Behind the Scenes

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.

Mmm, squash.

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.

30 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes

  1. What a great post! Isn’t it true… all you have to do is ask! It’s so neat that Lou invited you in and you got to learn so much… Now your food pictures will just get better & better, I’m gonna have to step up my game!
    : )

  2. thanks for sharing with us, Hannah! it all looks so fascinating, and it’s very inspiring, too! glad you learned a lot! that’s so awesome! gotta love learning something that you’ll have with you for the rest of your life, and that also applies to what you love. superw00t!

  3. hey Hannah,
    Great that you got to go back to see a real photoshoot in the making! And thanks for sharing what you saw with the rest of us.

  4. I’m so impressed by your bravery to request the apprenticeship and I’m so glad that Lou invited you to his studio! You have a lot of guts and a lot of talent. Great job!

  5. Congratulations Hannah!

    I have enjoyed following your blog for the last little while and it is sooo good to see someone so talented and passionate about what they are doing succeed and be recognised by someone they admire.


  6. What an awesome experience Hannah! I’m so glad that you got the opportunity to hang out in his studio. I will definitely be buying that book, as now that I have my new camera, there’s so much I want and need to learn about photographing food.

    Happy New Year Hannah!

    XO Julie

    P.S. Your agave honey cake looks fabulous. I’m going to bake one today. Thanks!

  7. Congrats, Hannah! Sounds like an amazing experience. . . and you made it happen. One day, I’ll look forward to reading someone else writing about their apprenticeship with YOU! :)

  8. I came upon your blog through tastespotting. I am glad that you had the opportunity to have a day with a pro. While your blog post did not say, what kinds of things did you get to do? were you just hanging in the back, or were you hands on? Did you get a chance to help out the food stylist at all? Did Lou explain any settings to you, or did he pass on some good tips?

    I have a dream about food photography. I am a chef by trade, and I love to cook food. I am also extremely fascinated with photography, always have been. I guess that is what makes me so jealous of your opportunity.

    I am going to link you to my blog. I want to keep track of your progress. Cheers,

    The Well Done Chef.

  9. What an incredible opportunity! How lucky for you to go. I can relate on the horrifying emails, but look at the chance you got out of it!

    It’s truly remarkable what amount of work goes into one photo – I know how much fiddling I have to do in my kitchen for a single decent shot, let alone one on a professional level.

    That book looks fascinating – thanks for the link.

  10. What a great experience… In France, there’s a proverb that says: “who tries nothing, has nothing.” This proves it. Thank you for the interesting read.

  11. So cool that you got to go to the studio! A friend of mine does food photography and I’m always super jealous of his mad skills with the camera and set-up!

  12. Wow, that’s amazing. I had to laugh about the drunk dial-esque email. If only email had an “unsend” button! But it looks like all went well for you, so that’s excellent – sometimes all you have to do is ask. :-)

  13. What a wonderful post! Thanks for documenting what happened for the rest of us. I’ve been reading his book in bed every night lately too, and not finding it dry or boring at all. Good for you to have the boldness to take charge of your dream and do something you wanted to do.

  14. This is great. I know you will put anything you learn to good use. It’s amazing the stuff behind the scenes that us regular folk don’t know. I like the idea of the overturned bowl under the food to give it height.

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