I struggle with photography a lot. Isn’t this the truth? Not a day goes by that I’m not in photography classes, shooting, editing, printing, and talking or thinking about photos. A light stand with a flash affixed to it is a permanent fixture in the corner of my room because I’d be collapsing and setting it up everyday. Being around photography 24/7 really makes me question what the hell I’m doing all the time, especially in an art school setting that focuses deeply on the ideas and concepts of photo and turns its nose up at commercial work (feel free to slap me across the face if I ever think like that!). I already overanalyze everything that happens and everything I think about every waking minute of the day. I’m also a perfectionist and stubborn as fuck and there’s a few thousand photos and several series of work that have never seen the light of the internet. Analyzing every little detail about photos, content, and meaning gets me burned out really easily, which makes even shooting food a lengthy frustrating ordeal sometimes!
Pretty food photography is not allowed in art school, but I can do whatever I want on my blogs! Even after prefacing what I do day in and day out with a sprinkle of cynicism, I think an art background is very beneficial when working in the kitchen and photographing food. And I’m a cynical mofo anyway. There’s so much color, design, and creation just making food. Then, photographing can be approached in so many ways. Composition, color, still life objects, and creating a mood that really considers the subject. White plate on a clean background? That’s a standard for product photography and some food shoots that is worth knowing how to do if the need arises, but hello, boring! Google stock photography. Yawnfest!
Lots of things are going through my head when working with food. I’m going to say things that conflict with the first post I made about food photography on here and probably other food photography articles. I don’t think there’s one right way to approach food photography, so I’m skeptical about food photography guides or “tips and tricks”. Now watch me eat my words and write up a list of tips and tricks! But really, these are just my opinions, how I currently approach my work, and more focused on thinking about photographing as an art rather than listing technical tricks. I’d say this is directed toward the “I know how to use my camera, now what?” crowd:
Knowing the mechanics of a camera and what they mean is far more useful than having a “good” camera. Someone well-versed and in control of their point and shoot in any given situation is way better off than someone with an SLR in auto mode. Now use that knowledge to your advantage and create what you’re envisioning. Don’t rely on happy accidents to create interesting photos. Figure out how to create that and have control over it! Reading books and taking classes would be immensely helpful.
Step back. Consider the space you’re in and how it relates to what you’re shooting. Just like there are environmental portraits of people, the same can be done with food as the “character”. Intensely close shots with a shallow depth of field become repetitive and don’t make you think about your photos. When I started doing food photography, the 50mm f/1.8 lens at f/1.8 all the time became a crutch. Hello there. I read that using a shallow depth of field would really focus on the subject, and not so much on the “less important” background. When the background is blurred, it doesn’t matter what’s there and the subject becomes a floaty glowing muffin or something. Now, maybe the composition is nice, but what sets your muffin apart? A distinguishable background isn’t out to work against you, but set up a scene. When I think blueberry muffins, I think picnic baskets, red checkers, and bright yellows and blues. Put that pumpkin muffin in a still life of autumnal abundance.
There are so many ways to use light, and gasp, natural light is not the be all end all. I use both studio lighting and natural light, depending on the food in question. A sultry dark chocolate truffle would be more suited to an environment with dramatic lighting, lace, reds, and satin-y fabrics. A lemonade cupcake goes by the window with bright colors and a whimsical composition. I still get overwhelmed with constructing this kind of still life sometimes because it involves collecting a lot of random kitchen crap and carefully considering what to include in the photos. Doing research is incredibly helpful. That’s true for anything. Look up all kinds of photography and artwork and draw inspiration. Maybe you have a diner-style meal. Research the atmosphere and visual elements of 1950s diners and make note of the colors, patterns, fabrics, and lighting in the photos you find. It could be as simple as a checkerboard placemat, or as elaborate as setting up a metallic backdrop, including props, and neon lighting. It’s not what you do or how intricate it is, but your individual approach that makes it interesting!
Mix up your collection of plates, tablecloths, and utensils. Or don’t. Maybe a certain color, texture, or plate is a constant in all your photos. I like working with bright, vivid colors, and dramatic lighting. And a lot of yellow. Mostly because my kitchen walls are yellow, but I try to bring different things into the shoots so it’s not all YELLOW WALL in everything. Sometimes I’d like to have a completely different kitchen to play with (who wouldn’t?), but I know the way I shoot and the things I’m visually interested in will show through there too, so working in the same environment all the time isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Even if your soup looks like vomit in a bowl, you can photograph it! Just no Instagram close up shots please. Put more emphasis on the bowl, the table setting, and everything around the soup, and create an interesting composition.
