Food photographers are masters in the art of seduction, especially during the holidays. When the weather is cold and spirits are low, a great food photographer can bring warmth and joy with a single flawless shot.

We asked six outstanding food photographers to divulge their juiciest stories and share their secrets on transforming a messy shoot into a miraculous one. The consensus is clear: Every single photographer is meticulous when it comes to preparations.

The real magic comes in after every detail is in place and the photographer has ambple room to play. Even the best-laid plans can’t account for the serendipitous moments that arise on set, and these photographers agree that “perfection” can be overrated.

Jonathan Swift famously said, “Promises are like pie crust; they are made to be broken,” and we tend to agree. The most appealing food photographs are the creative ones, so it’s okay to indulge and get a little messy.

Liz Clayman

smore-melting
Image by Liz Clayman

I’d say the one of the most rewarding images in my portfolio is this shot of a hand holding a s’more. Last fall, my boyfriend and I rented a really rustic (read: zero power, zero heat) cabin in upstate New York, in an attempt to ‘unplug’ for the weekend. But, once the sun went down and we’d played all the card games and read all the books, we found ourselves a bit bored. So, we became obsessed with making s’mores – melting the chocolate bars atop the raging wood stove and toasting the marshmallows to perfection inside.

This image was side lit with the flashlight from an iPhone. In no way did I ever expect to create such a dynamic image (I didn’t even have a tripod!); we were just playing around. I love the way the chocolate swirls around the marshmallow as it’s melting, the craggy edge of the graham cracker adding in just the right amount of texture.

cheeseburger
Image by Liz Clayman

Pro Tip: A successful food photograph needs to make you feel hungry when you look at it, plain and simple. We can all relate, that warm “mmmmm” sound you inadvertently make to yourself – that’s what should happen when you see a great image. Shooting real, accessible food is important. I do always have a pair of tweezers on me and a little bit of oil to brush onto meats, etc. Even a cold burger can actually look delicious if it’s got a little glisten to the surface (yuck, I know).

I think the biggest thing for success in shooting food is to be as prepared and involved as possible (without getting in the way of the chef, stylist, etc). Experiment with the temperatures of the dishes. If you can ask the chef to give you those meatballs at room temperature instead of piping hot like they normally would, that cheese on top is going to last a lot longer! Lots of chefs are used to cooking at a fast speed and for their patrons, so knowing how to guide them through a plating for a photo shoot can be really helpful.

ariel-view-table
Image by Liz Clayman

Keep it clean. Aim for images with big, bold swathes of color (negative space is so, so important) and minimal distracting shapes. Get weird! Shoot every angle you can think of to give yourself and your client options. Try side lighting and back lighting and see what looks best. No two dishes want to be shot in the same way (although all transparent cocktails will agree- they want some back lighting). Most importantly: there is no wrong way to shoot. Follow your instincts and never stop playing.

Shea Evans

ariel-view-table-with-blue-cloth
Image by Shea Evans

This was shot as part of a series both for stock and for a private chef to use in his promotional materials. To shoot at Crissy Field in San Francisco, we had to navigate the tangled web of park permitting, submitting an application, showing proof of insurance, paying a fee, etc.

Once at Crissy Field, the shoot kicked off with a seagull stealing my lunch. Our main ingredient, crab, disappeared from a wooden cage we had brought it in. It was raining, though it had been sunny the two weeks before and was sunny for two weeks after the shoot. We had to fight off flocks of birds from eating everything on the table; my umbrella toppled to the ground and broke after a gust of wind, and we lost our main shaping light source.

By the end of the shoot, even though I and the private chef did all we could to make it the best we could, we felt beaten. Once I got the images in post though, I pushed and pulled the flat light of that gray day, bumped some color, added some warmth, and voila, they’ve been some of my highest selling images.

ramen-food-bowl
Image by Shea Evans

Pro Tip: I don’t believe in “faking” it, undercooking or overcooking things, creating something that “looks” right but tastes wrong. To me, making that dish as if I was going to eat it is the best way to get an appetizing photograph. For this ramen, that meant a 12-hour broth, a 16-hour pork belly process, and about 30 minutes of other prep to get this to come together in the bowl, let alone the actual prop styling and lighting time it took to get the scene ready to shoot.

