Yes, it’s another food photography post, but the emphasis isn’t on the photography this time, it’s on the styling.
Making food look good is an art form in itself. It’s a combination of technical expertise and artistic interpretation, and it’s best left to somebody who really knows what they are doing. You’ve two options here, you can either hire in a good home economist or food stylist, or you can utilise the skills of a talented chef. It’s something you should never undertake yourself, believe me – you’re not good enough.
In my early twenties I spent a couple of years as a chef in the kitchens of fine dining restaurants. I worked for some extremely talented chefs, ones who were considered the finest in the country, having cut their teeth working for the masters in London. It’s a brutal industry, we worked long hours (a half day was when you worked from 7am til 3pm) and were constantly under pressure. This pressure came from two main sources, the first being during an evening service when the food orders start coming in, but the second from the absolute perfection required by the head chef for each and every item that goes out to the restaurant. Every single dish was checked, and if it wasn’t quite good enough was literally thrown in the bin and you had to do it again. And quickly! Tempers frequently frayed, and it was a very, very tough job. Many ‘would be’ chefs couldn’t handle it and quit, so the ones that do make it to the heady heights of Michelin Star standard are always the cream of the crop.
This experience has been incredibly valuable to me over the last ten years in my photography career when shooting food. Chefs and hotel managers like it when they can speak to their suppliers on a technical level about food, as it gives them confidence in that they know that you’re on their wavelength, and you understand what it is they want from you. Whilst it’s always the job of the stylist or chef to produce the final dish to be photographed, it’s important that you understand the processes that are undertaken to get to the final stage.
First things first, find out what you are photographing. If it’s a cold starter is it going to be dressed? If it’s a dessert does it have cream or ice-cream, or is it a souffle? If it’s a main course are there sauces that will blend into each other after a short time? From this you can be sure you are ready for what’s about to arrive. Generally, food should be photographed as quickly as possible after being assembled on the plate. The best chefs and stylists will bring the cooked ingredients from the kitchen and assemble dishes on a side table next to where you are shooting. This way there is minimal chance of sauces running or components collapsing during transit. Usually chefs prepare their food under heat lamps, but this isn’t important when photographing it, so long as the food looks good. You must communicate with the chef and ensure that the production speed is spot on. You don’t want to be hanging around waiting for meals to appear, but you also don’t want a backlog of dishes which are slowly starting to look a bit past their best.
Most chefs will know how to make their food look it’s best, but it’s still worth speaking to them before the shoot to establish a plan. Ensure that they always sauce the dish at the last minute, preferably when the plate is in the right position. Make sure that the ingredients they use are of absolute top quality, and they’ve been immaculately prepared. Don’t be worried about offending a chef asking him this, it’s too important to not mention it.
I find that food generally photographs better if it’s prepared by the chef in their own kitchens rather than a studio. Their ovens are correctly calibrated, they understand their equipment, they know where everything is, fresh food is delivered there daily and it’s all under their complete control. Shooting at the venue also minimises disruption to your customer – you can quite easily turn up for an hour, shoot and then you’re done, so that’s just a couple of hours (including preparation time) taken out of the busy routine of the kitchen. Kitchens are always busy, so chefs and managers appreciate this.
The last thing to think about is presentation, and anyone with restaurant experience will find this a big advantage. It’s nice sometimes to include out of focus table details to add interest to your images. Firstly, check your wine – for example if you are photographing a red meat course with a glass of wine in the background it should be red, not white, and it should never be more than half full. Make sure the glass is absolutely spotless, and you know which one is used for wine and which one is used for water. Check the cutlery too, a fish course should have fish cutlery, and when you photograph a main course any starter cutlery should be removed – just as it would in a restaurant. Cheese and biscuits needs a knife and fork, not a spoon, and it’s also the only time you’ll leave butter, salt and pepper on the table after a main course.
If you’re purely shooting close ups of the food then of course this isn’t important, but think about the shape of the plate as this effectively frames the meal. Consider the texture of the plate too. Smooth ingredients look best on a slightly textured background (some chefs today serve on slate or wood) whilst textured ingredients look better on smooth china. A good chef or stylist will know this, so it’s unlikely to be your problem, but it’s something you can talk about in your quick pre-shoot meeting.
