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can’t take me anywhere

One of our favorite meals in Boulder is Community Night at The Kitchen. It’s a brilliant concept and so much fun. Every Monday night at 7 pm, diners who have signed up for Comm Night arrive and sit at a long table in the center of the dining room. There are usually 2 dozen people and reservations need to be made a few weeks in advance. No one knows what the menu is. You don’t order the food. The chef decides that day. When everyone is seated and has ordered drinks, the courses begin to parade out. Usually there will be three or four plates of one course passed around the table. You dine family style. It’s a social setting and you usually wind up chatting with your neighbors and getting to know other folks. You know… “community”. But more than just the community – people are there to sample some pretty amazing fare. All told, there will be anywhere from 9 to 13 different dishes that pass under your nose by the end of the evening. The best advice I can offer anyone going to Community Night: wear an elastic waistband.

a neighboring cocktail

mixed olives to start: picholine and niçoise

I made a reservation for Comm Night so my ILs could experience it this past Monday. It was our (mine and Jeremy’s) fourth time – we absolutely love it. And while Comm Night is just about my favorite meal to have in Boulder, it is also my least favorite to shoot. Even in summer, Comm Night doesn’t begin until 7 pm and the lighting inside the dining room of The Kitchen suuuuucks. I understand that some food bloggers have rules about not using flash, yadda yadda and yadda. Whatev. Shooting at The Kitchen is a pickle, but Comm Night is so bloody amazing that I always want to capture it.

chicken and pork pâté with cornichons and mustard

prosciutto with cheeses, apple slices, and candied almonds

Restaurant shooting is probably the most stressful part of food photography that I encounter. Not only is it generally more technically difficult, but the social circumstances can make it awkward if not impossible. But I love to photograph what we eat in restaurants because it’s different, it’s (sometimes) plated, and it usually looks good. Most of my dear friends Don’t Touch their plates when they are set down at the table. They even turn the best side of the plate to face my camera. I suppose that is a sad statement about me… and it also means my friends are pretty frakking awesome.

flatbread with duck confit, corn, onion, and chèvre

tazmanian salmon belly wtih corn salad and sautéed greens

Most people don’t photograph what they are eating in restaurants, so when I want to shoot my food, I am already doing something out of the norm. There are three groups I consider: 1) my party 2) the restaurant and 3) other diners – not necessarily in that order! I generally don’t shoot if the people I’m with are going to be annoyed or offended. I typically okay it with the restaurant if I’m using flash (more on that below) and I also politely check with fellow diners around me if using flash. Amazingly, some of the fellow Comm Night guests have gotten into it and offered to hold a plate for me or search around for the prettiest presentation. I have never had anyone tell me “no” except a cupcakery in Pasadena who refused to let me photograph their cupcakes (which was odd because I bought 10 of the damn things and took them outside to photograph and by the way – they were pretty mediocre for the price I paid). If anyone tells me no – I refrain, period. Oddly enough, on some occasions when I’ve asked other diners if my flash will disrupt their meal, they reply no, then smile, then ask me if I’m Kylie Kwong. What a hoot.

grilled calamari in red pepper peppronata and diced tomato

farm greens with apples and gorgonzola

Ideally, when I shoot in a restaurant, I will be seated by a window where good natural light is available and there is no need for anything but my camera and a steady hand. Ideally. Life, as we know it, is rarely ideal. I shoot with the Nikon D200 because all of the smaller cameras are either on the fritz, out to pasture, or full of pictures of national and international telescope facilities (don’t ask). Shooting with the D200 is a pain in the ass. Why? It is big and heavy. Plop one of two huge lenses on it and you get Bigger and Heavier. As light diminishes (which it always does in the restaurants), shutter speed slows down and well – you need a table-top tripod. I can hand hold my shots down to about 1/8 of a second with decent results and then we enter the realm of pain where it’s too much trouble to bring out the tripod, but the potential for camera-shake increases and risks tanking the shot (see the cocktail shot – 1/6 sec). I don’t tweak my ISO. It stays on the lowest setting *always*. I’ve tested a handful of smaller tripods and the only one that doesn’t buckle under the weight of my camera/lens is the gorillapod zoom. Don’t get too excited though, the G-pod zoom barely handles the configuration and most of the time I have to steady the tripod with my hand to pull off exposures anywhere from 1/8 to 1 second. Oy!

