Bunker Vietnamese - How to take better food photos on location

Bun-Ker was one of the restaurants that really put Ridgewood on the map. Back in the day, Ridgewood was just a sleepy neighborhood with nothing exciting around. The first touch of hipsterdom was Bun-Ker Vietnamese, this restaurant in what was basically the middle of nowhere on an industrial stretch of Metropolitan Avenue. I remember when I first drove by and saw a crowd of people huddled outside and thought "where the hell are they going?" That popularity begets growth, though, and times change. Bushwick has grown radically since those days and Bun-Ker traded one obscure location for another, and simplified its name to just "bunker". The food, though, has gotten even tastier. Have a look.

Bunker Vietnamese
99 Scott Avenue
Bushwick, Brooklyn
$$$
★★★☆☆
February 16th, 2017

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This was one of my first photos of a restaurant dish that I did some intentional styling on. For years I've been photographing dishes exactly as they're served, which doesn't always make a compelling image. So this time I played around with adding some of the ingredients that make up the dish. In this case, the summer rolls, or gỏi cuốn,  contained mint and basil and the sauce contained peanuts and chilis. Deciding what to do with each of the items was a bit of a challenge, and I definitely moved that pepper around several times. Here a few photos I took along the way, to give you an idea of how it came to be.

So that was a fun beginning to styling food images, and you saw that I got much better at it by the time I went to photograph Cebu later in 2017.

I didn't do a lot more with the styling here after that initial experiment, though. On the papaya salad, I had a sad little pile of peanuts that looked a little too intentional. But the light is good, so that's nice. I tried a few different compositions and styling, but the light shifted away from this spot so none of them were quite as good as this one.

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The next dish they brought me was this fried crepe filled with bean sprouts, called bánh xèo. I had no idea what it was at the time. I was also surprised by the amount of greenery on the plate, which is always a welcome addition.

I decided to switch up the location on this one and move to a spot with better light as well as a little bit of character from the restaurant. they have this round counter with a planter in the middle filled with bamboo, something unique I've not seen elsewhere. I felt adding the bamboo leaves to the frame helped to put the food in context, giving a little a little hint of vietnam's tropics.

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I kept the bamboo leaf vibe going for the next dish as the sun was just starting to hit the leaves and give them a nice glow, which I felt added a nice dimension fo the images. Although looking back at it, they may be a little too bright and stealing attention away from the rolls. This whole looking at year old images thing really gives some perspective, haha.

 I think these are called c hả giò, spring rolls.

I think these are called chả giò, spring rolls.

Next up was the Pho, which for me was one of the starts of the show. I struggled to include some stuff to style in this one and ended up with just the two little peppers. I'm also noticing now that that bamboo leaf is a little on the sad side. But the red bowl and the spots of red beef in the pho pull the eye, so it's still pretty eye catching (and tasty).

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We picked up the pace to move through more dishes, so I cut back on the styling and just went with simple images for the rest of the shoot.

This next dish went through a minor change in styling, but I feel it makes a bit different for folks who obsess over patterns: going from three cucumbers and two tomatoes to three cucumbers and three tomatoes. I also rotated the pork chop slightly to give it more prominent placement. I also had never before seen the steamed pork quiche, called Chả Trứng Hấp, and that was pretty mind-blowing. So luscious and fatty.

I really love the design inside Bunker, it's a very fun and colorful spot with a lot of character and I wanted to work that into these images. You know how I love interiors, given that the bulk of my photography is either food or places. Why? Because it all goes together to inform the experience. Being in the place sets the mood, it starts to transport you, and then the plate arrives, culture and history right before you that you get to ingest and become one with. It's a beautiful thing.

Anyway, that's why I always want to get a bit of atmosphere in with my food images, because when you're eating at a restaurant, you're not just having some food, you're getting an immersive experience. 

 Blurring out the colorful chairs in the background helped to play them down a bit so you can still focus on the fish. Your eye starts in the top left corner and is lead right by the colors and lines, then your eye hits the vertical lines of the bottles, which brings you down to the lovely fried fish

Blurring out the colorful chairs in the background helped to play them down a bit so you can still focus on the fish. Your eye starts in the top left corner and is lead right by the colors and lines, then your eye hits the vertical lines of the bottles, which brings you down to the lovely fried fish

I kept the theme of showing off the restaurant's character going in the next shot. There was this beautiful painting on the floor that struck me as a great backdrop for this curry. I started with just the bowl in the center, but I needed a little something else to feel lively. Adding the diagonal lines with the chopsticks did it, and adding the rice bowl gave a little more bulk to the image and also shows off the complete dish. 

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Daylight was fading fast, this being February and all, so I was getting up in several second exposures that aren't so great for food that is quickly getting cold. It was time to get out the lights. Bunker has a great night time vibe and I wanted that to come through some of the images as well, so I started working on some darker flashed images. The first pictures were a little too heavy on the darkness to fit in with the rest of the set, so I found a good balance with a contrasty flash lit foreground and a soft, inviting tungsten background, that says "come in and enjoy this fantastic, perfect plate of shrimp.

And were they ever amazing! For all the amazing flavors present in the other dishes, the spicy, sweet, lemongrass tinged sauce and perfecty juicy shrimp of this dish won me over as my favorite of the night.

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Thanks for reading!

Have you been to Bunker? Do you like Vietnamese food? Hit me up with your favorite dish in the comments.