BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Brown Out

Of all the food styling challenges to darken any visual artists’ day, the exasperated complaint that a particular dish is “too brown” to photograph nicely comes up more often than the average eater might imagine. Considering how many edibles are naturally brown, not to mention that the act of browning through high heat is what makes scores of culinary creations truly delicious, that’s one huge stumbling block to overcome. Banish those old prejudices- Brown really can be beautiful! With just a little bit of planning and attention to detail, there are many ways to prevent a photographic brown out.

When scheming up the overall color palate for any shot, always first consider the color of the food itself. To allow the “hero” to stand out, you want something contrasting, but not jarring.

Think about the occasion you’re making the recipe for. Holidays often come with their own distinctive sets of hues, but try to go beyond the cliched green-and-red for Christmas or orange-and-black for Halloween. Try to picture the mood instead; shimmering white snow around the winter holidays for a more sophisticated palate, or earthy greens and coppery gold for the changing autumnal leaves.

Take the mood you’re trying to set into consideration, too. Fun, whimsical kid’s birthday cake on display? Go bold, bright, and vibrant with those shades! Cozy breakfast in bed with pancakes? Stick with soft, warm tones that echo the soothing morning glow instead.

If you’re still stuck for the perfect accent colors, consider the individual ingredients in your featured dish. Chocolate-cherry cookies bake up a muddy brown, but a vibrant red-violet background would get the point across quite nicely.

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to art, but when all else fails, go back to basics. Simple white plates are invaluable for keeping the focus on the food, brightening up those darker shades, and preventing visual fatigue brought on by busy patterns. The same principle applies to white backgrounds as well. Subtle textures like stone, fabric, and wood prevent the food from “floating” in the frame, without fighting for attention.

Emphasize texture so it doesn’t appear flat, shapeless, and quite simply boring. Raking the light across the subject, rather than shining it directly into it, shows off all the nooks and crannies of a cake’s crumb, no matter how dark and plain.

Don’t forget about the garnishes! Nothing perks up a boring, bland-looking stew like a sprinkling of fresh herbs. That bright green color tells viewers, “Look, this is fresh!” no matter how long it’s been simmering on the stove. Depending on the flavors being featured, consider reaching for crushed red pepper flakes, chili threads, salsa, edible flowers, berries; anything that makes sense with the dish and breaks up that sea of flat brown color.

Although these are my most commonly employed tricks for managing a photographic brown-out, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creative solutions. Every composition will demand something different, which is where the artistry of food styling and prop styling comes into play. When you have a brown situation on your hands, what’s your favorite fix?


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Viva Vida Vegan!


Photo by Liz Crowe

Talk about a whirlwind trip. With so much good food, inspiring information, and of course, lovely people, all crammed into the space of a long weekend, it was stimulation overload for an introvert like myself. It may take me twice as long to fully recover, easing back into the normal routine, but that disruption was more than worth making time for, to say the least.

Until I can gather my thoughts on Portland at large and the amazing eateries I managed to visit, I wanted to share some details from my workshop on food styling. Thank you so much to everyone who made it into the room! I’m sad to have suggested a cap on attendance, having heard so many people were turned away, but that’s one mistake I won’t make again. In case you missed out or managed to sneak in but couldn’t get a handout, here’s the list of the tools that go into my kit. Print at will and use it well!

It was a bit crazed, compressing so much information into just 45 minutes, although I did go over a bit (Sorry, Isa!) which is why I’m very grateful that Liz managed to get a nice shot of my fully styled Pad Thai. To recap, a few of the tips that went into converting that mountain of noodles from sad leftovers into the above blog-worthy plate are as follows…

