One Weird Trick To Improve Your Food Photography

I don’t read a lot of food blogs. In fact, I read fewer now than I ever have. This has come about for several reasons. Though I have spent many thousands of hours in museums and galleries, I find that when I’m working on a painting I don’t want to look at other people’s images. They break my concentration and interrupt that precious state of intense yet calm focus which is the desired mode in the studio. As I write more (and blog less, ironically, though that may change soon) I find a similar disruption attends too much reading of other people’s words. Photography, which I have been doing a whole lot of lately, is somewhat different; I got a big pile of cookbooks in December—some of which I want to write about—and I pored over all of them to pick apart the pictures for technical tips.

There’s a certain look to the books I like, and it tends to involve pictures of the food with very little in the way of props. Other books, especially those aimed at a wider audience, tend to be more visually noisy and overstyled. Recently, that overdone look has become epidemic in food blogs as everyone tries to get their numbers ever higher. I’m not a great photographer, but I have become a decent one. And I have done so not on the strength of my styling or the depth of my prop collection, but through my attention to light and how it can be captured, controlled, reflected, and finagled to flatter a plate of food or the act of preparing one.

When I shoot a plate of food for the blog, is is the plate that I sit down to eat. It is the same as the plates I set before my family. I shoot it on our table, or on the kitchen counter or island (one dark gray, the other maple) or the sideboard, or, occasionally, on the floor, which is fetching Mexican terra cotta tile and the only part of the original kitchen I left when I renovated it. If there’s a napkin in evidence, it’s a napkin that will be used during the meal. Same with any flatware. I have some lovely round woven straw placemats that I grew up with, and I often use them since I like their intricate organic spirals under round plates. There are a dozen slate roof tiles I salvaged in Vermont and turned into placemats through the extremely difficult and painstaking application of some adhesive felt circles from the hardware store; I like their color and texture and provenance and they see regular rotation on the table. I have cool old guilloché glassware, courtesy of my grandfather, my grandmother’s linens, and my mother’s set of bone china, and I use them when the occasion dictates. That’s when you’ll see them in pictures: not very often.

You know what I don’t have? Drawers filled with thrifted linens and silverware and artfully dinged dishes. I own no zinc or pewter. In the thread to be named later, Sean mentioned distressed wood as something we would be well rid of, and I agree, but with one caveat. My kitchen/dining table is about a hundred years old, made of stained oak, and is thoroughly distressed, including a still legible “Zeppelin Rules” carved right near where I sit. We got a great deal on it a few years ago, from nice people on Craigslist, after quite a bit of looking. In the summer, there’s the Moroccan tile table on the porch. It was a housewarming gift from my uncle when we bought the Brooklyn place; it arrived on September 10, 2001. By the following night it was covered with three inches of ash. Using your own table, especially one with a story, is the whole point. Keeping a supply of patinated wooden surfaces around for visual variety is pathological. I do not now, nor will I ever own a vintage table with peeling paint exposing the weathered wood beneath for use as a photo prop.

If you have a book deal and a budget from your publisher that includes a photographer and food stylist, then by all means geek out on all the pretty things which are not yours that they use to make your food look more appealing to your target demographic. But don’t for a second think that you’re expressing yourself. Marketing is not only not self-expression, it’s the antithesis of it. Marketing is the presentation of a good or service to be maximally appealing to the largest possible number of people, not the sincere depiction of how you live your life.

In the real world, exactly nobody places plates of food on top of folded linen tea towels, unless it’s a hot skillet brought to a trivetless table. Nor does anyone in real life ever scatter spices or other featured flavors insouciantly around the table. This is known by sane people as “spilling things” or “making a mess” and is not the sort of behavior that those of us without servants are keen to engage in in the kitchen since cooking is already messy enough. This is a particular bugbear of mine; when I see the spices, seeds, herbs—or even, God help us, flour—strewn around all I can think is “it’s too bad you didn’t clean all that up before taking the picture.” Nobody ties cookies up with string, or twine, or ribbon, or even barbed wire for that matter, unless maybe for Christmas and even then I have never actually seen it in real life. Nobody serves food with spoons sticking out of it, or with a bite taken out of it, or with half the contents of the bowl/mason jar/wicker basket pouring out onto the table. I even saw an ice cream post recently with a perfect little cone smashed scoop down onto a piece of slate at a cocky angle. That’s wasting food, and it’s stupid. If your blog is about cooking for yourself and your family, filling your photos with wasted food is exactly the opposite of the point. And don’t tell me that you tweeze every clove or thyme sprig back into a hand-labeled Weck jar after you shoot. Some of it ends up in the trash or compost.

