I seriously love food photography. Giant, beautiful images of perfectly-coiffed food are so drool-worthy. The most serious cookbooks tend to shun photos, offering, at most, illustrations of whatever you're making, but I love books full of glossy and hi-res pictures (Martha Stewart's wedding cake book is like a Bermuda vacation for your eyes). Even pictures of fresh, leafy salads, lipstick-bright fruits, and pillowy risottos are enough to get me--a picky and reluctant eater by nature--hungry for some healthy stuff.
Like most things I love passionately, I am completely and utterly terrible at it. Witness the few times I've hauled out my camera to try to capture the lovely meals I've prepared. My meat looks soggy and grey, soups unstable, glazes thick and unsavory. With that in mind, I thought I would take a look at the best of best, see how food photographers get those perfect shots, and answer the myths about food photography (Elmer's glue for milk?).
When I was younger, I used to read a lot of magazines, although, being a nerdy and somewhat dumpy little kid, my favorites were more sciencey scribes like Kid City and 3 2 1 Contact (I don't think I even picked up my first issue of Cosmo until well into middle school, when, mesmerized by the myriad tests and tips on lip gloss, I carried that thing around for weeks). My first exposure to the weirdness of food photography came in an issue of 321 Contact.* The article opened with a two-page spread photo of a giant hamburger, frosty glass of coke, and container of fries. Turn the page and you saw the same shot from the back, which exposed the mix of wires and mess of glue and toothpicks that held everything together in perfect place, with arrows pointing out various tricks of the trade. To this day, I still can't look at a McDonald's ad without thinking of the poor person whose job it is to individually place each and every sesame seed on the bun.
Food styling, which, Google tells me, is in fact a real job, is part cooking, part crafting, and part deceiving (two of which are my favorite things!). Your chicken looking a little limp? Inject it with some foodie Botox, a.k.a. mashed potatoes. Glycerin gives a healthy gloss to salads and fruit alike, while motor oil substitutes as a more stable chocolate sauce. Stiffen up soggy pancakes with fabric softener, go with plastic ice cubes, and forget about real milk--it goes sour under the lights and melts cereal (any white glue works better).
While I like crafts as much as the next Martha wannabe (I stripped, stained, painted, and upholstered my own furniture!), there is something about molding a chocolate-colored mound of mashed potatoes into an ice cream cone that sort of turns me off. My own photos being terrible, I turned to my friend Andrew, who is one of the most absurdly talented photographers I've ever met (witness his blog, which he updates way too infrequently. I want to get married, like, tomorrow just so I can hire him as my photographer before he gets too rich and famous for me). I wanted to get a new camera, to replace the boxy piece of junk that I now own, and I asked Andrew what he thought would be best for taking pictures of food. We were walking down the street, rushing to a subway stop, and he threw out about half a dozen names (I don't think he took a breath for three minutes...). Finally, my poor head spinning, I told him I would ask him in email form, and here was his answer:
"Yo! get a canon G10 - that camera is the bomb. but really, good food photography is about making it simple, and the lighting (not the camera). make yourself a little studio with some hot lamps ($6 at walmart) and a big sheet of white construction paper. You can change the color/mood of the scene by placing colored paper over the lights. BAM! It really can be that easy. It really isnt about the camera too much. If you want something more complex, like removable lenses, then look at the Canon Rebel series, with a macro lens."
Andrew's advice, as per usual, is great, and perusing the blogs of other prominent food bloggers, the home studio set up seems to be the best way to go. Lolo at VeganYumYum gave step-by-step instructions on how to create gorgeous food photos. They are eye-popping and beautiful, vibrantly colored, beautifully styled, and professionally edited. I love her bright photo of a stack of pancakes, set off by a cheerful yellow background--lovely. My own home studio lacking (read: nonexistent), it might be a while until I pull off such mouth-watering photos on my own. Instead, here are some photographers who take much prettier photos than me:
Michael Ray specializes in food photos and his work is suuuuper beautiful--you can almost smell these steaks on the grill
Stef, of the Cupcake Project, has an advantage over most food bloggers: her delicious images come courtesy of her photographer husband
And while not exactly a food photographer, the famous vegetable studies by Edward Henry Weston are so eerily beautiful and evocative
Steve pointed out that a good family friend, Michael Black, also takes some fantastic food photos. These are a-ma-zing. I love the stark white background, which makes even pad thai glow. (food photos in his "Edible" gallery)
*Sadly, and with no regard for my pangs of nostalgia, my parents have thrown away all my old issues. Even the Cosmo. But PBS, that great recycler, has a similar article on their website, with instructions on how to make fake burgers, roasted chicken, and ice cream. Yum.