Planning and pre-visualization are key to a successful commercially viable photograph. You might have come into photography, like I did, with folks who told you that you had a “good eye,” the ability to capture key moments on the fly or a great sense of framing what you found in the environment around you. Those skills are still key, but when you get to the place where you’re expected to nail it every time, to both deliver to a client or to not be wasting your own time, reacting in the moment becomes secondary to a good plan, and for that matter, a good back-up plan. And then a good back-up plan to your back-up plan.

two-people-eating
Image by Shea Evans

My tricks to making food look appetizing aren’t tricks like the ones they used to use to “preserve” food. I’m not using chemicals to put a shine or something that looks like one thing but is actually inedible. My trick is planning. I’ve visualized the dish; I have my set ready to go; the lighting is dialed; the props are staged in all the right spots to support the food. That the moment that food hits the set, I’m shooting, capturing it right at the moment it was meant to be eaten.

Brent Hofacker

thanksgiving-dinner
Image by Brent Hofacker

My most challenging shoot was definitely creating a Thanksgiving turkey dinner image. There is so much prep work and food involved that it causes the entire process to become exponentially more difficult and time-consuming. The hardest part is getting the timing down so that all of the dishes are at their peak and ready to be photographed at the same time.

Everything revolves around the turkey, so while that is baking, I am setting up my props on my set and beginning to prep the other courses. Once the turkey is about an hour from being done, I start to cook the side dishes. I start with food that will last longer on set, like bread or cranberry sauce, and save the more fragile items for when the turkey is almost done. Once everything is done, I plate everything and move it all to my set where I begin shooting.

bag-of-wet-cherries
Image by Brent Hofacker

Pro Tip: It is important that you select the best looking produce to start with as that will make whatever dish you are cooking look all the better. Before I start cooking, I begin to style my set and do pre-lighting so that everything is ready to go once the food is done being prepared. The second your food is done, you want to be photographing, not deciding which plate or surface to put your dish on.

The keys to great looking food is starting with beautiful ingredients and taking photographs of the dish at its peak. Sometimes that means not cooking a part of the dish all the way so that it looks better. That could mean that your food will be a little bit raw on the inside but will look perfectly cooked to your eye and to the camera on the outside. You can always finish cooking your food after your shoot is done so that you can eat it. The most common trick I use is spritzing with a spray bottle with a 50/50 mix of water and glycerine. I use it to add condensation to fruit/veggies and also on drinks to make them look cool and refreshing.

VICUSCHKA

rustic-tabw-with-ingredients
Image by VICUSCHKA

The most difficult thing is to prepare for shooting. I always think over topics in advance. It begins with the selection or search for a background, as well as other products and kitchen utensils. The most ridiculous case I’ve ever had was associated with the backgrounds. I love textured, vintage backgrounds: the old countertops, doors, gates. These backgrounds are hard to find, and it’s even harder to transport them, especially when you’re a little woman.

One time I had to ship an old farm gate with a weight of 100 kilograms! It was very hot, and I thought I was going to pass out.

still-life-ingredients
Image by VICUSCHKA

Pro Tip: I have no special tricks to make food look appetizing. I just choose fresh fruits and vegetables at the market, and I use organic meat, which is important for me. So my personal advice is to use local, fresh, and organic ingredients to support farmers. Sometimes, these products do not look perfect, but do not fear them. The imperfection often gives a special charm to the picture.

Eugene Bochkarev of Bochkarev Photography

shutterstock_457554046
Image by ©Bochkarev Photography

The most important part of our work is the message or the story we tell in our images. In all of our holiday work, we want to create the feeling of a feast, of enjoys, of a happy gathering. When you look at these images, you should feel the air of a holiday, a happy family or friends, and feel a desire to join them, to enjoy your life.

One time, our son, Dmitry, was visiting us for a holiday and took a part in one of our sessions with his girlfriend. They were our models, and that experience made him very interested in taking his own photography to a different level. He joined Shuttershock himself and became a contributor. In a short time, he grew into a high-end professional photographer with amazing work. We are very proud of igniting his interest in professional photography.

bowl-of-crab
Image by Bochkarev Photography

Pro Tip: Just shooting your dinner will not take you far. For us, it usually takes a week of preparation, and we shoot on Saturdays, spending anywhere from several hours to an entire day. We spend so much time preparing, and that way, we can spend almost no time in Photoshop.