Again, to be clear: nobody does this in their normal life. It is all completely contrived and fake. You know who does do this? Advertisers. Art Directors for catalogs. People who publish magazines that prey upon your insecurities, offering aspirational visions of domestic perfection, all laughably unattainable. People who want your money. They use these devices because they are powerful; they inspire desire. And yes, they drive traffic, I get it. But what are they driving traffic to? A blog that looks just like about ten thousand other ones. It’s dreadfully boring and a waste of everybody’s time. Remember in junior high, when you had to have the sneakers/jeans/band T-shirt that had been decreed as the cool kind? Same impulse, but in ostensibly adult people. As I put it in Sean’s thread, much of what I see is a bunch of grown-ass women playing dress-up and throwing tea parties for each other. It’s gross, as is the attendant “nom nom” baby talk that’s also been addressed elsewhere.

Sean covered this with a dainty linen tea towel of his own recently, when he gleaned the fetid flotsam from an epic Facebook thread on the subject (which I now realize was just clever crowdsourcing of grievances—a slacker Festivus for the digital age) to compile this list of tropes we would all thrill to be rid of this year. Kaela weighed in, as did Winnie, both defending their affection for a couple of the enumerated plagues. Shauna wrote a good (and refreshingly profane; the best part was the comment threatening to unfollow unless she repented and washed her mouth out with soap) post about this over the summer, which articulates well the insecurity that can attend the documentation of an ungussied dinner and the proper response: Fuck Pinterest.

I get Pinterest. I don’t use it, but I see its purpose. Allowing it, however, to mutate your photography into a sort of children’s board-book hybrid of plate shot, recipe card, and twee spidery fake handwriting font is unfortunate, to say the least. It’s another of the heavy vectors for this epidemic of visual (and content) conformity, especially as regards the lame, down-dumbing text-on-photo craze that should prove to be almost exactly as timeless as the Macarena.

Look, I have an MFA. And a BFA, for that matter. Visuals are important to me, and I’ve spent most of my life studying and making images. I don’t expect everyone else to have my OCD or training or aversion to commercial conformity. But when your pictures are fake and just like everyone else’s I’m going to click away. And I know I’m not alone in this. I seek out unique voices, people whose knowledge and understanding I want to share. People whose message is not motivated by driving traffic.

The thing about style and signifiers is that they work both ways. If your photos are derivative, slavishly aping all these tired trends, why should I believe that your writing or cooking is any different? If your sense of self is so easily sublimated to fit in with what the consensus style du jour is, why should I give a shit what you have to say? It will likely be subjected to a similarly ruthless, character-destroying editorial process.

And lest you suspect me of sour grapes, I don’t want to brag, but all those years of art school made me a dab hand at graphic design, Photoshop, Illustrator, marketing, messaging, synergy, and sticky impactfulness:

So fine, if your hobby is imitating advertising, then enjoy it. But don’t pretend it’s something else.

And not for nothing, but all this primping takes time. Why not spend that time doing a better job of cooking, instead of ripping off “adapting” someone else’s recipe? (David Lebovitz also weighed in on Sean’s thread, lamenting how often recipes get swiped without attribution. Because David’s recipes are famous for really working, I suspect it happens a lot.) And if you do use someone else’s recipe, why not just put in a link to it and be done? You really need to type the whole thing in order to get your readers to stick around a little longer, rather than give a click to the person who actually came up with the dish? It’s all so thirsty and desperate.

When I have time, I tend cook every component of a dish separately and then assemble the plate with those (one hopes) perfectly cooked things to make a meal or a course therein. That’s a principal difference between home cooking and good restaurant cooking: everything gets prepared according to its needs and plated right before serving. It makes better food. Instead of tweezing the peppercorns just so on your vintage burlap, why don’t you spend that time passing your purée through a tamis? Nobody gives a shit about your linens and spices, but finely sieved celery root soup is liquid velvet. If your meal is spectacularly good to eat, it will make you write about it in a way you wouldn’t have otherwise; you will communicate the act of preparing great food with your own hands to people who might not touch that magic very often, and it might help them cook better. And, most importantly, it will bring real pleasure to you and your family, as opposed to a handful of idiot strangers who might put fewer exclamation points after “OMG that looks totes nummers!” in the comments. The decision makes itself if you spend any time at all considering whose joy and nutrition are your priority.

