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Food photography in UK


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I'll come clean here, I trained as a photographer.

This was at least twenty years ago and it was a very good craft training at one of the art colleges that specialised in that sort of thing.

We spent months learning real old-fashioned stuff like how to light things, how to develop film, how to print and, at various points took on areas of speciality.

Food was the toughest. It involved incredibly high levels of planning, control and intervention. The craft skills were arcane and immensely complex. Your studio practice had to be second to none and the levels of concentration meant that hangovers were out of the question. The lecturers who specialised in the area were gods and work placement with an established food photographer was regarded as little short of a lottery win.

By year two I had decided to specialise in fashion. Natural light, out of the studio, shallow depth of field, good looking model and a roll of film. It wasn't exactly rocket science and, at that age, I preferred girls to food.

So twenty years later, I start writing about food and I find that food photography has changed beyond recognition. Some of the old skills help and I love the new informal look. But mainly I love the fact that everything.... and I mean EVERYTHING... in UK food magazines now appears to be shot natural light, on location, with shallow depth of field and a good looking subject.

I could shoot this stuff blindfold - and so, sadly, can anyone else with a £100 digital camera.

At the moment it's fun because editors have started to realise that 'writer/photographer' costs about 75% of 'writer + photographer'.

What I'm really interested to know is...

a) Has anyone else noticed how samey food photography has become and...

b) What on earth can be next? Does anyone see a trend swinging back to artifice and control (momentarily discount the Wallpaper shoots). Can it get any more loose and editorial before, like fashion photography, it fails to represent the subject matter and attempts to convey the 'spirit'.

What's the food photography equivalent of 'heroin chic'?

Tim Hayward

"Anyone who wants to write about food would do well to stay away from

similes and metaphors, because if you're not careful, expressions like

'light as a feather' make their way into your sentences and then where are you?"

Nora Ephron

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I wonder what influence food photography has on the presentation of food on plates in restuarants?

Because images only appeal to one sense - sight - there may be a tendency to give disproportionate emphasis to architecture. Thus stacks, angles, sqiggles etc.

When you are faced with the food rather than the photograph you experience it in a much richer way, and sometimes the architecture can stand in the way of the enjoyment. Has anyone else had to dismantle their food arrangement in order to eat it?

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Hi all

I read with interest Tim's thread on food photography. It is a matter close to my heart as I have just invested in a Nikon D70 so that I can improve the quality of pictures on my food blog.

I won't pretend that I am the next Juergen Teller of food photography, however even I have been surprised at how easy it is to get an attractive image using a low aperture, shot in natural daylight.

Personally I like the direction that food photography has taken over the past few years, moving away from a contrived studio setting towards a more natural feel. I still think it has a long way to go however before it reaches the creativity of say fashion photography, however the market for it is probably different?

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the market for it is probably different?

I'm not sure if it is.

Is it not possible that the biggest change in food media has been presenting it like fashion, not as a specialist interest?

High levels of PR, breathless puffery of evanescent trends, weekly volte-faces on styles or ingredients, celebrity culture, trivialisation, a post-modern discovery of its own pointlessness, decreasing relevance to real people, self-referential cliques and a inevitable disappearance up it's own fundament.

Sounds just like fashion to me.

On the other hand, glad to see Guy Bourdin making a comeback in the Times this weekend. :biggrin::biggrin::biggrin:

Tim Hayward

"Anyone who wants to write about food would do well to stay away from

similes and metaphors, because if you're not careful, expressions like

'light as a feather' make their way into your sentences and then where are you?"

Nora Ephron

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I'm a food photographer (and writer) and agree with what you have said. In particular the lack of depth of field is getting absurd; I reckon it's only a matter of time before Nikon is going to make a 90mm F/0 specifically for food photography! On the other hand, I like the trend of using natural settings and natural light (the real reason for that lack of DOF before it became trendy!). My favorite kind of food photography, and the vast majority of what I do, involves visiting weird countries, outdoor markets, home kitchens, etc., where studio lighting, slow lenses and other cumbersome equipment is not even an option. In my opinion, this kind of photography is representative of "real" food and "real" situations, basically the polar opposite of what food photography was say 20 years ago, and I think this is a vast improvement.

As for this kind of photography being easy, well, take a look at some of the photos here on eGullet! There's some shockingly bad stuff here, which makes me think it's not as easy as you suggest. However trained/experienced photographer are probably loving this trend!

And regarding the future, who knows. But I think this trend is nearing its saturation point, and something will change. One thing I can imagine happening, which you can already see in some mags, is an emphasis on images of the people, places etc. (the 'spirit' as you call it) rather than the actual food.

Austin

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examples of 'old high-brow' and 'new-pleb' styles of photography

Even I'm not enough of an unreconstructed Trot to be able to make a class issue out of pictures of dinner :laugh:

Given the site's restrictions on copyright images it's impossible put valid examples up but if you were, for example, to compare pictures of made dishes in any of the following, you'd get the idea...

Old:

Larousse Gastronomique

Any Delia Smith

Raymond Blanc Cooking for Friends

The Prawn Cocktail Years

The Silver Spoon

New:

Any Jamie, Nigel, Nigella, Hugh

Any copy of Olive, Waitrose FI, Sainsbury mag, OFM etc.

