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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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?


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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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