I have a cookbook somewhere from the 1980s. It is a visual cacophony of florid excess, all styled in dusty mauve, that most wretched signifier of that uniquely hideous decade: the coloristic equivalent to the Yamaha DX7 keyboard or the faux written-in-lipstick font. The book has not aged well. I have Jean-Georges’ first book, from about ten years later. It also looks like shit: cluttered, trying too hard. Do you think for a minute that the culinary set pieces you labor to construct for your audience aren’t going to be as risibly cheesy as those examples in a few more years? The curve of cultural change has steepened so dramatically that these sorts of devices read as stale and parched in no time flat. Future generations will mock you. Honesty, however, doesn’t go out of style. It also has the added bonus of distinguishing your product, provided you actually have something to say and aren’t just trawling for likes.

[Edit: I hate Buzzfeed, and recently linked to an indictment of them on Facebook, but this post is one-stop shopping for what I'm talking about. Do you want your work to be the object of scorn and derision à la these masterpieces?]

Which brings us to desserts: enough already. Do you think that if the Internet froze tomorrow, available only as an archive with no more content possible to add, that the number of dessert recipes would prove insufficient to last for the rest of human history? It’s a sickness. Seriously, fuck desserts. There’s something wrong with you if that’s all you write or read about. There are a lot of people out there who look at and collect pictures of desserts the way other people do porn. It’s not healthy. Stop enabling them. People need help learning how to make scratch food at home from sound ingredients, not another artfully askew stack of goddamn brownies that you didn’t even invent.

Though my paintings are pretty complex, they still derive from minimalism: few colors, limited curves. I find that constraints inspire resourceful creativity, forcing one to make a lot from a little. It’s exactly the way those urgent meals made from the six things you had in the fridge and cupboard can be some of the best meals you’ve ever cooked: you combined ingredients differently, and got it right because you were hungry and had no margin for error. Taking a picture of a simple dish can be a challenge. It helps to have nice pottery; that’s why I make my own. I suggest you put down the stripey straws and learn to throw on a wheel. Unadorned presentation also tends to demand more attentive plating, and garnishing, and more careful scrutiny through the lens. But a plate can become a landscape if you do it right.

And because we’re talking about blogs, there are words to go with the pictures, so a simple shot can take on the aura of the story it illustrates. You don’t require a needy pastiche of other people’s styles. It can be hard to act on your creative impulses; fear of others’ reactions has quashed many a dream. But that fear is far bigger than the amount of time those other people spend worrying about their opinion of you. And if they don’t like you, so fucking what? Someone else will. Trying to please everybody by making your work look super safe and generic is another way of saying “I’m scared of myself!” to anyone who is paying attention. Life is too short to be anyone else.

[Edit: I should add that I have met not a few of my fellow food bloggers over the years, and there's not a creep, loser, or dummy among them. They have all, to aperson woman (let's face it; they're all chicks, except for Sean, but, you know) become actual friends. This is because we got to know and like each other on the basis of our writing, cooking, and photography in varying proportions. In other words, who we actually are.]

30 comments to One Weird Trick To Improve Your Food Photography

  • Yes and yes and (even though I just posted about flippin pudding) yes.

  • I can’t say enough things I love about this post! I joke that terrible food photography is one of my blog’s trademarks (along with bad puns and the habit of referring to readers as “Muffins”). Styling food just isn’t my thing. I’ve tried throwing a nice place mat under the plate even when I’m not using the place mat that night. It doesn’t add much. I bought a light box because the light in my apartment is crap. The only way I have enough light for a good food photo is if it’s broad daylight and I can bring the food out to my balcony for natural light. I do most of my cooking at night, so that’s rarely an option. Still some nights I just want to eat and not set up the light box, so I put the plate on top of the stove and light it with the overhead light. I don’t think it’s aesthetically pleasing, but it does, as you would say, present the food exactly as it looks when I’m about to eat it. Your point about that is excellent. I’m not trying to sell a cookbook. I’m just presenting a recipe that I plan to eat. You just have to trust my recipe tastes good.

