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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Before a food shoot

Spanish tortilla


'Let's shoot a tortilla', said my photographer friend Fernando when we were staying with him in Madrid. The beauty of this plan from my viewpoint was that he was going to do all the cooking and set up the lights. As is the way in Spain, the suggestion came at 9.00pm when, at home in France, I would usually be watching TV and winding down, not planning the evening meal.

We then went shopping, bought the green place mat, a brown one to go underneath, and lettuce, parsley and green peppers for garnish and to add more green, complementing the yellowish tortilla. Back home, we chose a white plate from Fernando's cupboard, he set up two speedlights, one for back light, one at 90 degrees to bring out texture and then all he had to do was cook.

The perfect tortilla straight from the pan
The tortilla went from frying pan to plate and photo in about 3 minutes and I think the freshness shows. I do know some of the tricks  - salt in beer to keep a head on it, polyurethane varnish on roast chicken - but I prefer to cook, shoot and eat, so I rarely use anything other than a flick of olive oil to improve the appearance of food in my shots.

One advantage of being cook, stylist and photographer - or of course working with Fernando - is that you have control over all aspects of the shoot, including timing.

As I couldn't use Fernando's lights, I wasn't going to bother taking a shot but he nagged me, I set up one speedlight and gave it a try. Moral: if you don't have the perfect set-up, shoot anyway! I like my tortilla shot and of course it has the memories of eating afterwards, nearing midnight, with a beautiful glass of Spanish red - I think it was rioja that time, my favourite.

Before a shoot
1. I list ingredients for the recipe and start the shopping list for what I need to buy.
2. I picture what the food will look like - colour, texture, firmness, shape, quantity are all important but I don't analyse. I know that I can't have a spoonful of tortilla  or a slice of tapenade. If I'm cooking something I can't visualise, I google it to get an idea of what it's supposed to turn out like.
3. I dress up the food different ways in my imagination, often at 3am when I can't sleep. Some people buy a new dress for a special occasion; the shoot is the special occasion for the food, and I want colours and a setting that make it food the star of the show.
4. Go shopping and buy not only the ingredients you need, but any extra props; table linen, crockery, glassware, food extras for show. Photographers often put raw ingredients in the shot with the finished dish, so you need to buy the extras, in perfect condition. I used apples from our orchard in my apple crumble (see previous blog) but I bought three perfect ones as props. They didn't taste as nice.
5. I decide where and when I'm going to shoot, so I can plan the cooking and know what lighting I'll need.
6. Try out the set-up with your props before you prepare the food. Sometimes the colours don't work together as you wanted. Sometimes props like a plate, a baguette or a glass of wine look gigantic and disproportionate when you see what the camera sees. Most food shots are vertical orientation. There's something to do with composition and perspective that just works better, but some buyers like copyspace or room to crop as they choose. I try to take different versions.

Painters come to Provence for the light so I take food outdoors to shoot whenever I can. This has led to salad garnish dancing off into the Mistral, umbrellas keeling over and the mystery of the black, shiny lump in the frame. This was of course the dog's nose. When I shoot food, the dog becomes very interested. She has figured out that the more absorbed I become in looking through the black box, the more chance she has of sneaking up on the goodies and giving a surreptitious lick. So another part of preparation is

7. the anti-dog barricade. Or I make her do a very long downstay. Nowadays she usually just lies down and watches, of her own accord.

Where I shoot
Indoors
harvest basket of fruit and veg, isolated on white
You can make a shoot corner in your kitchen so it's easy to move from cooking to shooting. I use a wheelie trolley with a granite top, backlit by the window, with two speedlights, two umbrellas and a reflector chiming in as necessary.

I'm lucky and have an attic that's been turned into a photography playroom - studio is too grand a word and the ceiling is too low for convenience - so if I'm isolating food on white, I go upstairs into the attic, where I use a skylight plus speedlights and umbrellas, and a glass-topped table.

Spinach salad with orange
Outdoors
I love outdoor light and have three different places with outdoor tables where I can have garden background and natural light, using speedlight and umbrella for fill as required. I sometimes use a shoot-through umbrella to diffuse bright sunlight.

I shot the spinach salad with orange outdoors and I like the out of focus garden, house, summer ambience I get when everything works i.e. when I don't have pouring rain/harsh shadows/flies on the food. This one was for a cookbook request.

I'm not a chef, am self-taught as a cook and I just can't hack it with those perfect food shots where everything is white on white, high key, and precision presentation, so I've made a virtue out of necessity and my style is more country kitchen than restaurant. I devour French gourmet magazines and I love Mediterranean cuisine and style - and colour.


Suppose you want an image of a particular recipe for your website, blog or a cookbook? Nowadays you don't have to commission a food photographer if you don't mind other people using the same image. Just post a Request on istockphoto and a food shooter will respond, often food shooters, plural. You get the exact photo you want for the same price as any stock photo. Why do we sell our work so cheaply? This is the world of stock photography and if you sell the same photo 500 times you make more than for one big commission - well, I can dream, can't I?!

Now you're ready to join me in the Challenge


This is the recipe I've chosen to shoot for a buyer's request. I aim to shoot during the next week, not before Wednesday, and I'll post each stage I go through. If you were shooting this, what would you be thinking and doing to prepare?

The recipe
Olive Balls
Serves 8–10 as appetizer


1 cup cheddar cheese, grated
¼ cup butter, softened
¼ teaspoon paprika
dash Tabasco or other hot sauce
¾ cup all-purpose flour
36–40 tiny pimento stuffed olives


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a small bowl, mix together cheese, butter, paprika and hot sauce. Blend in flour. Shape dough into 1½-inch circles. Place olives in center and fold dough around olives to form balls. Refrigerate 10 minutes. Bake on lipped baking sheet for 20 minutes. Serve warm.

1 comment:

  1. Great shot Jean! Your food photography is really coming along nicely. Of course, I always love your writing too. Made me a little jealous for not being in Madrid with you and Fernando :)

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