A Feast for the Eyes
Using light, speed and a little styling to capture the meal
By Lisa Crawford Watson
“The goal of food photography,” says Monterey Peninsula photographer Tom O’Neal, “is the experience of freshness, of color, of texture, of taste. Food can appeal to or offend all the senses. . . . The photographer has to bring that to life, to evoke the memory of the other senses.”
Most of us attempt this at least occasionally. In fact, our growing obsession with snapping and posting photos of every spectacular meal that is placed in front of us has reached a frenzy. The New York Times reported earlier this year that certain restaurants are intervening with photography bans, while others have sought to dis- courage the dining room disruption by either inviting customers to do their shooting in the kitchen or giving guests the restaurants’ own professional electronic images of the dishes they’ve ordered.
And in truth, there is much more to great food photography than pointing and shooting. Anyone who has tried to capture the thrill of a just-served meal and found the results underwhelming may wonder just how the pros make their images look as irresistible as— or even more so than—the real meal.
We posed this question to several professional photographers from around our region, and they generously offered their advice. Their stories of the focused thought and accomplished techniques that go into capturing the images they do may provide a sense of what could lie ahead for anyone who has professional aspirations.
And for the rest of us, the good news is that the principles of food photography are fairly simple—and taking pictures that you’re proud of need not be very complicated. (See Tips for Taking Your Own, p. 42.)
Getting the story
O’Neal studies the food until he has determined the focal point. He may focus only on the capers, on the texture of the beef or the shape of the heirloom tomato, whatever is the most important part of the dish, whatever conveys the narrative, the message, the story.
“I don’t want to show the whole thing in sharp focus,” O’Neal says. “It’s too much to take in, pay attention to. To turn the subject into a piece of art, I need to edit the composition and let the viewers see what I want them to notice.”
Like O’Neal, Monterey food photographer Patrick Tregenza says that the starting point of his photography is the narrative. “Our photographs,” says Tregenza, “make food look immediate and appetizing, beautiful, seductive or nostalgic.”
The other half of the “we” in Tregenza’s business is an experienced professional food stylist, and his wife of 10 years, Diane Gsell. In their food photography studio, complete with test kitchen, they use their technical expertise and tenacity to strive for a perfect shot. (See sidebar, p. 44.)
“It makes all the difference to be able to prepare fresh food at the shoot,” says Tregenza, who has photographed more than a dozen cookbooks. “Most food will hold up for the duration of the session; I ask Diane how long I have ‘til it starts to fail. Still, we make allowances. A real frozen dessert is often not as appealing as an altered one; the color saturation is stronger. And a strawberry, which starts out fresh and shiny and succulent and plump, retreats into itself by the end of the day. So we work fast.”
They also work long. To achieve exactly the right splash of wine from bottle to glass, Tregenza will cut the bottom out of the bottle, set the bottle in a stand, and pour the wine through the bottle to get just the right rush of liquid against the interior of the bottle. Then he washes the glass and does it again, every five minutes, until he gets what he wants.
Photographer Sara Remington was already known for capturing the narrative in wedding photography when, while dating a chef, she began photographing food.
“I started shooting food,” says Remington, who was previously based in Monterey but now works out of San Francisco, “and began to see the beauty in food and the similarities in photographing food and weddings. In each, you have to have the eye to capture the de- tails, and you have to move quickly. You can’t spend too much time on the shot, or it will disappear right before your eyes.”
Remington, who went on to photograph the lush Big Sur Bakery Cookbook and, among others, Earthbound Farms founder Myra Good- man’s forthcoming Straight from the Earth, says her style has evolved to what she calls “quick taste” shooting, without much styling.
For any tricks and tips to make food “stay” on set, Remington relies on the talents and experience of food stylists, but doesn’t “fake” much—no white glue for milk, for instance. Most of the time, Remington’s composition is completely natural, although she may add a drop of olive oil to create a sheen on a piece of meat, or spray a bit of water to add dew to fresh vegetables.
“There is a trend now,” she says, “to shoot food in a bit of a messy context with crumbs and spills to look natural. Well, it’s actually harder to do; there is an art to the messiness.”
Santa Cruz food photographer Angela Aurelio agrees that there is a lot to getting across the clean but rustic look that she seeks in her own work.
“I like the drips, the point where you wish your head were right there close, eating it up. I like it a little messy,” Aurelio says, but adds, “even my messiest shots are styled that way, crumb by crumb.
“There is plating food to be eaten and there is styling food for a photograph,” she adds. “Styling is just as important to food photography as good lighting.”
Aurelio says she often does her own styling, but on occasion works with a stylist.
“It is a great help to be able to have a trained second set of eyes to catch little details like a crumb on a plate or a sandwich that is lop- sided so I can focus on lighting and composition,” Aurelio says. “Overall it is a collaborative team effort from the chef to the photographer that really makes a successful shoot.”
The Ohio native, who has been quickly making a name for her- self since moving to this area in 2012, was raised to believe that art was not something with which to make a living. But she pursued a practical application of her passion for taking pictures through the commercial photography program at the University of Southern Nevada—and found a new love when she began to focus on food and styling.
When you look at exceptional food photography, your mouth waters, and it makes you hungry, creating a reaction physically and aesthetically.
