From time to time as we've been writing this blog, someone has remarked that our photo looked better than the one from the magazine. It's always been one of our favorite compliments to hear. Not because we're vain (although we totally are), but because we've worked really hard over this site's nine-year run to become better food photographers.
And it's not easy to meet the quality of the photos in the magazines. Why? Well, for one thing, they use professional photographers with top-notch equipment and years of training.
But the other reason is that magazine food stylists are liars. But we are too.
Let us explain.
We believe the days of rubbing a raw turkey with shoe polish or using glue instead of cream are over. But in all the magazines we've covered for all these years, we catch each of them consistently doing things to dishes for the photographs that differ from the recipe. Perhaps a piece of meat has been seared to give it extra color. Perhaps a heavy dose of garnish has been sprinkled to liven up the dish. A key ingredient in a braise gets massively undercooked for the photo, so it appears as a recognizable ingredient and not strange mush. Or an ingredient is omitted in a sauce or a brine to make it appear lighter or less greasy.
We don't blame the food stylists. That's their job.
But it can be frustrating as a home cook to follow a recipe to the letter, plate your dish -- and find that it looks nothing like the photo in the magazine.
Still, as we cooked more and more over the past nine years, we incorporated a couple styling tricks of our own, tiny cheats to make a dish look more appetizing. Here are a few:
-- Brushing meat with extra olive oil to make it glisten
-- Unnaturally propping up sandwiches with coasters and toothpicks to make them look more appetizing
-- Massively underdressing a salad, or leaving the dressing off completely for the photo
-- Photoshop. Yep. We brightened dark spots on photos, cleaned up gloppy sauces and errant crumbs, and smoothed out surfaces.
-- On one occasion, we did actually use raw meat in our photo. The cooked version, while incredible tasty, just was not photogenic. Also, we had shot the photos at night, which is always difficult. They didn't look good at all. So the next morning we rubbed some raw chicken with the same seasonings, and voila!
Those are mostly harmless, though, right?
In addition to those little tricks, we did also learn some valuable, legitimate, non-deceitful lessons about food photography. Here are a few of our best pieces of advice:
-- Always always always use natural light. Nighttime indoor photos will simply never look as good as photographs taken in daylight. Typically, if it was dark by the time we finished cooking something, we tried to reserve enough of it so we could photograph it the next morning before work. We did use an artificial light when we had no other option, but you can always tell.
-- Use a light bounce to direct your light where you want it. Shadows can be weird, and investing in even a cheap light bounce can add life to your food photos.
-- Use a tripod. And a remote timer. You'll never get as good a shot holding the camera in your hand.
-- A nicer camera does make a difference. We've upgraded over the years, and now have a nice Canon SLR camera.
-- Close-ups can be good, but get too close and your food will look unappetizing.
Anyway, the point is, through skill and a couple of minor sleights of hand, we've improved a lot as food photographers since we started this blog.
And thank god for that.
Looking back through our archive, some of the photos, especially from Year 1, are truly terrible.
Is it bechamel? Mashed potatoes? Glue that's been left out too long? Nope! It's Light Vanilla-Bean Pudding. We don't blame you if you skipped that one.
This hot, hot mess of a dish is actually Grilled Pork Chops with Nectarine-Onion Salsa. We see nothing that's recognizable as a pork chop. Or a nectarine. Salsa? Maybe.
This might look like mayonnaise drizzled on some crackers, but it's actually Horseradish-Crusted Whitefish with Remoulade. No idea what we were thinking with this one.
This too-close, shiny, out-of-focus Chicken with Shallots, Prunes, and Armagnac looks like it's attacking you.
Gradually, though, things changed.
We kept shooting photos, and they kept getting, bit by bit, a little better.
We got to the point where we were genuinely proud of some the photos we posted. There are some we even love.
So we'll leave you for today with some of our favorite photos through the years. They're not all great, and they could all stand some improvement. But they all ended up being photos were were really proud of when we published them. Click the photos to find the dishes.
~ Zach and Clay
Finally, we'll leave you with this photo, which has always been a great reminder never to take ourselves too seriously in the kitchen: