In 2014, Pete Wells, restaurant critic for The New York Times, coined a new phrase: camera cuisine. In the age of Instagram, he argued, many chefs consider the aesthetics of high-end dishes to be as crucial the way they taste. He spoke with journalist David Sax, who told him, “Food culture today is spread as much by visuals as it is by word of mouth or written reviews. We’re eating with our eyes first.” Some kitchens, Wells reported, had even been redesigned to have more space for plating.

Three years later, Wells’s thesis holds true. Instagram has changed food photography forever, elevating it to the realm of fine art. Popular accounts like Gastro Art, The Art of Plating, and Gourmet Artistry cater to a public that’s hungry for images.

Instagram is democratic in that way; it gives everyone a peek into the world of haute cuisine. Fancy food has become accessible. A parody Instagram account run by the fictitious “Chef Jacques La Merde”– who was later revealed to be a Toronto chef named Christine Flynn— features affordable  “junk foods” plated like gourmet meals.

We asked five leading food photographers to take us behind-the-scenes on some of their shoots and tell us what exactly it means to turn edibles into art. Here, they share some of their best stories and tips for working with chefs and food stylists to create unforgettable shots.

1. “Make sure that you’re the one managing when the next dish is going to come out for you to photograph.”

Shea Evans

Image by Shea EvansGear: Nikon D700 camera, 50mm 1.4 lens. Lighting: light stand, 5-foot umbrella with softbox attachment (Photek Good Lighter) fixed with a Foursquare Block with three Pocket Wizard Flex TT5 receivers attached to three Nikon SB-900’s triggered by a Pocket Wizard Mini TTL with AC3 Zone Controller attached, and also a white card for bounce/fill. Settings: Exposure 1/400 sec; f5.6; ISO 500.

What’s the story behind this photograph?

This was shot for Edible Reno Tahoe.  I was the guy at that time who would profile the restaurant/chef featured in each issue. This was for a resort restaurant that was actually closed in the winter, so we had to arrange the shoot with the chef, who came in and made some dishes while the place was actually closed.

We made up a white tablecloth table like they had when they were open, and I worked with the chef, slowly photographing some examples of the menu that he wanted to feature in the article, which would then be on newsstands by the time they were open. They plated this roasted beet, goat cheese salad in the kitchen and brought it out to me. Usually, with chefs, I have them put any liquid on the plate on the table where I’m shooting so it doesn’t flow around the plate and leave marks.

How do you work with chefs and/or food stylists to create artful plates that look great on camera?

It really depends on the client and their budget.  I’ve worked on projects that had both the chef and the food stylist there, and that was a kind of collaboration with the food stylist and me, overseen by the chef. I’ve also worked with chefs in restaurants who take plating seriously. Beyond that, I’ve styled my own shoots when I felt the need for an artful presentation in a shot.

Working with chefs and food stylists can be… meticulous. At times, it’s a fantastic collaboration; at times, it’s an arduous process. It takes patience. Usually, the more “cooks in the kitchen,” so to speak, the longer it takes. Sometimes in this process, it is not only me and a food stylist but perhaps an art director with a vote and also the client. And it could be that one or both of those last ones are remote, so it’s an adjustment. Maybe we email or text an updated shot back of forth, etc.

Yesterday, I worked for six hours on a shot of two bowls of chili. On the flip-side, we’re literally getting paid to play with food, and it’s pretty great!

Pictured: [1] Image by Shea Evans [2] Image by Shea Evans

Pro Tip

Anyone shooting “Gourmet” or “Fancy Food” is probably working with a talented chef.  But there’s a caveat there, and that’s that the chef usually has no idea how the photography process works and that it needs to be slow.

I came from the restaurant industry, and it’s fast paced. At the upper levels, it needs to be nearly maniacally efficient. When you’re dealing with a talented chef, you’re dealing with someone who can do amazing things really fast. And that doesn’t work well for tabletop food beauty. The biggest thing is to slow them down.

Have a conversation, just a quick one, about the process, and make sure that you’re the one managing when the next dish is going to come out for you to photograph. I can’t tell you how many times early on when a chef would bring out my entire dish shot list within five minutes, and then I had to remake a few because they “died” on set before I could photograph them. That didn’t make the chef happy, but it was my fault for not communicating.

Don’t be a jerk. When you’re working in a restaurant with a chef, realize that he or she has twenty other things going on. While all the chefs I’ve worked with plate beautiful food, nine out of ten of them also cared much less about the shoot than I did when I was there.

Just be cool, and realize that you’re in “their house.” You’re a guest, so go with the flow, and you’ll get better shots. If they offer you food to eat for yourself, never turn them down. That’s insulting.