“I started wanting to go more into fine art photography,” Aurelio says, “but food kept drawing me back. When you look at exceptional food photography, your mouth waters, and it makes you hungry, creating a reaction physically and aesthetically. Fashion photography is beautiful; I appreciate design and line, but you don’t get that same note. You can’t taste it, can’t smell it, and it doesn’t evoke that primal instinct. I take my love for design, clean lines and vibrant colors, and incorporate that into food images.”
The Natural Path
Having a stylist at your disposal or even training in styling is not necessarily the only route to the great food shot.
When Santa Cruz photographer Ted Holladay photographs food, he approaches it entirely naturally. He doesn’t set the lights and rearrange the room. He doesn’t polish the silverware and iron out the creases in the linens. He doesn’t use a flash. He does use one small, fully manual Leica camera.
“Many food photographers treat food to make it look perfect,” says Holladay. “If I were asked to do that, I would, but it is not my approach. I don’t turn mashed potatoes into ice cream. I prefer food that looks like real food, not hyper-real. I do edit my photos—not to remove a clam or the eye from a fish, but to accentuate what I saw that day when I shot the photo. A lot of food photography is about the feeling, how it looked and how you enjoyed it. I remember that moment when I look at the photos.”
“When I photograph an heirloom tomato at a farmers’ market,” says Liimatta, “I accept that it is mottled and imperfect and real. I can’t imagine anything more beautiful than the fresh food we have here, not in spite of its imperfections, but because of them. I never feel the need to add anything to it.”
When Liimatta photographed for Baker’s Bacon, the artisanal bacon company started by Montrio Bistro chef Tony Baker, she moved the table near the window to photograph the bacon in natural light, and got just what she wanted: true color and true texture, in keeping with Baker’s own philosophy of “real food.”
“I could see the crispy edges and striations of pink, red and brown in the bacon,” she says. “It was really so beautiful, my mouth is watering as I think of it, and I’m vegetarian.”
Liimatta’s style, she says, is made possible by the cameras she uses, with their light-sensitive lenses, and by photographing the food just as she finds it, at the peak of ripeness.
“No one style of food photography is better or worse than any other,” she says. “Context is key; it all depends on the point of the photograph. The beauty of modern tools and techniques, paired with the artistic eye, is that we have options. As long as we make everyone hungry when they see the photograph, we’ve got it.”
Lisa Crawford Watson lives with her family on the Monterey Peninsula, where she is a freelance writer and an instructor of writing and journalism at California State University Monterey Bay and Monterey Peninsula College.
Looks Good Enough to Eat
For food stylists, looking good is not a matter of taste
Picture it. Everyone is gathered around the table for a festive meal. With a final swipe of his cloth across the rim of the plate, the chef hands the dish to the server, who sets it in front of you. Everyone oohs and aahs, and someone whips out a cell phone to photograph the meal as a way to remember the moment and the artistry on the plate. Except the image looks more like someone just got sick.
Whether on a movie set or in a prep kitchen, the job of the food stylist is to make sure this doesn’t happen.
“To become a food stylist, you have to have some knowledge of photography, and understand the creative process of commercial de- sign,” says stylist Diane Gsell, who works with photographer Patrick Tregenza, who is also her husband. “And you have to know about food; stylists know how to cook. Some are more culinary and others are more design oriented…There are a lot of tricks, but it’s more than that. To be good at it, you need to be fast and confident. It’s somewhat like being a magician.”
Everyone has their niche, Gsell says. Some stylists are ice cream specialists who know how to get the drip without the melt. Others focus on fresh produce, baked goods, meat or wine. For years, Gsell was known as the cookie queen, for her meticulously decorated cookies, which were, by design, attractive and durable but also by design, neither delicate nor delicious.
Gsell, who spent a dozen years shuttling between San Francisco and Miami on location to style the Williams-Sonoma catalog, still styles for the specialty food, furnishings and cookware company. Yet most of her focus now is on her work with Tregenza.
“I am not a photographer, and I am not a photography assistant,” Gsell says. “Those dedicated assistants carry equipment and do photo shop work and answer to the photographer. The stylist also answers to the photographer, but we critique the details of the photograph together, tweaking here and there until it’s just right.”
As she speaks, Gsell rarely looks up from the white fish she is cooking for a photograph. While it still looks moist and succulent, with just a tinge of singe on the edges, she lifts it off the grill. The fish glistens and she has avoided making it look dry, but, she feels, it looks a little too white.
She picks up a slim paintbrush and begins painting the fish with a little Kitchen Bouquet, that brown glass bottle with the bright yellow label she remembers in her grandma’s pantry and which she now uses to lend a browned appearance to just about anything. Next, she approaches the fish with the heated coil of a barbecue starter, aiming to add char to the surface. Still not satisfied, she sprinkles a little brown sugar on the fish and brings the heated coil back in to brûlée the surface. And, voilà. The fish looks flavorful and ready for its close-up. And that’s exactly what the final photograph shows.
“Someone once looked at the food I was preparing for a shoot,” says Gsell, “and said it didn’t smell quite ready. But it looked ready, and that was our goal. It’s a visual thing. I don’t care if it’s done or not. Until someone is planning to eat something, it doesn’t have to taste good or even be good. Our project is not food; it’s the suggestion of food. The food I cook for photographs is edible but not al- ways tasty. It doesn’t have to be, which is why I always remember not to lick my fingers.”