Blogger Photography in Restaurants; The Great Debate

A couple of months ago, Giles Coren wrote a review in The Times, a small portion of which he devoted not to reviewing the restaurant itself, but to complaining about some of the other patrons dining that day a “table of pale, flabby people taking photographs of everything on their plates before eating it”; assumedly food bloggers.  Mr Coren it seemed took significant umbrage at this and compared their snapping to “scrolling a BlackBerry or dropping one’s trousers in the middle of the room and taking a massive dump”, I certainly know which I’d prefer when I’m about to eat.

Twitter immediately exploded with bloggers, journalists, blogger-journalists, restaurateurs, and random commentators all adding to the great debate of the day; is it acceptable to take photos of your food when eating out?

I watched with interest, a newbie to the blogger fold, not yet even comfortable including my paltry online wittering under the esteemed title of Blogger.  I considered myself an aspiring blogger at best, but a blog I did have and it’s ever hungry pages required content. So I decided I’d stick my oar in too and began to write this post, coming at the debate from the naivety of inexperience, but I was too slow, other posts popped up, expanding out of the 140 character limit with much more elegance, understanding and wit than I could hope to muster.  I was distracted by something shiny and this post was left in draft, lurking on my Dashboard, glaring at me with unfinished eyes.

Today though the issue has flared up once again and like textual herpes only two months after the first eruption Twitter is for a second time covered in rash of offended, defensive and annoyed comments.  This time its Nick Harman having brief whinge about bloggers and their photography antics, although it seems this is something he’s mused grumpily on before.  I suspect this isn’t a debate that is going to go away any time soon.

Despite the many withered cries of “oh God not this again” though, this has given my unloved forgotten little draft a second chance at life.

Food photography was, and still remains, my second biggest obstacle in producing posts, second only to my interminable procrastination.  Writing I’m fine with, whether it’s any good is entirely another matter, but in terms of sheer words I can waffle lyrical with the best of them.  I have never though, and suspect never will be a photographer, food or otherwise, and as an aspiring blogger it seems this presents a problem.

Even at home my photography is shoddy at best.  My hands shake and though I could buy a tripod to support my tiny digital I don’t.  As I predominately cook late in the evening it is almost always dark by the time I’ve finished, even in the Summer months, and the so the lighting remains poor.  I don’t really own any props to try and make the food look the best it can and my plates are predominately brightly coloured and eccentric which makes me happy, but isn’t ideal for food photography.  I’m sure there is much I could do to improve the photos I produce, I would like for them to look mildly more presentable and have bookmarked this post on how to build DIY a lightbox as a future project, but for the moment they remain pretty rubbish.

Take a random selection of some of the best current blogs though and I can almost guarantee at least 90% of them will be resplendent with glistening pictures of artfully captured meals, both created at home and captured out in the field.  Far from the “yukky phone photo of some wet plateful of flesh” Mr Coren railed against, I have found them to normally show the food in a positive and frequently mouth-watering light, particularly when paired with the prose they accompany; perhaps he’s just been reading the wrong blogs?

Yet the question remains, given the state of my photography, is it even worth including photographs of food if all they show is a grainy, washed out, blurry shadow of what the meal actually was. Surely it’s possible to do just as much harm with a bad photo as it is to do good.  This has been one of the most frequent arguments cited against blogger photography; alongside Coren’s annoyance that the act itself is rude and unbecoming, people argue that the photographs themselves do the chef a disservice when hurriedly snapped in poor light on a low quality phone camera.  Much better, they argue, if photographs are required to ask the restaurant for press copies, or borrow with permission from their own website.  I can understand this, but as said few of the bloggers I follow would use such poor photos and largely succeed in showing the food as it has been served to them, not as it is having been primped and primed, tinkered with and tweaked by a food stylist and professional photographer.  Even curmudgeonly Nick Harman admits “…food photography is an art, and often a cheat with paint used for cream…and washing up liquid to create bubbles in soup.” Art this may be, but if that is the case I’d rather take the blogger photo any day and have an accurate idea of what I’m actually likely to be served.