As yourself: Is this a business or a hobby? Do you do it for money as the number one reason, or do you just love making and shooting food? The most important thing is you must love doing it. If you do, your images will show it, and your customers can feel it.

Also, we shoot mostly natural food and drinks. In most cases, we can eat or drink it after the session is completed. When you buy your ingredients, invest in high quality ones. Your images will look better.

Biz Jones

beautiful-table-decorated
Image by Biz Jones

One of my favorite shoots to date is a holiday-themed story I did with a friend, prop stylist Sophie Strangio. I think we really captured the mood of the season with twinkling lights and going all out in the details. We wanted to feature food but break away from the standard tabletop shoot. So we added human elements to the shots, incorporating details such as hands crafting garlands and soft focus guests in the background.

© Biz Jones / Offset

http://www.offset.com/photos/305309

food-decoration
Image by Biz Jones

However, I don’t think we realized how big of a project we had taken on until we got to location on prep day and filled two entire bedrooms with props. Five models, food, props, and a “Christmas tree” is a lot for a team of two! The day was hectic, with fluctuating daylight mixed with strobe and candlelight. At one point, we were shooting in the dark because the sun was about to set, but we were able to squeeze out one last drop of daylight for the final shot. By the end of the shoot, glitter and pine needles were everywhere! It was our “go big or go home” moment.

Pro Tip: A food stylist has a huge impact on how well an image turns out. That sounds obvious, but before I worked in this industry, I had no idea how much time went into each food photo. Great food stylists know how to make a dish look effortless. Unlike restaurant plating, which tends to look fussy, the food stylists that I enjoy working with style in a way that says “home-cook” and “aspirational” all at once. I like food that doesn’t look too precious or contrived, but still inspires viewers to change up their routine cooking or eating habits.

A few good things to have in your kit if you can’t have a food stylist on set: tweezers, a mini spray bottle of water, table salt, and black/white cards. Use a spritz of water to revive tired food or add condensation to a glass. A good trick with salt: drop a pinch into a glass of beer to refresh carbonation. Having a variety of small cards on hand is not only useful to add fill or create deeper shadows, but also for times when shooting in a restaurant, where you may need to block overhead lights that create unflattering yellow highlights.

Also, don’t be afraid to mess up the food a bit. Perfect is boring. There’s a photo I did of a salt crust snapper. I think if we hadn’t deconstructed the fish to show some of the bones, the shot would not have been as interesting. Let ice cream melt, break into a piece of cake with a fork, allow crumbs to happen. To me, these are the most interesting shots.

Steve Giralt

topview-outdooors-thanksgiving
Image by Steve Giralt

I’d have to say this would be one of the more challenging and also most rewarding shots. This image is part of a larger personal project I shot a couple years ago, based around fall entertaining. It was quite a production! We had six models, a food stylist, a prop stylist, a fashion stylist, assistants, a cinematographer / steadicam operator, huge weather balloon light, and more. We created this scene in the middle of the woods at my house upstate, so nothing was easy. The food got cold; the models were cold; we had to use huge extension cords to get power out there, and so much more.

rustic-set-table
Image by Steve Giralt

Pro Tip: Although some food shoots are simple and easy, most are not. They require a lot of planning and pre visualization in order to make sure everything looks great on shoot day. Shooting food is all the details. For someone new to photographing food, I would tell them to slow down and really concentrate on all the details in an image. Look at the surface. Is it too busy or too plain for the food you’re going to put on it? Is the vessel you’re putting the food in or on the right size and shape? Does it add or distract from the food looking like the hero of the picture? Does the mood of the lighting match the look of the food and props?

For someone new to food photography, I feel it’s best to use daylight as your light source. Find a nice North or South facing window and set up a table in front of it and start there. North light is fairly steady all day, which gives you lots of time to make adjustments, whereas South light changes quicker but offers more variety.

pecan-pie
Image by Steve Giralt

© Steve Giralt / Offset