Book Update, Part IV: Food Photography

Book Update

This is Episode IV of my Book Update series, in which I share some behind-the-scenes aspects of my cookbook and the writing thereof, an activity that occupies roughly 99% of my waking and sleeping thoughts. And today kids, the topic will be: food photography.

(Read the first three installments of the series, dealing with the book deal, the recipes, and the recipe testing.)

I never really considered hiring someone else to take care of the photography, even in the early days of the project, when I was putting together the basic elements for the book proposal. Oh, I certainly don’t fancy myself a professional photographer, not by a very long shot (haha), but here’s the thing: I got into the whole food writing thing through this blog, and I feel that the pictures play an important part in conveying my excitement — just as much as the story or the recipe itself. And this is an approach I wanted to keep for the book.

The proposal said, “photography by the author”, and no one seemed to have any objection, or think me self-deluded. My personal wish was that we could include full-color photos throughout the book, but life and production costs decided otherwise, and the book will have some full-color, and some black-and-white pictures — the upside being that the price of the book will be lower, allowing more people with smaller budgets to purchase it and finance my early retirement in Bora-Bora.

And so I bought myself a new camera and a macro lens, and started shooting. The first few weeks of using that camera made me cry tears of intense frustration — but then again I cry easily — with a bit of swearing thrown in for variety. The colors were all wrong, the body was heavy and my wrists would cramp, I couldn’t understand what on earth all those stupid little settings were for and why my pictures looked so sad and crappy, and what do you mean I should read the manual, I don’t do manuals.

Thankfully, with a bit of time and patience and explanations from Maxence, I learned how to tame the camera (most likely it’s the other way around), and the pictures gradually got better.

The way I work is this: everytime I test a recipe, I shoot the picture right afterwards. This saves some time — if the recipe is successful the first time around, I don’t always need to make it again — but it is a bit more work-intensive too, since I need to pay as much attention to the flavor and composition of the dish, as to its presentation and staging.

I take the pictures in my living-room, in natural light close to the window, with a mini-tripod for stability. The light conditions became a bit of a problem in late fall, when our building underwent a facelift. In addition to the racket and clatter and shouting — such peaceful working conditions — this caused our windows to be obscured by scaffolding and a lovely plastic tarpaulin for three months. But that came and went, and now that the days are brighter and sunnier, it all feels much easier.

I generally prepare the dish in late morning, so I can benefit from the most daylight as I take the pictures (well over eighty in most cases, I seem to be a copious photographer), and enjoy the fruits of my labor for lunch afterwards, after any necessary reheating.

At first I had a tendency to rush things a bit — or perhaps I was just too hungry — but over time I have learned to give more forethought to the staging, trying to decide what background and props will best complement the recipe in terms of color and ambience.

For the backgrounds, I use large sheets of paper in different colors and textures, or different kinds of fabric I have bought here and there, from the Marché St-Pierre in particular. As for props, I use a lot of my own dinnerware, but I have taken to buying extra pieces when they catch my eye in home and decoration stores, thus broadening my choice of styling accessories.

What I am probably most happy about is that after all these months of practice, I feel much more at ease taking these pictures: I feel like I know (more or less) what I’m doing, and more importantly, I like the results much better than when I started out. As a result, there are about two dozens of my early shots that I will scratch and snap again, because they look so horrid to me now. Of course I still have loads to learn and I have just explored a tiny tip of the iceberg, but at least it’s a tip I’m comfortable on, and it’s not so slippery anymore.

And yet I have to say that the photography is undoubtedly the part that causes me the most anxiety. I am well aware that taking pictures for a website is quite different from producing book-worthy photography, and I know the result won’t look as polished and perfect as, say, any page you might randomly pick from Donna Hay magazine. But hey, I’m doing my best, those pictures will be homemade and real, and I think I like it better that way — let’s hope my readers will, too.

[Note: It is not my intention to fish for compliments -- I hope I don't make it sound that way.]

Here are a few food photography links that I’ve found helpful:
~ Food Photography Blog,
~ Tasteful Food Photography,
~ A few tips from Heidi on eGullet (the rest of the thread has interesting stuff, too),
~ Still Life With, an inspiring blog on food photography.

