An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


Smoke and Mirrors

ISO 100, f/3.5 @ 1/125 second

Canon Digital Rebel XTi
Canon EF50mm f/1.2L USM
Calumet Genesis 200 strobe with rectangular softbox

Steam rising from a dish tells a powerful and immediately understood story: This food is hot, freshly prepared, and waiting for you to dig in right away. Few elements can elicit an appetite response as readily, even when the viewer is far removed from the scene itself. Let’s not forget what an elegant, dreamlike quality it can add to an image, thinking of it purely as an artistic element. No wonder why the above image garnered so many comments and questions! Capturing that natural steam, rather than Photoshopping it in after the fact, is so difficult that most professionals don’t even attempt it. It’s simply easier and yields more consistent results to hire a post-processing genius and paint in a smokey plume exactly as desired. However for the creative photographer up for a challenge, it’s completely possible and well worth experimenting with.

There are a few key elements for successfully photographing something as elusive as steam:

  • Use a dark background so that the smoke or steam stands out. Sadly, you will never be successful with this technique shooting on white. Think high contrast, high drama!
  • Arrange the set so that you have a bright back light or side light. Don’t use too much fill light, because you’ll flatten out all the detail, rather than show off the textures.
  • Most critical of all, have everything on the set arranged as you want it before you start cooking, so that you don’t have to fiddle around with the composition when the food is ready. That also means getting the right exposure (or at least, dialing it in as closely as possible) so you can just pick up the camera and start shooting. That is very important because…
  • You must shoot the food IMMEDIATELY! Don’t give it a chance to cool, don’t fuss around styling it for ages; just plate it and shoot it. A more casual approach works well for most steam shots, because they look like “a slice of life,” being served just as you might see it at home.
  • Don’t over-think it, and don’t psych yourself out. Yes, you must work quickly, but that’s no reason to freak out. If it doesn’t work, you’ll still get delicious images, just without the steam.

Perhaps the biggest secret of all, though, is that the food or drink doesn’t actually have to be hot or steaming. Yep, it’s true, I did cheat on the above photo. That coffee was about room temperature through and through. The trouble with faking it is the risk that your results won’t look as natural, but it’s a fun technique worth playing with at least once. Now, you’ll have to suspend your doubts for a moment and listen with an open mind, because that steam that seems to be rising from the coffee cup? … It came from a tampon, nuked in the microwave.

An unused, brand new tampon, of course! Soaked in water for a minute and then microwaved for 60 – 90 seconds until steaming, I hid it as well as possible just behind the mug and snapped away. As I circled in white above, you can see the tiny shadow that I couldn’t quite avoid, and then what it looked like on the set. (I placed the tampon in a jar lid so that it didn’t get the decorative paper wet.)

Adding steam separately like this gives you the advantage of working with food prepared in advance, and shooting multiple times without reheating and over-cooking the food itself. Plus, you won’t get any condensation on the rim of bowls or glasses. Just be sure to hide that tampon very well- It might be somewhat tricky to explain to the casual viewer.

Spelling out the setup here: I used a large softbox for the key light to the back-left of the set, a white board to bounce light back into the side, and then sunlight was the main light that came in through the window at the back-right corner. No mirrors were used to avoid strange circular highlights on the glass.

Trust me, it’s not nearly as tricky or complicated as it may seem at first!  Have you successfully photographed steam? Do you think you’d try it now?


A New Year, A New VegNews

One week of silence passes by with such ease in real life, each day barely even registering before the sun begins to recede once again. In blog years, it feels interminable, as if I’ve been a bad blog parent and terribly neglected my poor baby. Fully immersed in book writing, it’s hard to stumble out of my cave and into the blinding daylight, back into the usual routine. In my absence, 2011 has come to pass, and now we can only work to get the most out of this new year. The cycle begins anew. Top 10 lists or “best of” countdowns are not my cup of tea, so let’s dive right in, shall we? After all, you can’t move forward if you keep looking back [-Or else be prepared to walk smack into a wall sooner or later.]

