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Let me walk you through one project we’re doing, a new frozen food product. To begin with, the designer called me and we talked about what the requirements were. This was for packaging, so she showed me the rough layout they had, the size of the package, and the area they needed for type and graphics. Then — this doesn’t always happen, but it’s good when it does — we did a test shoot. We were able to take one day with the food stylist and we tried to shoot as much as possible. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s just to get across the idea and see what works and what doesn’t work. What lighting or angle or props look good. There are so many combinations that have to work together. So we would work through that and then the designer would take those photos and create a couple different layouts to present to the client. And then, after long discussions, the client decided which direction they felt is best. And once that’s established we do it all over again. But this time we care much more about what it looks like. In this particular case we did two rounds of that. We did another round of shooting to establish what it was going to look like because they had a slight shift in what the prerequisites were.
On the production side, when we were actually doing the shoot, it meant coordinating, getting the product here, having freezer space, and having the right equipment to cook it. We had to figure out how best to do that. It’s sort of exploring how to get the most truthful representation of the product, trying to get the best out of it and still not lying about what the product is or looks like. We’re just trying to show it in its best light. The stylist in that particular case also had to work with the client to determine what side dishes they wanted. Do you want rice and a vegetable or a potato and a vegetable? What are the combinations? Or what garnishes can we use? What things can we put on it to make it look better? It’s a fine line; you don’t want it to look like it’s something that’s supposed to come with it.
Then there are the props. In this particular project we had to find the right plate to put it on to give it the right feel or atmosphere. If they want it to look casual, they want a certain kind of plate; if they want it to look upscale, it would be a different kind of plate. So there’s a whole process of figuring out, where do we want to position this? It’s a group effort. Ideally you want to have the actual product, the food, and the plates together under the lights and put it under the camera and see what works. You can’t really predict those things until you see them in context.
We have a lot of plates and dishes and flatware in the studio, but usually the requirements are more specific than that. Usually it has to be a certain size, a certain color, it has to have a red band on it or something. So being a prop stylist is actually a very difficult job. People say, that sounds like fun, to go shopping with other people’s money — it’s not that easy. It’s usually very specific. A client might say, once I saw this plate that was green and it had little speckles around the edge and it was about seven inches in diameter. And I don’t know where I saw it, but I really like that one, find that. Or for this particular project, the plate had to be a certain size because, if the plate’s too big, it looks like the portion you get is too small. If it’s too small, the portion looks gigantic. So you’ve got to find that middle ground. It’s very difficult finding the exact fit that everybody likes. The other thing that happens is the client says, I saw this plate over at this store; then you go to get it and they don’t stock it anymore. Occasionally we actually have to have a plate made from scratch. We went to the model maker and it turns out they do that for Pottery Barn and stores like that. They design a model and do a plate for them, so it was no big deal for them to do it for us.
Working with food, you have a relatively small window of time to work in. Ice cream, for instance, is a really small window. But usually the longer anything sits out, it’s not good. It’s best to capture it as soon as possible. That’s why on the day of the shoot, if we didn’t do a test shot ahead of time, we would figure out the camera angle, the lighting, get it all set up and then the food stylist would make it all over again and make sure it looks really good the second time. The first version is sort of stand-in food so you don’t care if it sits out there for an hour because you’re just getting the composition and the lighting where you want it. Then when everything is set you bring in the fresh food and shoot it right away.
Once we have the image we like, we bring it to post-production. The thing that I think is interesting is, if you know you have that option of retouching you can use it as a tool for shooting. If there is this technical issue or, particularly in packaging, if there is a size problem. One project we did was a limited budget and they wanted to do it as efficiently as possible. So we shot the food for the front panel of the package and then the back of the package there was another photo of that same dish but it was pulled way back to leave room for the type. So instead of trying to shoot the main shot then pull back and shoot it again with more background, we shot it for the front and made sure everything looked good on the whole plate. Then at the end of the shoot we pulled back, set up that other shot, kept the camera angle exactly the same, then in post production we cut the food off the plate in the front shot and shrunk it down to fit on the plate that was on the back. So it’s an exact copy without having to shoot it twice. Because the food wouldn’t have lasted from one shot to the next. We would have had to make everything twice.