My first experience with food photography dates back to the early 90s, when I helped the London-based American photographer Jay Myrdal. I was in my 20s, with sideburns, a black goatee and hair on my head.
Jay’s large Paddington studio was a maze, and that day it had been filled with colourful dishes prepared by a professional home economist.
At the time, food photography was pretty different from what we see today: studio setting could take a long time and it wasn’t possible for food to look fresh for hours. The dishes would therefore be covered with oil, deodorant and/or hair spray to keep them looking shiny and enticing.
You could not be a true professional photographer if you weren’t technically very competent – not only in photography, but also in other fields, such as studio setting and model making. Jay and his first assistant Dani where not only excellent photographers, but also amazing model makers…real craftsmen! And I would observe them in action and eagerly try to learn their tricks.
Photography-wise, images had to have a pretty long depth of field – everything in the image had to be in focus. So we would use wide lenses, with narrow apertures.
And, as we were shooting with a 5×4 Sinar camera and slide film plates, this wasn’t that easy. Exposure had to be exact too. With slide film, errors bigger than half stop could cost the job. As a second assistant, I would run from the studio to the in-house darkroom to pass exposed film to the first assistant, who would unload it and load new film. It was a very delicate process and you couldn’t make any mistakes.
I also remember practising with the light meter, going around the studio with the big Minolta around my neck. I would also help setting the lights.
At the end of my experience as a photographer’s assistant, I was able to shoot film and get the exposure right – often without the need of that light-meter.
So what is left of the legacy of that time, given that we’re now in an era when most food photography is created by bloggers using pocket cameras and smartphones?
Quite a lot, actually. First, the importance of composition: a good food image must be well composed – and studio setting can play a pivotal part in this.
Second, the careful use of light: every stunning image requires stunning light.
Finally, a keen eye for detail. It remains the only indispensable instrument for producing great shots. Rushed work is, most of the time bad work.
By the time I became a professional photographer, I had evolved my style, and become naturally attracted to lifestyle photography, using wide apertures and saturated colours.
Food photography has become a part of my travel and reportage work for magazines and brands, and not by chance, as I have always loved to document cultures, people, nature and the senses.
And in good food photography, all senses work fully. There’s our sight – the initial visual attraction; the smell, when our mouths start watering; the sound, when we touch a plate with the cutlery. And then, of course, there’s the taste. We put the food in our mouth, close our eyes and (hopefully!) are in heaven.
After all, isn’t food photography, like all photography, about “putting on the same line of sight the head, the eye and the heart”? *
*Henry Cartier Bresson.