  • Put dots of sauce on the plate (or pour a bit into a small, separate dipping bowl for a less fancy presentation) if you’d like it to really stand out from the dish. Apply this with an eyedropper for better control.
  • Deconstruct your dish and pick out the key elements. I really homed in on the baked tofu cubes here, since that seemed like the most interesting ingredient in the mixture. As you build the plate, strategically weave them back in so that they’re front and center, without looking as if you specifically placed them there.
  • Dab soy sauce onto foods with a paintbrush (never used on paint) for a darker golden-brown hue.
  • Toss noodles with oil so that they glisten and pick up eye-catching highlights.
  • Add color- Reach for bold, contrasting colors to brighten up a drab dish. Fresh herbs and vegetables are always a good route to go down. (I used scallions, purple cabbage, and microgreens in this case.) Make sure it makes sense, too! Don’t just add ingredients for the sake of design, if they have discordant flavors with your dish.
  • To make a citrus zest spiral, pare away a long, thin strip of zest from any citrus and trim the sides so that they’re even. Wrap the strip around a plastic straw in a spiral, securing the top and bottom each with a straight pin. Let it sit in the freezer for at least 15 minutes and then use it quickly! It will uncoil as it thaws. Since I didn’t have a freezer handy here, I simply went with a little lime twist on the side. For that, cut a thin round out of the widest part of the lime (or any citrus) and then cut a slit at the bottom, between two segments, stopping at the center. Twist the cut edges in opposite directions and set it on the plate.
  • Remember, food styling is about controlled chaos. When adding cashew halves on top, I let them fall where they may to keep it looking realistic. Make a plate look too perfect and it won’t have the same appetite appeal.
  • Add the most perishable ingredients last. That meant the microgreens here, which I did add one by one for equal distribution.
  • On that note, be patient! Build each plate carefully and deliberately.

Thank you to everyone who saw it happen in person! I couldn’t have hoped for a more gracious, engaged audience. It was your feedback that has encouraged me to seek out future demo opportunities in the future, so you certainly haven’t seen the last of me yet.


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Fictional Foods, Part Two

For part one and an explanation of the series, click here.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen:

Melissa raised the plate on upturned palms. “Cupcakes,” she said. “Thought you might be needing some cupcakes in your life right around now.”

Not being theatrical, Chip felt disadvantaged around people who were. “Why are you bringing me cupcakes?” he said.

Melissa knelt and set the plate on this doormat among the pulverized remains of ivy and dead tulips. “I’ll just leave them here,’” she said, “and you can do whatever you want with them. Goodbye!’ She spread her arms and pirouetted off the doorstep and ran up the flagstone path on tiptoe.

The cupcakes were full of butter and frosted with a butter frosting. After he’d washed his hands and opened a bottle of Chardonnay he ate four of them and put the uncooked fish in the refrigerator. The skins of the overbaked squash were like inner-tube rubber…He lowered the blinds and drank the wine and ate two more cupcakes, detecting peppermint in them, a faint buttery peppermint, before he slept.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway:

I took out my knife, opened it, wiped off the blade and pared off the dirty outside surface of the cheese. Gavuzzi handed me the basin of macaroni.

“Start in to eat, Tenente.”

“No,” I said. “Put it on the floor. We’ll all eat.”

“There are no forks.”

“What the hell,” I said in English.

I cut the cheese into pieces and laid them on the macaroni.

“Sit down to it,” I said. They sat down and waited. I put thumb and fingers into the macaroni and lifted. The mass loosened.

“Lift it high, Tenente.”

I lifted it to arm’s length and the strands cleared. I lowered it into the mouth, sucked and snapped in the ends, and chewed, then took a bite of cheese, chewed, and then a drink of the wine. It tasted of rusty metal.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck:

And Tom brought him chicken soup until he wanted to kill him. The lore has not died out of the world, and you will still find people who believe that soup will cure any hurt or illness and is no bad thing to have for the funeral either.

Eat, Love, Pray by Elizabeth Gilbert:

Giovanni and Dario, my Tandem Exchange twins, are originally from Naples. I cannot picture it. I cannot imagine shy, studious, sympathetic Giovanni as a young boy amongst this—and I don’t use the word lightly — mob. But he is Neapolitan, no question about it, because before I left Rome he gave me the name of a pizzeria in Naples that I had to try, because, Giovanni informed me, it sold the best pizza in Naples. I found this a wildly exciting prospect, given that the best pizza in Italy is from Naples, and the best pizza in the world is from Italy, which means that this pizzeria must offer … I’m almost too superstitious to say it … the best pizza in the world? Giovanni passed along the name of the place with such seriousness and intensity, I almost felt I was being inducted into a secret society. He pressed the address into the palm of my hand and said, in gravest confidence, “Please go to this pizzeria. Order the Margherita pizza with double mozzarella. If you do not eat this pizza when you are in Naples, please lie to me later and tell me that you did.”

So Sofie and I have come to Pizzeria da Michele, and these pies we have just ordered — one for each of us — are making us lose our minds. I love my pizza so much, in fact, that I have come to believe in my delirium that my pizza might actually love me, in return. I am having a relationship with this pizza, almost an affair. Meanwhile, Sofie is practically in tears over hers, she’s having a metaphysical crisis about it, she’s begging me, “Why do they even bother trying to make pizza in Stockholm? Why did we even bother eating food at all in Stockholm?