Kicking off 2012 on a high note, the January/February issue of VegNews has got to be one of my favorites yet. I may not have contributed a column, but things came together beautifully from a design standpoint, featuring my photos in the best way possible. Focused on a fresh and clean theme, with sights set on a dietary fresh start for those who many have overindulged over the holidays, it’s exactly my speed. Bright, clean… And of course, undeniably mouthwatering compositions. Each recipe was a winner by all accounts, but here are just a few choice shots.

Banh Mi, by Robin Robertson, is sure to please aficionados of this popular Vietnamese sandwich. Strikingly simple and fresh in flavor, it definitely has the edge on the competition, skillfully blending contrasting elements into a perfect harmony. “Spicy and sweet, soft and crunchy,” but let’s not forget simple in preparation and complex in flavor!

Raw Pad Thai, by Gena Hamshaw. My first time ever working with kelp noodles, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy they were to work with, and enjoyable to eat. A bit more toothsome than the typically wheat-based pasta, they do soften quite nicely after a few minutes of marinating in any acidic sauce. Though I feared it would be a nightmare to style this odd, translucent strands, they impressed me from start to finish.

Dark Chocolate Truffle Tart, by Beverly Lynn Bennett. A sure-fire hit with any audience, this dessert pulls out all the stops without any effort. Versatile to a fault, it’s a snap to dress it up with any accompanying flavor you fancy, too. Peanut butter, mint, or orange; Any pairing is pretty much fool-proof.

Based on the initial evidence, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is gonna be a good year.


A Weekend in Wiesbaden

Calling it a “whirlwind trip” doesn’t really do justice to the unbelievable circumstances I found myself in just this past weekend; if anything, we came storming through Europe more like a tornado, touching down only long enough to buzz about busy Christmas markets near Wiesbaden. Forcibly removing myself from piles of work waiting at home, it was a welcome respite from endless homework and writing assignments. There may or may not have been one ridiculous, borderline outrageous impulse-buy that made the following photos possible, but can I tell you? After working relentlessly all year, it was worth it to totally spoil myself for the holidays.

The following are some of my favorite shots, snapped in Wiesbaden, Luxembourg, and the nearby surrounding areas.

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Upon spying the November/December issue of VegNews, I couldn’t help but beam when I saw my photos on the cover! Yes, they are rather miniscule, but they’re still front and center all the same, and such a place of honor should mean a whole lot to any budding photographer.

Above image borrowed from Vegnews.Com

Some of my favorite shots from this issue include…

The surprisingly savory Dill Waffles with Beet Compote, by chef Jesse Miner, whom I finally had the pleasure of meeting a few months back. Let me tell you, this nontraditional breakfast or brunch offering will really cause a stir with early morning guests- I couldn’t stop eating them! Though I typically make big batches of waffles in advance and freeze them for later, these babies barely had a chance to even cool down before they were all devoured.

Gena Hamshaw brings the raw goodies as per usual, this time in the form of crunchy Almond Crackers and a very unique Orange Carrot Dip. The best part about this recipe is that it’s all-inclusive, providing an alternate low-temperature baking method in addition to the standard dehydrator approach. Both easy and elegant, they make for an excellent appetizer before a festive meal, or just a satisfying snack to tide you over on a busy day.

The real show-stopper recipe for this round was the Lasagna by Allison Samson, hands down. Layers of rich, homemade vegan ricotta and Parmesan, smothered with lovingly slow-simmered tomato sauce and all assembled in a towering noodle construction, it was a sight to behold. Though lasagna is one of my photo styling nemeses due to its often messy, unruly nature, this was a dream to capture, slicing beautifully, and showing off each layer with pride. This is the sort of recipe that would make anyone thrilled to eat lasagna instead of a grand roast on Christmas, even.

And that’s not the end of it, but before I go ahead and post the photos for the entire magazine, you’ll just have to check out a copy to see the rest. Don’t miss the holiday candy feature in particular! Though the photos came out looking fairly simple, it was quite a journey to get there. A highly worthwhile effort, I’d say!