Once all this is sorted you’re half way there. All that’s left to do now is light the food appropriately and get the job done!
Now this is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. A grainy black and white documentary style shoot capturing the raw energy of a fine dining kitchen in full flow.
It can’t be staged, it has to be real, and it has to be on a busy night. If it’s not then it simply won’t work, as me being there will be a distraction and I won’t get the genuine shots that I want. If it’s just on the verge of going out of control though then my camera will be the last thing on the minds of the chefs working that night. I’ll be practically invisible.
My inspiration for this is the book ‘White Heat’ by Marco Pierre White, with stunning images by the late Bob Carlos Clarke. First published in 1990, this has been compulsory reading for any chef with aspirations of greatness. The imagery used in the book though is just as inspirational as the recipes, and whether you have an interest in photography or not it can’t be denied that it all makes for an extremely visually compelling book.
So this project will be my nod to Bob. And where better to do it than Seaham Hall’s “White Room” restaurant. This is possibly the finest restaurant in the region, with an exciting and innovative team of young chefs all under the watchful eye of Head Chef Ian Swainson.
Fortunately, Ian is also a big fan of the book, so he was with me on the idea straight away. I received a call one Saturday morning telling me that the restaurant was full that night, and the shoot was on!
Shooting in a kitchen presents the photographer with a unique challenge, as the lighting is awful. What little there is tends to be in the wrong place, and it is inconsistent across the room. Some areas are lit from fluorescent tubes in the ceiling, and in other parts the head height ‘heat lamps’ knock out light at such an intensity that there is as much as a five stop difference in exposure within the space of a couple of feet. To further complicate things, chefs tend to spend a lot of their time hunched over looking down. This isn’t going to be easy!
An option is to use an electronic flashgun, but this isn’t ideal for two reasons. The first is because there is so much highly reflective stainless steel in commercial kitchens, so there will be hot spots all over the place in the final images. The second reason is that we want to capture the ambience and intense atmosphere of a working kitchen. We need to capture it as it is, not as we want it to be.
The answer is high ISO with a fast prime lens. There’s no time to be messing around with zoom lenses so an f1.4 prime standard lens gives me one less thing to worry about. The ISO is to be fixed at 1600 – even though in the brighter parts of the kitchen ISO 400 is adequate. I’ll need this higher rating for the darker corners, and I don’t want to have to worry about changing it back and forward during the shoot. The camera used (a Fuji S5 Pro) was built specifically to mimic the characteristics produced by film, so it’s perfect for this assignment. The original images in the ‘White Heat’ book were shot on film back in 1990, so it makes sense to go for a ‘film’ feel.
Now to set the exposure. The way to do this is to turn off all the automatic metering modes and put the camera in manual. I used a light meter and took a reading from the darkest part of the kitchen through to the lightest part, based on a shutter speed of 1/60th second (the lowest I can reasonably use hand held). This means that all I need to worry about is the aperture. In extreme lighting conditions even the most advanced metering system can get it wrong – in this instance I’m happier taking care of it myself.
The final, most important thing is to get in there and take lots of photographs. Whilst I don’t want to get in the way of the chefs, I do need to get in close if I’m going to capture any compelling images. Kitchens can be dangerous places, so its important to be aware of what’s going on around you as well as what’s happening through the lens.
At 7pm the first order came on, and from then until the last dessert went out at around 10.15pm it was non stop action. At the end of an intense but superbly controlled food service by the kitchen and restaurant team I headed home with plenty of images to choose from. A quick conversion to black and white followed by some ‘ageing’ techniques (such as adding grain, dust and scratches) gave me a feel as close to old black and white film as I could get.
I can’t close this article though without mentioning how impressed I was with the utter professionalism of the team at Seaham Hall. Organised, efficient, committed, focussed and extremely talented, it was a privilege to photograph them.
There is one last thing left to do. Photographs always look better printed, so I think the best place for these images is in a book. Fancy a copy? Click here!