Behind the Scenes: Pretty as a Picture
I love my job. I love sharing what I know with other people. I love hearing about how they enjoyed a recipe, found a new way to make an old favorite, or made a special memory with friends and loved ones at the table after being inspired by what I've shared. It's fulfilling work and I get to wear a lot of hats. I love cooking, clearly. I also adore writing and putting together a good recipe, which is different from writing but a topic for another time. But this time around, I'm sharing a glimpse into a different part of my world: food photography.
When I began this journey back in 1998 (shush — don't call me old!), the best mentors out there were folks who worked in print magazines. I even dubbed Seasoned Cooking an ezine, a trendy new term that was short for "electronic magazine" ("blog" wasn't a term at the time), and had monthly issues that got published at the beginning of each month. As time has gone on, the idea of dumping a pile of content on one day and waiting another month to share more seems very dated. Back then, images in the content were small if they got added at all. Don't get me wrong, photos were nice to have and there were also a few in each issue, but the process of getting them there wasn't easy.
Back in 1998, the images in each article were taken with a film camera, developed at my neighborhood camera store, scanned on a clunky flatbed scanner, edited in Photoshop, and uploaded to the site. The images tended to be quite small, as people were generally visiting the site using a dialup account and everyone had pretty limited bandwidth, so every image made a reader wait what would probably seem like eons today for it to load. We all also used to walk up hill, in the snow, both ways!
Today, things are much different. I've been using a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera for years, which has allowed me to take much better photos. I have a series of close-up lens filters for the camera, as well as a pretty spiffy tripod and remote for the camera, although I still take most of the photos for the site holding the camera in my hands. (Hooray for a vibration reduction camera!) I also use a combination of natural light (especially on bright, sunny days) and artificial light (provided by a fairly simple lighting kit). This gives me more flexibility in planning out photos.
You see, everything I shoot for this site gets eaten. People will often comment that things look delicious. Turns out, that's true! No dish soap-covered chickens or shaving cream-topped pies on this site! But, because it's all stuff my family is actually having for dinner and such, I don't tend to cook a lot of stuff super early in the day. I much prefer to set up my office for taking photos, go make dinner and plate something for photos, pop back to my office to get the photos taken, and return to the table and have dinner with my family. I'm not a fan of cold dinners or reheating a meal that was perfect hours ago. A good lighting set up and a space to shoot a dish in the matter of minutes gives me a chance to make my meals, shoot them, and eat them too!
When it comes to taking the photos, I try to mix up backgrounds. Everything from scarves to cutting boards and more get called into service for this. Sometimes there's a theme. Other times, I just pick out something that looks pretty to me. For plates and bowls, I have a variety of them to mix things up a bit. I love scouring thrift stores looking for unique options, as there's always a lot of variety and you never pay more than a dollar or two for a single item. It's nice to keep costs low.
I try to take between 20 and 50 photos from various angles and different positions to give me a lot to choose from later in the editing process. Sometimes the photo I was sure would be the best has a shine off the food that's off-putting and something I just added in to be sure ends up making the cut for inclusion. One thing I've learned over the years is that a lot of photos aren't likely to be very difficult to take and the first one is rarely the favorite. Sometimes, patience and repetition gets the job done. Often, really.
Once the photos are taken, I pause the process and have dinner with my family. I break down my little photo studio in my office and, sometime later, load the photos I've taken onto my computer. I preview what I've taken and cull any obvious flubs. Lighting issues, weird angles, and poor focus tend to be my main banes. Then it's time to contemplate what remains and what I want and need for the post I'm working on. The way people access the Internet has made including larger images and more of them simple. In the beginning, one tiny image was a bit of a treat for an article. Now, nearly every post on the site has at least one image and many have multiple photos. Even advances in competing editing software has changed a lot. I gave up Photoshop years back and use GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) and Affinity Photo for my photo editing needs today. I will sometimes tweak brightness and contrast, rarely change saturation and color settings, and round the edges of images marked for inclusion in a post. I also keep larger versions in a folder for posting on various social media platforms.
In the end, when they say a picture is worth a thousand words, the time invested in them can certainly rival that. That said, there's something very satisfying about being able to present a site that's showcasing beautiful food and helping all of you make it in the comfort of your own homes. And when a photograph is responsible for changing a "maybe I should try that" to a "that was amazing", all of the effort and equipment that goes into it is well worth it.