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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.