In the old style the food has been styled, any props or background look like they've been chosen and crucially, even if the light looks natural, it's artificial. The reason you can tell this is that the whole dish, front to back, is in focus (without wishing to teach my granny to suck eggs, this only happens is on small apertures hence more light is essential). There's usually a slightly out of focus AGA or garden furniture in the background

In the new style it's almost compulsory that the whole dish can't be in focus ('shallow depth of field'). The light is always big, hazy and from the back and any props or background look totally 'found'. The background is too defocussed to read but is intended to look like a busy gastropub on a Sunny afternoon.

Don't get me wrong. I love the new style. It's less up itself, less artificial. When it's good it's like looking at those fashion shoots of the 60's where suddenly, the models were actually allowed to move, smile and look like real people. A total change and unarguably for the better.

My question was simply that, being so easy to do and so completely and unthinkingly ubiquitous, we're surely going to get bored of it - then what?

Tim Hayward

"Anyone who wants to write about food would do well to stay away from

similes and metaphors, because if you're not careful, expressions like

'light as a feather' make their way into your sentences and then where are you?"

Nora Ephron

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examples of 'old high-brow' and 'new-pleb' styles of photography

Old:

Any Delia Smith

New:

Any Jamie, Nigel, Nigella, Hugh

Ah yes, the ""Lets be avin' ya!" v "Many kids can tell you about drugs but do not know what celery or courgettes taste like. " schools of thought.

I like the old style shots as when they were good they were iconic, but I also like the 'honesty' of the newer style.

For instance, in the old style shots with perfect perfect food, you felt like shit as your attempt at X recipe never looked as good as the photo (years later you find out that the perfectly golden piping hot roast chicken was; cold, painted and had a cigarette shoved up it's arse).

Although the newer style may need less set-up and equipment, I'm not sure that it is easy to do well. I am of the strickly point-and-shot level of amateur bumbler and I can rarely get a good shot, even when the subjet looks great in the flesh. Some people seem to think they can, but this isn't the case often.

So I think that from whatever school the images come from, a great image will remain a great image - Fergus Henderson on the meat hook, for instance.

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Years ago i was 2nd Chef at a Golf Club and we were prepping food to be shot for a glossy magazine article about the Club.I had a big argument with the Head Chef, as he was spending hours on the food,making it absolutely perfect, even measuring the spaces between herb garnishes.My argument was that we could not reproduce this food in service for one table let alone a function for 150, so it was basically making a rod for our own back.I have never let my food be photographed professionally, but i love pics from customers who post them on Foof Forums like this one.Keep it real, dude.

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I very much like the style of Robert Freson, would this be considered newe or old style?

Love it!

Fantastically old style.

Tim Hayward

"Anyone who wants to write about food would do well to stay away from

similes and metaphors, because if you're not careful, expressions like

'light as a feather' make their way into your sentences and then where are you?"

Nora Ephron

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Ah yes, the ""Lets be avin' ya!" v "Many kids can tell you about drugs but do not know what celery or courgettes taste like. " schools of thought.

I like the old style shots as when they were good they were iconic, but I also like the 'honesty' of the newer style.

....

So I think that from whatever school the images come from, a great image will remain a great image - Fergus Henderson on the meat hook, for instance.

I'm not sure it's about 'schools'.

Fashion in the 60s was revolutionised by light, mobile 35mm cameras with fast lenses, fast film and a magazine industry and audience hungry for a new informality. The idea of a Bailey/Duffy/Donovan 'golden age' is hindsight.

Today we're seeing cameras that can get a great shot without a great deal of technical wrangling and an audience who want to see food looking a bit more accessible. It's not like anyone sat down and planned it.

My concern is what it leads to next.

Tim Hayward

"Anyone who wants to write about food would do well to stay away from

similes and metaphors, because if you're not careful, expressions like

'light as a feather' make their way into your sentences and then where are you?"

Nora Ephron

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Ah yes, the ""Lets be avin' ya!" v "Many kids can tell you about drugs but do not know what celery or courgettes taste like. " schools of thought.

I like the old style shots as when they were good they were iconic, but I also like the 'honesty' of the newer style.

....

So I think that from whatever school the images come from, a great image will remain a great image - Fergus Henderson on the meat hook, for instance.

I'm not sure it's about 'schools'.

Fashion in the 60s was revolutionised by light, mobile 35mm cameras with fast lenses, fast film and a magazine industry and audience hungry for a new informality. The idea of a Bailey/Duffy/Donovan 'golden age' is hindsight.

Today we're seeing cameras that can get a great shot without a great deal of technical wrangling and an audience who want to see food looking a bit more accessible. It's not like anyone sat down and planned it.

My concern is what it leads to next.

I love the fact that the more relaxed attitude towards food images means that images of markets and produce etc get published much more often. I find this to be informative and educational. But, I guess this comes at a price.

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Though I'm not living in the UK, I thought I would chime in because the same trend seems to have taken hold in the US.