This puts too much stress on the chef, the argument then follows back, to perform to a photograph-able, reviewable standard on every plate, to constantly worry that one bad day may end up plastered across the Internet, ruining their reputation and costing the business money.  Now I may be being naive here, but isn’t that the same for every possible reviewer, professional or not?  Doesn’t every customer have the capacity to provide positive or negative publicity for a restaurant based on their experiences, be it on a small scale to their friends, family and colleagues, online to a handful of blog readers, or nationally if commissioned by a professional publication; and of those options, I know whose attendance I’d find most stressful.  Of course it’s likely that restaurants may have prior warning when a professional reviewer has booked in for dinner and can make sure those plates go out in perfect condition, but I’m not sure if that can then provide an honest review of what an average customer can expect.

I love to read restaurant reviews, both professional and blogged, which is gradually leading to an increasing list of places I would like to eat, and an equally increasing waistline and decreasing bank balance as I tick this list off.  When I am trying to find somewhere to eat though, or Googling for an idea of what a particular restaurant may be like, I will generally read more than one review, recognising that there is a significant degree of subjectivity in these things, and no one person can really be held to have the final word.  Reviews will sway my decision though and those of the general public will often do so more than that of a journalist, providing a less intimidating and often more accessible idea of what the restaurant is like.  Besides this journalists frequently may not have even reviewed the type of small local restaurant I would be looking for, spending their time more often in a higher class, and price range, of restaurant which I would likely find too daunting to visit; bloggers and random people on the Internet though do.

In spite of this I remain wracked with uncertainty whenever I consider “reviewing” somewhere I’ve eaten, even that word, “reviewing” feels uncomfortable. I’m not reviewing, I’m not a reviewer, I can’t tell you in knowledgeable prose the provenance of my starter, or the importance of how my main was prepared.  I can give an account of my experiences though, one that will hopefully be enjoyable to read and provide an accurate idea of what someone else may expect to experience them self.

Returning to photography I again consistently feel uncomfortable when eating out, attempting to take a decent snap without drawing attention to myself, even when in the company of other bloggers, or a certain friend who insists I take photos so I can write about the meal later.  I want the photographs to decorate my posts, to provide much needed breaks between what would otherwise be a wall of text, but I am seriously hampered by a deeply ingrained and often misplaced sense of proprietary left over from my middle class, Catholic, liberal upbringing.  Despite disagreeing with those who object to blogger photography, it still feels impolite and embarrassing to take a photo before eating a meal, and too much like screaming “look at me, I’m going to write about this” to everyone surrounding.

For now though, I suppose I will continue to awkwardly and uncomfortably snap the best photos I can manage on my phone when out and perhaps work on improving those I snap at home; for if I want to be a blogger, it seems this is how it must be.

How do you feel; do you think blogs must carry photographs, or are you irritated when you see someone silently clicking away over a plate of food?  Comments are particularly welcome, even if just to say “I’m so sick of this debate now” as I think everyone probably is a little, but at least I’ve seized my chance now, and pulled the little draft that never was out of its obscurity.

*This is what my posts would ALL look like without photographs, brevity is not my strong point.*

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6 responses to “Blogger Photography in Restaurants; The Great Debate

  1. I’m with you on the feeling awkward about taking photos of food in restaurants. On the other hand it does mean the chef has to keep his game up in terms of presentation. But that doesn’t stop me feeling deeply awkward and like i’m doing something illegal!

    The problem with food blogging is that lots of people doing it are food stylists or great photographers so the bar has been raised in the food blogosphere to a much higher degree than in other subject areas.
    But keep at it – I enjoy your blog very much!

  2. Very thoughtful piece. I don’t think this debate is ever going to go away – like you say so eloquently, it’s “textual herpes”.

    The main thing is knowing when it’s appropriate.

    If I even remotely think that anyone (be it the restaurant staff, another diner or one of my dining companions) is going to be put out, my camera stays in my bag.

  3. Great post, really interesting.

    For me, taking photos of dishes that capture my interest is not something I that happened because of blogging, as I’ve been doing it for many, many, many years. I’m not sure why, as I always seem to lose the photos or forget where I took them! But I would say that I do take photos more regularly now I blog than I did before…

    I do enjoy blog posts on food more (in most cases, there are exceptions) when there are a few images to show me the visuals. I’m quite a visual person, so it really helps for me.

    I’m not interested in the PR images. As you say, these have been “primped and primed, tinkered with and tweaked by a food stylist and professional photographer” and are often quite different to what I might expect to be served should I visit the restaurant myself.

    Nor do I like the images of empty restaurants with or without a token member of staff, that are so often used to illustrate professional reviews. They give me no indication of what the place might look/ feel like during service.

