About this time last year I started photographing food. It started out as an exercise, an effort to find something to photograph when it was just too darn hot outside for my typical nature work. I’ve done a fair bit of product photography in the past, so I understood lighting and product placement. And I’ve always loved looking at food websites to find new recipes to try and licking my lips at the luscious imagery. So food photography seemed like a natural outlet to explore and I decided to give it a shot. This was my first image:
I was pretty happy with it, so I kept going. After only shooting a few images, I decided to try to shoot a whole new portfolio of food images. I set the ambitious goal of one new well-planned food image every week. The goal was 12-15 images I was proud of. There was a learning curve, to be sure, as there always is with any new endeavor. As I had predicted, the lighting was fairly straightforward. The big surprise had to do with what can loosely be called food styling.
I discovered that great food images don’t just happen by accident. It’s not merely the result of cooking something good, placing it on a plate and aiming your camera at it. No, great food images are planned. Meticulously planned. And painstakingly styled. Yes, styled. Welcome to the world of food styling. Yep, that’s a thing. There are books written about food styling, including what most food photographers consider the Bible of food styling, Delores Custer’s monumental book Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera. It’s a beast of a book, cram-packed full of way more than you could ever imagine about something you’ve probably never even heard of.
But if you want to be a photographer, a good one anyway, you’re going to have to come to grips with food styling. Most professional food photographers employ professional food stylists.
In what is certainly a gross oversimplification, food styling involves making sure food looks mouthwatering to the camera. As it turns out, that’s a very different thing from merely cooking good food. It involves things like buying three cartons of blueberries to find the twenty or so that are perfect and will look fantastic in your image. In fact it often involves buying three times as much food as you need so you can sort through ingredients or so you can prepare a plate twice (or thrice) because the first time around it didn’t look quite right.
Food styling involves buying special plates, silverware, napkins, and a myriad of other props, based solely on how they’re going to appear in a photograph. It involves keeping a kit of tweezers, eyedroppers, brushes, needles and other things that will allow you to nudge, tweak, drip and brush your food in just the right way to make it look good in a photograph. Because I married well, I now have a cabinet all my own in our dining room just for my food photography props. It’s important that food photographers marry well, I think.
So in food photography, the photography is the easy part. Ninety percent of good food photography is food styling. It is an intensely detailed and laborious process if you’re going to do it right. And because of that, it’s not for everyone. Some photographers can’t handle the laborious and meticulous nature of this kind of creativity. That’s okay.
Fortunately, I learned long ago that I have precisely the kind of twisted personality that can handle thankless, meticulous detail work without mumbling to myself or lashing out violently. So I’ve found a great deal of satisfaction in food photography. And let’s be honest – it’s not all painstakingly detailed. You do usually get to eat the food when you’re done, so there’s that.
I haven’t been paid yet for any of my food photography, but I’m hoping that door will crack open sometime soon. In the meantime, I’m gonna keep at it. It’s fun, and it’s a different kind of creativity than landscapes. I find it a really good balance. And it’s oh so good when the memory cards are full and you can sit down to something as delicious as it is beautiful.
For the time being, I invite you to check out some of my food photography here. And while you’re at it, feel free to wander around my nature galleries too. Since moving to Tennessee last year, there are some new images in my Appalachia gallery you might like.
In the meantime, bon appétit!
More to come . . . .