roast pork tenderloin with potatoes, carrots, celery, fennel, onion

creamy polenta with grilled onions

When the tripod doesn’t cut it, it’s time to bring out the flash (and put tripod away). When I cross the line to flash photography, things become more complicated on several fronts. First off – I am now infringing on the ambiance and dining experience of the people around me. That’s why I ask first. Again, no one has EVER had a problem with it so far. One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of the people dining at the finer establishments are there for celebratory reasons and they wind up taking a lot of photos for the occasion and use… flash. I’ve even taken photos for some folks. For some reason, if you are taking snappies of the whole gang at Grandma’s 75th birthday, you don’t need to ask permission of the other diners to use your flash, but if you want to shoot some sexy prosciutto at your table, it is enough to get some folks’ panties in a wad (according to comments on a few food blogs).

Secondly, there is more equipment involved: external flash and diffuser. I lug all of this junk in a compact photo bag which I try to tuck under my table or seat. Juggling photography gear is a nightmare for me – just not what I want to be dealing with at dinner. I usually set up, take a quick shot (just one when using flash), disassemble, put away. This got particularly awkward at Comm Night because my ILs were probably wondering what sort of freak married into their family 11 years ago… The place was so dark though that just trying to focus (manually, always manually) on the edge of the chocolate cake was nigh impossible. Toward the end of the meal, people around us forgot that I was shooting and tucked into the plates straight away. At that point, I did my best guess, fired one shot, and accepted whatever would come of it. There is no time to spend more than 1 second setting up and taking the shot. Maybe if the world were full of food photogs it might be different, but it isn’t. Wow, that’s a neat concept – a world full of food photogs. I’d love it.

chocolate nemesis cake (flourless chocolate cake)

yogurt panna cotta with raspberries and blackberries

The dinner was fantastic as always. The Kitchen NEVER disappoints me as food goes. And even though the photos were less than satisfactory, they at least convey how much and how varied the food was. Would I be happier to leave the camera at home and just enjoy the meal? I don’t think so. Sharing food is such a part of my daily life that I would be sad not to drag everyone along and tell them what a great meal this was. Plus I have this documentation problem (I document and archive just about everything). At least Jeremy puts up with me and even holds the flash or hands me a lens to switch out when necessary. Anyway, I just thought I’d share the consistently toughest meal for me to shoot in Boulder (logistically) for the curious.

35 nibbles at “can’t take me anywhere”

  1. Kitt says:

    How enlightening! Seriously. I’m glad to know how you approach it. Not having all the fancy gear, I don’t have quite the same problems (I never use flash simply because food just looks like hell unless you have a good flash. And I don’t).

    But yes, all my friends have gotten used to showing off their plates before tucking in. If I can get a good shot in one or two clicks, great, but I don’t do more than that.

    I do take my Gorillapod with me everywhere, but often I just brace the camera on the edge of a water glass.

    I think your pics above look fabulous. Your “unsatisfactory” photos still outshine my best. And I would love to try community night sometime. Heck, I’d like to try The Kitchen sometime. Thanks for the review.

  2. Rosa says:

    How great! All that food looks mighty gorgeous and extremely scrumptious!



  3. peabody says:

    Ah yes, how I hate to take pictures in restaurants at night. Sigh. So far everyone has let me.