    I also have to say something about you not reading other people’s blogs much. I think when it comes to how you respond to others’ blogs, it’s quality and not quantity that counts. You said something to me on my blog a year or two ago that sticks with me and still challenges me to this day. I said my favorite foods are anything spicy, fried, and chocolate. You said I owed it to myself to make something spicy, fried, AND chocolate. You put a challenging little spark in me that day. I came up with a recipe for mole spiced fried chicken and I am still inspired to keep coming up with ideas that fit all three criteria. One day there will be ginger doughnuts with chili-chocolate filling (sorry about the desserts thing though).

  • This is a terrific post, Peter.

  • Nicely done, Peter.

  • Fuck yes. Loving this. This is why I do my blog the way I do. I abandoned the fancy camera as I found it to be more of an anchor than anything else. I use my phone (Instagram, admittedly, because I like the ease of it) and just shoot as I cook. What you see if the food as it looks moments before I eat it and go on with my day.

    Well done post.

  • el

    And me, all I could think was “poor frostbitten comb” and “who even bothers to pluck a chicken’s head?” but then I might have a bias.

    It’s been a long while since we’ve had a rant from you, yay, thanks for delivering.

  • Well said.

    Simpler photographs can be more inspirational to a real home cook too – simple plates look like something that can happen in their kitchen, on their table, with their family.

  • I can’t agree enough! Especially the flour thing – sprinkling flour and spices everywhere is one of my huge pet peeves. It just looks SO contrived.

  • OH the strewing of the ingredients all over the table….I’m also not a fan of using excessive numbers of photos to illustrate what you feel unable to convey with words. if you need to post a photo of pouring chocolate chips into a mixing bowl, you need to rethink if recipe writing is for you. It’s patronizing and I don’t like it.

  • Ahhh. You did it. That one was simmering for a while, yeah? Well done.

  • Hey Peter, thanks for the link. I love the photo of the chicken head for its lack of romance and mystery. And folded linens under a plate… way too precious.

  • Peggasus

    Bravo, sir, BRAVO! I could not agree more. I also despise the ‘throw, dump, toss, grab’ lingo that so many of ‘em (another one) are employing lately. May I be permitted one more? If I was in a really nice restaurant, I think it is not only distracting but downright rude and disrespectful for a food blogger (or a tableful of them) to be taking photos of the food that some chef has gone to a great deal of trouble to prepare, and that they are paying a great deal of money to eat.

    Thank you for this, it is wonderful!

  • Carla B.

    Um, I tossed pomegranate seeds randomly around the abused breadboard that came from a great grandparent that I used for my cheese plate this Year’s New Year’s Party. There were also sprigs of dill, candied nuts, some persimmon petioles, and maybe some more stuff not even meant to be eaten on that slab. Do you hate me now?

    P.S. If it helps any, I don’t blog. Well, not yet anyway.

  • [...] I still have a lot of practise to do but I’m having a blast. I was interested to read this article on food styling which makes the argument that blogs are trying to produce magazine level imagery when perhaps we [...]

  • Fay

    I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was
    great. I don’t know who you are but certainly you are
    going to a famous blogger if you are not already ;) Cheers!

  • Hah! I’ve been collecting ceramics and old silver for 30 years and love that I finally have a reason to use them more than for the occasional holiday meal.

    I too scratch my head at some of the photos I see, as either too precious, or too messy, but then to each her own, eh? I have a food blogging duck hunting friend who loves his meals beautifully plated and artistically arranged. Even when he makes a meal for himself at home. I prefer plating my food so it looks like it’s meant to be eaten, not gazed upon in wonder at the artistry of the garnishes. But that’s me. Everyone is different. Everyone is inspired by different things.

    I love old 19th century plates and tarnished silver. It gives me special joy to photograph them and eat with them. I love my slate background because it makes the colors of the food pop on a photograph, though all it is is a background, not big enough, or practical enough to eat on (and it stains really easily with fat). I love shooting on a marble board that I have. Is it fake to do that? Maybe. But I get to dream of what my kitchen counters would look like if they really were marble.

    As for desserts, there are so many out there! What is up with all these desserts? Do people really eat the desserts they post? I know I do, which is why I don’t post them that often. I work too hard to keep off that 5 lbs that I’ll gain in a week of testing cheesecake recipes. I can only make cookies or brownies if I have a crowd of high metabolism beings to feed them to.

    Anyway, great read. Thanks for posting!

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Yours Truly



I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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