 

Image by Shea Evans

More from my own experience, but when working with food stylists, realize that you hired them to do that job so you can focus on yours, which is managing the camera, the client, and the shoot.  I’ve caught myself micromanaging before, not much, but enough to realize, “I need to step back and trust this person more.”  Mostly that’s just because I was a chef at one time and realizing it has helped me move forward in my career.

Trust the process. Food stylists are incredibly talented and will come up with both beautiful plates and “fixes” that you probably couldn’t think of. That’s why you (or the client) hired them. Let them do their job.

Where do you find inspiration for your photography?

Everywhere. I find inspiration from Instagram folks I follow, magazines (Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, Saveur), other photographers’ websites (though this can be dangerous, as you can quickly question your own skills when you see how much raw talent is out there), and eating out.  It’s everywhere; you just have to be open enough to see it.

2. “I have found that when working with chefs it is always best to let them do their part, bring their talents to the forefront.”

Paige French

Image by Paige FrenchGear: Canon 5D MIII, 50mm macro lens. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f2.5; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photograph?

I had actually just finished teaching a group of young people about the essentials of photography. r.wood studio in Athens, Georgia, provided the pottery; Home.Made catering provided the edible elements, and TREEHOUSE kid & craft was the venue/host for the workshop. I brought my camera along to the workshop and noticed the beauty left behind by these kids. I photographed them in front of an open window, with light bathing the shop.

How do you work with chefs and/or food stylists to create artful plates that look great on camera?

I have found that when working with chefs and other professionals in the food community, it is always best to let them do their part, bring their talents to the forefront, and then if anything needs to be tweaked from a photographic standpoint (smudges wiped off, etc), I try to find a way to do that without overpowering the shoot environment.

Food people are awesome, and their talents and skill are just as important as the photographic element. They usually are just as concerned as I am that their food looks beautiful, so finding a way to work within their style helps keep things positive. I am also always searching for the best light, and I think that is one skill that the photographer brings to the shoot. The food can be beautiful, but if isn’t photographed in good light, it can quickly start to look bad.

Pictured: [1] Image by Paige French [2] Image by Paige French

Pro Tip

I would recommend attention to background and attention to light, in addition to the usual thoughtfulness paid to exposure, etc. There is an artist in Atlanta, Ryan Hancock, who works by the name of Hancock Surface Studio, who engineers and creates these beautiful, dreamy backgrounds for (primarily) food photography. Having a nice patina in the background that absorbs/deflects light when you need it can be crucial.

Also, of course, when shooting top-down, use a tighter aperture so that everything is in focus, and if you can, go with a macro lens. Explore the realm of wabi-sabi and the rule of thirds to gain interest in your composition choices; exposure, color, and composition are the important artistic elements in photography, so pay attention to those as thoughtfully as possible.

Where do you find inspiration for your photography?

Actually, all of my inspiring photographers are those who didn’t exactly photograph food, but here they are anyway: Sally Mann, whose large format photographs (primarily) of her children have forever changed and influenced the way I see photography and motherhood.

Image by Paige French

Robert Frank, whose book The Americans is the most beautiful printed form of ‘street’ or ‘candid’ photography that I have ever seen. More than any other artist, he influenced me to be ready in an instant and to know my exposures and use them quickly.

Lastly, Dorothea Lange, another female photographer, who went to tremendous lengths to photograph women, children, and families during the Great Depression. Despite her own issues with herself, she traveled great distances on foot, carrying her heavy camera, to show the face of this incredible time in history.

3. “The subject is already there, and you just need to pick which angle is the best to give it the right emphasis.”

Laura La Monaca

Image by Laura La Monaca. Gear: Sony a7rII camera, 55mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/100 sec; f4.5; ISO 640.

What’s the story behind this photograph?

During my last trip to Northern Portugal, I had the opportunity to meet the one Michelin star Chef Rui Paula and try some of his dishes at Casa de Chà da Boa Nova Restaurant. The location is an incredible building designed by Alvaro Siza, overlooking the ocean. The little weird creatures you see on both sides of the ravioli are percebes, crustaceans that live attached to rocks in the ocean. They are very common in Portugal.

How do you work with chefs and/or food stylists to create artful plates that look great on camera?

Most of the time, chefs want to style their own plates because how they serve food is an important part of their creative process. Sometimes I help them to choose the best props in order to get the most out of their food in my shots.

