During my month and a half in Mexico City, I took photos in a variety of cafes. This was part of our project to write reviews of various cafes and sit down with the owners to learn their stories. Our end goal was to publish “Best Cafes of Mexico City” feature for our blog.

In visiting a variety of cafes, I learned a lot about shooting coffee and baked goods rather systematically. While this sounds like it may have been repetitive, each cafe presented a set of unique features and challenges. Are you interested in shooting photo or video of drinks, food or cafe and restaurant interiors? Here are a few considerations for your shoot, along with some lessons that I learned.

With some of the technical aspects of food photography, using flashes, reflectors and other equipment is helpful in controlling your environment. When I travel, I don’t bring any of that stuff with me. I’ve been working my kit down to the smallest possible package to travel more “lightly.” Although it’s ideal to have a nice fill light or some sort of light reflector, you learn a lot by having to take a food or drink photo in a dark room.

Get to the venue early

In Mexico City, cafes typically open around 8 or 9 am, which was the first lesson to learn. After a shoot or two, I learned that we should be asking cafes if we can come right when they open for the day, in order to minimize distractions and have a chance at having empty tables. This also gave me a chance to take photos of baristas during their coffee-crafting process, without being in the way of other paying customers.

This can make the cafe look empty. Depending on the look you’re going for, you might want to reconsider.

Make appointments and explain your goals

With Becca’s help, together we contacted the cafes and laid out our reasons for wanting to come and shoot. We explained that we wanted to learn about each cafe and its specialty, while also having a chance to talk to some staff about specific features. Our messaging mentioned wanting to take photos for use on our blog that the cafe would also be welcome to use online and in social media, with credit to us. By making appointments, we avoided showing up ‘un-announced.’

Get creative during your shoot

One of our favorite cafes to shoot at is Blend Station, and this is because, in addition to having a big open space, the cafe has its own design theme. By asking to use some of their available marketing material like postcards, I stacked coffees with these cards to make unique compositions that stood out as being ‘more than a cup of coffee.’

Consider bringing some of your own props, such as a laptop, book or pair of glasses, to complete a theme of ‘laptop-friendly cafes’ or ‘cafes good for reading.’

When shooting food and drink, try and be fast

Shooting coffees, lattes and smoothies taught me to work fast, or the product would start to look less fresh. With latte art, I shot immediately, also knowing that if I took a sip, the art would be ruined. With smoothies, they melt fast! I had to shoot smoothies as soon as they were put down on the table, or else they’d melt into mush. Shooting black coffee is much easier, but if you shoot iced coffee, consider that the ice may start melting and won’t look the same.

Don’t be afraid to talk to people

By sitting down with several of the owners of some of Mexico City’s most famed specialty cafes, I was able to understand more about the venue, and therefore shift focus toward what was important. I spoke with one of the owners of Almanegra Cafe, who told us the story of the pagan design elements and minimalism behind the cafe’s design and vibe.

This helped me shoot photos in line with the vision. After the photos were done and our review was published, the owners were delighted with my work and re-published it on various media outlets.

Color correcting dark interiors and dealing with low light

Low light inside cafes was one of my biggest struggles in this cafe project. Every cafe has different lighting situations and variable access to available natural light. Some cafes have huge skylights and others are have a small amount of track lighting. This is totally fair, as not every cafe is going to have studio-quality light for me to shoot their coffees.

If I’ve never been to a cafe that I’m about to shoot, it’s usually a surprise what I’m going to find inside. I have experience shooting food for restaurants and for those shoots, I would bring a lighting kit in case I didn’t have access to a good natural light source.

Luckily, my A7III does a really good job with low light. Pushing ISO 3200 and 6400 was okay for cafes that were dark inside. For cafes with low-quality overhead lighting, I would pick the best spot that I could find that didn’t have any harsh shadows from those lights. Within Lightroom, you can spend a lot of time fixing the white balance, desaturating the yellows, split toning and more.

Really, this deserves its own tutorial. My best advice if you’re stuck on editing photos shot in a room with poor lighting is practice. Don’t avoid a photo shoot if the lighting is bad. Try and make the best out of the situation and make the interior look as natural as possible. It’s super hard to make the interior look like it has good light when it doesn’t. I’ll often play into the mood of poor or odd lighting because it gives more personality to the photo.

How to shoot food outside with harsh light

Shooting anything with harsh light isn’t easy. You are dealing with hard shadows and there’s only so much you can do with pushing the shadows or scaling back the highlights. If you go too far in either direction, the image either looks flat or fake.

My best advice is to shoot into the sun. In my opinion, food will look flat and lack the color that makes it look appetizing with this angle. When you shoot into the sun, the colors are better, but your chances of blowing out the highlights are high. I don’t mind this and sometimes I even increase the highlights to enhance the effect and make the food or drinks glow.

How to make coffee look interesting

I rarely order anything other than black coffee. When Becca and I were writing our cafe series, we didn’t want to showcase things that we didn’t like. Because we like black coffee, most of our photos are of black coffee.

When you have cool latte art, that becomes the star of the show. When you have a hot cup of coffee, how can you make that look interesting? I focused a lot on the interior of the cafe and picked other elements from the cafe to use in the background.

If the cafe sold pastries, I would try and include those in the shot to support the story of drinking a cup of coffee. If the cafe had any branding, I would try and focus on their branding to help tell a better story about the cup of coffee.

Tell a story

A good story is the backbone of a good photo. A photo without a story is like a book with no words. A good trick is to use a human element or add some suspense in the photo. An example of suspense is to purposely exclude a portion of something so that it makes the viewer ask a question.

Multiple photos in a series is another way to tell a story. If you can get a feel for a cafe in three photos, you’ve done a good job. When I would shoot inside the cafes, I wanted to leave with photos that expressed the emotions that I was feeling inside any particular cafe.

Be mindful of the other cafe customers

If the cafe is open for business, I try really hard not to get in the way of paying customers. If the light is better by a window, I’ll wait for the window to become open, or I’ll be the first one in the cafe to pick my spot.

After my shoot, I sometimes start to edit the photos in the cafe so that I can show a preview of several cool shots to the owner. If the cafe is super busy, I won’t do this because I don’t want to take up a seat for too long.

Every situation is different, for sure. If you have to ask a customer to move or if you need more space, my best advice is to be respectful and share your intentions.