Pizzeria da Michele is a small place with only two rooms and one nonstop oven. It’s about a fifteen-minute walk from the train station in the rain, don’t even worry about it, just go. You need to get there fairly early in the day because sometimes they run out of dough, which will break your heart. By 1 p.m., the streets outside the pizzeria have become jammed with Neapolitans trying to get into the place, shoving for access like they’re trying to get space on a lifeboat. There’s not a menu. They have only two varieties of pizza here — regular and extra cheese. None of this new age southern California olives-and-sun-dried-tomato wannabe pizza twaddle. The dough, it takes me half my meal to figure out, tastes more like Indian nan than like any pizza dough I ever tired. It’s soft and chewy and yielding, but incredibly thin. I always thought we only had two choices in our lives when it came to pizza crust — thin and crispy, or thick and doughy. How was I to have known there could be a crust in this world that was thin and doughy? Holy of holies! Thin, doughy, strong, gummy, yummy, chewy, salty pizza paradise. On top, there is a sweet tomato sauce that foams up all bubbly and creamy when it melts the fresh buffalo mozzarella, and the one sprig of basil in the middle of the whole deal somehow infuses the entire pizza with herbal radiance, much the same way one shimmering movie star in the middle of a party brings a contact high of glamour to everyone around her. It’s technically impossible to eat this thing, of course. You try to take a bite off your slice and the gummy crust folds, and the hot cheese runs away like topsoil in a landslide, makes a mess of you and your surroundings, but just deal with it.

Remembering Blue by Connie May Fowler:

Nick was never a picky eater but after suffering through so many of my culinary failures he was well within his rights when later that same day he poked at his food with a fork and asked tremulously, “What is it?”

“Tomato pie.”

Lillian had given me the recipe and I followed it to a T. Four to five tomatoes, blanched for easy removal of the skins. Three quarters of a cup mayonnaise (feel free to use light but not fat-free). Pillsbury refrigerated crusts (bake the bottom crust for ten minutes in a moderate oven, otherwise you’ll have a juicy mess). As much garlic as pleases you (Nick, as you must know by now, loves garlic). At least one and a quarter cup cheese (I use feta). Plus fresh basil. Put it all together and bake at three hundred and fifty degrees for about thirty minutes.

I served it with a green salad and sweet tea. I watched out of the corner of my eye as Nick balanced a bite-sized morsel on his fork, lifted it to his lips, and discreetly sniffed. His face betrayed neither surprise nor disgust. Having gotten this far- even if the savory smell had offended him- he had little choice but to go ahead and eat. He popped it in his mouth and chewed tentatively but within seconds his eyes widened gratefully and his face relaxed in that way men have- you know, when they are suddenly and unexpectedly content (I have noticed that this phenomenon almost always revolves around food).

“This is really good!” he said.

“Thank you,” I said, ignoring the note of amazement in his voice.

That night, he chewed heartily. He ate two more pieces and I wrapped up what was left and handed it to him as he walked out the door.

Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi:

The winner of the race would receive a prize made by the last one to cross the finish line: an enormous pastilla, the most delicious of all of Allah’s varied foods. At once a pastry and a meal, pastilla is sweet and salty, made of pigeon meat and nuts, sugar, and cinnamon. Oh! Pastilla crunches when you munch on it, and you have to eat it with delicate gestures, no rushing please, or else you will get sugar and cinnamon all over your face. Pastilla takes days to prepare because it is made of layers of sheer, almost transparent, crust, stuffed with roasted and slightly crushed almonds, along with a lot of other surprises.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carol:

Soon her eye fell on a little glass box that was lying under the table: she opened it, and found in it a very small cake, on which the words “EAT ME” were beautifully marked in currants. “Well, I’ll eat it,” said Alice, “and if it makes me grow larger, I can reach the key; and if it makes me grow smaller, I can creep under the door: so either way I’ll get into the garden, and I don’t care which happens!”

She ate a little bit, and said anxiously to herself, “Which way? Which way?” holding her hand on the top of her head to feel which way it was growing; and she was quite surprised to find that she remained the same size. To be sure, this is what generally happens when one eats cake; but Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way.

So she set to work, and very soon finished off the cake.

Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence:

When they had run and danced themselves dry, the girls quickly dressed and sat down to the fragrant tea. They sat on the northern side of the grove, in the yellow sunshine facing the slope of the grassy hill, alone in a little world of their own. The tea was hot and aromatic, there were delicious little sandwiches of cucumber and of caviare, and winy cakes.

“Are you happy, Prune?” cried Ursula in delight, looking at her sister.

“Ursula, I’m perfectly happy,” replied Gudrun gravely, looking at the westering sun.

“So am I.”


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Fictional Foods

Reflecting on half a semester’s worth of work now at midterm time again, my latest school photo project takes inspiration from the classics. Rather than tried-and-true recipes, the classics in question here are works of literature that have made their mark on readers and writers across the ages. Bringing snippets of each story to life in such mouthwatering clarity that viewers may be tempted to eat their books, the goal is to inspire an entirely new conversation about each featured novel. Even though few of the original writings themselves were focused entirely on the edible aspects of their tales, they can provide striking insights into cultural norms, personalities, and a character’s state of mind when food comes into the picture. It plays such a central role to all walks of life, so even when depicted in fictional works, it should be no different. Those who have never read the books featured should still be able to enjoy such a series if executed properly; no matter language barriers, age differences, or political associations, the appreciation of food is universal. As the playwright George Bernard Shaw famously said, “There is no love more sincere than the love of food.”

Dishes have been veganized as needed, of course! While I can’t claim to have the most accurate renditions of each passage due to this subversion, all “meats” are made of seitan or tvp, and no other animal products were employed in any other dishes.

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust:

She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake.

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.

The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis:

The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmond had never tasted anything more delicious.

Sweeney Todd and the String of Pearls by Thomas Preskett Prest:

“What a strange manner of talking she has!” said Jarvis Williams to himself, when he found he was alone. “There seems to be some singular and hidden meaning in every word she utters. What can she mean by a communication being made to me, if I neglect my duty! It is strange, and what a singular-looking place this is! I think it would be quite unbearable if not for the delicious odor of the pies, and they are indeed delicious – perhaps more delicious to me, who has been famished for so long, and has gone through so much wretchedness; there is no one here but myself, and I am hungry now – frightfully hungry, and whether the pies are done or not, I’ll have half a dozen of them at any rate, so here goes.”

He opened one of the ovens, and the fragrant steam that came out was perfectly delicious, and he sniffed it up with a satisfaction such as he had never felt before, as regarded anything that was eatable.

“Is it possible,” he said, “that I shall be able to make such delicious pies? At all events one can’t starve here, and if it is a kind of imprisonment, it’s a pleasant one. Upon my soul, they are nice, even half-cooked – delicious! I’ll have another half-dozen, there are lots of them – delightful! I can’t keep the gravy from running out of the corners of my mouth. Upon my soul, Mrs. Lovett, I don’t know where you get your meat, but it’s all as tender as young chickens, and the fat actually melts away in one’s mouth. Ah, there are pies, something like pies! – They are positively fit for the gods!”

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens:

The room in which the boys were fed, was a large stone hall, with a copper at one end: out of which the master, dressed in an apron for the purpose, and assisted by one or two women, ladled the gruel at mealtimes. Of this festive composition each boy had one porringer, and no more–except on occasions of great public rejoicing, when he had two ounces and a quarter of bread besides.

The bowls never wanted washing. The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again; and when they had performed this operation (which never took very long, the spoons being nearly as large as the bowls), they would sit staring at the copper, with such eager eyes, as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed; employing themselves, meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most assiduously, with the view of catching up any stray splashes of gruel that might have been cast thereon. Boys have generally excellent appetites. Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months: at last they got so voracious and wild with hunger, that one boy, who was tall for his age, and hadn’t been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept a small cook-shop), hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age. He had a wild, hungry eye; and they implicitly believed him. A council was held; lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.

The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook’s uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:

‘Please, sir, I want some more.’

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving:

[A]nd he passed the fragrant buckwheat fields, breathing the odor of the bee-hive, and as he beheld them, soft anticipations stole over his mind of dainty flapjacks, well buttered, and garnished with honey or treacle, by the delicate little dimpled hand of Katrina Van Tassel.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez:

The harmony they had longed for reached its culmination when they least expected it, at a gala dinner at which a delicious food was served that Fermina Daza could not identify. She began with a good portion, but she liked it so much that she took another of the same size, and she was lamenting the fact that urbane etiquette did not permit her to help herself to a third, when she learned that she had just eaten with unsuspecting pleasure, two heaping plates of pureed eggplant. She accepted defeat with good grace, and from that time on, eggplant in all its forms was served at the villa in La Manga with almost as much frequency as at the Palace of Casalduero, and it was enjoyed so much by everyone that Dr. Juvenal Urbino would lighten the idle hours of his old age by insisting that he wanted to have another daughter so that he could give her the best-loved word in the house as a name: Eggplant Urbino.