And to learn by example, check out:
~ The Foodography pool on Flickr, masterminded by Sam and Andrew, in which pictures are submitted to receive constructive criticism from the group: see the fruit, dairy, and tool editions,
~ The Shutter Bug Club — same idea, but on eGullet.

And if you have other resources or tips to share about food photography, I’m always happy to hear them!

  • http://podchef.motime.com Podchef

    Food photography is hard enough, but add cooking and shooting yourself and it is a whole other set of problems. So if you can pull it off it is something to be very proud of.

    Lighting is critical, as are props. Something, after shooting weekly for a year, I still haven’t mastered–each dish, each day requires something different. The key is to shoot and shoot lots. Shooting in RAW format really helps because you have more control once the photos are on your computer.

    Here are a few 100 of the photos I’ve taken–good and bad–for inspiration: http://flickr.com/photos/86571141@N00/ all the best.

  • http://www.impetuous-epicure.com Allen

    Have to agree with podchef on RAW. Saves my butt since I’m way too lazy to set white balance in any situation.

    http://flickr.com/photos/transparent/tags/food/ – Kinda uninspired, but I’m playing around with the lighting and props in ones taken at home.

    Might as well post up some of mine – you’ve got some nice shots there, podchef.

    Good luck with mastering your D70s, Clotilde. That Sigma is a nice piece of fglass, though 105mm might be easier to work with. Can’t wait to see (and taste) the fruits of youur labor.

    Allen

  • Torie

    Hi Clotilde,

    I’ve been following your blog for awhile, but this is my first time commenting.

    I love hearing about your book updates, and after reading your description of taking the pictures, I can’t wait to see the finished product!

    Good luck with all the work that you’re doing. I’m sure it will be fabulous.

  • Arnaud

    You should get in touch with Jean-Michel, a ex-chef turned into a photographer.
    http://www.jmgeorges.com/

  • http://wednesdaychef.typepad.com Luisa

    I wish we could see some of your pictures, especially before and after you tamed the D70… this is exciting stuff! Love reading about the process.

  • http://www.dessertfirst.typepad.com Anita

    Clotilde,
    Thanks for sharing your experiences – photography is a whole world onto itself isn’t it, and probably not at all on our minds when we first ventured into the world of food!

    I agree lighting is the trickiest part -my current place does not get the best lighting so I’m really having to work hard to get around it. I think practice is the best thing – can’t wait to see the results of your hard work!

  • http://www.albioncooks.blogspot.com Catherine

    Hi Clotilde,

    I recently got a book called Digital Food Photography by Lou Manna. It’s written for the commercial food photographer and is very interesting. They have all kinds of tricks to make food appear the way they want – using glue for milk, adding food coloring to make pancake syrup look darker etc (apparently, they used to use motor oil to achieve the desired look!). Of course, the challenge is much greater if you want to eat the food you’re photographing! And, honestly, I kinda don’t like those “perfect” pics.

    Good photographs are critical to motivating others to try your recipe. A bad photo completely puts me off a recipe.

    I now cook earlier in the day so I can get a shot in the natural light (preferably outside if I can). This has worked out well as hubby is not yet home so there’s no need to keep him from the food while I photograph. ;-)

    This does reduce one to reheating (as you mention). When I first started taking pics, I had a lot of problems with steam. Now I let the food cool off a bit.

    Thank you for posting the links – very helpful!

  • http://www.extravirg.blogspot.com/ Caroline

    Any tips for photographing indoors at night? I’m not home during daylight, so my food pictures always have a yellow, grainy appearance.

  • http://bluepoppy.omworks.com Elizabeth

    wow– i can totally appreciate how much added stress it is to take the photos, too. But I also know, as you said, that this way the photos will capture the food precisely as you want and I can’t help but to believe they will have extra magic tucked into every pixel that they were taken by you, in your home, fresh from the kitchen . . .

  • Christina

    Clotilde,

    Thank you for posting this interesting and useful information. I really enjoy your photographs, and just last week, I was almost going to write you for photography tips, but forgot! You must have read my mind!

    It’s been very nice of you to share your journey w/us thus far. I am very excited to see the end product. Best wishes!

