Behind the Lens with Food’s Sharp Shooters and Smooth Stylists
Picture perfect. People eat with their eyes first; the bedrock philosophy that’s built the careers of our panel of talented food photographers and stylists.
If you’re determined to create a menu that’s good enough to eat, start with these pros who have been making perfect shots from behind, in front, over and even under the plate, for decades. Food photographer, prop stylist and food stylist bring a set of formidable skills to ensure that your offerings look every bit as appetizing on laminated paper or on a mobile site as they do steaming hot out of the kitchen. Your payoff? As James Beard-awarding winning photographer Jaimie Tiampo says: “The most successful food images are immensely craveable and make you want to lick the screen or page. Great food photography can trigger hunger and spark an upsell, improve overall customer perceptions and inspire the staff.”
Dan Coha, the veteran Chicago photographer whose work inspires Restaurant, Inc.’s “Food Fight” features, concurs: “If it makes readers really look at the page and practically taste it, I’ve done my job!”
The first step is to hire a professional with bona fide food photography creds, and ideally, a culinary background.
“You want to engage someone who specializes in food, not a wedding photographer who took pictures of the cupcakes,” says Tiampo, who earned degrees from the French Culinary Institute, New York University and the Institute for Culinary Education. Tiampo has his own successful SeeFood Media Company in NYC. “That person will bring a team to capture the best possible images. While they concentrate on great-looking photos, the food stylist focuses on the food looking perfect and the prop stylist sets the tone for each shot. Most important is that everyone on the team has an innate passion for and knowledge of food, how it behaves over time, what steps to take when things go wrong and how to make food look its best. In the hands of an expert team, food images pop and come alive.”
Most certainly, food photography is not a DIY project. It’s a highly defined specialty, requiring expertise on everything from optimal lighting to the most interesting angles.
“What you see through your eye and the camera lens is totally different,” affirms Jenn Bushman, Reinhart’s lead graphic designer. “Anyone who’s taken a picture of a stunning plate of food only to have it look flat and dull on paper has experienced this phenomenon. You need a professional to identify the right lighting, depth of field, what to blur and what to keep in focus.”
Start with the Workbook, www.workbook.com, an online portal listing the industry’s leading commercial photographers, advises Jeff Kauck, a well-respected lens man whose two decades of achievement place him firmly in that category. A James Beard nominee for his work on "The Spiaggia Cookbook" and Clio award winner, Kauck understands the intangible but very real value of finding a collaborator who shares your vision. “Contact two or three photographers with experience in the food industry and describe your project, see if you click ... because when it comes to the real magic in the room, it’s about creating something better than the food, it’s about creating a connection.”
That’s why it’s essential to do some soul-searching as to your brand’s message to consumers well before contacting a photographer. “Take a step back,” advises Kauck, “simplify your categories, identify your strengths and your challenges. Consider your restaurant’s look and feel, and search for a photographer who can best represent your assets visually.”
While tight operating budgets many not leave much money on the table, going the least expensive route may not paint the right picture. “There’s a tendency among chefs to shoot photos straight down because that requires the fewest amount of props and there are no angles to consider, but that’s not necessarily the finest way to present your food,” explains Kauck. “There’s a lot of strategy involved in shooting food, to quickly show the differences between menu items in terms of size, ingredients, accompaniments.” So you’ll see pizza sliced cold to show long strands of unbreakable cheese, and pancakes shot from the bottom up to portray their circular dimensions.
As advertising people know, “food sells best the way it looks as you put it in your mouth,” says Kauck. Affectionately termed the “hero shot,” it’s the goal of food photographers, who have seen its meaning change by decade, traveling a similar trajectory to the country’s shifting palates. In the 1960s and 1970s, the focus was set to fine artistry and perfect settings, but it was “too pretty and unapproachable,” describes Kauck. A natural evolution occurred, leading to today’s more realistic photography, cranked up for craveability.
“A crumb or a smear can make the difference between a good or a great shot,” says Tiampo. “Natural lighting is a huge part of this.” Props too reflect the newer emphasis on home, local, and comfort, with a rustic feel edging out the perennially popular white-on-white.
“It’s all about the appetite appeal,” says Coha, “and taking it out of the foodservice setting can lend a real freshness to the images.” It may seem counterintuitive not to shoot onsite for greater realism, but there’s no control over the lighting in a restaurant environment, and the different surfaces, backgrounds and props enabled in a studio can “save the day for an otherwise dull or ugly product.”
The thorough approach begins weeks before the shoot with pre-production meetings to deconstruct recipes piece by piece, review beverage pairings, shooting angles, and with the prop stylist, every piece of tableware, silverware and napkin to be used. The ingredient list runs long and deep, in quantities sufficient to prepare each recipe three times if needed.
"We’re very particular about every item, and we may need to buy at least six different buns to find exactly the right one to feature in a hamburger shot,” maintains Susan Hevey, a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef and food stylist. “It’s akin to shooting a TV ad, where weeks of prep and an entire day of shooting are needed to achieve that compelling 30-second spot.” And it’s where a culinary background comes into sharp focus.
“You need to respect the fact that food is a living object that changes over time,” says Tiampo. Food stylists understand how to keep refreshing things to ensure pasta noodles aren’t overcooked, herbs don’t look wilted in a matter of minutes, and messy foods like cream pie keep their cool under the hot lights.
“We don’t take shortcuts or use ‘fake’ food,” asserts Tiampo. “We may feature dishes meticulously arranged for maximum visual impact, but modern food photography is natural and real.”