To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf:

An exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish took the cover off. The cook had spent three days over that dish and she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass to choose an especially tender piece for William Bankes. And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savory brown and yellow meats, and its bay leaves and its wine and thought, This will celebrate the occasion…


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Mad Props

Prop shopping can often be the most fun, or the most frustrating, part of food styling. Endless accessories to match any style are out there, waiting to be discovered; the thrill of the hunt can turn any outing into an impromptu prop acquisition mission. Though the food will always be the star of the show, it still needs strong supporting actors to complete the production, so it pays to have a sharp eye for design and for deals. Expenses are what prevent these searches from being carefree, as any blogger knows well. While those hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind serving pieces are obvious budget busters, it’s surprising to see how badly plain linens can eat through any allotted funds. Yes, I’m talking about fabric napkins, props that rarely get the attention they deserve. Adding pops of color while softening the scene, giving it motion with an effortless drape or order with a tight fold, napkins often pull the whole image together. Problem is, most napkins come in sets, because what normal person wants just one or two of a hundred little scraps of fabric? Rarely will more than two even fit on my set, not to mention the inflated price tag that comes with those matching bundles.

Thank goodness for online shopping. Current blog sponsor Dot and Army provides the perfect solution, packaging fun, whimsical fabric napkins in every color and design you can dream up, instantly giving you dozens of different ways to dress up your food photography. Don’t see a ready-made set that strikes your fancy? Custom packages are also possible. It’s like having your very own personal prop shopper who has impeccable taste!

Just imagine this image without either napkin in place. While they may be overlooked as a stylistic element by the average viewer, they add tons of color to this otherwise plain white background, while reinforcing the concept of a dainty tea party. All I had to do was explain my needs, and these two examples were part of the bundle I got from Jennifer, the talent behind this treasure trove.

This one is even less prominent, but take a gander at the vintage checkerboard napkin way in back. When I asked Jennifer to simply surprise me, this was one of the patterns she picked out, and it has already become an important part of numerous photos. Even if they aren’t the main focus of a shot, or even in focus, it’s those subtle touches that turn a fine photo into a memorable one.

Now, do I have a treat in store for all you budding and established food stylists… Jennifer has very generously offered to give away some of her fabric finds to one lucky reader! The winner can pick any 2 sets of 12 napkins, or choose a customized set to match their kitchen. Enter by commenting about your current favorite prop shop, be it local or online. For two extra entries, like Dot and Army’s facebook page and/or pin your favorite item from the shop on a Pinterest board. Be sure to come back and leave separate comments for each action you take if you want to make them count! You have until Wednesday, October 10th at midnight EST to get your entries in, so make haste and start commenting!

If you simply can’t wait to dive into all the goodies on display (and I sure don’t blame you) go ahead and add those treasures to your cart. When you checkout, enter the code “bittersweet” for a 20% discount on any orders (excluding custom orders.)

UPDATE: The random number generator has spoken, and the winner is…

Lucky commenter #52, Amy! Check your email for info about collecting your winnings, Amy, and enjoy your stylish new fabric napkins!


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Food Styling 101: Soup

Nearly a full year (!) has elapsed since my last entry in this series, but it was never my intention to let it fall by the wayside. There are, of course, a million different foods with their own unique sets of photographic challenges, so it was never for a lack of material that the posts lagged. Without wasting any more time, let’s dive right back in… To a big bowl of hot soup.

Whether rich or wan, thick or brothy, soup is particularly difficult to style and capture in photos. The category is huge, spanning all cultures and ingredients imaginable, but there are a few guidelines to remember for documenting any liquid lunch.

Cook everything (or as much as possible) separately.
When cooking for myself, soups are a favorite one-pot meal, but stewing all of the ingredients together does not yield the most visually appealing results. Vegetables have different cooking times, and although it’s fine to eat a slightly overcooked, greyed pea, it’s not what you want to see in a photo. Keeping the components separate also gives you control over the exact amounts of everything in each bowl, and what is most prominently featured as well. If it’s a tofu soup, I want to see some tofu! The carrots might be in perfect dices and that’s all very nice, but those backup singers shouldn’t get the spotlight if the recipe is named after something else.

