I was reading an article in the June 2009 Gourmet magazine written by the Editor in Chief, Ruth Reichl. In this article, she talked about the challenges of photographing food and making the recipes in the magazine look great. I started thinking about this for a minute and remembered, on more than one occasion, being frustrated with a dish I created at home. I followed all the instructions, used all the ingredients and did everything I was instructed to do and the dish didn’t look like that lovely photo in the magazine/cookbook. Somewhere in your culinary adventure, you’ve probably had a similar experience.
Like me you may have asked, “What happened?” Did I miss something? Am I a lousy cook? No, you most likely didn’t miss anything and aren’t a bad cook. What happened was an innocent deception. It isn’t a purposeful deception, not in most cases anyway, it’s just that a lot can go wrong or change.
Let me explain. I have gotten to know a well known, well respected food photographer and I have had the privilege of visiting her studio and enjoying conversations with her about food and photography. Over the course of our discussions, I came to understand the challenges and difficulties of making food look, as Ruth Reichl said in her article, “…so irresistible that you’ll run right into your kitchen and start cooking.”
Food Photography Challenges
Let’s look at a partial list of challenges with food photography:
– Time as an enemy: prepared food doesn’t keep its visual appeal very long and a photographer has a limited amount of time to get the shot set up and exposed correctly. Among other things, frozen food melts, brightly colored greens fade, light shifts, and food goes limp. This is why restaurants try to get the food to your table so quickly. The longer it sits, the more it loses its visual appeal.
– The unexpected happens: Someone drops and breaks a key object in the shot. A bug gets into the food ruining the set up. Maybe a marketing or sales person didn’t like the way a particular vegetable looked on the plate visually or the plate itself isn’t right. They discuss the vegetable side and now the meat doesn’t look as good as it did 20 minutes ago. Maybe the depth of field wasn’t right and the magazine or book editor wants to shift the focus or emphasize the potato versus the fish. Maybe they couldn’t find the ingredient mentioned in the recipe and used what was available.
– Hubris: A chef preparing a dish may have finished with a chopped herb decoration or red pepper puree around the plate that wasn’t mentioned in the recipe simply because they thought it looked better that way, and well, everyone agreed. So in the interest of time and ascetics, this particular shot was chosen for the final book copy. Maybe a food stylist used a glaze or spray to enhance the visual of the finished dish. It has also happened that the hands of the chef were not in the right place during the shot and had to be redone at a later date. Maybe the main dish was pared with a certain side dish on the television show, but the companion book paired it with another. After all, a main dish can be served with many side dishes and still be appealing…right?
As you can see, there are a number of factors that lead to a photographed dish not looking like it is described in the recipe. Sometimes all these situations occur and in the haste to re-shoot, well…things happen. Ultimately, the final decision on what to publish is made based on cost, deadlines and visual quality.
The best approach to take with a beautifully photographed cookbook or magazine is to learn from these skilled artists, study the photographs, and try to appreciate their use of colors, the combination of textures and use of varying food height. You can then experiment with your own creations, developing a certain style that is uniquely yours.
These grand chefs de cuisine and food stylists are true artists. Having attempted food styling in your own kitchen, the next time you eat out at a “fancy” restaurant, you may just have a greater appreciation for what it takes to make one plate look fantastic – let alone a couple hundred.
So don’t fret. As long as your dish looks similar to the recipe photo, has eye appeal and tastes great, what more do you need?