  4. Ronine says:

    Another thing to add to my ‘would like to do in the Boulder area’-list! Already your hikes have inspired me to move Colorado far up on the list of future US-trips – and also got me to seriously consider getting myself such a lovely labrador as yours. More photos of her, pls. :-)

    Love your food also – made the quiche filling the other night and it turned out perfectly. Living in Switzerland makes buying Gruyere quite easy and it’s good to know that it is also great melted – we usually just eat it on bread. I used the mildest one but would think that the more aged and salty versions also could be interesting to try out in a quiche setting.

  5. manggy says:

    The best I’ve done in terms of non-staged food photos are the ones I took in Vegas– they were the pastries on display, and they weren’t that great, i.e. the pastries’ prettiness was doing all the work. My cam has a hotplate (er… That’s the term, right?) but I’ve yet to have the money to pimp it. What I’ve never had success with are restaurant photos. Even in natural light :( The only good one I’ve taken is a slab of barbecue at the beach in Boracay (hmm, I don’t think you were visiting my blog all the way back in November last year, haha!). Thanks for the tips, though, they’re really helpful. Isn’t a diffuser some giant… thing… er, never mind :)
    I’m so weird, I never even noticed at first that the glasses were blurry, hahaha! The food looks great– I’m glad you were able to inspire some solidarity for the food blogging minority! I can just picture it! :D
    Omigosh, do they not know that Kylie Kwong has an accent?! Did you put on a fake English accent, Jen?! :P

  6. Woolly says:

    I just started a diet about 2 weeks ago and reading your blog makes me wanna lick my monitor!!!!

    Your AWESOME!

  7. Bridget says:

    I think it’s weird that some photographers refuse to use flash. Why not just do whatever it takes to show the subject to the best advantage? Granted, I’ve never used the flash on the dSLR I got a few months ago, but that’s because I don’t know how to use it effectively. Plus I can’t afford an external flash right now, so all I have is the on-camera one.

    I do think you look sort of like Kylie Kwong actually. I idly pulled a book by her off the shelf a few weeks ago; her picture was on the front cover and I did a double take.

    Even with the challenges with restaurant shooting, your pictures ended up good. I especially like the cocktails and the desserts. I’m pretty sure I would have had trouble shooting that chocolate cake even in the best of conditions – it’s so dark and featureless.

  8. joanne at frutto della passione says:

    What a wonderful dinner concept. That is something I would definitly love to try. As for friends not eating until you’ve taken pictures, that has started happening with me too. Unfortunately I’m still using a point and shoot so a lot of times the pictures don’t come out very well :(

  9. Debbie Green says:

    I wish we had a community night where I live. It sounds great. Your pictures are wonderful. The food makes me want to dig right in!!!!!

  10. Daniel Koontz says:

    Jen, I enjoy hearing your views on all aspects of food photography. So much so that I’m routing my readers to your posts on the subject. Please keep ’em coming!

    Casual Kitchen

  11. Tartelette says:

    I know the trend is all about natural light but there are circumstances when I love the highlight given by a flash. It has to be a good flash of course but still, I guess it has to come from my disco side :)
    The food looks amazing, I’d love to have a restaurant like this in town.

  12. felecia says:

    Great pictures! I now know why you love Colorado-so different than Oxnard, Calif where I live. I spent a few days in Fort Colliins went rafting,and hung out. Then we stayed a few days in Boulder-went to Red Rocks to see The Police what a place that is. I just had to go to Brasserie because of your great pictures. Oh my was it good had the mussels and all the other Happy Hour food umm! I love reading your blog and your pictures.

  13. Alexa says:

    You make me miss Boulder, the creek, the Dunshabe tea house… ahhh… Beautiful pictures.

  14. Patricia Scarpin says:

    I don’t go to restaurant very often, but two of them made me want to photograph my food. One is Fifteen – where I actually photographed it, since the people with me were the hubby and another food blogger. The other was Carlota, here in Sao Paulo (Patricia Wells has written an article about it, she loved the place) and it was me and the hubby – I did not photographed the food because there was not enough light.

    I think you had an amazing meal here, sweetie!

