Monday, February 2, 2015

Mixed Plate: Misadventures in Food Photography

I wouldn't call myself a food photographer, more of a dabbler who's lucky enough to get paying gigs now and then. So, while I was tempted to call this post something like "Food Photos 101," I felt like that wasn't very genuine since I still don't really know what the hell I'm doing, I'm just plunking along like everyone else, learning as I go, which I think is a much fairer assessment of what I do. In my Plunking Along (TM), I learn a few tricks and rely on methods, which may or may not be news to anyone, but if anyone wants any helpful tips for taking food photos, here ya go.

Expectation vs. Reality - the dark, sinister expose behind food photography :P - Photo by Wasabi Prime

The heart of any successful food or product photography is Aspirational Living. You're creating a perfect moment, captured in digital non-film, giving not only a sense of the featured product, but the environment around it. You want a sense that whatever the thing is, be it a cool cocktail or a snazzy new watch, you're not buying or buying into this thing for what it is, but what it can do for you as a person. Yeah, sounds ridiculous, but that's marketing, baby, and we've all been drinking the Kool Aid a lot longer than we'd like to admit.

Even the outtakes of food photography seem glamorous - Photos by Wasabi Prime

That being said, it can be an involved process to get a shot set up, especially for a paying gig. I've done some advertising photography, and that, of all things, needs to really sell an experience. Getting an epicurean feast for all the senses -- smell, taste, sometimes sound, as well as sight -- is a lot of stuff to pack into a single image. So I figure the feature image from this post is a good starter for the Anatomy of a Food Photo. 

Problem solving and ruining a really good wine - Photos by Wasabi Prime
First off, there's no light-filled studio in some urban loft space. Maybe for some, but my "studio" is quite often the laundry room for it's south-facing light, and in this case, the den, on the floor, in front of the sliding glass door, to capture as much of the fading light as I could get. I was fortunate to have fresh sage from the garden and ample snacks in the fridge and pantry -- pecans and fresh grapes -- to scatter as edible props. French bistro-looking dishtowels and wood cutting boards of many sizes and stain colors are also handy.

The feature item was of course the wine. It had to evoke a sense of incoming autumn, that subtle hint of a chill starting to creep into the air. It was, in fact, a stuffy summer day, but thankfully a long Northwest summer day, so the light was with us a lot longer than I deserved, after much fussing with the props and setup. The thing that frustrated me to death was the fact that the red wine appears opaque in photos. With more direct light -- studio light -- the camera could pick up the red, but not only did I not have studio lights, natural was the only way to go for this photo. Unfortunately, natural light wasn't going to keep the wine from looking like it was siphoned directly from Satan's arteries. It looked like the sinister alien goo that came out of people's faces on the X-Files. Yeah. Gross.

I tried back-lighting the wine with a candle, but it wasn't strong enough and fire just throws the balance off an image. I thought, Do I have enough food coloring to make a fake glass of red wine? And that's when it hit me -- water down the wine. It might look like cranberry juice in real life, but on camera, it will look like how red wine appears to our eyes. Holy Frijole, it totally worked, especially with the urgency of rapidly declining sunlight. I was able to get the shots I needed, with just the right opacity and richness of the wine. Total Food Blogger/Photographer Confession: I had to water down a really nice red to do it. No names will be named, but it was the only bottle of red I had (it was summer, I only had whites/roses, and this one red was something I was saving), and I was in such a time crunch, if I went to the store and brought back a cheap bottle of red, I would have lost the light completely, and I needed to get the photo worked into a design THAT NIGHT. But I got the shot. And it ended up being a VERY nice Wine Wednesday, drinking the watered down wine by myself, in my grubby sweatpants.

How my photo-brain works for setting up a shot - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The Reverse-Jesus method of turning expensive wine into expensive water got me thinking about general setups. Everyone's got their own way of getting a shot put together. I tend to shoot on simple white plates -- in less-than-ideal light situations, they help illuminate the food, and it's the only way to make Brown Food look at least a little more appetizing. I kept the setup photos from a recipe development job to illustrate the building of a final food photo. It's nice to have stuff around the food you just made -- aspirational living, right? And since the dish featured cognac, I had some mini snifters in the background to work that ingredient in. And when I say "snifters," yes, I mean old beer festival tasting glasses that look like mini snifters, because I don't, in fact, own cognac glasses. But that's another photo tip -- smaller props look better with food photos. You're so often framing a dish of food as the subject matter, whatever you want in the background can't be too large to where it's unrecognizable in the final shot.

The final result? Here's one of the shots that made it to the "OK to send to editor" list: 

Bay scallops and chanterelles with orzo in a creamy cognac sauce - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Pasta and seafood are pretty photogenic and it's hard to take a bad photo of either. But what about boring food, and the most infamous of boring food: SOUP. Yes, soup -- good food, bad photos. Chunky, rustic soups are easier to photograph -- my favorite tip was putting marbles in the bottom of the bowl, ladle in the broth, and place the chunky parts of the soup over the marbles, so they have a sturdy base to sit up against the pool of broth. It's a great idea -- just take the marbles out before eating

Creamy soup, saved by garnishes - Photo by Wasabi Prime
But what about creamy soups? Wonderful to eat, but in photographs, it will seriously bore you to tears. I was photographing a creamy leek and potato soup, which is pretty much a bowl of paste to a camera. I didn't have chopped chives or parsley handy (my bad, I know), but I had the good fortune of having some leftover cured salmon and fresh shallots. Cured salmon is an amazing garnish, with its bright red hue -- same reason chefs love putting fish eggs on everything. The color is gorgeous! I fried up some of the shallots to make a crispy topping to surround the salmon, and of course the gourmet-ooh-la-la garnish is a quick drizzle of olive oil on the surface. This always makes creamy soups look more exciting, and it's an easy flourish, since everyone's got olive oil handy. You could fancy it up and mix some paprika with it, or steep chives in it for a bright green oil. Whatever. The bottom line is, whether you're making food for a camera or to impress the in-laws, keep parsley or chives around, capers and lemon slices/zest dress up a salad or fish quite nicely, and if you don't want to keep a jar of fish eggs, chopped smoked/cured salmon is super-duper.

The magic of garnishes -- keep your fridge/pantry stocked! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
So, there you have it. All my food photo secrets, laid bare for the blog. I'm sure it's not news to most of you, and there's many more tips I'll be learning as I plod along with my camera. But until then, happy cooking/photographing!

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