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Having a food and prop stylist you work well with is extremely important. Usually when we’re interviewing a new stylist, they bring their portfolio in and we talk: What did you do on this? Oh, that looks good, what was your technique? Where did you get that item? Did you do the props? Sometimes food stylists do propping as well. Sometimes prop stylist do some easy food styling. Generally the way we operate with a new stylist is to suggest doing a portfolio shot together and see how we work together. That way we each get a portfolio piece. And then you have a better understanding of how they work and how well you work together and whether you communicate effectively. It’s like a test run.
We have a full studio and kitchen with a stove, oven, and refrigerators. We also have space for three freezers for the ice cream because we do a lot of ice cream. The ice cream is another whole specialty. There are food stylists who specialize in ice cream. It’s difficult and hard work because you have to scoop and shape all day. First the stylist takes a one-gallon or five-gallon tub and cuts it down the middle with a large cheese knife. Before they scoop, they can see where the variegates or fudge swirls are to see where the good spots are. Then they drag their scoop through that area to create a ball. But it’s a process of doing that over and over again until they get a good scoop. A stylist might get five balls that look good, but throw away 20.
One of our freezers is a dipping cabinet like the type one sees in an ice cream store. After scooping a ball with enough distribution and good texture, a “fluffy skirt” is built around it to make it appear freshly scooped. The client on set has approved both the ball and the skirt, which has been set on a piece of marble or in a bowl. The scoop returns to the dipping cabinet for a bit before it is brought on set and quickly photographed. The image is examined to determine if any modifications need to be made such as adding another chocolate chip or another swirl. There are some modifications that can be made on set while others can be accomplished through retouching.
We sometimes allow the ice cream to melt just a little bit to get the shot the client approves. During post production, melt drops are sometimes cloned on to the ice cream scoop in a place where it might look good that the ice cream is a little melty. That gives us more control over the look we’re trying to achieve. I always strive to give the most accurate and truthful representation of the product. Then, with the ice cream, we print out that version and give it to the art director or client to mark up: move that chip, lighten that area, add additional chips. Then we take the marked up sheet to GreenBox Imaging, the retouching part of our company. The image and comments shift back and forth between the design firm and GreenBox’s retoucher. When the retoucher feels the image is exactly how the design firm wants it, the retouched image is presented to the client for feedback. The fact that we were involved in the decisions from the beginning gives us an advantage in delivering exactly what the client wants.
The other key team members of my team are my studio manager, prop stylist, and photo and food stylist assistants. The studio manager is the backbone of the studio. He is responsible for booking, coordinating, organizing, receiving, shipping, processing, printing, documenting, trouble-shooting and client hosting — just to name a few of his responsibilities. I think it becomes apparent just how important your team is on complicated projects like this.
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.
When I was taking classes at the Academy of Art, one of the photographers had a studio and they needed somebody to come in once a week and clean up. I thought that was a great opportunity to go see what happens in a real studio, so I took the job. And that sort of led into a full-time position as a first assistant with the photographer. I helped him build the studio from scratch, which was another great opportunity, to come into a raw space and turn it into a studio. He did mostly food and still life, and at the time he was one of the major photographers doing that kind of thing in San Francisco. He was from New York and after I had worked for him for another two years, he said, if you really want to be good you have to go to New York. You have to go become an assistant there. So I talked it over with my wife and we sold everything and packed up the car and drove to New York.
Again I was lucky; I got a job at a really good studio there. They did most of the major accounts, like Best Food, Shake ‘n Bake, and Jell-O…all the big accounts like that that were in New York at the time. I was a studio manager there and what was great was it was high volume, lots of work, and I got to experience lots of different situations and problems and how to solve them. So I worked with that photographer for a little over two years, then I decided I wanted to freelance. And I did work for some people, like Best Foods and Lipton Tea, but most of the people I saw said, your portfolio’s pretty good, you should be shooting, not assisting. So I started to do some jobs there.
Then I had to decide if I was going to stay there or come back. I didn’t particularly want to stay in New York. It was a great experience and I would highly recommend doing something like that, but I knew I didn’t want to live there forever, being from the West Coast. And the plan was always to come back, so we did. We were there for about 2 years, and we had planned to only go for a year. But we soon found out that was ridiculous. It takes a year just to feel like you live somewhere. We came back and I found a place on Mission Street where Bloomingdales is now. I had a studio there for eight years. Then I moved to my present location and opened up a new studio, bigger than the other. I had learned a lot from the other one as far as what did work and what didn’t work and planning the space.
I was always interested in how food and photography fit together. And I was always around food. My mother had a gourmet coffee store before that was really popular. My great grandfather was a chef at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Then his son, my grandfather, was a chef at the Fairmont here in the ’20s. And his son, my father, he didn’t want him to get into the business because it was a way different business then. There weren’t chef superstars like there are now, and they probably didn’t get as much credit as they do now. So my dad made furniture. So food is indirectly in my blood. I like to cook and I like learning about food and wine and everything that goes along with it. Because I sort of think you have to be like that to be good at food photography, to have an understanding how it’s made and an appreciation.
But the most important quality you need as a food photographer is patience. I’m not sure there are things you need that are different from being a successful photographer in other areas, except probably just a passion for food. And I think there are usually two different personalities. You rarely see someone who is a great food photographer and a great people photographer. It’s two different temperaments. Like fashion photographers who are used to a really fast pace — this would drive them nuts.