Alan Richardson Tell Us How To Take Better Food Photographs
What makes you want to make a recipe? It might be the name (Death by Chocolate, Outrageous Chocolate Chip Cookies) or the fact that the headnote guarantees you the most foolproof yellow cake ever, but chances are that even before you got to those words you were lured in by a photograph. An image can create lust and need for a baked good. We know. This happens to us all the time. The images that speak to us most are ones that depict the food as it really is – up close and personal. Like it is sitting on a plate before us, waiting to be devoured and because this is Alan Richardson’s style, he has always been a favorite photographer of ours and his work is in Dorie Greenspan’s newest book, Baking Chez Moi(read our interview with Dorie). We have chatted with authors and chefs, bloggers and product developers and it is about time that we focus on the food photographer. Alan Richardson chatted with us about his creative process and how you can take better food photos.
Alan, Thank you so much for chatting with me. I thought it was high time that we spoke with a food photographer…so many of our community users love to take photos of their food and who better to help us improve than you.
Well, thank you Dédé. I am glad we are getting this chance to speak.
Let’s talk about your creative process…when you are about to shoot with a cookbook author and they have a perspective and the publisher and art director have ideas, how does that work? Who decides on the look? How do you bring your eye to that mix?
I don’t get hired a lot in that situation, where they do not understand what I would bring. I work a lot with the same authors…ones whom I have developed relationships with over the years…worse case is when I am miss-matched and you realize it early. They might start asking for weird lighting or color situations…with me, and with a lot of photographers, a lot of the choosing of the look is in choosing the photographer…knowing what kinds of pictures they will take…the biggest input comes from the publisher. They will often say, “what qualities do we want for this book? Alan’s photos (or whoever’s) would work well here…”, and that’s how you get paired up. Once you are reading the recipes and know how you are going to shoot you have to visual in your heard. You all have to be thinking along the same lines.
Talk to me about Dorie’s new book. What would you call the look of the images in Baking Chez Moi?
This is the third book I’ve done with her…she is comfortable with what I do, and the way it works…I remember when we were going to work on the first book together (Baking: From My Home to Yours) we had a conversation between Rux (the publisher), me and Dorie. We spoke about how Dorie’s work is approachable and homey, but if you know Dorie you know she is classic and upscale so the images would have to reflect that too. Homey maybe but we weren’t going to have checked tablecloths! That’s just not her.
I went to her apartment in NYC…that’s something I really like to do…see an author in their home, in their surroundings. It can tell me a lot. Then she invited me to her CT home, too. This is important…I can see their lifestyle and this is important when an author has a very personal point of view – not all of them do – but she does. There is a specific authorship to a Dorie book. When you receive it and look at it and bake out of it, it conveys who she is. She even cooked for me…that makes a huge difference! You know it is interesting, many chefs and authors have cooked for me and I get to see how they cook the meal, their relationship with food, how they plate it…it tells me so much.
So when you are just shooting for yourself, take me through that process…how do you look at the food?
Well I guess I have a very specific point of view because people tell me this all the time, although to me I don’t. I think I just see how I think food looks best! I want it to look like you are about to eat it…I don’t want it to look like it’s pushing me away…I like getting close…and to find textures in the food…I’m always looking for appetite appeal. I look for shine and moisture…or if a dessert has nuts in it I want you to see them really well. The image should inform you about the taste, the texture…what it is. I don’t think props should take over; they should be neutral and background…
I use a lot of whites and neutrals; I might bring in a bright color here and there but the food has to be the star.
What do you mean by you don’t want it to look like it’s pushing you away?
I don’t want remote photos…I get frustrated if the food is too small…I can’t see it! Then it is more lifestyle…I’m a food photographer not a lifestyle photographer. Or the image looks like it is showcasing a prop house! That’s too busy for me. That’s more about setting the scene. That is not food photography. For me it needs to be close up…like you are just about to dig in your fork, or maybe even after the fork is dug in! Sometimes that is even better!
I don’t like shallow focus…I like deep focus. You see more! When so much is thrown out of focus is not telling me what it is in total…
Regarding your nut comment, it’s like it you show the nuts really well then the reader might not even be conscious of this but when they go to make the dish they will know how large to chop the nuts, because they can see them. So your approach is aesthetically appealing as well as instructional, even if it might be subconscious for the viewer.
I never ask stylists to lie but I will ask them to change the way a dish is put together. The dish needs to reveal itself in the photograph so I will ask can we bring an element to the outside, for instance…you have to have the conversation with the chef.
