Sometimes opportunity is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time and having the initiative to say, “I can.” My first book reviewing gig happened because I said yes to reading a book & writing a summary about it. My first magazine assignment as well as my first manuscript editing job came about because someone mentioned my name to someone else. When that person called me to follow-up, I said, “Ok, sure.” My budding career as a food photographer began the same way.
When my husband was preparing for his first round of restaurant reviews, he said to me, “Hey, I’m going to need your help.”
“Ok,” I replied, “What do you need me to do?”
“Well, I’d like you to take notes as well, so you can tell me what you think,” he said, “And if we got to a restaurant 10 miles outside of town, I need you to take pictures. The paper can’t really spare the photogs if we drive far out.” The rest is pretty self-explanatory. Our editor got pictures to go with the reviews and I got to add another title to my resumé.
I’ve dabbled in photography since my early 20s, when my father gave me both a secondhand Canon Rebel G and a copy of Deborah Copaken Kogan’s memoir Shutterbabe. The stock of my camera in my hands can feel like a weapon and I’ll admit that any penis euphemisms that spring to mind when I hold it are not accidental. But I’ve never pursued photography beyond an amateur level for one main reason. Taking pictures of people is incredibly difficult for me. There is some mental block that keeps me from shooting casual portraits, events, parties, street scenes, etc. I can stand for an hour or more and shoot sculpture or plants but turning my lens on another person freezes me up.
I think this block happens because of the obvious nature of a camera. With writing, I can surreptitiously jot down notes or make a few mental observations that I can get down on paper later. But a camera is a tool that immediately announces what I’m doing & that sort of attention is not really what I want to bring down on myself. So while I still get nervous taking pictures in plain sight in restaurants, the fact that I’m taking pictures of food makes the job easier. There are a few important things I’ve learned along the way though.
Quality work means quality equipment
This statement is something of a no-brainer but it bears saying. When I started taking pictures for these reviews, I was borrowing my mother’s digital SLR. My own camera at the time was a Nikon CoolPix point-and-shoot, which worked fine for casual pics. But it wasn’t great at handling close-ups or the patchy indoor lighting. So I caved and bought a bridge camera: a Olympus Pen which was a step up from the point-and-shoot but still wasn’t a full-on digital SLR. I haven’t regretted it.
“Food Porn” is a real thing
I wasn’t really aware of this term until a few years ago when I read The End of Manners. In it, the main character is a photographer who turns to food photography for cookbooks after burning out on reportage work. She calls it “food porn” because her assignments involves making the food displays as tantalizing as possible. And yes, her most successful shots employ atmospheric lighting, touch-ups with chemicals and sprays, and extreme closeups. While I can’t claim the same privileges shooting at a restaurant, my husband & I will talk about whether a plate I’ve just photographed is ready for the big time. When we were reviewing a local place on St. Patrick’s Day, I snapped a pic of my corned beef and cabbage. Looking at the photo on the preview screen, I said to my husband, “I don’t know if this dish is sexy enough.”
Composition is the best invitation
For these reviews I do with my husband, I get one chance to interest the reader. My husband has a couple of inches to talk about the food, the service, the atmosphere. But I have one picture. (Two on the very rare occasion that the front page needs art, which has only happened once.) Overhead shots of plates gets boring quickly & doesn’t give any indication about the place itself. So I try to mix things up. When we went to a Jewish-style deli, I included the cans of Dr. Brown’s soda with the meal. Most recently, when we went to a dim sum restaurant, the number of choices and the speed of the servers defied any chance to take shots. I loaded up my plate with food, refilled my cup of tea, arranged my chopsticks artfully & started snapping away. While I still aspire to the kind of shots Chronicle Books includes in their cookbooks, I try my best to show readers something interesting about our meal.
Shoot first, eat later
This is probably the simplest lesson to learn but the hardest to carry out. Whenever we sit down, I have to say to my husband, “Remember to wait. Let me shoot the plate first.” Despite this, many times we forget until we’re halfway through eating the main course. Our editor has gotten a lot of pictures of our desserts as a result. But, I think that this difficulty remembering goes back to enjoying gustatory pleasures. When you have a properly healthy appetite, the impulse is to eat as soon as you get your food, to live in the moment of what you’re experiencing. To stop and record that moment before eating is counter-intuitive. But, that’s the nature of the job I said yes to in the first place.