Mar. 06, 2013 - Issue #907: Garbage Goes Green
The art of food photography
It's more than point and shoot
There's been a surge in the popularity of food culture, and thanks to social media, we can share photos of our culinary indulgences more easily than ever. The internet is inundated with photos of mouth-watering cuisine, with the most delectable earning the title of "food porn." The more casual snapshot shooter can take a quick photo of their meal before chowing down at a hot new restaurant and instantaneously post it so their 500 closest friends can see it on social media, but when it comes down to producing those drool-worthy images on billboards and menu pages that make a customer want to drop everything and dig in, shooting food becomes a meticulous art form, with shoots often taking several hours to complete.
The goal is to create an image that appears appetizing and catches the viewer's attention, something local photographer Merle Prosofsky says either happens or doesn't in about two seconds—so the image has to pack a punch. Prosofsky has been working as a photographer for 30 years and says while food shoots are not an easy task, they are a way to flex creativity and have more control over both artificial and ambient lighting, as well as other environmental factors, than he would on other types of shoots. For Prosofsky, food shoots often take place in-studio, with his wife assisting in cooking or food styling—essentially making the food look appealing on the plate—and his assistant Cheryl rounding out the team. In other instances, such as jobs involving restaurants, the studio team will head out on-location and collaborate with chefs and restaurant owners to achieve their vision.
In either case, one of the most important things to remember is that food has a life span on the plate. Depending on the ingredients, different elements can begin to melt, congeal or wilt, which can quickly lead to a visually unappealing plate, particularly if a tight shot is required to show texture. To avoid this, several "dummy" dishes are often prepared in order for the photographer to test lighting, get the composition down and do any necessary tweaking the client requests prior to bringing in the "hero"—the dish that will star in the final photo.
"The most difficult types of things to shoot are ones that don't live that long: that can be very cold things like ice creams. It can also be things that wilt very easily. Surprisingly, pizza's one of the most difficult things to shoot because of the cheese," Prosofsky notes. "Hot cheese looks white and opaque; cold cheese looks translucent, greasy and hard, and it cools very quickly."
"Generally when I'm shooting I'll ask for a stunt plate," explains Darren Jacknisky of Bluefish Studios, who has been working professionally for 18 years, adding that each shoot varies greatly and the preparation needed depends entirely on the type of food being shot. "I'll ask for something the size of the plate we're going to use and I'll stick something on it that's similar to shape and size the food is going to be and I'll light to that while the food stylist is preparing the food, and then I'll coordinate the timing so that I know when the food's coming and I'm ready to roll when the food's ready to go."
Jacknisky has experience shooting everything from fashion to corporate advertising. While he says there isn't a large market in Edmonton for food photography—or to specialize in it for that matter—he finds himself doing a few food-related jobs each year, such as projects for the Alberta Government regarding portion sizes or restaurants such as Characters and XIX. Through this, he has gained a great deal of experience working with food stylists and a creative team to capture the concept the client is looking for.Like Prosofsky, he notes time is one of the most crucial factors when it comes to food, and being prepared when the hero is ready for its close-up. Aside from ensuring the subject doesn't "die on set," composition is a key consideration, whether it's a shot of the food on its own, or needs to be shot with room for text to be added later.
"The more background of the food that's needed, like if you have a more propped, stylized shot, more stuff needs to happen ahead of the food arriving," Jacknisky explains. "A lot of time is taken up arranging or sorting the food so when it's seen on a two-dimensional photo, it looks appetizing. Sometimes that's my doing and sometimes it's the food stylist, or it's a combination."
In order to get the best shot and avoid a dish's ingredients decaying on set, substitutions can be used, but both photographers explain that regulations state the substitutions must be edible and such as in the case of shooting a photo to go on an item's packaging, it must contain the ingredients that are included. Oftentimes, in the case of certain meats such as a turkey or chicken, the bird is rarely cooked all the way through. The skin is browned just enough and then there may be some enhancements made to make it look more appealing, but the inside is raw.
Have you ever wondered how steaks in photos always have perfect grill marks? Well, it turns out they've rarely hit a grill before being photographed.
"We'll heat up a metal rod with a paint-stripping gun and literally brand the grill marks into the steak," Jacknisky says, also noting that adding salt is a trick to make thicker foam on a pint of beer.
However, regardless of how appetizing a dish looks on its plate or how expertly styled it is, it'll be all for naught if the lighting isn't right. Harsh flash or inadequate ambient lighting can quickly kill a food photograph, distorting colours and creating hard shadows. Professionals such as Prosofsky and Jacknisky work to use lighting to enhance the food, bringing out its texture—or lack thereof, as Prosofsky points out—and highlight all of an item's best attributes. Overall, to get "the shot," it's a combination of styling, composition, lighting and a little creativity.
"It's got to be fresh and colourful and sharp and contrasty and proper lighting and all the things that go with that, so if we don't do that job, I guess we've failed in the food photography," Prosofsky says.
"It's like any good photograph: it has to have a beginning, middle and end. It has to have a flow to it; your eye needs to go to a spot that's appetizing and then transition out of the image," Jacknisky notes. "It's all about visual balance."
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