Pictured: [1] Image by Laura La Monaca [2] Image by Laura La Monaca [3] Image by Laura La Monaca

Pro Tip

My only advice is to find a source of natural light. Don’t use artificial light, or you are going to miss some details and even shadows that enrich your shot and make it real.  I know sometimes it’s impossible to bring and use a tripod, but practice in your own studio, both with a tripod and not, to see the difference and how you can manage your settings to shot manual.

Nowadays, chefs know how to make food look beautiful on camera, so they act like real food stylists. This is actually really helpful when you have to shoot lots of plates and you don’t have enough time between one dish and the next one. The subject is already there, and you just need to pick which angle is the best to give it the right emphasis.

Where do you find inspiration for your photography? When I think of light, my master is Caravaggio. The way he painted still lifes and even The Calling of St Matthew is inspiring. He was a photographer before any darkrooms. I love to be inspired by art, and Flemish painters are also great.

4. “I’m always my own stylist, and I simply play around and move the different elements, shooting it from different angles and checking for what looks best.”

Yadid Levy

Image by Yadid Levy. Gear: Canon mark III camera, 24-105 f.4 lens. Settings: Focal length 105mm; exposure 1/100 sec; f5.6; ISO 1600.

What’s the story behind this photograph?

This dish was shot at the high-end Boragó restaurant in Santiago de Chile, which was recently named as the 4th best restaurant in Latin America and 42 in the world. I was on assignment for Hemisphere magazine. The restaurant is run by the very talented and friendly Rodolfo Guzmán, who, prior to opening his own restaurant, worked at the well-known Mugariz and Noma restaurants. The restaurant itself uses only local ingredients foraged in Chile, and this dish is a Digüeñes dessert dish, made of chirimoya alegre, mandarin and carrot cake, citrus pure, and chirimoya snow.

How do you work with chefs and/or food stylists to create artful plates that look great on camera?

Whenever possible, I always try to involve chefs in the process of the photo-making. I always involve them in deciding which dishes should be photographed. I also show them the work throughout the process and ask for their feedback. After all, they are the ones who are creating the dishes, and they have an artistic eye as well, so I find the brainstorming process very rewarding.

Pro Tip

In a way, food photography is like creating a painting on a canvas. First, you have the surface that you decide to shoot on. Sometimes I’ll only shoot the plate itself from different angles and in different focal lengths. Other times, I’ll add elements, like ingredients and other props that relate to the dish to make the picture more interesting, both in terms of composition and content.

Don’t be afraid to shoot on different backgrounds, such as the floor of a restaurant, a bar counter, or a bench just outside. Sometimes those elements will have a much more interesting texture than the table itself, and they can compliment the dish. I’m always my own stylist, and I simply play around and move the different elements, shooting it from different angles and checking for what looks best. The whole process depends on whether I’ll be shooting fancy food in high-end Michelin restaurants or food from a simple street food stall.

Image by Yadid Levy

Where do you find inspiration for your photography?

My inspiration comes first from the dish that I’m photographing and the first time I see it, but more generally speaking, I like to look at food magazines, blogs, and Instagram to find inspiration.

5. “Let a stylist create their own vision of a dish and pull them into the process of collaboration.”

Jody Horton

Image by Jody HortonGear: Canon 5d Mk 3 camera, 100mm macro lens. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f4.5; ISO 1600.

What’s the story behind this photograph?

This photo was taken as part of a cover shoot for Austin Monthly Magazine. I’m pretty certain these are scallops, but I don’t have the name of the dish. The restaurant has since closed, unfortunately.

How do you work with chefs and/or food stylists to create artful plates that look great on camera?

This process can work in a number of ways, depending on the context. For instance, a chef might have a particular and consistent way he serves a dish. If it’s for a corporate restaurant or chain, a build specialist might be on site, working with a food stylist to regulate proportions and construction for accuracy and consistency. In both of these cases, my contribution to styling would be minimal.

Pictured: [1] Image by Jody Horton [2] Image by Jody Horton [3] Image by Jody Horton

But often I have a lot more freedom to choose a plate, proportions, and the shape of construction. In these cases, I’m usually working with a stylist to imagine a dish from the ground up. We’re working to understand how to shoot it best, from what angle, etc, and I really enjoy this open and creative collaboration. At its best, the final result is more than either of us could have created alone.

Image by Jody Horton

Pro Tip

Let a stylist create their own vision of a dish and pull them into the process of collaboration. It’s often worth trying to minimally mess up a fancy dish to make to a little more accessible. Seeing the images on an iPad or computer screen is a must, and it will allow you to work effectively and collaboratively.

Where do you find inspiration for your photography? There is a lot of great work out there, but I don’t look consistently in any particular place. My greatest inspiration is probably working with great and inspiring people and wanting to make them happy with the work I create with or for them.