How to Capture Atmosphere
A photographer’s guide to being invisible.By Nikki To
The feel, the vibe, the energy of a restaurant, it goes a long way to elevate an experience for a diner. Delicious food and drinks are important, yes, but this only gets you so far if the service and energy of a restaurant isn’t right. We feel the same from a content perspective, you need the whole package. You can shoot hot shots of food and drink, but it’s the shots that convey a sense of the energy and feel of a space that helps an audience understand how it feels to be dine in that restaurant. As a photographer, if you’re able to capture compelling and natural atmospheric content, you’ve got yourself some valuable content.
To capture atmosphere, you essentially have to be a fly on the wall, somewhat invisible. It’s pretty hard to do that when you’re walking around with a big camera and tripod in an environment you can’t control. There’s also that weird sixth sense that people have, they just know someone’s taking a photo of them and they spot you a mile away! Don’t be discouraged, these shots are worth the effort, you just need to learn how to capture the energy without interrupting it. As a photographer who has spent a lot of time on the floors of busy restaurants and kitchens, here’s my guide to being invisible.
1. First impressions count the most
This might sound odd, but the first step to being invisible is to first make yourself visible. Letting people know who you are and why you’re there goes a long way in putting diners at ease. Introduce yourself to the staff on the floor and the chefs in the kitchen. In terms of making diners feel comfortable while you share the same space, check if the floor staff don’t mind wording up their guests. Always give diners the options to let you know if they don’t want to be shot. Once guests have been made aware of the reason you’re shooting, most people feel a little more at ease, which makes for better shots.
2. Go dark
I’m a bit biased on this one because all I wear is black. Not only is it slimming (jokes, is it?) but it’s a great way to make sure you don’t stick out like a sore thumb. Dark neutral colours are usually the way to go, especially when shooting at night.
So what exactly are we trying to capture? Atmosphere, energy, they’re all intangible things, how do you visually capture this? Personally, I have a checklist. I usually start wide and slowly work my way towards tighter, more intimate shots. I usually make sure I capture a range of wide angles and vignettes of the interiors, exterior shots and then a collection of shots that are less static and give an insight into the feel and energy of the space e.g. a waitperson taking dishes to a table, diners toasting or a bartender garnishing a cocktail (more on this below!). I’ll avoid using my tripod as much as possible when I shoot during service, it’s clunky and awkward so I’ll use it sparingly and only when shooting static room shots (particularly when it’s dark) or if I’m trying to capture motion blur. Once the tripod shots are out of the way it’s time to go hand held with your camera and start looking at vignettes to capture in and around the room. Be fluid, be nimble and stay the hell out of everyone’s way! Sometimes this is quite hard when it’s dark, A little technical note if you’re shooting in a super low light space: I’ll crank my ISO as high as I can acceptably push it (on my Canon 1dX I’ll take it to 2000 if I have to) and open up my aperture (around 2.8 on my 50mm). I usually work between shooting service, diners and then head into the kitchen to see what action there is to capture there. With these shots, it’s usually the human element of a restaurant you’re trying to distill. People laughing at tables, couples up at the bar sharing a bowl of pasta, wait staff carrying dishes, making a cocktail or lightheartedly doing the pepper rounds after serving the mains. In the kitchen, it’s more about the rush of service capturing chefs in action, the drama of cooking, plating and waits staff pulling dishes off the pass.
4. Take your positions
A real win with atmospheric photography is being able to capture a laugh or a smile, a moment between diners or the heat in the kitchen. Sounds like stalking? In a very innocent and much more timely sense, it kind of is. So this is how I go about my innocent, invisible stalking. If I see a nice angle on a table or some diners sitting at the bar, I’ll work out a spot where I can ‘perch’ and remain there without being too noticeable. Take a few shots to test your exposure is right and to see if you’ve been noticed yet and if those two tasks pass, then you wait. I’ll usually have my camera up to my eye (if I’m super invisible) and wait until a smile or a toast happens. Sometimes this works sometimes it doesn’t. In the kitchen for instance, it’s hard to stay in one spot without getting in the way. Handy tip - learn how to use the term ‘backs’. I’ll normally duck in and out of the kitchen during a busy service so that you’re not in the way and the chefs don’t get annoyed. You need those guys and gals on your side.
As mentioned earlier, there are parts of a service you just can’t control. For example if the restaurant is busy or if the customers look like the audience you are trying to attract. We always encourage our clients to see if they can organise a 'rent-a-crowd’ for these types of shoots. Get a bunch of friends in, use them as models, give them a meal for free – everybody wins! Having people you know in the space allows you to control the environment somewhat and capture shots that are close up e.g. wine being poured at a table, food being placed down and eaten, people toasting and tighter talent interactions.
We’ve supplied shots from a few recent shoots. These shots are a combination of moments from the kitchen, couples at the bar, room shots and a banquet with some friends who were brought in for the shoot. Hopefully you get an idea of how these shots give a sense of what the restaurant energy is like in full service.
So give it a go, think about how you’d like to express a space, know how to read a room, know how to use your gear in the most discreet way possible and have fun!
Need help with your photography? Contact Buffet for a consultation on how we can help.
Sign up to the Buffet Newsletter for more tips and tricks for creating exceptional content, and some other tasty things.