Food Paparazzi

Most comfortable in my quiet “studio” kitchen, working solo and in control of every single element from food to lighting, Wednesday evening’s photography job threw me completely outside of my comfort zone. Featuring many of New York’s premiere vegan restaurants, caterers, and other food organizations, the Healthy Food in Fashion gala promised extraordinary eats from many renowned chefs. Tempted, but intimidated, I balked at the offer; Event photography is not my area of expertise, to say the least. Upon learning that there would be another shooter covering the people, and all I had to worry about was the food, let’s just say that I couldn’t assemble my gear fast enough.

Learning on the fly, I got much more out of this evening than just delicious and memorable morsels. Here are just a few tips for anyone else acting as the food paparazzi for a glamorous (or everyday) event…

Arrive early… But not too early. I showed up a full two hours before the gala was set to begin, and to be honest, I was just in the way for at least one of those hours. Most of the chefs had yet to arrive, and no one had any food prepped and ready for its closeup. It’s definitely easier to get a head-start and begin shooting before guests begin to fill the room, but don’t go overboard.

Consider more than just the food. Yes, that’s the main reason that you’re here, but there’s so much more to the event as well. Snap a few shots of interesting decor, people interacting with the food, anything of interest. It helps tell a more complete story than just a few random plates floating in an ocean of green tablecloth.

Don’t photograph people while they’re eating, ever. It might seem like an interesting “action shot,” but 9 times out of 10, it’s just unflattering. For the remaining 1 time out of 10 it’s downright gross. Plus, it makes guests feel very uncomfortable regardless.

If you’re getting strange color casts from tinted lights, don’t worry about it. Seriously, there are more important things to concern yourself with, especially in post-processing. Don’t go nuts trying to remove the blue highlights caused by mood lighting; it adds ambiance to the photo, in my opinion.

Bump up that ISO, and don’t look back. I typically hate going above 200 ISO due to the grainy quality of the images beyond that, but it’s a sacrifice worth making in such a low-light situation. Since there is really no room to set up a tripod, you’ll have to hand-hold the camera the whole time. A higher ISO can make the difference between getting a useable image, or getting a blurry, out of focus photo due to a longer exposure time. For this event, I went up to 800 ISO.

Do use flash, but don’t use straight on-camera flash. A speedlite (or speedlight, for Nikon cameras) makes a huge difference because you can change the direction of the light. Direct flash will never be flattering to food, so don’t even try it. Always send the light behind you, over your shoulder, or above you, to bounce off of [hopefully] white walls or ceilings. This will help to soften and diffuse it. Also, it helps to get further away from the food if you can’t reduce the intensity of your flash.

Bring about a million backup batteries. That external flash eats them like candy, and there’s nothing more frustrating than having it not fire after you’ve lined up the perfect shot, just because the battery is running low.

Use either a telephoto or zoom lens, to give you some distance from your subject. This is especially helpful so that you’re not jostling hungry guests out of the way, and can stand back from the tables a bit. A macro lens could work if you have nothing else, but I find them harder to stabilize and get sharp images from without the aide of a tripod.

Grab yourself a plate of something particularly lovely, take it off to the side (or enlist a helpful guest to hold it for you) and arrange it nicely. This will help to switch things up, so all of your photos aren’t just big platters of many servings. Also, since you’re taking the food for yourself, you can go crazy and touch it/style it as you wish. And then, of course, you can eat it!

For the rest of my photos from the evening, plus descriptions of the edibles in the spotlight, you can check out my album on Flickr.

Have you ever acted as food paparazzi for an event? What are your tips for securing the best shots?


Bringing Out the Big Guns

Most striking in the comments for the Plate to Pixel giveaway was how apologetic most were. Almost everyone mentioned a desire to upgrade, or general unhappiness with their camera phone, point-and-shoot, or dSLR. Such is the nature of the beast, as technology continues to advance and improve, but not all cameras regress into obsolescence at the same rate as, say, laptop computers. Don’t write off your “rinky dink” equipment just yet… But before I get too far into that subject, down to business.