This may mean deviating from the given recipe slightly, so be aware of what can and can’t be removed from the main procedure. In general, the main body of a soup should remain intact (especially if it involves caramelizing or stewing anything thoroughly) but all mix-ins should stay out of the pool until the end. Noodles in particular need special attention, and must be rinsed in cold water once they’re cooked through to prevent them from becoming mushy. Fresh herbs must remain far away from all that heat until the very moment you’re turning on your camera and beginning to focus the lens. They wilt in mere seconds, so be prepared to switch out droopy herbs if you need a second or third take.

Build your bowl from bottom to top. Assemble your “hero” dish like a layer cake. Put the nice looking, but not gorgeous solid ingredients at the bottom, and be more meticulous about arranging the best examples on top. Once you have the body or “meat” of the soup in place, very carefully pour broth on top. Readjust the filling as needed, and only then can you add garnishes.

Choosing where to build your bowl of soup is an issue that even I struggle with often. It’s a fine line to walk; wanting a generous portion of liquid, but not wanting to spill it while moving the dish to the set. I’m notoriously clumsy about these things, so I often style the base of the soup off set, adding just a small splash of the soup itself. Once it’s safely in place where it will be photographed, only then do I top it off (Very carefully!) with a final ladle full of broth.

Go heavy on the veg, light on broth to prevent it from looking watery. The same concept is applicable to thick, creamy soups as well. If you’ve only got a few of the goodies floating around in there, it’s gonna look skimpy no matter how lavishly you decorate the set. However, maybe you want just a plain, chunk-less creamy soup, and that’s perfectly fine, too! Just stick with one or the other; a spare soup is no fun to eat or look at.

Enhance broth with just a touch of turmeric to make it look richer. A tiny pinch goes a long way, but evokes that classic look of a long-simmered stock, bursting with flavor. Since you can’t actually offer viewers a taste, give them a hand with that visual cue to say “this is a deeply savory, well-seasoned, and delicious dish.”

Finish with a flourish. For perfectly smooth soups, add something exciting either to the side or in the center, to prevent it from looking too plain. A dollop or swirl of vegan yogurt is always a favorite, since it adds such great contrast and motion all in one swoop. Fresh herbs are a classic addition, as is a tiny drizzle of oil. More than one garnish is perfectly acceptable, but don’t go too crazy. Remember that simplicity is best.

Mind the glare. Think about each bowlful of soup as a giant mirror, and you’ll be two steps ahead of the game. Know where your light source is, and check in the viewfinder to see how and where it’s reflecting. If you want to show off all those lovely components you just spent so much time preparing, a steeper downward angle is better for capturing them. A little bit of shine and highlight is necessary (not to mention, unavoidable) but you generally want to avoid having a glare across the entire surface of the soup. When you shoot at a steeper angle (say, 45 degrees or so) you’ll pick up more of that reflection, and bear in mind that if you have more than one light source, you’ll have many more hot spots to keep in check. This would be a handy time to break out a black bounce card or gobo to cut down on those overly shiny areas.

Don’t forget about adding steam, too! Demonstrating that the soup is piping hot does wonders to evoke hunger, since it looks like it’s ready to be devoured right at that very second.

Speaking of which, what styling tips are you hungry for next? If you want to see more of this series, I need your suggestions!


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Food Styling 101: Burritos

When I put out the call for your food styling stumbling blocks after a quick primer on ugly foods, the responses were greatly varied, but a few particular dishes stood out from the pack.  Burritos caught my eye first, as more than one or two people named them as particularly uncooperative photography subjects. For good reason, these tortilla torpedoes are notoriously difficult to photograph in an appealing light; Packed with generally brown, red, and maybe yellow components, they’re not exactly bright rainbows of fresh ingredients. It’s easy for them to look tired, droopy, sloppy, or just plain greasy.

The good news is, there’s no need for them to ever appear that way through the lens! Although I would never suggest that I compose burritos like this for an everyday meal, special considerations do need to be made when they’re the “hero” of a shot.