    As for photography, I seldom use my DSLR in restaurants, unless they are noisy casual places where such a camera would hardly be noticed let alone disturb anyone. I’m trying to capture a representative and half-way decent snapshot of the dish, not create a work of art to rival a professional food photographer!

    So I most commonly use my small point and shoot camera.

    I’m not sure how much a single image of each dish taken quickly and without fuss could disturb other diners as much as some seem to claim.

    I think there are many common behaviours, including loud and overbearing voices, that are far more disturbing. I think much of the claims to be disturbed are simply about snobbery and looking down noses at the idea of recording the meal in such a way.

    Lastly, the main issue with Mr Harman’s (seemingly annual) rant is that he’s complaining about bloggers getting their cameras out at an event arranged by PRs especially for bloggers. At such events, more than on normal evenings out, bloggers are expected and even encouraged to get their cameras out and really go to town recording the evening, the better to share it with their readers afterwards. It seems an odd kind of contrariness on Harman’s part to deliberately accept invitations to attend such events when this behaviour distresses him so. Surely better to decline and attend on his own at a later date?

  4. Really interesting, well-thought out article. I did feel self-conscious at first, but now feel quite comfortable taking photos in restaurants. On a couple of occassions I’ve asked if it would be OK, and have been encouraged to take them – so far they seem quite chuffed that I want to.

    I’ve found the various people that have made comments against non-professional food photography come across as paranoid at best.

  5. I eat out quite a lot; it may be indicative of the focus I have of hoovering up the contents of my own plate, but I have never seen nor been distracted by anyone photographing their food!

    It’s not something I do myself, here – but while on holiday in Vietnam last year I felt compelled to snap away at everything I was eating. When I’m a tourist already, it seems, it’s much more natural…

  6. @Emma Drew Thanks, I really appreciate that! I have noticed that there is currently a very high standard for photography in food blogging, where there isn’t in other areas which is why I find it so odd when people then complain about blogged food photos being such poor quality. If they were it would certainly make things a lot easier for non-photographers like me!

    @meemalee I questioned when I was writing this post if I could get away with “textual herpes” but it made me giggle so I’m glad I kept it in.

    I agree about appropriateness though. If someone asks you not to photograph, whether the restaurant staff or a fellow diner, then it would be pretty rude to just carry on snapping away regardless. Despite always feeling like I’m doing something terribly inappropriate though I have yet to be asked not to photograph, and when I do no-one seems to bat an eye, so I suspect there have been occasions when I’ve left my camera in my bag for fear of offending or annoying someone and actually it would have been perfectly fine for me to take pictures, but perhaps being a little over-cautious is better than the alternative?

    @Kavey I think you have a good point about the difference between trying to take a decent visually appealing representative shot and trying to create a photographic work of art, which may look a lot prettier but give a much less realistic idea of what to expect. Although it can be hard to remember this when I see the quality a lot of bloggers manage to produce, setting the bar considerably higher whilst still simply showing the food as it has been delivered to them.

    I absolutely agree with you about other much more obnoxious and disruptive behaviour in restaurants though. I have a dear friend who I absolutely love but who can be very loud at times and often causes me to cringe if we’re somewhere relatively quiet, more than I would taking photos. Although saying that, it does make the photo taking feel a lot less inappropriate in comparison!

    I noticed that about both of Harman’s pieces too but missed it out of my post. It does seem a little churlish to attend blogger PR events and then whinge about blogger’s there!

    @Kanga_Rue Thank you! Yes I have found it slightly easier as I get used to the idea of photographing my meals, and realise that no-one is going to shout at me or ask me to leave for doing so! I think it can be quite discouraging for new bloggers though to read professionals like this complaining about blogger photography which is why I wanted to write up this post.

    @WalshyMK So many of the photos I do take when out end up being of partly demolished food simply because it looks too good and I forget to photograph before diving in; not very professional!

    I think you’re definitely right about it feeling more natural if you’re a tourist already though, I’m sure I’ve taken snaps of my food whilst on holiday before, or even here at home if I’m out on a particularly special evening. I remember years ago on the last day of high school taking a photograph of my last ever school dinner purely for posterity! Somehow that tourist get out clause doesn’t seem to be there if I’m just out for a meal here with friends though. Even if I’ve gone out to eat specifically so that I can blog about it; in fact I would probably feel more nervous photographing in that case as I’d be very self-conscious of my motivations. The more restaurant photographs I do take though the more natural it seems, I think it’s perhaps just a barrier new bloggers have to get over.

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