BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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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 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?

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