Food in photography, I am told regularly, is not for eating. It is either uncooked or still raw, has inedible elements or is kept under conditions that renders it unfit for consumption. In a demo a food stylist once explained: she prepared the food the day before, kept it overnight on the counter because storing it in the fridge would mess with the food’s appearance. And then on the day of the shoot she used even glue to ‘prop the food’, and it didn’t matter because “we’re not going to eat this.”
Food in a food shoot, therefore, is not/no longer edible.
I do a food shoot for Edible Houston magazine for every issue, now in its third edition and currently finishing up issue #14. And I learned from the very first shoot that I had an issue with food styled and propped for a nice picture to end up in the bin afterwards. So over those 14 issues our family meals were planned around ‘what’s for the shoot’.
Which means that for a food shoot I think hard about what I can do to ensure food is ‘real and edible’ yet stays safe for consumption. It is added stress for the shoot itself, for sure.
What I’ve found works well is to have the set all ready — the props and placement as the photographer takes focus on a ‘stand-in dish’, moves around to assess the set and pick the perfect angle for the shoot — before the food comes in.
The cakes (savory tomato cupcakes with toppings like avocado, goat cheese and tomato jam) went on to a picnic lunch right after this shoot. The beet root & grits dish in the outdoor shoot (pictured right) ended up on our plates in a messier version: I dice up the beets and sauté them until warmed through; stirred the grits with a little additional stock to loosen and warm up. Great dinner, just not looking all that pretty (anymore).
I’m still learning — and learning something new every time. Some steps I take for a ‘real food ready to eat’ photo shoot:
- I think things through days before the shoot. What do I want done, how will it be plated/styled; what needs cooking and how long in advance; how long before do I need to take it out of the fridge. When will we eat it. Who to invite (they will love you for inviting them over to clean off those cakes, desserts or cookies, along with coffee and a chat!).
- following previous: I make a detailed shot list, and if applicable it is in order of how long food can be kept ‘out’: seafood or anything with ice goes first, for instance. Braised meats, roasted vegetables, cakes: it can take a little exposure, pun intended.
- the set is staged, the photographer tries out on a ‘dummy plate’ and when we’re ready to go before I place the food in position. The food is taken out again the moment we’re done with the shoot.
- I cheat: for instance for a spinach and oyster soup, I made the soup with all ingredients except the oysters. You wouldn’t know unless you tasted the soup. Sometimes, and particularly if the food in a dish is prone to go to waste, I opt to style ingredients rather than the cooked dish.
- I work fast: while tinkering with the right placement of the right prop makes for more stunning images, it’s “the quicker the better” when it comes to saving the food!
Just don’t ever dig in (the food) before the photographer says “it’s a wrap.”
So far I’ve managed to shoot and eat the food (for the food photography that I was involved with) but I would love to hear from (other) food shooters: how do you deal with good looking food and not ending up wasting it? Do you ‘shoot’ to feast with your eyes’? Or do you eat what you shoot?
For some more ‘food shoot for thought’ read my friend Sally’s post: Food Waste & Instagram Pics: Can it ever be justified?