  • http://www.carolgillot.com carolg

    I discovered your site via your terrific photos, Clotilde. IMO I find the food bloggers are doing a way better job of taking beautiful food pictures than the pros. Their passion + the ease of digital cameras translates into an immediacy and honesty missing from the high-tech pros’ work. Can’t wait for the book!

  • http://interestingfrench.blogspot.com/ petit_ff

    Hi Clotilde,

    First-time poster but long-time reader, too. Enjoy your posts, salivate over your recipes and pictures and marvel at your command of English.

    I have a D70, too and love it. It’s got a steep learning curve but if you join a Nikon group dedicated to the D70 you’ll get a lot of helpful tips.

    Keep up the good work!
    petit_ff

  • http://welcometomypantry.blogspot.com lee

    I don’t think I’ve ever anticipated a cook book as much as I am anticipating yours. With all the posts about how you’re doing it, the suspense is building!

  • http://stalkingthewaiter.blogspot.com B’gina

    I can certainly sympathize with taming a new camera. I’m so used to non-digital that I’m having a horrendous time with the “too smart” digital I’ve got. Unfortunately, I still haven’t learned any control. I’m sure your pics are going to be as gorgeous as always.

  • Patti

    I, too, always am attracted to your photographs. I dye yarn and it’s so beautiful, and my photos are so lousy. I really enjoy it when you share your learning process on your blog.

  • starinova

    You photos have been one of the continuing joys of reading your blog. If I had a place to send a pre-order with a deposit, I’d do it in a heartbeat. It would be such a treat if you had a Founders or Charters subscription pre-order list for your fans. Just a thought. I wonder if your publisher truly understands the Tiger of the Tail they are holding. :)
    Phil

  • http://www.probonobaker.com gemma

    Hi Clotide, I appreciate your desire to do your own photography for the book. A while back I compiled a similar, though more extensive list of food photography links. You can find it at the below address if you are interested. I am sure the book will be beautiful!

    http://probonobaker.typepad.com/probonobaker/2005/03/_since_beginnin.html

  • Anne

    Hey Clotilde –

    Just wanted to say that I LIKE seeing “homemade and real” photos. I think it’s adds a nice personal touch to a cookbook!

    Good luck!

  • http://thestonesoup.com jules

    Love your site and glad you have discovered Donna Hay. My other favourite Australian food mag is Gourmet Traveller although their site doesn’t do them justice. http://gourmet.ninemsn.com.au/gourmettraveller/
    Am just about to invest in a camera for my site so thanks for all the tips.

  • Alisa

    ahhhh, charming as ever!
    Bora Bora!!!!

  • http://www.winosandfoodies.typepad.com/ Barbara
  • http://www.paristriptips.com paristriptips

    I once read an article about Martha Stewart where she talked about the difficulties of photgraphing food for her books.
    But you know, the picture is usually the first thing i look at when deciding if I want to make the recipe and if I COULD make the recipe.
    Have fun!

  • http://pijije.blogspot.com Mery

    I know you weren’t fishing for compliments BUT I love the images on your blog! If the ones for the book are similar to these you have nothing to worry about, your images (and words) make everything look so scrumptious! I think your approach is much better than photographing them in a studio setting where it’s very hard to make things look good and yummy and thus they end up using a bunch of fake stuff. I like your aesthetic, everything looks neat and fresh and delicious.

  • Roshella

    Clotilde, I must say that when I first discovered your site, I was so impressed with the fact that you did the cooking … and the photography … and the website (so talented)! When I told my husband about it (he’s a chef) I was just gushing about your photos because we had been trying, without much success, to photograph food for his website (yes, practice does help!). So thanks for the links.

    Your photos are so wonderful that I find myself wanting to try foods that I don’t even like (they look so yummy)! Keep up the good work, and good luck with the cookbook. I can’t wait to see the finished product!

  • http://www.bakerbites.com Janice

    It’s wonderful to witness what passion and talent can accomplish. I think maintaining creative control by writing as well as styling and photographing your shots helps ensure the end result is your vision…I would rather fail at my own vision than someone else’s. Good for you! I’ll happily stand in line for my copy.

  • http://digestivenirvana.blogspot.com/ John

    Food photography is one of this things that either goes really well or jumps to the other end of the scale!

    btw i love the snazzy apple on your ibook.

