Club chefs looking to improve their photography skills can learn and apply these tips from two pros.
With members cruising social-media platforms like Instagram and Facebook to see what’s for dinner at the club, it’s become critical for chefs to know more than just how to work the line—they now also need to learn how to work the lens and take better food photos.
A mouth-watering food photo can serve myriad purposes. It can define and elevate the brand of both the chef and the club’s culinary program. It can be used in marketing materials and on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It can be parked on the club’s website and sent to media outlets, too.
Some of the most beautiful photos might even find their way onto the club’s walls, as permanent, artistic reminders to members that the food at their club looks as good as it tastes.
Here are some top tips from Eric Floyd, Executive Chef of Seattle’s Washington Athletic Club (WAC), for capturing beautiful food photographs.
Finding the Right Light
Floyd began his career as a landscape photographer while working nights as a line cook. Eventually, these two passions intersected, and the result has led to a stream of stunning food photos.
Floyd, who uses his images primarily for social media, prefers to work with natural light. When good natural light isn’t available—like after a full day’s work—Floyd has a studio in his home where he shoots three to six nights a week.
“Each photo is like a blank canvas that stretches past the edges of the plate,” says Floyd, who has been with the WAC for 19 years and was the Local Conference Coordinator and a presenter on Pacific Northwest cuisine for the 2018 Chef to Chef Conference in Seattle.
“You have to consider the details in every inch of the frame,” Floyd says. “With photography, the devil is in the details.”
Floyd says chefs should avoid flashes and never use fluorescent light. “Whenever possible, take your dish to the window, and work from there to get just the right lighting,” he says.
In addition to lighting, Floyd says it’s really important to shoot plates from different angles. “Don’t be afraid to experiment with colors and textures, both on the plate and off it,” he says. “No one wants to see a beautiful dish on a dirty line. Look at what’s around you. Incorporate elements that make sense.”
Floyd prefers backdrops that are textured and organic—like wood, bamboo and tinted cement. These neutral elements allow the food to be the star. Ditto for the china he plates on and the garnishes he incorporates.
“Your goal is to tell the story of the dish: what it is, where it comes from, who made it and who it’s for,” says Floyd.
To that point, Floyd refuses to shoot contrived or “fake” food with artificial elements. “I don’t want to mislead anyone and show a dish you can’t actually eat,” he says.
At the same time, he notes, there are dozens of ethical tricks to help make food look better in photos—like sinking a potato into crab bisque to use as a pedestal so that the crab “floats;” or using whipped butter in place of ice cream.
“Play with your ingredients and shoot on different surfaces and plates around the club, to see what works best for you,” he says. “And be patient.”
Floyd shoots with both a Canon 7d2 and his new iPhone X. In both cases, he relies on a tripod, to help reduce the blur that comes from accidentally moving the camera while shooting.
“Smartphones have come a long way,” he says. “Chefs should take advantage of all their capabilities.”
When using a smartphone to capture food photos, it’s best to keep the shot close and tight and to never use zoom, which can greatly affect the quality of the image.
“There are also tons of apps that allow you to edit and adjust color and brightness,” notes Floyd, who likes to edit on his phone with the Adobe Photoshop Mobile App, as well as Instagram.
Tips From a Pro
Leigh Loftus, a Professional Food Photographer for her company, We Are Loftus (Chicago, Ill.), offers the following tips and tricks for chefs interested in improving their own photography skills.
“Focus on plating with lots of colors and textures, and remember that the setting beyond the plate is just as valuable as the elements on the plate,” she says. “You’ve picked and prepared these ingredients and carefully chosen the plate. Don’t put all that effort on a silver prep table under fluorescent lights and assume that’s going to create a beautiful image.”
Like Floyd, Loftus suggests that chefs experiment with camera angles, natural light and consider framing and composition. “Remember the ‘rule of thirds’,” she says. “It will help you create well-balanced and interesting shots.”
(The “rule” is a guideline that suggests imagining the image divided into nine equal parts, separated by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. The most important elements of the photo should be balanced along the lines and their intersections.)
While it’s useful for chefs to understand how to take better food photos, it’s equally important for clubs to recognize when it’s appropriate to bring in a professional.
“Clubs don’t need a professional photographer for images they might only use for social media,” says Loftus. “But for anything printed or for images that might live on your website, it’s important to find a photographer who understands how to shoot and edit food.”
Even with a photographically skilled chef like Floyd, WAC still brings in a pro every month to capture images for the WAC member magazine.
“To just style the food, it takes about five hours,” says Floyd. “Running a $7 million F&B operation doesn’t lend itself to having enough free time to take and edit the kind of images we need.”
Floyd works side-by-side with Professional Food Photographer Olivia Brent, and together they create stunning photos that have been meticulously styled and edited to further the club’s culinary message.
Brent comes to the WAC monthly, but Loftus suggests clubs might only need a pro quarterly, depending on their menu strategy.
“If you’ve never brought in a professional, the initial investment can be big: between $5,000 and $8,000,” she adds. “But once you have a catalog of images, the subsequent investments aren’t nearly as big: somewhere between $1,000 and $2,500.”