As chosen by everyone’s favorite random number generator, the winner is…

Christopher Nguyen! Shooting with a point-and-shoot, this is a great example of making the best of what you have. Don’t sell yourself short because of that! Which brings me back to the point: Should you trash you crappy old camera and funnel a couple hundred dollars into a shiny new dSLR?

Please note, this is not my treasure chest of camera bodies and lenses, but Lou Manna‘s that I stole a quick snapshot of.

I know that you won’t want to hear this, but the answer is complicated, and it depends. In defense of the entry level point-and-shoot, I want to mention that I did in fact photograph all of My Sweet Vegan using one- The Canon PowerShot A75, to be exact; An extinct dinosaur of a machine that’s anything but cutting edge now. Though a dSLR will give you much more control, higher quality for making prints and large reproductions, and more creative tools to carry out your vision, there’s much that can be done with a point-and-shoot as well. It’s as much the equipment as it’s the photographer behind it.

For most bloggers, I would advise you not to feel pressured to get an expensive camera because you’re not happy with your photos. The principles behind it are the same, so first master what you have, learn composition, use that macro feature like your life depended on it, and then ask yourself if you want to take the next step up.

If you’re very serious about the art and craft of photography, want to possibly become a photographer as more than just a hobbyist, then yes, let’s not beat around the bush here: You NEED a dSLR. Sign up for classes, learn about those f-stops, and get out there! I would advise those on that long and winding path, however, to save some money by purchasing just the camera body of your choice, forgoing the kit lens, and instead funneling that cash into a nice lens. The lenses do end up being a bigger investment than the camera much of the time, but a really nice macro or telephoto lens makes all the difference in quality food photos. My most frequently used lenses are the 50mm f/1.2 L USM and the 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM, for reference.

Now, on the question of Nikon vs. Canon… Well, I happen to be a Canon person, so I think you know what I would say.


The Biggest Food Issue Ever!

VegNews‘ annual food issue is always packed to the brim with the stuff I love most- recipes, restaurant reviews, new products, and more- and the September/October 2011 issue does not disappoint. For this particular two-month stretch, I had the tasty task of photographing quite a few of the featured foods as well. Seeing my work in print a few days early at Vida Vegan, via the generous free magazines being doled out to entice new subscribers, I was especially delighted at how well these particular images were reproduced in paper and ink. On the menu for these two months are…

Kati rolls by Terry Hope Romero, otherwise titled Chile Potato Wraps for a more straight-forward approach when the relatives give you strange looks at the diner table. Consider essentially bundling up spicy and fragrant mashed potatoes in soft, freshly handmade flat bread, and it’s easy to imagine that this as an Indian version of comfort food. It may take a bit more effort than a pile of plain old buttery spuds, but the flavors and varied textures are completely incomparable.

Gobi Manchurian by Robin Robertson, a dish new to me this time around, proved to be the sleeper hit of the batch. Crispy-fried cauliflower dressed up in a mouth-tingling hot tomato sauce with Asian inspirations? Yes please, and leave room for seconds! Traditionally chopped up into florets, this version is served up as whole cauliflower “slabs” to make it into more of a meal or side dish, rather than a mere bar snack.

Classic but always welcome when done right, French Onion Soup by Allison Rivers Samson is incredibly rich for having such humble beginnings. The key, of course, is slow simmered caramelized onions to make up the savory base- Time is your most important ingredient on this heart-warming soup.

Time for dessert! What could be better than Gluten-Free Trail Mix Cookies by Beverly Lynn Bennett? Taking a more controlled approach to the “kitchen sink” concept, each bite brings new fruits and nuts into the mix, making every cookie unique and delicious. Although this particular photo was mislabeled, I assure you, I was the photographer (and baker!) of this short stack.

Finally, one of the simpler but more fun photo shoots of the bunch, I got to set a whole bunch of marshmallows on fire with a torch! Dandies marshmallows to be specific, all stacked up in toasty, gooey s’mores. If you haven’t gotten your s’more on over a summer campfire yet, VegNews is here to remind you that it’s never to late for some mallow-and-chocolate action come colder months.


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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