  15. Naama says:

    these look like a great feast of foods and colors, everything looks so good, and like its made with a lot of thought. kudos to you!

  16. Christina says:

    Wow, your pictures all came out wonderfully considering the lighting! It does help that everyone around you didn’t mind. That’s always a concern when I go somewhere because I never know if someone will get annoyed or not.

    The flourless chocolate cake is amazing, the texture and that it doesn’t look super dense.

  17. Graeme says:


    I’m a man of few words today.

    Lavish and just a little bit head-spinning.

  18. Steph says:

    That panna cotta looks so enticing. Love the post, as usual!

  19. Manisha says:

    Community Night sounds like fun! I need to get rid of my daughter on a Monday night to do it as taking her along would be a real waste of good food!

    Your pictures rock, as always!

  20. Elizabeth says:

    You’re smart, funny, fiercely loyal, you are not a quitter, you have the soul of an artist and you are not so worried about what others think that you would let it stop you from pursuing your passions, but the most important thing is that you love their son madly. Who would not want that for their son or as an addition to the family? I am sure your in-laws think you are the perfect fit.

  21. Laura @ HungryAndFrozen says:

    Good grief, your not-so-good photography owns my better snaps any day of the week :) the meal sounds incredible, especially the flatbread.

  22. Simply...Gluten-free says:

    Wow, I am so jealous. What a fabulous evening. I think your pix are great!

  23. Mrs Ergül says:

    Having taken a look at the spread of this dinner, I will think that wearing an elastic waistband is a smart thing to do! These photos are more than fine Jen! They are a pleasure to look at, as usual! I like the flatbread, salmon, chocolate cake and panna cotta so much!! I’m sure it’s a big pleasure to eat them!

  24. rose says:

    awesome spread! it’s amazing how they whipped those food up. maybe you can interview the kitchen crew. btw how much is the whole cost?

  25. Aran says:

    oh my jen! these photos!!!

  26. Kevin says:

    All of that food looks really good! I like the sound of the duck flat bread and that chocolate nemesis cake…mmm…

  27. jenyu says:

    Kitt – yeah, restaurant shooting is a pain in the butt. I too prefer to brace myself against something if possible rather than use the G-pod. Just easier and faster. I highly recommend Comm Night – it rocks!

    Rosa – it was great :) thanks!

    Peabody – yeah, most places are pretty cool with it here too.

    Ronine – she may be lovely, but she can be a BAD dog sometimes :) Just letting you know so that when your dog goes running off and rolls in poop, you will remember that I warned you – ha ha ha. Oh, you lucky thing… if I had access to the Gruyère you have… ;)

    Mark – yup, even if a restaurant looks fairly well lit by windows/daylight, it is still quite dark by camera standards. My kitchen is rather bright, and yet I still require a tripod, so I know I’m boned walking into most dining establishments. Kylie Kwong is an Aussie, my dear. And yeah, I wondered about that too. But apparently when I have (had) long hair and was wearing my glasses, I seem to resemble the famed cooking star ;)

    Woolly – why on Earth are you dieting? I think you should just run or bike more, but eat what you want :)

    Bridget – *exactly*. People who say flash is bad don’t know how to use flash and have a pretty limited understanding of light. There are a lot of really good photogs out there who use flash all the time and you would be hard pressed to determine if it were shot in natural light or not. I’ve seen diffusers for on-camera flashes. I don’t know how well they work, but I own a diffuser from the same company for my external flash(es).

    Joanne – don’t fret over your restaurant shots. That is (in my opinion) the hardest environment for food photography. Just keep playing around with it!

    Debbie – Comm Night is the bomb! I wish everyone could try it.

    Daniel – oh, thanks! It’s just rattling off of my own experiences, there are certainly some good advice guides out there for all sorts of photography. I do think it’s important for folks to consider all of photography and not just food photography. My landscape work has helped to bring new dimensions and perspective to my food shots.

