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Elevating Take-Out Dinner Photos to Support Local Restaurants

While photographers may be getting restless because they can’t take pictures of their favorite subjects during the Covid-19 pandemic, there are ways to put those talents to use as well as contribute to your community.

Most businesses, including local restaurants for dine-in, closed statewide in Wisconsin last month. In response, local organizations such as the Oshkosh Convention and Visitors Bureau went into high gear with creative ideas to keep spirits positive as well as keep awareness of restaurants running in take-out and delivery-only mode. And, as their photographer, those ideas not only provided me with a creative outlet, but allowed me to give back to my community and my friends that own restaurants.

One idea is fun and simple—since restaurants have now switched to take out food, let’s photograph those food orders to promote local restaurants and help them to survive this slow-down.

Now, I’ve photographed food in studio situations with a food stylist, as well as grabbed a quick phone picture in a restaurant, but this was food being delivered in plastic take-out boxes that I was trying to elevate. The challenge was how to make it look enticing and yet real to the viewers from inside my home. Aside from usually putting the food on plates and employing my kitchen as the set, here is a list of equipment I used in the process:

For reference, prior to launching this project several local Facebook pages were formed to give details on what restaurant was serving what, highlighted with phone photos of food in styrofoam containers. I wanted a more appealing look while still wanting to eat my supper before it got cold! And, I didn’t want all of the photos to look alike. Therefore, having the shot visualized and all the gear ready to roll before the food arrived was a key success factor, and speed was of the essence at capture time, so we could get down to enjoying the meals after documenting them! 

Sandwiches from Planet Perk: Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 DG DN Art lens on a Sony A9M2. ISO 800; f5 at 1/25 second.

One of the easiest set-ups was just plating the food and making a quick arrangement on the kitchen counter, like I did with these sandwiches from Planet Perk. I’m basically a natural light shooter, but this was a little dark, so I used a Lume Cube to add some fill light. I tried to hand-hold the camera, but even with the fill light, I couldn’t find a good balance between F/stop, shutter speed and ISO. So, I used a tripod to get some added depth of field—instead of shooting wide open at f2.8, I went to f5 at 1/25 of a second shutter speed. I personally like using depth of field to bring your eye exactly to the main subject, in this case, the first sandwich; but then falling off for the second sandwich and background.

Shrimp and quesadillas from J’s BBQ- Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 DG DN Art lens on Sony A7R4. ISO 800; f6.3 at 1/400 second.

I like the idea of shooting straight down on food to highlight the layout on the plate. This take-out from J’s BBQ was ideal for this technique because of the colors and shapes of the items. And, it was easy to take the tray with both plates outside on a cloudy day to get even lighting. The image was warmed up a bit in post production to compensate for the cooler color temperature of the cloudy day. The Sigma 24-70 is an ideal lens for an image like this because of outstanding edge to edge sharpness.

Fish fry from Dublins Irish Pub- Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 DGDN Art lens on a Sony A7R4 camera. ISO 3200; f3.2 at 1/125 second.

Switching to the wider Sigma 14-24mm lens allows me to move in on my main subject, in this case, a forkful of fried haddock from Dublin’s Irish Pub, and really make it the focal point of the image. And, having a piece of fish on the fork also starts to introduce a human element to the image. Aside from the regular ceiling lights in the kitchen, daylight from the adjacent patio door is adding a fill light. I do shoot most of these in aperture priority so I can control how much, or how little, depth of field I want. I will also bracket the F/stop to find a good compromise between my subject being in focus and separation with the background.

Pizza from Christianos- Sigma 24-70 F2.8mm DG DN Art lens on a Sigma fp camera. ISO 3200; f5.6 at 1/125 second.

Yes, Wisconsin cuts their pizza into squares, as shown in this pie from Christianos. And even though that is what I grew up with, I so miss a big pie slice of New York pizza! My first though was to use the round shape of the pizza as a graphic element, but the pizza was hot and the cheese gooey and I knew the shot was the piece of pizza being lifted from the box. Since this was shot in the evening, there was no natural light fill, so along with the kitchen lights, I added fill light from the Lume Cube. I used a higher than usual ISO because the Sigma fp camera can handle high ISO with little noise. The higher f-stop allowed a bit more depth of field and shutter speed, and I found I needed that little extra shutter speed so the cheese wasn’t blurred as it slid off the piece of pizza.

Shrimp and haddock from Parnell’s Place- Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 DG DN Art lens on a Sigma fp camera. ISO 1600; f4 at 1/30 second.

The Friday night fish fry is part of the Wisconsin culture. Perch is the fish of choice; Walleye Pike or Bluegill might be an alternate. And it’s customary to include potato salad, Cole slaw, and rye bread with your meal. I personally love shrimp and haddock, so that was the meal I chose to photograph last Friday night. One thing that can’t be captured in an image is the ambience of small town supper clubs like Parnell’s Place, but being able to carry out the food will suffice for the next few months.

To change things up a bit, I chose the Sigma 14-24mm lens on the Sigma fp camera so I could go wide and capture the entire plate of food. This was shot with available light from the kitchen and dining room with just a little kick from window light. I chose an F/stop that kept the food in the front of the plate in focus but allowed the focus to drop off as it went back. To me, this brings your eye to the to main elements of the meal. And, while bringing in the human element of my wife’s arms holding the plate, it still keeps the background from distracting.

An additional part of this project has me capturing the neon signs in many of the shop windows for the Oshkosh Convention and Visitors Board.

This project of photographing take-out food from local restaurants continues, and will continue even after we will be able to visit those places in person. I even give the restaurants access to the images used on Facebook and Instagram to use on their own social media pages to showcase their offerings. This is my town, this is my community, and this is how I can use my skills and talents to help.

Consider reaching out to the local Visitor’s Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, and Downtown social channels to launch your own similar project in your neighborhood. Like the Oshkosh CVB, like Sigma America’s support of local charities during these times, and like so many other great pop-up givebacks we’re hearing about from coast to coast, we can all find ways to lend a hand to our community right now. 

Are you also a photographer using Sigma gear to give back to your community? Email Us

Comments (1)
  1. This was a wonderful article covering a genre of photography I’ve only just begun to explore. Still-life/ food photography is definitely an art and you have master skills in doing so. Your work is superb and looks ”delicious” as well!

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