On Food Photography

Posted in John's Current Blog on July 13, 2016

Melon, mint, and blue cheese are perfect salad mates.

Savannah, GA; July 13, 2016: Steve Boss is the host of the excellent GREAT TASTE culinary radio program. The station, KRUU-LP 100.1 FM, is a solar-powered, open source, independent, non-commercial, listener-supported, grassroots community low power radio station, broadcasting 24 hours a day and 7 days a week since launching on September 30th, 2006 in Fairfield, Iowa. 100% of the programs at KRUU are produced by up to 100 volunteer hosts who create 70 shows a week. The programs are archived, so that you can listen to them online after they have run.

Recently Steve asked me to contribute some ideas to an article he was writing about professional food photography. He asked about iPhones (I don’t own one) and apps (irrelevant to me because I mostly use an old Nikon Coolpix and a Canon Rebel — though they are digital). I do very little tweaking of my photos. I might bump up the saturation or contrast or adjust the brightness, but that’s usually it. I try to envision the final image when I take the photo, at least partially because most of my food photos are of foods that I have made to eat for dinner, and it’s very annoying for my dining companions to have to wait for me to finish before we eat. Plus the ice cream melts and the fish gets cold.

Real cinnamon bark is stripped by hand in Sri Lanka.

I told him that I was a professional photographer for years before I became a food writer, but most of my comments were cut.  (The article was written, after all, for iPhone Life Magazine.) I have always preferred natural light. Early morning/late afternoon is best outdoors and northeastern light is best indoors. I generally avoid direct overhead shots because not only are they clichéed, but also they reduce the food to purely what’s on the plate. Dining is always about the entire experience – the setting, the company, the mood…. Lighting can help set the mood, but it does not put the food in context.

The magazine hits the newstands today. Here’s the article. Copyright 2016  iPhoneLifeMagazine.  (Twitter @iphonelife; Facebook @iPhoneLifeMagazine; Instagram @iphonelifemagazine)

Of course the type of photo you take and publish should mostly be determined by your intent and your audience. If you are posting to Instagram as a sort of self-promotion, the photo need be nothing more than attention-grabbing. Most of my published food photos, on the other hand, accompany in-depth blog entries or articles written for either the academic or popular press, in which my aim is to help illustrate how the food is integral to the culture. I tend to take lots of photos of foods in markets.

Gilles Andreo, who grows both oysters and mussels in Meze, on the coast near Sept, in Provence, at the market in St.-Rémy.

The photo at left, for example, was used in an article I wrote for the Washington Post (and my blog) about Provence. It adds a humanity to the oysters I was describing. Photos of finished plates of food can be appetizing, but alone they can show you little more than the way the dish was prepared one time by one person. I am always more interested in just how fresh and good-looking the raw ingredients are (and I find them to be even more appetizing). I also use photography and videos to help describe a technique or to put the food in a cultural context, particularly if the culture is foreign to my readers. And because my blog readers are all over the world, I always try to provide some cultural context.

Traditional frying of dal patties in Sri Lanka.

But as I am quoted in Steve’s published article,  mostly you should keep your photos, like your foods, simple. Photographs of elegantly plated, intriguing foods from fine restaurants and snapshots of barbecue and crab boils in shacks will make your readers envious of your good luck and adventures, but they do little to help them understand where the food comes from or how it’s prepared. That said, too much illustration can come off as condescending and boring. Most readers do not need to see an image of all the raw ingredients and each step of a recipe.

Mikel at lunch in the Panier neighborhood of Marseille.

 

I’ve written before about photographic problems I’ve had to solve in situ. I’ve also written about cooking nightmares. And I, too, have posted Instagram and Facebook shots of restaurant fare and my own home cooking. But two of my favorite “food” photos are these. At left, my husband Mikel is relaxing after a simply perfect meal of suppions (baby cuttlefish) at an unpretentious mom-and-pop bistro up the hill from the harbor in Marseilles. It was our first chance to taste the incomparable, icy cold local white wine, Cassis, which some have called the best white wine in the world. Simple, dry, fresh, and with enough minerals to balance the delicate fruit, I have to admit that nothing could have better complemented our meal.

Mary Edna Fraser, moments after she wed, upon seeing her wedding cake for the first time.

 

 

The second photo, at right, is of my dear friend Mary Edna Fraser, who had asked me to make her wedding cake, the travails of which I recorded on my blog (it’s the cooking nightmare story referenced, above). A disaster turned into a joyous affair!

Food photography should not just be about sharpness, colors, contrast, and composition. It must have human content and show passion, determination, and, in my opinion,  local color as well.  I have been blogging for nearly 10 years, off and on. The top photo, above, of watermelon, mint, and blue cheese, which, combined, make one of my favorite salads, really doesn’t need a written recipe attached. Instead, I tell a story. The cinnamon worker in Sri Lanka is part of bigger blog on that country.

Overhead iPhone shot of a Vidalia Onion Tarte Tatin, the moment it was turned out onto the board.

 

One of my most recent blogs breaks nearly all of my “rules” stated above. In it, I demonstrate with photos how to make this amazing Vidalia Onion Tarte Tatin. I was always taught that if you learn rules and understand them, then you are free to break them — especially if you don’t get caught!

Picnicking with friends in Sichuan

Above all, have fun with photography, with food, and with friends! Go to farmers’ markets and fish markets and to farms and to shops and restaurants that serve fresh, local foods. Find out where the foods come from and let your photos tell their stories.

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