As I was styling and photographing this particular specimen, I tried to think of tips and tricks that helped bring it into the world looking like a glamorous movie star, and not a second rate stand-in. Here’s what I came up with so that others might be able to fix their burrito blemishes…

  • Bear in mind which side you want to be “up” as you build a burrito. If you want the top to be smooth tortilla, then What you lay down first will end up on top. If you don’t mind a “flap” from the tortilla edges on top, then you can build it right-side up.
  • Try to keep mushier components to the bottom, so that when you slice it, they don’t smear through all of the following layers. This means guacamole, re-fried beans, hummus, and the like are better placed near the base of your assembly.
  • Include a good number of greatly varied layers, but don’t go overboard. 4 – 5 different things is about the maximum before it starts to just look like a mess of everything you had leftover in the fridge.
  • Be generous, but don’t over-stuff. A burrito blow out is never attractive.
  • Make sure you include something green, somewhere. Herbs, grilled zucchini, avocado chunks, anything! Green evokes the feeling of freshness, which helps to prevent the burrito from looking like a sad, reheated gas station offering. It also adds pops of contrasting color to create interest.
  • Strain salsa and other “wet” condiments to prevent a watery, mushy mess. Likewise, dab sliced tomatoes on a paper towel to remove some of the excess liquid before adding them to a burrito (or sandwich, for that matter.)
  • Save small amounts of every ingredient, to “fluff up” filling later. This is most noticeable in the beans- I like to show half of the sliced pieces to give it a more realistic look, but add in a few more whole ones to give it more texture and variety. Be sure to toss those whole beans in just a dab of oil to keep them shiny, or brush on a very thin layer with a clean paintbrush once they’re in place.
  • Use toothpicks to keep the roll intact. I usually start with one at each end, and break off the excess so that they’re not sticking out and visible. Then, as I cut and rearrange the pieces, I may add more in as needed. Just don’t forget that they’re there when you go to eat it later!
  • To cut your burrito, use a sharp knife, and apply gentle pressure while using a sawing motion. Don’t just smash the blade down and crush the fragile ingredients within.

Then, when it comes to capturing your burrito masterpiece…

  • Think about the “meal” as a whole to fill out the rest of the set. Consider including a beverage, sliced citrus, chips, dip, fresh herb garnish, and other simple, colorful, or graphic elements to add interest surrounding the subject.
  • Keep the colors light, bright, and clean. A burrito tends to look heavy by nature, so you want to balance that out with contrasting elements.
  • Use a mirror to direct a “spotlight” right onto the filling. Since I prefer a back light for most of my photos (just place the plate in front of the window, easy as that), the cut sides have a tendency to go dark unless otherwise highlighted.
  • Shoot from a low angle so you can see all of that glorious filling!

That concludes this class on burrito styling. Are there any more questions before we move on to the next? Raise your hand, speak up, and I’d be happy to go on! Don’t be afraid to suggest the next subject either, because if everyone enjoyed this, you can count on the Food Styling 101 series to become a regular feature here!


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Ugly but Tasty

It’s a conundrum that anyone who’s cooked even the bare minimum of meals has undoubtedly run into; the tastiest dishes are often the messiest, homeliest, and downright most unattractive of foods. Not an issue for the eater, who can simply close their eyes and take that first tentative taste, to realize the potential concealed by such an unassuming first impression. For a photographer, however, the added difficulty stems from the fact that viewers can only eat with their eyes. No matter how delicious you think your recipe for chili casserole is, without proper styling and propping, it will never look like anything more than muddy beans in a dish. Some foods are naturally photogenic and need little if any makeup before making their photographic debut, but others need a bit of love, and a whole lot of finesse.

Oatmeal is one particularly tricky food to capture in an appealing way. Lumpy, beige mush that goes on forever. It’s all about the toppings in this situation. Sparingly sprinkle berries (always lovely and great for color), nuts, or even chocolate chips if you want to give it a more decadent feel around the edges of the bowl. Make sure you leave enough of the actual oatmeal exposed so that it doesn’t end up looking like a bowl of fruit salad, though- If need be, add more of those beautifying ingredients around the bowl itself, as if there were so many extras, they’re simply overflowing. Move them into the background to reinforce what went into the oatmeal, sort of like a subconscious reminder.

Soups, stews, and other lumpy, semi-liquid meals share many of the same difficulties as oatmeal. You have more options here though, as any colorful veggie will instantly brighten up the picture. Green peas are my go-to addition whenever possible. Take frozen peas out of the freezer and simply thaw them under warm water. Add them after the dish is completely finished cooking so that they don’t turn brown, and leave a few out until the final plating. Insert your last few peas individually to make sure that they’re visible, but try to blend them in with a thin layer of sauce, so they don’t actually look like they’ve been placed there after the fact.

