It’s said a picture is worth a thousand words but when it comes to food I’d much rather describe the experience in words. Food photography is an incredibly difficult field. I’ve tried and I’ve always failed to convey the flavour and appetite I’ve felt when presented with a plate of something delicious. I mean, how do you photograph taste?
I’ve worked with some professionals who manage to do just that: photographers who make me want to eat the images they create. I’ve always wondered how they do it, so when food photographer Murray Lloyd and food writer Ruth Pretty offered a food photography workshop as part of Wellington on a Plate, I was one of the first to sign up.
Food photography workshop with Murray Lloyd (right).
Ruth and Murray have collaborated on five cookbooks over the past few years and created hundreds of photographs. Each one takes several hours to produce, beginning with a brainstorming session to define the sort of look they want to achieve. The workshop took us through the process from concept to shoot. We learnt how each dish is styled, what props are used, how it’s lit and how it’s composed in the frame. Murray prefers to work with natural light and the only trickery Ruth uses is a paintbrush and a little oil to make the food glow.
Chicken and Cranberry Pies
Our first assignment was pastry. We had half an hour to style and photograph a group of small pies using a choice of plates, fabrics, cutlery and coloured card backdrops. We had to consider light, composition, texture, colour etc. It was quite a lot to think about. We were also advised that an uneven number of pies would look best on the plate, which meant I had to eat one of mine. It was really nice: chicken and cranberry. Anyway, after much rearranging of props I managed to get everything in frame. This is my picture of Ruth’s chicken pies.
Notice how I have used an S shaped composition and also repeated the circular forms of the pies in my choice of material. I was rather pleased with my effort but the pies still look flat and lifeless – I blame the natural light, which naturally hid behind a cloud just as I was ready to shoot.
Next up was poached salmon with pesto and micro greens. The dishes were plated by Ruth’s sous chef Kirk and they were supposed to be photographed as if in a restaurant, which was good practice for me because this is the sort of situation where I do sometimes have to get a shot that’s fit for publication.
I’m not sure that my salmon photo cuts it but I did like the artful positioning of the fork in my salad closeup (below).
The main course was slow braised pork shoulder with apricots, prunes, lima beans and cavalo nero. It tasted fabulous but it was really tricky to photograph on account of the cavalo nero which looked limp, wet and much too black.
Braised Pork Shoulder
Interestingly, Murray picked this shot out, kindly illustrating the clever way in which I had positioned the orange chair in the background to echo the orange of the carrot on the plate. I could see how this did make the colours “sing” but I hadn’t planned it that way. And therein lies the difference: a real food photographer would have left nothing to chance; my success was entirely accidental.
And unlike a professional shoot, where you really don’t want to eat the food that’s been fiddled with for hours, we polished off the lot. In fact, it all looked so good that by lunchtime my creativity lost the battle with my appetite; after a cursory effort I swapped my camera for knife, fork and napkin.
So what did I learn? If in doubt, zoom in close; and if the food looks lifeless, toss in a few flowers. But seriously, I have a new appreciation of just how much work goes into making food look so good on the page. A slide show of some of the photographs from Ruth’s new book – one or two of which were the same dishes we’d struggled to compose earlier in the day – served to illustrate the point: we really do eat with our eyes. Here’s a sneak preview of the front cover. Ruth Pretty Cooks at Home is due out in October, RRP $65, published by Penguin. Photos by Murray Lloyd.
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