5 Things I Learned Photographing 100 Houston Restaurants

Categories: Top Five

Olives
Photo by Jeff Balke
One of my more successful shots at Olives Martini Bar & Grille in Sugar Land
George Carlin once described the phrase "fussy eater" as a euphemism for "big pain in the ass." When I was young, I was a big pain in the ass. Don't get me wrong, I have always loved food. I just didn't branch out much, which made dining out a tricky and, no doubt, annoying experience for my parents.

I grew up and began to shed my fear of the food unknown thanks to many patient and insistent friends, which is why I was so intrigued when I was asked to help photograph Houston restaurants for the re-vamped online Houston Press restaurant guide. If there was ever a chance to broaden my palette, this was it. If nothing else, I was sure I would discover some new places to stuff my pie hole. It just so happened that my completion of this job coincided with my fill-in editing duties for Eating Our Words, so it seemed appropriate to write about the experience.

I was assigned 100 restaurants spread out all over the city, some hole-in-the-walls and some five-star dining experiences. My task was to shoot or collect interior, exterior and food photos for all of them. When I say "collect," I mean that it was acceptable to use photos that had already been taken for the Press or promotional photos provided by the establishments, which was important because trying to get 100 restaurants and their menu items shot inside and out proved to be quite a challenge.

After the jump, the five things I learned photographing 100 Houston restaurants.

Obvious: Houston Has a TON of Restaurants

We all know Houston is a large city with a lot of diversity, but I can hardly think of how that fact is better illustrated than through our eateries. I traveled well over 500 miles while shooting these establishments and, as my head whipped around looking for my assigned location in unfamiliar neighborhoods, I could not help but notice the sheer number and variety of restaurants. It was remarkable.

Even more surprising were just how different they were. In the span of about an hour and less than 20 miles of driving, I shot photos at a Mediterranean cafe, an upscale wine bar, a sports bar pizza place, an Indian grocery store, a hole-in-the-wall soul food joint and an authentic Mexican restaurant. It makes me want to carry around a digital portfolio of my images so the next time someone near me swoons over the dining options in New York or San Francisco, I can just flash it in front of them and say, "Oh, really?"

It is Impossible to Know When a Place Will Be Busy

When I first set off on my little quest, I assumed the best time to get photos would be off hours preventing me from being a bother when trying to do my job. The only problem with this theory is that to get pictures of food requires being there when it is being made for paying customers and that most definitely is not in the afternoon.

But, even after adjusting my schedule, I realized that there is just no way to predict when people will decide to show up and eat. I visited several places three, four, even five times before having to abandon hope of getting a food photo. A manager from one restaurant admitted that, even after being in business for more than 30 years, he still couldn't predict when it would be busy.

Hobbit Cafe
Photo by Jeff Balke
Some Lord of the Rings fare at Hobbit Cafe
It's Tough to Be Good When You Are Short on Time

I really hate to say it, but the fact is that it is not easy to get consistently great photos when you are pressed for time. Most professional photographers will spend at least an hour or two shooting places like bars and restaurants adjusting for lighting, setting up the area and the food, testing and re-shooting. When you have to get nearly 300 images of places spread all over creation in about a month, you get more like 15 minutes if you're lucky.

It is particularly tough to adjust to a completely unknown environment. Walking into a dark, romantic dining room might make for a lovely date setting, but it's a pain in the ass for a photographer who doesn't have time to set up a tripod or make rapid lens changes or flash adjustments.

Responses May Vary

As someone who has shot photos for a long time, I'm used to the odd looks when I tote around my camera. I've gotten all sorts of reactions from people from anger to a childlike sense of giddiness, so it didn't really surprise me that there were some strong reactions to my unannounced appearance at many eating establishments.

Some, like the folks at Little Bigs or the owner of Himalaya or the floor manager at Ruggle's Green, were all too happy to help me in any way they could, cleaning up tables, offering advice on locations to shoot and even preparing food when necessary. There were those who treated me with a sort of vague disinterest. They were nice enough, but didn't really seem to care whether I shot something or not.

But, the most interesting group was composed of those who seemed to view me with suspicion and even outright disdain. I was told that this might be the case because some don't care for the Houston Press, but I came to realize that some people just don't like you taking pictures of their restaurants.

There was more than one occasion when a forcibly polite, "no" felt a lot like "fuck off." No one was directly rude, though a couple bordered on it, but many of them appeared deeply suspicious of my motives. One even questioned my credentials asking me to provide written proof I was shooting for the Press. When I presented my badge complete with my photo and the Press logo, the woman laid the sarcasm on thickly and said, "Well, that looks authentic, doesn't it?"

Frank's Grill
Photo by Jeff Balke
Ok, maybe I ate some of the mound of hash browns the size of my head at Frank's Grill.
Eat Before Going

Just like it is a bad idea to go grocery shopping on an empty stomach, I found out that photographing restaurants while hungry is always the wrong answer. Sure, I visited a lot of places where food was available, but if I were going to eat at every place, I'd never get my job done and end up both fat and broke - a really bad combo if you can avoid it.

There is no doubt I grabbed a bite at a few places, particularly the ones I frequent already, but I mostly avoided tying on the feed bag and managed to keep a tenuous hold on my waistline and my bank account balance hovering above zero.

I'll be back on Tuesday with a list of places that I discovered were both places I want to visit to eat and I enjoyed photographing.

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