One of the very successful, new restaurants I do artwork for has several different preparations of Jalapeño Peppers as appetisers. In fact, even their signature burger comes bristling with the snappy little devils. As highly mobile employees in a large hotel chain the food and beverage directors who helped to create the menu are newly transplanted to the central Texas area and still hold to the newcomer belief in Texas myths. One of these being that Texans will eat anything with a spicy hot pepper on it, that we crave the peppers, and that in some way the Jalapeño is the national food of Texas. Food shorthand...
The shot we were aiming for in the brief was a more complicated one with multiple, roasted, stuffed peppers in a metal rack cut to the shape of the state of Texas. Once we had that shot in bag I decided to do the locally time worn "pepper on a fork" image. Having not seen it before the new arrivals loved it. The original shot is less contrasty and has a lot of wasted space around it. The final image above has been enhanced with more saturation, contrast and sharpening as well as a vignette on the sides and corners. Below is the original crop.
I really enjoy shooting food for restaurants and hotels because they generally have teams of chefs that have gone to top culinary schools and have lots of experience plating food in order to present it well. Here's how a food project usually goes in my business:
It always starts with an e-mail from an art director or creative director at the agency which is handling the account, and when working with larger companies they nearly always have an agency relationship in place. I'll generally get invited in for a meeting and asked to bring a big sampling of food work. They want to see that you can do what they need---with certainty. The agency may want you to leave your portfolio (my food work is on a iPad) so they can show the client and get final approval of their photographer of choice. (Good to have multiple portfolios, even if that means multiple iPads.) The benefit to the agency of calling in a portfolio instead of going by what's on the website is that they can blow stuff up and really look at the details. With the new Retina Screen iPad it's a much more compelling presentation than smaller images on a website.
This preliminary meeting will also be the one where the number of shots and the general style and feel of the images will be discussed. That's important because it always affects the budget. It's at this point that we talk about usage rights as well. When working with bigger clients there's always the possibility that the work you do for the "local" version of their restaurant may be the framework for a whole chain and you'd hate to realize that you gave away the rights for many locations, spread across regions, for one small usage fee. You'll also discover that even though nearly all these projects start as websites only briefs the agency quickly psychologically amortizes the cost to shoot by convincing the client that the images will be able to be used not only on the web but also in point-of-purchase advertising and other print media. Maybe even as still images for TV commercials.
What that really means is you'll want to shoot with the highest resolution camera you can get your hands on in order to generate images that stand up to multiple uses across media. Just makes sense; you can always make them smaller but it's harder to make images bigger, especially after the fact.
For me, if the shoot is on location, the next step is to scout the location. On a recent scouting trip we discovered that the room we'd be working in gets full sun for most of the afternoon. We're bringing along big sheets of black drape for that one. Good to know before the day of the shoot.
If we're working with a good food stylist we arrive with all the lighting gear and cameras and leave the food fixin tools to the expert, but if we will be working directly with a chef and without the services of a real food stylist then we pack a full kit for styling food. We need a mister, glycerin, olive oil, a hand held steamer, chop sticks, scissors, toothpicks, styrofoam peanuts and armature wire; for starters. Everyone's kit is unique.
I like to start by having the kitchen bring me samples of all the plates we'll be using so I can see how they fit on the background and how tightly I'll be cropping. I set up a rough lighting design based on our meetings and then we bring out a dish and plop it down and work on the lighting and the camera look until everyone is in agreement. Once we agree and we like the lighting we fall into a rhythm. A dummy plate comes out with the chef's best intention for a dish. We look at it and tell him if we want changes and then we get busy lighting the dummy dish and working around it to find the right face. Once we've dialed it in the chef makes a perfect hero dish and we rush it to the table, switching it with the dummy. At this point the stylist or I will accent the dish with oil, move garnishes around and even blast in a little steam to make the food look hot and fresh. While we're working on the hero plate the chef has moved on to the next selection and is working up our next dummy plate.
Every once in a while we'll pop the memory card out of the camera and grab some jpegs (we usually shoot food in raw+jpeg for just this reason) to look at on our laptop in order to really study the set up and find any problems before they screw us up.
My assistant moves lights, keeps my working area clean and makes sure that lenses I discard are capped, front and back, and put back in the right spot because I'll almost certainly want to use them again soon...
Some dishes work best with backlighting and some with sidelighting but it's always important that the images feel connected. They need to look like they all came from the same shoot and the same family.
Once the food is done we move on to drinks and we try to give every client their own unique drink look. We don't have a formula which we apply across the board. To make this work we generally take a coffee break and get everyone re-wired and re-focused so they can all help build a consensus as to what their customized look and feel will be. Drinks are tough. Maybe the toughest part of a food shoot. Think about lighting the background and pushing light through the drinks from the back.
Once we wrap I generally book the assistant to come in the next morning and clean all the gear. Methodically. When you are moving fast and working with lots of dishes and food you are touching your camera gear with greasy hands and sometimes there are spills and drips. Better to get all that off your lenses, cords and lights before it's been there too long. Don't want to loose your favorite extension cord to mice or your favorite camera body to tiny ants....
After the client makes final selections I go to the computer and start enhancing. I want the food to come forward and the backgrounds to recede. That means lightening some stuff and darkening other stuff. It may be mean selectively sharpening the food while aggressively blurring the background. Pretty much whatever it takes.
That's enough for now....I'm starting to get hungry and I think there's some left over påte in the fridge. Now, where did I put that cork screw?