  • http://glutenfreegirl.com shauna

    Brava, my dear. This is so informative! I’ve been looking at that D70 as well. Not that I can actually afford it, but that’s what keeping a food website will do to us. As much as I love the writing, I’m amazed at how enormously important the photography has become to me.

    I’ve always enjoyed your photographs. And I have to echo a comment above: I just can’t wait to have this cookbook in my hands!

  • http://www.almostchef.com Mark

    You couldn’t have chosen a better camera for the job, that’s for sure! Actually, taking the pictures is one of my favorite aspects of food-blogging, though my pictures are not yet at the artistic level that I’d like! Unfortunately, the contstraints of my day job mean that most of my cooking/photography is done at night– which is of course very limiting in terms of favorable lighting.

    I’ve enjoyed your photos immensely, however… so i assume that you’ve learned the D70 well!

    Regards,
    Mark

  • mandy

    hi clotilde, congratulations on your book. this blog phenomenon has definitely brought on a lot of book/blog publishing! i love going through your blog every once so often and it’s introduced me to a lot of delicacies you have in france. :)

    and reading blogs like yours show that i am not the only person who photographs her food. my fiance finds it funny that i take photos of our food. :)

    i just have this question, the photo of your laptop at the top, this is an apple ibook, yes? with a glowing apple sleeplight? or did you make this yourself? i’ve never seen one quite like it.

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    Thank you everyone for your kind comments and your photography tips/links. I can’t tell you how good it makes me feel that some of you are impatiently awaiting the release of the book — of course, it makes me feel very nervous too! :)

    Mandy – It is an iBook, and I have a little apple-shaped Hello Kitty sticker (brought back by from Tokyo by Maxence, even!) on the glowing light in front. This is so we can easily tell which iBook is mine, and which one is Maxence’s…

  • http://www.xanga.com/chef_kayenne kayenne

    i posted a message and a link to http://www.filmloops.com here yesterday. where’d it go?

  • http://little-note.blogspot.com Allee

    Hi Clotilde,
    Same here with Torie…this is my first comment. I love this post, especially because i’m also a newbie at food photography. Thanks for sharing it. iI also found lots of new techniques and interesting stuff from your links…THANKS!

    Btw, congrats for the book deal. Doing photography and writing for your own book must be quite difficult, but in the end you’ll be so proud & happy because it’s original.

    Can’t wait for the book to be publised. Cheers!

  • http://www.harlanturk.com Michael Harlan Turkell

    TILT SHIFT Technique

    I work as a food photojournalist, but have found the “Tilt Shift” Technique a great tool for dynamic food photography.

    If you do not own a Tilt Shift Camera, then there is a photoshop tutorial on how to “fake” it:

    http://recedinghairline.co.uk/tutorials/fakemodel

    There is also a product called LENSBABIES, http://www.lensbabies.com, which is a selective focus SLR lens, and only runs about $100 US.

  • rainey

    I absolutely agree that it is your witty and original photography that is as much a part of C&Z as your eye for interesting food and charming memoires that accompany all.

    I’m so sorry to hear that the photography for the book is problematical but I admire your ambition and your wish to keep it intimate and personal.

    I have no doubt you will learn much and be equal to the task.

  • Mandy

    the apple sticker is ingenious!! i love that! i’ll find an apple sticker too. oh wait, i can’t… the sleeplight is on the lid-switcher thing… :(

    keep up the good work. reading your blog always makes me hungry. and also well informed on the hows, whats and whys of french food. i’d love to go to france and taste all that you have written. :)

  • http://www.stilllifewith.com/ L

    Nice description of your workflow!

    There is so much to learn in this area, as I discovered when I started food blogging, that I ended up creating yet another blog specifically on food photography (http://www.stilllifewith.com/), documenting my learnings as I go. Feel free to stop by!

  • http://www.monikakorngut.com Monika

    I know that I’m new to reading your blog but I’m really enjoying it :-) You have a very candid and fun way of expressing yourself. I must admit that reading this entry is like looking at my life.

    The recipe preparation, the lighting problems, the re-heated food after the photo shoots…. and on and on… and my poor hungry husband waiting patiently :-D

    I realize that this entry was posted a while back but did you ever get a light-box? We did and it really helps with taking pictures.

    All the best,
    Monika

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