George Wilson: Shooting Food on the Road

Road Food Thumb

Entering a room with large windows, many people say “wow – what a view”. Me? My thoughts are opposite – I say; wow – great light source!! When traveling, it is the same thing. I walk into my hotel and check out the windows or walking into a restaurant and I ask for a table by the window. What happens next, I hope will inspire you to not put your camera in the bag while dining.

Visits to restaurants and cafés should be dining experiences combined with photo opportunities. How often do we look at souvenirs’ and mementos to think of great memories from out travels? Now ask yourself, how many small café’s, coffee shops and restaurants do we remember? Travel is about experiencing the culture and atmosphere of a location as well as the sights and sounds.

I am a photojournalist first, having cut my teeth in news work many years ago. I do not shoot food professionally as a professional shoot of a cheeseburger can require examining literally hundreds of buns brought to a studio just to find the perfect one. The focus of professional food images is to make food look good in the image. This probably is not how it looks on your plate when it arrives. I am in search of the story of the food as it would be served. In the examples below, it meant including the small crumbs on the plate after I put it on the table; the story accurately told.

One difference between a good image and a poor image is the lighting. Insufficient or lackluster lighting will affect the overall appeal of the final image. Over or under exposure is the most common however; even the direction of the light affects the image. This is where I utilize a selection of Photoflex LiteDiscs.

Travel means packing light, but it does not mean doing without. I carry an assortment of 12” Photoflex LiteDiscs with me. I originally began using these for close-up flower photography in tight spaces or public gardens. But since they fold neatly and fit into my camera bag or pocket, they have become a standard item for traveling. An oversized reflector in a crowded area or coffee shop can be a recipe for disaster as you may end up hitting someone or something. The 12” reflectors are ideal for tabletop work.

The standard reflectors I carry are:

  • Translucent for diffusing light, small specular light sources produce harsh light and strong shadows. The sun is a small light source, I am able to cover it with my thumb in the sky. By broadening the light source (in this case the size of my thumb to 12”) – the light is softened and shadows lose their contrast.
  • SunLite is used for a slight warming effect.
  • White for a soft neutral highlighting
  • Gold is used where I want to warm up the light on a subject – like a dimly lit coffee shop or wine bar.
  • Silver, the strongest of the LiteDiscs, is something I reserve for overcast days or working in B&W.

Photography is light dependent, in fact the word means drawing or painting with light. Window light is a wonderful source as it is large and often diffused. Large windows will provide a “wrap around” look on your subject. When you go into an eatery, look at the windows or open doors and ask for a seat near them or under a skylight. Ambient light is your best friend for natural looking images.

I tell my students that composition is 80% of the game with 15% being technical knowledge and 5% pure luck. Since food or drink is the primary subject, we should try to minimize competition with other elements within the frame. I like to use fast prime lenses with large apertures to tell my stories. My 50mm f1.8, 35mm f1.8 and 60mm Micro Nikkor f2.8 are the first lenses to come out of my bag. By shooting wide open, I get the out-of-focus background to help the viewer focus on what is important. Also, try to turn the plate and study your subject. In portrait photography, people always have a good or better side and it’s the same with food.

Remember that the eye is drawn to the area of greatest contrast or sharpest focus in any image. Experiment with focus points and decide which one makes the best impact.

Try to use props as they add to the story. In the above image, I stopped for a morning espresso and a small piece of local specialty bread. This would have been a standard coffee shop image until I added more to the story. How will viewers know I was in San Juan, Puerto Rico? Most of the time I am not in the same room with viewers to explain the photograph. So I have to rely on visual clues, placed just for that reason.

In this image, I opened my well-used travel guide to a map of Old San Juan, in fact it says “Old San Juan” on the page itself! Inclusion in the frame completes the image. Just remember, isolating the subject is almost always a good idea with food photography, and less cluttered images work best.

Now staying with the less cluttered train of thought, it’s best to use small plates. Your image will appear better balanced, and be more inviting and appetizing when the subject fills up most of the plate.

I used the white side of a Photoflex 12” SunLite/White LiteDisc to augment the natural light and brighten the espresso cup. My exposure was ISO 400, 1/500 at f2.8 with a 35mm f1.8 lens. This brings up a good point. When shooting in a restaurant stick, try to stick with available light. You can bump up the ISO if you have to and shoot at wider apertures. This is where a fast prime lens can make all the difference as to how quickly you can shoot. My standard ISO is 400 to start.

In Old San Juan, a short distance South of the Castillo de San Cristóbal, is Plaza Colon with some open-air stalls of local artisans. This location houses the Parrot Club, one of the best hidden-gems known to locals.

At the Parrot Club, the Churrasco y Queso Empanadilla is outstanding! My server made suggestions, as I will usually ask for local favorites. I firmly believe that part of the travel experience is culinary.

The low lighting of the narrow streets in Old San Juan did not allow for an ISO lower than 400, I actually bumped it up to ISO 640 due to lower lighting and the darker colors of the interior and the tabletop. I still used my 35mm lens wide open at f1.8 to distinguish the table setting but still isolate the empanadilla in the foreground. A silver reflector picked up enough light to just brighten the front of the plate.

My next order was Tacos Pernil, another local favorite. I changed over to my 60mm Micro Nikkor f2.8 to shoot from a lower angle. The macro capabilities of this lens allowed me to get close and isolate details as well as colors, which is perfect for the numerous chopped ingredients in the dish.

Working this closely, colors are the primary focus. White balance is very important to make the food look appetizing and this meant using the white side of the Photoflex 12” Silver/White LiteDisc. It also meant bumping the ISO much higher, this time to 1000. Using a flash in these locations is a distraction to the other people enjoying lunch, so I just keep that tucked away in my bag.

Depth-of-field drops off quickly at close distances. In earlier photographs f1.8 worked well, but now I was mere inches from the plate and f1.8 would not have been a desirable aperture setting. So I experimented and found that f3.5 on this lens did what I wanted.

My last word of advice is to work fast if you can. The quicker your photographs are made, the better. The clicking shutter can cause a small distraction to a quiet location, but most importantly, the food loses visual appeal if it sits out too long. Hurry up and shoot, then enjoy your meal or snack.

George Wilson has more than 30 years of experience as a professional photographer, and his work has appeared in many national and international publications. Now focusing on nature and wildlife photography, George exhibits his infrared black and white landscape work and teaches photography at numerous art centers, botanical gardens and at the Walt Disney World Resort in his home state of Florida. A key element to George’s work is his dedication to traditional photography as his post processing is strictly limited to tools aligning with the traditional darkroom. To see more of George's work, visit

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