Everyone always loves seeing chocolate, but it can pose a few problems for a photographer. It’s one of the items I get many questions about, as chocolate bars in particular often give others trouble, looking more like dog droppings than candy. Isolation is key here, so that the brown-ness doesn’t just continue to blend into the background and look like a crappy smudge (pun intended.) No wood grain backgrounds for me, thanks! Go with a light, bright color or simply white to provide contrast, and most certainly a white plate if you plan to use one. Cut-away photos are always a big hit if possible, so that you can let viewers see inside the chocolates and understand the contents (and thus flavors) better. A grouping of a few chocolates can also be effective, but be careful not to overcrowd the scene.

Ice cream is a legendary troublemaker on the set, but I have to say, I don’t find it to be such a pain to work with.  Though most people wouldn’t categorize it as “ugly food,” it goes from lovely and all made up to a droopy, gloppy, and unappetizing mess in mere minutes.  The key is speed and efficiency; Have your set all assembled and ready to go, white balance and exposure adjusted, and bowls empty and waiting before you take the ice cream out of the freezer. Limit yourself to a maximum of two bowls or scoops in the beginning, because it takes too much time to get that “perfect” sphere so many times over. As soon as the ice cream hits the set, snap like the wind; take as many photos as you can, from as many different angles, so that you can have a large number of greatly varied shots to choose from. Ideally, this should give you a better likelihood of getting that winning photo in one go. And don’t worry if the scoops don’t look perfect- They shouldn’t look dry and immaculate like colored mashed potatoes! A bit of melting or dripping fudge sauce makes for a mouthwatering effect.

Food in jars, no matter what the main ingredient, has the odds stacked against it. Typically long-simmered or preserved to a mummified state, they lack the brightness that fresh produce could offer. The key is to bring light, and plenty of it, into the frame. Try to shine light directly through the glass jars from behind, to give it a warm “glow.” Add fresh ingredients around the jars, to give viewers an idea of what vibrant produce went into making those pickles or jam. Remove some of the contents of the jars, and style them as you would expect to eat them; on toast, in a sandwich, etc.

The list can go on until the end of time, but these are the top five that come to my mind first. What are your ugliest dishes, and most difficult foods to photograph? If I get enough suggestions, perhaps there can be a part two for styling tips and tricks for these unphotogenic edibles!


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Kosher Cooking with Levana

Every day is a different job, making it rather difficult to explain exactly what I do when meeting new people. Truth is, I’m not quite sure I have the whole story straight myself- Am I a student? Photographer? Author? Restaurant cook? Blogger? Well, to make matters more confusing, it seems I’m about to add another descriptor to the list: Food stylist.

Food styling is something that is par for the course for food bloggers, but in the world of professional photography, the person wielding the camera is rarely, if ever, directly involved in plating and arranging that delicious subject seen through the viewfinder. The ability to artfully display edibles comes naturally to most food enthusiasts, or anyone who spends enough time eating out and seeing how the experts do it, but it’s not a job that one stumbles into with little real experience… Unless you’re me, apparently. Never had I flattered myself by assuming it was something I could do beyond my own kitchen- Most jobs clearly state that the stylist have a solid culinary background, a degree from an esteemed cooking school, and experience up the wazoo. So getting that last minute call from my publisher, saying that a kind woman in Brooklyn would love my assistance, was quite the shock.

And can I tell you something? I had a blast. Challenging at times and a definite learning experience all the way, but thankfully, Levana Kirschenbaum was every bit as warm and welcoming as promised, and we hit it off immediately. Two long days of fussing with greens, swabbing plates obsessively with q-tips, and a just one minor pâté fiasco later, and we had dozens of beautiful images (thanks to the camera work of Meir Pliskin) to add into her upcoming cookbook, The Whole Foods Kitchen. [Please note, though this isn't a vegan cookbook, there are many vegan options.] I still couldn’t help but pick up my camera a few times, though bear in mind that these are not the images going into the book. Just a few of my favorites, and a little sneak preview to whet your appetite!

Steel-Cut Oat Soup

Lemon Pudding

Steamed Dumplings

Pasta Salad

Roasted Fennel and Endive

Chocolate Steel-Cut Oats Pudding

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