Friday, 12 October 2012

Picture Perfect

Chili & Lime Stuffed Squid, Red Pepper Sauce & Polenta
Photography: Garth Vaughan - Food Styling: C. Archambault
    A strong desire to capture the fleeting moment between creation and consumption pushed me towards food photography, yet I find it very frustrating. Not due to its difficulty or the elusive British sun to provide the much needed natural light, but because only here can I achieve perfection. A wise old culinary legend once told me that he gave up on the fire and brimstone of professional kitchen life because he loved food too much. I pondered this for days but it was only my own creeping years and gravitation toward the lens that I began to understand. All factors are against a chef trying to reach the diners with creations as they were originally intended. Time, volume, temperature, distance, balance...they all want to ruin what you have so carefully coaxed and presented. Photography immortalises your creations just as you envisioned. Every possible adjustment can be made before pressing the button to ensure immortality. Apres match, photoshop encases the image in a certain - ‘even better than the real thing.’ Hence the term, ‘food porn’. All the subtle tweaks and additives making the contrived look natural, feeding the eyes with a colourful flood of desire and sending one running to either fridge for a quick fix or phone to book the next culinary outing.

    For me the penny dropped years ago when I was on yet another long day of food styling for a photographer brought in at great expense to shoot the new season of website/flyers. I couldn’t really understand why; in this age of the all singing and dancing DSLR, photography was still being seen as a mystic art. I believe that when it comes to food photography, styling trumps the snapping. Technology is making it increasingly simple for just about anyone with a little flair to take a pic that wouldn’t go amiss in a magazine or framed above the mantle. The rise of Instagram and ‘iPhoneography’ are only in their infancy; but as cameras and filters on smartphones head for pixel heaven and do the job of photoshop with the press of a button, professional food photographers need to have much more of an eye for styling. With marketing budgets shrinking; the commercial setup is certain to follow, and with it the plethora of assistants and food stylists that often accompany the big shoots. This is why a chef photographer can add an edge to a shoot when his/her life has been spent essentially food styling. Give me lots of natural light and a reflector and I can take food pictures to rival any studio. Where this guerrilla approach can fail is with a lack of kit and lens knowledge, or when the sun refuses to shine. Nothing can replace a top photographer who is at one with his camera in the way I am with my knife. And so, this leads me to Garth Vaughan, an accomplished lifestyle and food photographer from Colorado who has spent his career freelancing in New York and working for Disney in Florida. Now set up in Southernhay, Exeter, Garth’s favourite quote is from Ansel Adams, ‘You don’t take a photograph, you make it.’ I couldn’t agree more. Garth approached me after my demo at the Crediton Food Festival and a worthy trade was made. He wanted to snap my food and I wanted to glean in a day as much kit/lens/lighting knowledge from him as possible. Gordon from Intoto Kitchens in Marsh Barton was kind enough to let us work on site and his fab kitchen combined with great natural light and Garth’s amazing Kinoflo soft light managed to make some not so shabby dishes shine stellar. I learned that a £2000 tilt shift lens was needed for my Christmas list and that the right kind of soft lights can look good with food, simulating an alfresco dining sunset.

Fried Sole Verdure, Sea Herbs & Cherry Tomatoes
Photography: Garth Vaughan - Food Styling: C. Archambault
    Back to smartphones. Everyone is taking pictures of everything. If I see one more dog or cat photo...we get it. You love them. Great. Yet this is how food lovers have become over their every plate. I must check Instagram twenty times a day. It has become a great source of inspiration to follow other like minded food freaks or chefs that can’t eat a morsel without first getting the angle right, choosing a filter and uploading. The app of choice seems to be Instagram due to its social aspect but I prefer Camera+ for snapping, Instagram for loading, a far better choice of filters and frames to the former. Then you have fun toys like Paper Camera, Starmatic, ColorSplash, iColorama S and DMD for ace panoramics...although this is now built into the iPhone 5. Add the Photo Collage app and you can start arranging triptychs. What a brave new world. My new favourite toy is the Olloclip. A clip-on three-in-one lens for the iPhone that gives you fisheye, macro and a passable wide angle option. £56 from Amazon. 

    So there you have it. In my opinion; good photography, in particular quality food photography will become increasingly led by the artistic flair and creative skill of the person composing the subject matter. This technology is getting scary folks. Happy snapping.

Top 10 Tips for Great Food Snaps

-If you want to take incredible photos, even the best smartphone isn’t yet going to trump a DSLR. Nikon or Canon. Toss a coin.
-Understanding light. Natural light is best but direct sunlight is too hot. A bright day in front of a big window is perfect.
-A large piece of white styrofoam or card will enable you to bounce the light from one side and fill the shadows into the other.
-Take the same dish with all different angles and props available; in various states of eaten, it will surprise you what looks best later. Sometimes crumbs and tableware look great with rustic dishes.
-Plan the shoot! Think long about the order of dishes, which ones will depreciate quickest etc.
-Shoot tethered to a laptop or have one nearby so you can just slide the card back and forth for checking.
-A fine spray bottle will make anything leafy or raw look dewy and just picked.
-Garth says: Don’t rely on photoshop, get it right the first time or you’ll spend forever in post production.
-Garth’s top tip: If not using a tripod, shoot in three shot bursts...the middle one will be the most sharply focussed.  
-Keep it simple and let the food be the hero.

Some of my recent iPhone shots:

Leeks Vinaigrette

Salmon 'Mi Cuit'

Chicken Chowder

Crab, Citrus & Avocado

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