.Dining – Digital Photography

Photography-obsessed diners may give restaurants free publicity,but is it good for the restaurant experience?

PHOTO REALISM: Randy Fung, who has used a camera phone to document his food since 2002, has built a career out of his culinary adventures. He shared this photograph of a sashimi salad at Rokko on his Tumblr and his Twitter feed.

A mound of translucent, tangerine orbs of salmon roe and thin, coral-pink salmon slices perch atop pale green avocado and darker green Romaine leaves. Punctuating this sashimi salad, a sprinkle of seaweed—chopped fine into tiny, even blades—tumbles like cut grass over the dish.

Fuzzy, cream-colored frost clings to the dual spiral beaters of a churner, fresh from mixing ice cream flash-frozen by liquid nitrogen.

Lightly browned pizza crust rings a leafy nest of fresh arugula, slightly wilting in the heat from the pie it tops.

Every photo on Randy Fung’s frequently updated Tumblr shows off such dishes from around the Bay Area. Photos of food or related to food (restaurant menus and fixtures, food festivals) make up the majority of the more than 8,000 photos he’s posted on his Flickr photostream since 2007. Although food photos account for a little less than 10 percent of his roughly 1, 400 tweets, Fung’s overall social media presence is dominated by the documenting of his culinary adventures—whether it’s at Mayfield Bakery & Cafe in Palo Alto or Mitsuwa Marketplace’s annual Hokkaido festival in San Jose. And it’s all captured by the lens of his ever-present iPhone.

“Most of my friends and family, they always wait a second or two before digging in because they know I’ll want to document or share something first,” he says.

Fung, a 40-year-old Palo Alto resident, is part of a continuing trend of amateur food photographers who are using their smartphones to chronicle their culinary experiences. While thousands of diners now flood social media sites such as Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest with images of food, some critics say the fad is hurting the restaurant business by prolonging wait times and disrupting the dining room.

Fish Market Photograph by Christina Valentine

Last year, several New York restaurants tried to curb the growing practice of diners snapping cell phone photos by banning flash photography, and in some cases, cameras all together. Some restaurants in France are following suit. Critics say that the constant picture-taking disrupts other customers, ruins the surprise of the meal and may give away secrets to competing restaurants. And according to an anonymous post made this summer on Craigslist’s “rants & raves” section, all this photography is slowing down service, causing longer waits at restaurants.

Brian Nicholas, general manager and partner of The Table, an upscale contemporary American restaurant in San Jose, says it is “definitely” true that diners’ shutterbug tendencies can slow things down. He estimates that taking pictures pushes back the dining time a minimum of five to 10 minutes. “We try to maximize the amount of people we’re able to accommodate on any given day, so we’re really playing by minutes and seconds,” he says. “So that time that someone takes out to take a picture of something is slowing down the dining process. From a business perspective, it can certainly be a challenge to factor that into dining.”

If diners throughout a busy dinner service are stealing away a few extra minutes to tweet or pin or Instagram their meals, that time could potentially add up.

LB Steak Photograph by Christina Valentine

Raymond Lee and his girlfriend, My Ngo, had been taking and posting pictures of food on Twitter and Instagram for years, and in January of this year started the blog YumBytes to post their photos. Lee says that snapping pictures at restaurants has become so popular because “it’s sort of a way to enjoy the food and experience longer,” particularly at expensive restaurants.

Fung says his interest in food photography started long before so many people began documenting their dinners out. In 2002, he got his first camera phone—”Before that, having a camera on a phone was a big deal,” he says—and took his first shot of a restaurant meal during his college graduation dinner in San Francisco. Back then, Fung noticed that the restaurant employees “were a little surprised” when he took out his camera phone.

Camera phones took low-resolution images 12 years ago. Though a camera’s overall quality is more than a matter of pixels, numbers can still offer an outline of the camera phone’s evolution. A bigger number translates to better quality images: camera phones have gone from a range of about .35- to .11-megapixels back in 2001-02 to a range of 8- to about 16-megapixels in the present day.

Not surprisingly, Fung says his early images didn’t always turn out well—especially when they were taken in dark restaurants. But at that point, he wasn’t taking photos too frequently—usually only at fancy meals or on special occasions—and they were mostly for himself, to document the places he’d been to, and to remember the dishes he had tried.

But in 2005, he traveled through China, Hong Kong, Thailand and Vietnam, where he says, everyone had “a lot of cameras” and “a lot of cell phones,” so taking photos of dishes at restaurants was a popular thing to do. “It’s much more common in Asia,” he says, “and I say now, we’re catching on in the United States.” As a tourist, Fung started snapping pictures of all his meals—”The food was so interesting compared to what we have here,” he says—and that’s when his hobby took off.

When he got back to the Bay Area, he started sharing his photos on sites like Flickr, and reviewing local restaurants on Yelp, both of which had been launched the year before, in 2004. “It’s another way to share and connect with people,” Fung says. “If I like a place that’s not as well known, it’s a nice way to say, ‘Hey, here’s a great restaurant, it’s interesting, you should check it out.’ They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, and it’s true. It’s a lot easier than telling someone, ‘I went to this great place and I had this great meal.'”

As camera phones in the United States improved, and particularly with the development of the iPhone—which was first released in 2007—Fung says that photographing food in restaurants has become much more common. Unlike before, diners always have a camera on-hand, and don’t have to bring a bulky DSLR camera to take good-quality pictures. “It’s the convenience factor,” he says, “especially when you’re eating a meal, I don’t know about bringing out this big camera.”…

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