Dining shutterbugs: When is food photography offensive?

Categories: Advice

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Dining out, the ask-the-server-to-take-a-group-shot photo is being replaced by the I'm-reviewing-this-for-my-blog photo. I recently came across an old Chow.com story inquiring about the etiquette of photographing food when dining out:

Dear Helena, What is the etiquette around food photography? Are you supposed to only do it in low-end restaurants? How many stars should a restaurant have in order for it to be too trashy for you to take pics? Should you ask the waiter first? Also, it seems like some people overdo it. Maybe sometimes they should just be in the moment? --Cameras Off the Table

Read Helena's advice (she dug up some funny stories from Chicago's famed Alinea!) and see what you think. Anything else you'd add based on your experience as either an annoyed diner or aspiring food photographer?

Dear Cameras Off the Table, It can be tiresome when you're dining out with a friend who insists on photographing every course before you can dig in. Maybe looking like a tourist makes you cringe. Or maybe deep down, you feel it's narcissistic for your friend to post a picture of every meal he eats on his blog.

But whipping out a camera at a restaurant is common dining behavior nowadays. You might not like it any more than you like it when your friend interrupts a conversation to look up something on his iPhone. But complaining about it just makes you seem out of touch.

Joe Catterson, general manager of Chicago's Alinea, says many diners are compulsive shutterbugs. This is unsurprising, given the elaborate presentation of dishes there, but people take it to ridiculous extremes. One couple showed up for a reservation, then realized they had forgotten their camera. "They got in a cab, went back to their hotel to get it, and then came back for dinner 45 minutes late." Another group forgot to photograph one of the courses on the tasting menu. They waited until the dish was delivered to their neighbors and asked to lean over and photograph theirs instead.

For the most part, restaurants are OK with patrons snapping their dinners, since these days if someone is taking a picture the odds are he plans to share it, whether on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, or all three, which can be free publicity for the business. Catterson explains, "Some of it has been fantastic advertising--the quality of some of the pictures is amazing." This attitude seems to be shared by high- and low-end places alike. Simon Dang, who posts pictures of meals on Plate of the Day, a blog he shares with friends, says restaurants generally don't mind his camera, whether the place in question is Per Se or a taco truck. (Of course, not everyone is a talented photographer. One person can make a plate of lamb shanks look like a miniature work of art, while the next can make it look like prison food.)

But though photography may not bother staff members, it can annoy other patrons. If a photographer keeps using his flash, or stands up to get a better shot, it's distracting. This can be annoying in any restaurant, but it's much more noticeable in a high-end place with dim lighting and a hushed atmosphere than in a crowded burger joint.

If you do take photos, you need not ask the server's permission, but it's polite to follow these simple guidelines: First, don't take multiple shots from multiple angles, kneel on the banquette, or rearrange the table. Jeffrey Porter, cowriter of the blog Drink Eat Love, says he limits himself to "four or five shots." Besides creating an unnecessary disturbance, your dinner might get cold. At Alinea, one dish, called Hot Potato Cold Potato, has contrasting temperatures. By the time a diner has snapped the dish from every angle, it might as well be called "lukewarm potato."

Forgo the flash, as Chowhounds advise. At Alinea, when diners have complained about other parties' obsessive photography, it's the flash that has bothered them. (Also, says Dang, it washes out the food.)

Finally, know when to put the camera away. On some occasions, your focus shouldn't be on your plate--like on a special date, for instance. It's not very romantic if one of you is obviously using the excursion as a way to get new fodder for a blog.

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