    Tartelette – yes! Sometimes the glistening effect given by flash is quite enticing on some foods. Disco, eh? You must be fun to go clubbing with ;)

    Felecia – thank you! So glad you have a great time in CO!

    Alexa – thanks :)

    Patricia – mmm, sounds like fun! If you are ever in Boulder, we’ll be sure to hit some of the good places around here!

    Naama – awww, thank you.

    Christina – yup, the whole restaurant shooting thing is a little nerve-wracking!

    Manisha – there are definitely people who wouldn’t take advantage of Comm Night (we know some folks who should never dine anywhere other than the Cheesecake Factory – ewwwwww).

    Elizabeth – oh my gosh, you are so wonderful. I need to talk to you when I’m feeling down because you would cheer anybody up! Thank you for your very sweet words. I’m pretty sure I am not deserving of such a fine judgment!! xxoo

    Laura – that flatbread was heaven, dear. I’ll save a slice for you next time!

    SGF – thank you!

    Mrs. E – definitely a pleasure to eat them although I felt awfully sleepy driving home – hee hee! Too much food, but it was all so good!

    Rose – would you believe that it is $35 per person for all of that food?! that doesn’t include beverages, tax, or tip – but it is still such a STEAL!

    Aran – :)

    Kevin – they were both *excellent*. Now I’m searching for a good flourless chocolate cake recipe!

  28. Chez US says:

    Oh, you are lucky! I love the Kitchen. We had a fantastic brunch there a couple years ago – definitely, one of the best egg bennies I have ever eaten!

    Your photos are fantastic for restaurant shots, mine never turn out so well.

  29. White On Rice Couple says:

    What an amazing feast! I’ve only tried shooting restaurant food a few times and once the manager asked me to put away the camera. I hid under the table for the rest of the dinner. Needless to say, I don’t take pics anymore in restaurants, I get way too uncomfortable.
    But it is inspiring to see how lovely they all come out for you. When I’m shooting in low light, without a tripod, I will generally hold my breath and not breathe, so that I can have the steadiest hand possible. At the end of a couple shots, I get really light headed. It’s not the best technique, but I’ll get lucky sometimes and have a good shot!

  30. jenyu says:

    Chez Us – sweet! So cool that you guys have eaten there :) You’ll have to tell me next time you’re through the Boulder area.

    WoRC – ooooh! You poor thing. That manager probably scared you into not taking photos very often in restaurants :( Bastard. I too hold my breath and shoot! It’s like the winter biathletes who shoot in between heart beats… except I’m nowhere that fit ;)

  31. Yinna says:

    Funny, I love your blog and I’m always impressed by your photos. Yet it would bother me immensely if I had dinner with someone who’d want to take pics of every course! It would be like someone taking a call during dinner – a definite no-no when out with friends. Aren’t you afraid people just don’t want to say no? (Though I must add that it’s entirely their problem if they do.)

    I’m glad your friends are not like me so we get to see all the good stuff you eat! I’m with Woolly on licking the monitor (lol).

  32. jenyu says:

    Yinna – yes, well… perhaps that is why we probably wouldn’t be dining together. I read people pretty well and my friends put up with my quirks as much as I put up with theirs. I don’t want to waste my time second guessing what people really mean. And yes, it is their problem if they can’t say no when given the opportunity.

  33. Tony says:

    Jen, I’ve been without internet for the past week and I seem to have missed quite a lot on your blog : ) The idea behind this event sounds brilliant. I wish my community had something like this. Oh, and I also have no idea what you mean by “less than satisfactory” because you were successfully able to make me crave everything you took a photo of – especially those cute yogurt panna cotta cups!

  34. jenyu says:

    Tony – hey sweetie! What happened to your i-net? :( Comm Night rocks, I wish more places did it! ha ha, you’re too kind! The food was awesome, to be sure :)

  35. Charlie says:

    Just about cried!

    There’s no recipe for that mouthwatering cake.

    Beautiful pictures.

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