Staying awake many late nights with this one incredible text propped up on my bed, Lou Manna’s Digital Food Photography is nothing short of dreamy, and yet it never put me to sleep, even as the clock crept deep into the AM hours. Drooling over the glossy pages and flawless photos, I entertained the fantasy that one day I might be able to do this sort of thing on a professional level. Many years from now after endless amounts of practice, perhaps a few classes, and probably a kindly investor, it seems like it could be such a glamorous and exciting job. Clearly the lack of sleep was getting to me, but still, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and wondering how it all happened, what a real food photo shoot would be like. Compelled by this sudden urge, I shot off an email to the man himself and abruptly asked to become his apprentice. The moment that email was fired into cyberspace, I was horrified; it was practically the internet equivalent of drunk dialing, and there was no taking it back now.
Well, much to my disbelief, a response came back almost immediately, and it sounded at the very least like a gentle let-down, and at best, a far-fetched possibility. Never in a million years could I have imagined that a day or two later I would receive a phone call from him, inviting to come see how it was all done back at his studio, and maybe even lend a hand. Words can’t even describe how thrilled and honored I was to be invited back.
So, on to the fun stuff- How does it all happen? Well, I was surprised to learn that it was very similar to what I do… Only on a much larger [and much more expensive, much more skilled] scale. I was lucky enough to see the prop stylist and food stylist in action- Truly a sight to behold. To simplify things, here’s the basics of what goes on behind the scenes…
The table and lights are set up, and Lou checks the brightness and color balance. He has a fancy light meter to check which F-stop would be best to use, and a color card to make sure that the camera is reading them all correctly. This saves a lot of time fiddling with the settings to prevent blues from looking green or purple, and other unfortunate discolorations. Lou shoots tethered, which means that he has the camera connected to a tv monitor and can view the pictures as he’s taking them. As you can clearly see from this full screen image, this color setting isn’t the right one- Still too much magenta.
Once the camera settings are nailed down, the prop stylist goes into action, picking out the background, linens, dishes, and props. Got enough choices there? Don’t worry, this isn’t even the half of it! Fabrics are ironed if there are any wrinkles or creases, glasses are polished, and sometimes dishes need a little dusting before they take their place on the set.
Meanwhile, the food stylist has been hard at work cooking the dishes and then gussying them up for their time in the spotlight. What might look like a simple bowl of butternut squash puree actually has a number of layers beneath it so that it appears to be a heaping serving; An overturned bowl within the dish gives it most of its height, but it’s also supported by a mound of mashed potatoes, and even a few paper towels. Crazy to think about it all! The whole thing is crowned with a few artful swirls, much like a delicate layer cake, and it’s off to the set.
Everyone in the studio gathers around the monitor and adds their two cents to each photo as it appears on the screen. Dishes are rearranged, switched out, cleaned up; garnishes are added, adjusted, replaced as they wilt under the hot lights; mirrors and reflectors are added and moved until each side of the shot is perfectly lighted. The camera angle and zoom is adjusted, until it the plate fits on the screen perfectly. Each small tweak brings us closer to the final image, a perfect composition that looks good enough to eat. Lou takes a number of shots that are potential winners, offering the client 5 or 6 to choose from, and it’s on to the computer they go.
Adjustments are made in Photoshop if need be (but I don’t believe this set required any, if I remember correctly), and then the pictures were emailed to this particular patron. Waiting with baited breath, the set is left undisturbed until the final okay comes in from the happy client. Finally, the “hero” dish is taken away, nibbled at (if at all edible) and then tossed. The backdrop is replaced with a new set of linens and props, and we’re ready to move on, full steam ahead, into the next shoot. Just like that, four dishes that I had previously deemed “extremely unphotogenic” ended up with stunning pictures.
So in a nutshell, it was an unbelievable, incredible, possibly once in a life time experience that taught me a lot and will always stay with me. Thanks to my new photography guru, Lou, I’m inspired to continue working to get the best pictures, even from the most difficult subjects.