Excepting the sort of journalistic photography at open air markets and such, I've often wondered if these 'simpler', 'more casual' images are as styled as their previous counterparts. Sure, they now appear to be naturally lit with shallow depth of field, but in the magazine photography everything is so shiny and perfect. Or when it isn't perfect it all appears deliberately not-perfect.

So, could it be that the style has changed to suit this more casual look but the mechanics still include heavy styling of the subject?

I can think of photographs in Gourmet magazine, as one example, from just 10 years ago that were much more about composition (various foods on the table, fine linens, rich tones of paint on the walls, candles, dramatic lighting) than they were exercises in showing a glistening bunch of grapes in a lovely bowl whose lip might even be out of focus.

Interesting topic. Sometimes I long for the photos of the whole, fake dinner party.

Stephen Bunge

St Paul, MN

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I love the fact that the more relaxed attitude towards food images means that images of markets and produce etc get published much more often. I find this to be informative and educational. But, I guess this comes at a price.

Agreed,

I think ultimately there is a decreasing need for specialist food photographers in the book and magazine sector but that, in advertising, where the client wants reassurance that they've done everything to make their product look it's best, there will still be a demand, irrespective of prevailing style.

Tim Hayward

"Anyone who wants to write about food would do well to stay away from

similes and metaphors, because if you're not careful, expressions like

'light as a feather' make their way into your sentences and then where are you?"

Nora Ephron

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There is obviously a ubiquity in current food photography that seems to tell us more about the photographer than the food. However, food photography covers a multitude of sins, are we talking about photos of dishes, of ingredients, of meals, of restaurants, of events?

In terms of food photography, I was looking at White Heat recently and think the photos in there are fantastic, as they are in Thomas Keller's Bouchon and French Laundry books. In all of these, I don't feel like the photographer is intruding. The food is fantastic and somehow that comes through in the photograph, no need for arsing around - a bit like Basildog's pears.

I say all of this as a photographic ignoramus - but then again I blame my camera.

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I just realized that this branch concerns food photography "in the UK", but oh well...

I am in Thailand, and am currently photographing (and writing) a cookbook on southern Thai food. Here is an image of Phanaeng curry I plan to include in the book:

gallery_29586_2784_5729.jpg

I think this photo involves a lot of the attributes we've discussed so far; little DOF, 100% natural light (although I used a reflector) and no unecessary/"artificial" props/backgrounds. It is also very close and taken at the same level as the dish, rather than from above, which is also something I've noticed a lot recently. I honestly wasn't emulating these trends; frankly I have a very low budget, and made the curry myself, used one of my own bowls, put it all on a piece of colored paper and took it with a digital SLR! I can't afford to buy studio lighting, not to mention superflous silverware/dishtowls etc., and personally, I think it came out quite well considering the circumstances! I think this kind of photograpy benefits the photographer, which is a good thing.

Austin

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Nice shot Austin (I'm looking forward to reading your impressions of the food in Laos and seeing how it compares to the pre-revolution cuisine I have read about BTW).

This is one of my lunchs, plonked on a pate. Good (Italian) natural lighting and a £100 digital camera, snapped off with no real thought.

OK, it isn't art, but a lot of images of this quality are now apearing in the print, and I imagine that as little thought has been put into these as well.

So for a professional to survive now, does this mean that you have to put into a project? Writer/researcher/photgrapher, rather then food photgrapher? Or has this always been the case?

gallery_1643_811_276935.jpg

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I just realized that this branch concerns food photography "in the UK", but oh well...

I am in Thailand, and am currently photographing (and writing) a cookbook on southern Thai food. Here is an image of Phanaeng curry I plan to include in the book:

gallery_29586_2784_5729.jpg

I think this photo involves a lot of the attributes we've discussed so far; little DOF, 100% natural light (although I used a reflector) and no unecessary/"artificial" props/backgrounds. It is also very close and taken at the same level as the dish, rather than from above, which is also something I've noticed a lot recently. I honestly wasn't emulating these trends; frankly I have a very low budget, and made the curry myself, used one of my own bowls, put it all on a piece of colored paper and took it with a digital SLR!  I can't afford to buy studio lighting, not to mention superflous silverware/dishtowls etc., and personally, I think it came out quite well considering the circumstances! I think this kind of photograpy benefits the photographer, which is a good thing.

Austin

A thing of beauty.

What I really love about this style is that it enables shooting under all kinds of conditions with light, inexpensive kit.

When a photographer uses that advantage to shoot authentic things in places where dragging the food to a studio would be impossible it just reeks of integrity. When magazines print page after page of identically styled, lit and defocussed dishes it looks like a catalogue and adds nothing. It's fundamentally lazy.

Perhaps the next stage in food photography is to go further in search of more authentic stuff. More like extreme sports shooting "Yeah, it might look like another shot of an impossibly fit Californian hanging from El Capitaine by his fingernails but have you any idea how tough it was getting up there to shoot it?"

Tim Hayward

"Anyone who wants to write about food would do well to stay away from

similes and metaphors, because if you're not careful, expressions like

'light as a feather' make their way into your sentences and then where are you?"

Nora Ephron

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