Recipe for Delicious Food Photos

Khalil Azar, owner of Me Jana Lebanese Restaurant

The recipe: Take one old photographer, me, add one restaurant owner, Khalil Azar, (who by the way would rather be a food photographer but that’s a story for another day), season with a Canon camera and a zoom lens, a pinch of strobe lighting, a selection backgrounds to taste and mix vigorously. Oh yeah, and take these photos in a corner of the restaurant while it is open and serving meals. Challenging? Well, yeah. 

I always admired high-end food photography and the photographers who specialized in it. They have studios with well-equipped kitchens, work with food stylists and shoot for glossy magazines like Bon Appetit or Food & Wine. My work was more rudimentary, I shot food for restauranteurs in their restaurants. The plate put in front of you in a restaurant may look great but it won’t necessarily photograph that way. Without a food stylist the chef, owner and I had to collaborate on the menu items and their preparation. After that, it is all about composition, lighting and making it appealing to the eye. With a lot of effort we get as close as possible to the glossy magazine look.

Khalil with his pop-up studio in the back of the restaurant

I met Khalil 4 years ago when he commissioned me to do a series of photographs for marketing of his Me Jana Lebanese Restaurant in Arlington, Virginia.  After the project was complete, Khalil told me he would like to shoot food himself. He liked to update his social media weekly. So, we sat, talked about it and I decided I was willing to work for food … I taught him, he fed me. After upgrading his camera gear, buying studio lighting and backgrounds, we worked on fundamentals like lighting ratios, perspectives and technique. I can proudly report, that after 4 years of mentoring Khalil, while running the best Lebanese restaurant town, has become a fine photographer. Yesterday, I watched him shoot a new poster for his weekend brunch business.   

For you photo gear heads: 

  • Canon 5D Mark IV camera
  • Manfrotto Carbon Fiber Tripod
  • Benro Geared Tripod Head
  • Canon 24-70MM lens
  • Alien Bees strobe with wireless remote release
  • 60” sale umbrella and reflectors
  • CamRanger II
  • iPad

A geared head on a tripod gives precise movement, critical for composition. The CamRanger wirelessly connects the camera to the iPad with a set of controls to adjust exposure, ISO and the ability to live check focus before clicking the shutter. After all of this is set up, Khalil can start working on his composition and lighting. This is the toughest part of the job. He has to consider colors, textures, contrast and of course shadow, needed for depth. It takes a good eye, that I can’t teach, it’s intuitive. Khalil spent about four hours working on this photograph for the brunch promotion. It is excellent; colorful, sharp and with good modeling of the light. As far as I am concerned, this is glossy magazine cover material. 

Using Format