467 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo, NY 14222
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American Buffalo Editors Notes Elmwood Greek Photography
Buffalo Chow has been widely praised for our food photography - a huge catalog of great local (and outside) dishes, captured exactly as they were served, rather than staged specifically for photo shoots. But as nice as the photos have been, we weren't satisfied with them. Why? To remain anonymous, we took most of the pictures using tiny pocket cameras that had serious limitations, and we knew we could do better. For Buffalo Chow 4.0, we dropped anonymity so that we could use bigger and better cameras, providing you with a better sense of what we were seeing. And we also wanted to help other local food journalists and bloggers to benefit from what we've learned. So we put this article together using photos shot with three different cameras at Elmwood's Greek/American restaurant Ambrosia. They briefly illustrate the differences that proper photographic gear can make - while they're only the tip of the iceberg for a much longer discussion, we hope that these pointers will help improve the food-related images published by everyone in Western New York.
1. Modern restaurant reviews are useless without pictures of the food. Thanks to Food Network stars and overeager bloggers, cries of "yummmm!" and claims that dishes were "cooked to perfection" have become so predictable these days that they've lost value. Many people barely read the text in reviews, and frankly, we wouldn't blame them. So the photos can make or break a review. Many factors go into making great photos, but one in particular is a major differentiator.
2. Great photos all but demand a good camera. We've taken thousands of photos of food over the past few years. The two shots at the top of this article were taken with a Canon DSLR - a larger camera with interchangeable lenses - and putting raw photographic skill aside, the results it produces are technically the best. Colors are captured more naturally, beautiful depth of field (one sharp area, other parts blurred) is a given, and quality of resolution (the actual detail in every dot captured, rather than just the number of dots or resolution) is exceptionally high. As a result, you see the wet wild rice glistening below the Six Grilled Shrimp on the top dish, and the rich red glaze on the Lamb Shank special below it. Less important elements, such as mashed potatoes, are still there but pushed off to the background. Incidentally, both of these dishes were pretty good rather than extraordinary, and they were the highlights of the meal at Ambrosia.
3. Picking smaller, cheaper cameras has consequences. Good news: you don't need to carry around a big camera in order to produce competent food pictures. Most of the shots we snapped over the past three years were taken with specially selected pocket cameras that came as close to a DSLR as was possible in a smaller form factor. (We wanted something pocket-sized that we could whip out whenever necessary.) Canon's PowerShot S90 and S95 are particularly good budget choices, with solid lenses and relatively large sensors inside to capture detail with little noise. But looking at photos three and four here, you'll begin to notice that the colors aren't as natural or graduated, that the quality and quantity of detail captured falls off, and that depth of field blurring is more limited. Photos begin to look flat unless you really know how to push a pocket camera to the edges of its capabilities. Even then, you'll probably need a program such as Adobe's Photoshop to make color corrections before posting the pictures.
4. The iPhone 4's rear camera produces images that are very close to a good pocket-sized digital camera. Apple did a great job with the iPhone 4's camera last year. Though the iPhone 4's images suffer from the sort of graininess that's inescapable with pocket-sized cameras, they're generally so good - if you hold them steady and properly frame your shot - that they can be used without much Photoshop or other adjustment. As shown in the fourth picture here, you can even get limited depth of field blurring if you know what you're doing. Don't expect these pictures to be beautiful, but they do the trick. That said, you lose all optical zoom capabilities with the iPhone 4, and if you're thinking of using an older iPhone - or another Apple device - think again. Apple's other cameras produce really ratty-looking photos that rarely do justice to anything. See the examples below.
5. Using sub-iPhone 4-caliber cameras is a huge mistake. We took the last two shots here using the rear camera that's built into Apple's latest and greatest product, the iPad 2 - the same camera found in the latest iPod touch - with a sensor inside that's optimized for typically dim indoor and restaurant lighting. Look at all the noise and grain in the picture above, as well as the rough edges of objects. Because there's no depth of field, everything appears to be equally "in focus," which prevents the Rice Pudding in the center from standing apart from everything that surrounds it. This image would qualify as amateur-grade food photography, but the iPad 2, iPod touch, and earlier iPhones aren't capable of much better than this.
6. Even with strong overhead lighting and an isolated subject, poor cameras make food look bad. There are few desserts in the world as delicate as a piece of Baklava, thanks to its flaky layers of golden Phyllo dough, but the last image demonstrates how a poor camera loses all of the paper-thin details, and muddles the colors. You'd have no idea from seeing this picture that Ambrosia's baklava was pretty good. There are entire web sites full of photos that look pretty much like this one.
7. A note on flashes and recent technological advances. Adding a flash to a camera enables it to grab an image that might otherwise be impossible, but carrying a flash is inconvenient - and flash photography is generally not welcome in restaurants. So using a camera that can capture an image without a flash is key. Having a big, fast lens helps a lot, too. The very latest cameras are getting better at taking pictures under poor lighting conditions, but they're often doing so at the cost of overly bright images in normal lighting conditions, and greater quantities of noise in many of their photos. Our advice: don't settle for an old camera. Get something new.
8. Even if you have the right camera, you still need to actually frame a great shot. So here's the really surprising part. Over the past few years, we've been at restaurants and other businesses when The Buffalo News has been snapping its photos. We noticed that at least one photographer uses the exact same Canon 5D Mark II camera we do, with the same lenses; another uses a lower-end, consumer-grade DSLR that's more affordable but totally competent. Yet the pictures are useless - almost always pictures of people sitting at tables. If you can't see the food, what's the point? So it's not entirely about the gear; once you get a good camera, you need to get the right angle, exposure, and other settings to capture great pictures. Practice makes perfect. Or, at least, pretty good.
We'll have more to say on improving local restaurant coverage in upcoming installments of this new part of Buffalo Chow.