So, that was a little view into some of the crap I think about all day and night. I hope it was helpful!
I interrupt the thematic progression of Vegan Month of Food with a special message from Gnocchi:
DRINK UP, MOFOS!
I love this stuff. If Gnocchi could have kombucha, I bet he’d love it too. I first discovered it in Seattle with Lauren (which you can read about here and here!) and have been hooked ever since. It’s like magical fruity kombucha bubbles. It’s not available in Milwaukee (that I know of), but I hit the goldmine of chia seed kombucha in Chicago the other weekend and brought some back with me. Only two bottles though, because it’s hella expensive. I just finished half the bottle while writing this, which wasn’t supposed to happen because it’s all I have left! Need more! /End PSA
Note: Gnocchi did not receive compensation or free kombucha out of this. But I’d really like free chia seed kombucha! And for Whole Foods in Milwaukee to carry it!
This is a collection of some of the stuff I’ve accumulated over the past several months with book recipe writing in mind. The juices, liquors, and teas are obvious choices, but there are so many things other things that could be incorporated into baked goods inspired by drinks.
What I’ve used so far in these new recipes: pumpkin beer, agar, barley malt powder, lavender, Kahlua, red wine, rum, chipotle powder, Earl Grey, grape soda, grenadine, lots of pumpkin and coconut milk.
I have MoFo plans for: matcha, pineapple, more coconut milk, whiskey, coke, and maybe that cider or carrot juice
What I’m afraid of: MATCHA! Seriously creepy. It smells like a very strong, vegetable-y green tea, and I don’t even like green tea in the first place. But I’ve got a few ideas up my sleeve on how to approach this weird green powder.
The chia seed kombucha is there as a joke (and the other kombucha bottle is filled with vanilla extract). But seriously, that stuff is amazeballs, no matter what the haters are saying.
I’ve been using a lot of brand new things in the kitchen pretty regularly this month, like freshly roasted pumpkin puree and coconut cream. Last night, I took on two new projects that turned out to be quite simple! Jess and Michele inspired me to make my own vanilla extract, and Steph gave me the idea to make flavored sugar. Both these projects are cutting down on waste by reusing old bottles (and containers) and not buying new ones!
I made a trip to Penzeys yesterday afternoon to get vanilla beans and redeem three free product coupons that were burning a hole in my pocket. The vanilla extract “recipe” called for 6 vanilla beans, so I got those and two (free!) sets of herb and spice blends, as well as another spice blend called Forward!. Penzeys is near Bayshore Mall, which is kind of a long bus trip from my apartment, but there’s so many stores there that I make the trip somewhat frequently. After perusing all the herbs and spices, I walked over to Trader Joes and did my grocery shopping and got more baking goodies.
Since the vanilla extract takes a few months to mature, I got that squared away as soon as I got home. There are two ingredients: vanilla beans and vodka. I just sliced up the beans and stuck them in a bottle. The recipe calls for two cups of vodka and 6 vanilla beans, but as you use the vanilla extract, you can keep replenishing it with more vodka. If you bake often (which I do!) this is far more economical then storebought vanilla. I spent $15 on 6 vanilla beans, plus $5-10 for this amount of vodka, and I’ll get several cups of the stuff. No more wasting money on all those little bottles (and throwing away all the little bottles!), and I hear this vanilla extract is absolutely wonderful.
You can find the full instructions here.
Now waiting for it to mature! The mixture looks ever so slightly darker today, but it has a long way to go. I totally put it in a kombucha bottle. It’s filled to the brim, so I’ll probably transfer it to something else next time I finish up something that’s in a pretty bottle.
Next up was lavender sugar. I had an idea for a dessert to make with the matcha powder sitting in my cupboard that I’m so afraid of that involved lavender. I was going to make it last night, but I guess the lavender sugar understood my fear because it’ll be two weeks before it’s ready to use. My friend Steph made me a set of flavored sugars for my birthday so that gave me the idea to use lavender in sugar form for this dessert I had in mind.
I crushed 2 tablespoons dried lavender buds in 1 cup sugar and voila! Lavender sugar. In no way is waiting 2 weeks going to inhibit me from using matcha powder because MoFo will be over by then, and I bet there are more ways I can play around with it!
Now the waiting game! The beginning of November will be filled with lavender sugar. Then come December/January, the vanilla extract will be in action, so get excited!