We food photographers specialize in lighting and shooting plates of food ranging from plush Michelin-starred restaurants to QSR outlets serving food in paper boxes or burgers wrapped in parchment. That said, photographing couples on their wedding day is definitely something we shouldn’t be tasked with. You see, the approach to photographing components on a plate is about understanding the elements at play - ingredients, hues, layers, transparency, translucency, color of the plate versus color of the background - while photographing people is all about capturing the emotion in a moment and more importantly freezing the very moment. The only constant in the world of photography is conveying a mood slash ambience; if it’s beaming or dull, day or night, summer or winter. With food, the mood becomes a priority as it extends the story of the plate beyond its frame. Is the pint of beer in the photograph at an al-fresco area of the cafe? Is it by the cozy dimly lit bar? Is that pizza sold in a gastro-pub? Or in an Italian pizzeria?
Prior to the actual shoot, food photographers work closely with food stylists in deciding a color palette that matches the brand, overall. A royal blue background or a gold rimmed plate sitting on a glossy black table just does not fit for a quick-bite take-away joint since the colors and crockery do not appeal to the younger target audience of the client whose business revolves around serving rice and noodle stir-fried in a wok with funky Asian sauces.
It’s safe then, to conclude that most of the aesthetics related conception or ‘pre-production’ in technical jargon should be done a few days prior to the shoot and approved by the client, which also means a good chunk; say twenty percent of the task is finished where the production/shoot day will be streamlined. It is equally important is to discuss each dish with the head Chef so as to take care of surprises such as a bowl of soba noodles where all the noodles are submerged under a thick luscious dark soy sauce, making it impossible to convey/translate through a photograph that there’s a swirl of tasty soba noodles mixed with a chicken thigh contrived with red peppers, garlic and ginger hiding underneath all that sauce and garnish.
Production or the actual shoot now remains as more of an exercise where everyone follows a schedule, reaches before call-time, the kitchen team preps the necessary elements while the photographer can test lighting using mock-ups, mark positions of the tripod, plates and lights. If the entire shoot is to be executed in one constant angle with the same background and lighting, then the task is more of managing the rendering of dishes one after another; placing, shooting and replacing one with the next, which is also generally not the case unless the shots are catalogue-like - needing to be uploaded on a food delivery website or smartphone app thus maintaining uniformity across the page and making the selection process easier for the end user.
The general approach to most photo-shoots done today (where images will be either used on social media or printed for banners) is a step-by-step process with serious co-ordination between the photographer, stylist and chef. The requirement of such projects are wide selections of images shot in different set-ups - solid smooth backgrounds, actual restaurant tables or staged sets with wooden planks, linens, props and more. Staged sets are where the work of stylists can really shine with their ideas of layouts, choice of textures and selection of colors. The work of the stylist is not just related to the above, but also continues sometimes to re-plating an entire dish from scratch using best of the cooked elements, placing them carefully in order to directly draw the viewer to the prime element and their precisely picked and placed pieces of garnish on top.
There are a handful of minutes allotted to each shot before the elements start to lose their moisture and appear dry. At times, the food is revived by brushing oil or spraying a mixture of glycerin and water to make salad or fruit appear fresh and covered with dewy droplets. Styling also extends to utilising mashed potato for making perfect- looking scoops of ice-cream that literally never melt or change texture under the harshest of lighting . Cotton-tipped swabs, chopsticks and tweezers are must haves in a toolkit that enables cleaning surfaces without getting your hands close to the food or picking a twig of parsley and turning it around to an angle just enough for that perfect contour.
Food photo-shoots are as stressful as any other shoots since these are generally carried out in a certain area of the restaurant itself, thus sacrificing a few tables and all this takes place during the kitchen staff’s working hours. There’s no scope of a retake on the following day. Every hour, every minute, every attempt at every dish is valuable. The culmination is always rewarding when the food goes from looking pretty in a plate to “Wow, I want to have THAT for dinner tonight! Let’s book a table, shall we?”
Edited by Sara Mahdi