As many of you know, I was asked to speak at this year’s BlogHer Food conference. I was completely floored & totally flattered. Then…I heard who I would be speaking with and I almost fell out of my chair. I would be sitting alongside two amazing food stylists whose work I truly admire: Adam Pearson and Delores Custer. Our topic of food styling, as it turned out, was one of the most anticipated sessions of the conference & I hope we delivered on everyone’s expectations. I know the three of us had a great time taking part & sharing with all of you.
After the panel was over, I had many people come up to me – or email me or hit me up on Twitter – saying that my part of the presentation was really helpful to them. I had put together what seemed to be kinda goofy slideshow of how a shot developed for a blog post as a step-by-step discussion. In racking my brain to think of a subject that might be a photographic challenge, I came up with one recipe: egg salad. It wasn’t inherently pretty and it was a blank canvas to shoot however you’d like. Since so many folks have asked me to do a post about that presentation, here it is. As I encouraged in the panel itself – please leave comments, ask questions, or send me an email if you wanna chat. Also, do let me know if you find this useful and maybe I’ll make doing such posts a regular occurrence on RWT.
As with most sandwich salad recipes, you first think to put it between two pieces of bread. I had some dark, seeded bread at home so I thought it would be a good contrast with the lightness of the plate I chose & the color of the egg salad. If this were a recipe for the bread or a product review, this shot might work. However, my recipe was the egg salad…and you don’t see it in this photo. From here, I started thinking of ways to highlight the recipe I’m talking about: the egg salad.
As I was brainstorming about my next move with this shot, I kept looking at the sandwich and focusing on one single thing: that seed on the front of the bread. It was so different in color from the rest of the bread that it’s placement made it look like an accident rather than an enhancement to the sandwich topper. Sure, you could just photoshop this out but one of the rules I’ve learned as a food stylist is trying to get the dish as close to perfect in camera before you depend on post-production. The seed had to go. Also, please no comment about my John Madden photoshop scribbles.
The next logical step to be was to try to gussy up the sandwich so it wasn’t all bread. Adding a splash of color here was really helpful to break up the heaviness of the bread. Still, though, this was more about the bread and not the salad recipe. Also, the green was just being weighed down by the bread and looked like arugula fangs instead of a beautiful garnish. It was time to rethink the bread thing altogether.
Now we’re on to something. While the handful or arugula is a little unwieldy, it definitely opens the shot up and focuses more on the egg salad. Showing tuna/chicken/egg salad in an open face presentation is a great way to showcase the recipe. One of the points I made sure to make at BlogHer Food is that if you are developing a recipe for your blog, as opposed to a client in a paid gig situation, that recipe is yours to feature however you want. You’re allowed to editorialize it and show the world its merits however you see fit – you’re not limited to stuffing it in between two pieces of bread. That rule applies to recipes of all sorts.
So I kept going with the open faced theme and started thinking about tea or party sandwiches. I also went overhead with it, which I try almost every time I shoot something these days. Penny de los Santos said – either in her IFBC talk or on Twitter – to try different perspectives on shots while you’re shooting. I think overhead makes some foods look really graphic and interesting. In this case, it certainly shows off the egg salad. It’s just…a little boring, though.
Keeping in mind how much the touch of green added to the shot but also knowing that too much is going to overwhelm the recipe, I went with a little smattering of chopped herbs. This does two things here: it is a colorful touch that breaks up the uniformity of the recipe…but it is also another visual cue to the herbs in the recipe. I had some leftover thyme and tarragon, so that’s what I used as my sprinkle of garnish. It adds a cue to freshness that really helps with the egg salad.
Adding a little to the plate makes it much more editorial and casual. While I went a tad overboard for the sake of example, you can see that sprinkling the herbs on the plate makes it a shot you’d see in a magazine vs. a shot you’d see in an ad for the mayonnaise or a recipe card for a product. We’re back to the overhead shot, which I think is really working here. At this point, I have the direction for my final shot in my head…and I’m going to show you the last few shots that led me there.
Since I was on the way to changing out the surface I was shooting on, I took the cream colored fabric out from underneath the plate I was styling on and set it down on the table. Seeing the white plate & the contrast with the darker wood surface confirmed to me that I needed more contrast in the shot as a whole to make the thing I’m selling – the egg salad recipe – really pop. See how changing the surface totally altered the look & feel of the photo?
Whoa! Yeah…when I said I was changing it up, I meant it. Taking everything I’d learned in the 21, 366 shots I’d taken so far, I realized that a wood cutting board or surface would really be an interesting contrast with the darker bread blending in a bit and then the pop of the egg salad on top. I kept the herb garnish because 1) it’s totally adding value to the shot and 2) did I really want to pick 344,999 pieces of chopped tarragon off these sandwiches with tweezers? I felt like I was almost there with this shot but the angle still wasn’t quite right.
Just having a piece of fabric under the surface I was shooting on – in this case, a cheese board from CB2 – helped mask the main table top I was working on. I originally had no intention of showing it in the shot but I fired off a couple of frames with it situated like this and I think it would work & be considered a beautiful photo. You could certainly crop it differently to show the handle of the board or not, as well as more vs. less of the linen fabric surface. The food, however, looks great – you’re selling the egg salad, the placement of the sandwiches is random but styled, you’re seeing some cut sides of the bread as well as crust, the herb garnish looks balanced.
This was my personal choice for a final shot. For some, the herb garnish is over the top. I like the casual feeling it gives – I can see someone just taking their fingers and sprinkling this fresh touch over the food. It’s got everything I’ve been looking for in this shot: green touches to freshen up the shot, good placement of the sandwich pieces, a good contrast between the egg salad – the thing I’m selling after all – and the other elements in the shot, and the overhead perspective that I’m so fond of.
I hope that this post is valuable to those who were able to attend the session and want to revisit the information, as well as those who missed it or didn’t even know about this session at BlogHer Food 2010. This is not intended to take the place of seeing the Food Styling panel in it’s entirety – Sean was the hardest workin’ liveblogger in San Francisco that morning. There was so much information dispensed during our session – Adam and Delores were so amazing and knowledgeable. The online roundup of this year’s conference can be found here. You can also get a livestream pass by going here.