When we did the cover for Dorie’s book – the cake with the chocolate shards – the recipe had the shards very chopped up…crumbed…pulverized almost and the chocolate became cloudy and there were powdery bits. Karen (Ed Note: Karen Tack is the stylist) and I experimented with ways to break up the chocolate, so that you got a more sumptuous quality to the chocolate…more richness. We figured out a way so that the chocolate broke up along the natural grains of the chocolate and reduced the crumbs. We showed it to Dorie and she said that isn’t my recipe (it is a Pierre Hermé homage) and that isn’t how it was done. We showed it to her side by side and to her credit she got it. And then she said the best thing. She said, “that’s exactly how Pierre intended it to look if he had thought of it”. (We both laugh). She went back and tweaked the recipe. It needed to be elegant and timeless and appetizing and it just took a slightly different way to get there.
We will also have conversations about whether to break into a dessert. Which is the most appetizing? The whole thing? Will a slice reveal more texture? How much do we reveal? Is it more luscious inside? Will we get a nice wet ooze out of a tart slice? Or what is going to happen for the home cook?
Right. You want it to be what is going to happen for the home cook…it’s that instructional aspect again.
Exactly. All of these factors are important.
Alan, what are the 3 most important things to think about for home food photographers so that they can to take better pictures?
Natural light, natural light, natural light!
Well, there we have our three! But that isn’t how you shoot books, do you?
Yes. I shot Dorie’s book in natural light…maybe some flash as fill here and there. The only cases I can think of where a strobe was used was when a recipe came out of oven late in day and we had lost light!
This is why photographers like studios with indirect daylight with big windows…that beautiful northern light that makes almost anything look gorgeous. It might look cool on occasion and you might have to warm it up in editing, but it has the dreamy quality.
Situate yourself next to a big light source…indirect northern light that’s giving shaded light…or in the morning use west, in the evening use east. Stay away from direct because it might be too contrasty and harsh and hard to control…then bring in white cards of some kind…we call them show cards. Use any kind of large white cardboard or similar…even a book with white pages next to a plate of food will bounce light onto the plate. But the goal is not to eliminate shadows, but build the shadows. Shadows are good! If you eliminate them the image is flat…texture only shows up with shadows…texture and definition is shadow!
Also you really need a camera stand…with natural light you won’t be shooting 60th of a second, it might be a quarter of a second and most people are not that steady! In photo school they say do not do hand held below 30th of a second.
Do you try and use as minimal post-editing as possible? Is that your approach?
For so many photographs I can see what I want before I take the picture. I crop then by using varied approaches. But I never take just one aspect. I will shoot it in its entirety first and then I start going in tighter, taking a slice out…
Like with a cake we will shoot the entire one and focus on the surface. Then I will pull back and have the stylist remove a slice, then maybe two slices…then take the slices and plate them and take a look at that…we try several things for several recipes to see what works. You have to have pacing in a book. You don’t want all the images to look the same…so not all slices, not all whole cakes. I shoot each recipe several ways so that the art director has options…sometimes we even show recipes in process, like dropping the shards on top of the cake to show action.
Is there anything particular to shooting desserts?
With desserts I am always looking for shine or that golden edge or sparkle or crispy edge on a cookie…I look for the same thing that makes you say “yum” when you see it in front of you. As a photographer you are always working to put it there…if a dessert looks dry to the eye it won’t have eye appeal in an image. How will we get caramelization to show up because those are the things that cue you for appetite…I’m looking for that in all food, so I’m not sure it’s that different for desserts but I think I like more shine in desserts…more moisture in desserts. I also might ask the stylist to bake things longer! A pie crust or cookie might need more time in the oven. Some of Dorie’s pastry or cookies were almost white…we want to excite the eye…luckily for us Dorie came to the shoot every day (sometimes with her recipe tester, Mary) and we could check in with her. They had worked with these recipes so many times that they could tell us, if you do this, the result will be that, or if you try this, this will happen…we could get a tremendous amount of information from them.
In this book there were a number of recipes that she took really far the other way with a very dark bake…they scared us a little…we did test photos and showed her. You have to strike a balance…there is a thin apple tart in the book that shows the very dark crust edges. It is the way it was meant to be and we presented it as such but also with an eye to what would draw the viewer in…the image also helps the baker know how much to bake…not too much, not too little.
I don’t fudge things a lot with food…it should look like when the home baker makes it…I am also constantly looking for visual cues about ingredients. If it contains garlic, I want to see it! Bring it to the outside! It’s not a lie; it’s about informing the eye…the eye won’t get excited without these cues.
It’s a meeting of the minds (author, photographer, stylist)…
Yes it is about an artful approach. And we meet in the middle and blend. Take a look at the roasted pineapple dish in the book.
I see it. A small compote dish with the roasted pineapple and a star anise…
Yes, I don’t think the original recipe had you serving the star anise, but without it, I didn’t think the image would work. This makes you understand what you will be tasting…it is visual enough that people will connect with it and understand…visual conveys flavor; that’s exceedingly important.
You want the images to be artful, enticing yet helpful at the same time.
Exactly! We want people to bake the dish!
Alan, Thank you so much for your time and info. We will be in touch to profile you again along with Karen when your book comes out in the spring.
Thanks, Dédé. It’s about cakes and we are really excited.