand you cease using their image.
It might be a disaster if that customer who is in the background of your photos is featured in every photo. If they object to be used for your advertising it may mean having to re-shoot the entire portfolio!
It is also not practical or sensible to pay a photographer to wait around until some attractive and appropriately dressed customers walk into the frame.
That is why most good commercial photographers will discuss this dilemma and explain the pros and cons and risks of including random customers in the background of shots.
It should be a major point of discussion with your photographer, but you should be the one making the final decision on this (armed with this information). You know your brand, customers and image better than anyone else. You have the most to lose.
My recommendation is to consider one of the five following strategies in terms of including any people in photographs:
Simply do not include any people in photographs, shoot the cafe or restaurant first thing in the morning before the sun is too powerful, or on a day or period when you are closed such as Sunday or between services.
Include random customers in photographs but ask for their permission first (at least verbally, ideally with a model release form provided by the photographer). You may need to grease the wheels by offering them a free round of drinks or meal. This is very opportunistic, but it can work (especially with small budgets).
Arrange or stage a group of customers to appear in the background either supplementing or replacing the random customers that are there. That might mean paying these “ring-ins” via a free meal or other inducements, but it can work well. However, it only works well if your friends and family are typical of your regular "guest avatars" in appearance, age, dress and style etc.
Organise professional models to be included in shots, under the direction of the photographer. This is by far the most expensive, and could run into thousands of dollars. I do not recommend this for most restaurants, as you may also need to pay for hair and makeup, wardrobe etc. It is also never going to look authentic.
Taking the photos with customers in the background, but blurring them out using a creative slow shutter speed and tripod. This works very well for a busy, buzzy bistro or when you want to convey energy and motion. The photographer will most likely need neutral density filters to achieve this effect and more time to experiment.
The other problem with including customers is where you have a photo that includes just a few of them in an otherwise empty restaurant. This does not provide good “social proof” that your restaurant is busy and popular.
If given the choice of an empty restaurant, perhaps with a staff member walking through or with a solitary guest — I would recommend the empty restaurant, especially for exclusive fine dining establishments.
5. Don't Gild the Lily
Your advertising photography should reflect the actual guest experience at your cafe or restaurant. So "over styling" the scene or food to embellish it may backfire when guests actually experience it.
This extends to table placements, backgrounds used to shoot food, and any other “additions” or props that would not normally be part of the real experience.
If you are shooting separate food or dish shots, I recommend these be taken in their natural environment on tables, without guests in the background. Adding elements like wine glasses and bottles can of course work depending on the type of restaurant.
You can also shoot at the pass in some restaurants such as bistros or fast casual, or at a regular table setting. The use of good quality professional grade lenses allows the photographer to blur out the distractions in the background. Using a macro lens means the photographer can zoom in very close, which also helps isolate the dish as the subject.
6. Don't Include Staff Unless it Makes Sense
Unless your head chef is Gordon or Jamie of international fame, it is not a good idea to prominently feature them in your restaurant photography.
There are exceptions to this rule though including in hotel or franchised operations where the staff are all similarly dressed, or your staff normally wear uniforms.
In this case, including staff shots can add value to the photography, as it conveys the impression of professionalism and consistency. The shot then becomes less about that individual staff member.
The problem with including staff is that the hospitality industry workforce can be transient, and that person may leave a few weeks later which tends to date your photography, or they may demand that photo is not used anytime in the future.
If you insist for some reason on using staff in any commercial photos, ask your photographer to arrange model release forms! (They should have these with them).
And let's be honest, some people in the hospitality industry can be "visually outgoing", and this may or may not be in the best interests of your brand. Remember, it's all about your guests and what they want, not your staff!
As a general rule, there is no value in including close ups of staff in any restaurant photography, people care more about the food and the environment.
If your chef or bartender wants to be included in photography then this is best used on a blog article, about page or secondary gallery away from your main advertising photography.
7. Consider Context
Let's say your restaurant is located in a popular well known street. Taking external photos that show landmarks or context to your location is of great benefit to guests.
That context will depend on the restaurant, but it might be the street itself, other restaurants, local shops, or even street signs. Those shots might also show there is parking right outside the restaurant, or perhaps the nearby pay car park or even bus stop or train station.
These external shots are also important for the overall guest experience. Guests who are trying to find your restaurant or cafe for the first time will benefit from seeing an external photo that shows what it looks like. This reduces anxiety about finding the place and being on time.
Internal shots of the dining room tell a thousand words about your venue and what guests can expect.
That might be because guests with a crook back can see the chairs have lumbar support. Or perhaps someone is looking for flattering lighting or candles on a first date. These might seem like obscure things, but every guest have different personal needs. All this detail is best communicated through photography.
It’s up to you and the professional photographer to decide how to include as much information as possible in your photography that provides context. This is always a game of compromise so it's important to understand what your guests are looking for and prioritise those aspects.
It also means that guests that don’t like the look of your restaurant simply won’t visit. That means less negative reviews online, and a better overall reputation in the long run!
8. Fixate Over the Food Shots
Firstly you need to consider and discuss with your professional photographer whether you will take any food shots at all.
If you decide to take food shots the selection of which dishes to showcase (and in which order) then becomes critical. Unless you are in the fast casual or fast food game, it is unlikely you will shoot every dish on the menu. And if you did, these would be likely shot in a makeshift studio on location.
The mistake I see many restaurants making is firstly showing too many or too few dishes, and secondly, not considering:
That some dishes may be seasonal and not be available soon.
The fact certain dishes look better than others, for example more attractive colour palettes, higher contrast, visual appeal etc.
A balance of different dishes that appeal to a wide audience and are actually popular.
That many people hate certain controversial foods like oysters. Play it safe.
Whether those dishes belong with your brand, or whether they are red haired stepchildren, like a "Thai" restaurant offering Nasi Goreng...
The uniqueness of those dishes, i.e. are they creative and unique and interesting, or just plain pedestrian. Do they provoke emotion?
Just how delicious that plate really looks taking into account the succulence of the meat, or the glistening of the sauces for example.
The combination of dishes you choose to photograph should be consistent with your overall brand messaging in terms of the story you wish to tell. If this fails, then your photography fails.
Food photography can be taken in natural light near a window at the right time of the day, with the aid of reflectors to bounce light back.
Planning and making great restaurant advertising photography is like planning a menu. It is much harder than it looks, because there are so many considerations.
You are probably constantly reviewing your menu and culling dishes that are not popular or don’t make business sense. So too you should be brutal with your branding and online presence, and not just set and forget.
Your photography is often the first impression guests have of your restaurant these days, so it must be on message with your brand.