When You Give a Food Blogger a Camera…

The food bloggers who lunch. / Daina Beth Solomon

How do you teach a dozen LA Weekly bloggers about food photography? With plenty of naan, chicken tikka, dal soup and sautéed okra from Tara’s Himalayan Cuisine in Culver City.  

My editor arranged this lunch for us food writers to learn how to take delectable shots of the meals, drinks, and restaurants we write about.  At the LA Weekly, unlike the LA Times, writers are largely responsible for their own photos.  And original shots are ALWAYS best.  But they have to be good, almost professional-quality.  At lunch, art editor Darrick Rainey was on hand to offer a tutorial.  We crowded around two tables, splitting our attention among Darrick, cameras, and the food.  Here were some of his tips:

  • Lighting is the biggest concern.  When you need to use flash, try to diffuse it by covering the flash with a thin, white napkin.  The darker the photo, the more pixelated it looks.
  • Next, consider composition.  Horizontal photos are the best for the web. Follow the rule of thirds – the subject should be slightly off-center.  (Like still life paintings, one writer commented.)  Get close enough to see detail, but far enough to understand the context.  (My editor: We must be able to see what the food is!)
  • Your focus should primarily be food – not the building or people inside. Shoot so that the background looks slightly blurred.
  • Take a lot of photos!  You can never be sure which will come out best.  Also, you never know what a photo might be good for – perhaps an entirely different article.
  • Be ready to shoot fast – no one likes to hang around a table with food getting cold.

My colleagues offered some suggestions of their own, too.  Shuji Sakai told me to use the Digital Macro zoom feature, instead of the little flower icon.  Someone else recommended clearing the clutter from a table before the food arrives.  Garrett Synder suggested holding a flashlight behind the camera.  Kathy McDonald gave tips for taking horizontal photos of wine bottles. 

For more than an hour we were all engrossed in the topic – how to take the best photos of food on point-and-shoot cameras, without any formal training?  There was hardly any time to chat about other things, like, What do you have you written about recently?  And how was Thanksgiving? 

Have I explained that these writers are all freelancers?  The Weekly only employs one staff writer for the Food section, plus my editor.  So the lunch offered a rare opportunity for the bloggers to meet, like a pop-up newsroom.

One thing we discussed was how food photography has changed.  In my mom’s Campbell’s Soup cookbook from the early ’90s – not even that old! – shadows obscure every photo.  The backgrounds are dark, and loaded with props.  

Cluttered, dark, and shadowy.

It’s such a different aesthetic from today.  Now, we value light, bright, and uncluttered.  One of my new cookbooks, “Made in America: Our Best Chefs Reinvent Comfort Food,” offers the perfect example.  Its cover is egg-shell colored.  The title is white, as are the plate and tablecloth in the photo.  The food is presented in a small portion – neat, tidy and simple.

Bright, white, and fresh.

Someone made the point that this bright, clear, aesthetic is associated with ideas of health and fitness.  The style is also favored by photographers of “food porn” – food images that are exceptionally tantalizing.

“Is anyone else getting tired of food porn?” one writer asked at the lunch.  “Everything looks too perfect, too stunning, too fake. What happened to real food?

He has a point.  Journalists in particular must convey truth through photos.  Images convey information, and we have a duty to make sure that the information is relevant and honest.  At the same time, we want photos to be appealing.  They can convince people who idly browse through LAWeekly.com, for example, to read this article now!  Attractive, engaging photos are crucial to the success of journalism.  

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