The 10 Commandments of Food Photography

Photos and Article by Jerrelle Guy (@chocolateforbasil)

Photography is just another way of communicating, and successful photography communicates as clearly as possible while also making the viewer feel something; when talking about food photography, hopefully that feeling is “hungry”. Here is a list of 10 food-capturing commandments for shooting food that can make any viewer stop in their tracks.

1. Good Lighting

This is the most important rule of all, so it takes the #1 spot on the list. You don’t need expensive camera equipment or a fully stocked photo studio to build the illusion of natural light, just use natural light–one strong and direct source of natural light, streaming through a window, one that doesn’t create harsh shadows on the food. Above all else, stay away from the flash button. Flash flattens the food and erases a lot of the details that make the food look naturally mouthwatering.

2. Avoid Blurriness

Make sure your photo is as crisp as possible.  Wipe down your lens and adjust your focus before you start snapping.  This may seem silly or obvious, but if you’re like me, and you’re styling your food, propping your food, AND shooting your food all at the same time, it’s easy to forget about this step— there are so many other things to be thinking about. But always double check to make sure you didn’t mistakenly smudge the lens with greasy fingers, definitely adjust the lens to get everything you want to capture in clear focus, and if you have shaky hands, use a tripod.

3. Have a Focal Point

Speaking of things in focus, make sure you’re asking yourself where you want your viewers’ eyes to go first. As the photographer, you have complete control of the story you’re telling, and you can make your viewer focus on anything you deem most important, whether that be the drips on the edge of a chocolate cake or the whole cake itself. Each variation tells a different story. The following are some tips to create better focus in your narrative:

  • Put the object you’re showcasing right in the middle of the composition or just off to the side so the viewer can’t avoid it.
  • Adjust your aperture to give less important things in the photo a softer focus, making them fall to the background.
  • Make sure there is enough space around the object to help it pop off the page (And this leads us into the next commandment…)

4. Utilize the Power of Negative Space

Leaving enough space in the photo for your eyes to rest around the object of attention helps clarify your message. Too many objects can confuse the viewer, and overcomplicate what you’re trying to get across, even if all you’re trying to say is “look at how bubbly and gooey this lasagna is!” We all appreciate lots of space to comfortably take it all in.

5. No Distracting Background Noise

When it comes to propping your food, whether you’re using a tablecloth or your favorite serving tray, pick natural and solid colors or at least colors that compliment the food. Crazy patterns and saturated colors feel unnatural, and are usually a no no. Try whites and ivories, deep blues, dark greys or browns instead.

6. Find the Perfect Angle

Decide if you what to enter the photo directly from the side, at a ¾ angle, or directly from above. A lot of times the object you’re shooting will make this decision for you. Just ask yourself “which angle offers the most information?” And that’s probably the angle you should shoot from. For example, if you’re shooting a trifle or a tiramisu, it’ll probably want to be shot from the side or at least from a ¾ angle so that you can capture all the different ingredients and layers–if you shot it from above you’d lose that information and the viewer might not understand right away what it is they’re looking at. The reverse is true when shooting soup or something in a bowl–a down shot would probably show the most information.

7. Details are in the Garnishes

This is my favorite tip because it brings more personality to your dish.  Adding garnishes (of course, only those that were used while cooking or those that compliment the flavor profile of the finished dish) creates details for your eye to get lost in. It doesn’t have to be everywhere in the photo but in a few places here and there to help break up the larger shapes and colors. Sesame seeds on a bagel create something so exciting and stimulating on what would otherwise be a boring piece of white bread.

Some of my favorite last minute garnishes: black sesame seeds, chopped herbs like parsley, cilantro and rosemary, and any and all spices, especially cayenne pepper and paprika (because they’re so vibrant!).

8. Patterns/Textures

The eyes love being given a recognizable shape to stare at over and over again. Patterns of food like chocolate truffles in the grids of a chocolate box, stacked brownies, a stocked fridge with rows of produce, it all creates structure in the middle of chaos, which can be very soothing to the eye and comforting to the mind.

9. Imperfection

Getting caught up in making everything tweezer-perfect is important in the world of commercial food photography, but when it comes to taking personal photos that feels more realistic, try not to get caught up in getting everything picture perfect; be flexible, be a little messy, maybe even shoot it after you’ve taken a few bites of the food. This makes the food feel more inviting and more natural, which is usually the goal, because it makes the viewer feel like they’re there, biting into the food with you.

10. Post- Editing Software

This is my final piece of advice, because it comes only after you’ve followed all proceeding steps.  But don’t be fooled, it is SO important for making your food stand out amongst the flood of amateur food photos. Find your favorite photo editing software, and use it religiously, practice different filters and adjust those settings until you find something that works for you. This will take your photo over the top and surely stop people in their tracks.

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Congratulations to the Julia Child Award Recipients

The Julia Child Award goes to a matriculating student in the Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy program who has been nominated by their instructor for outstanding academic work. The following students were recently recognized for their work done in the Spring 2017 semester. Congratulations to everyone!

Ashlyn Frassinelli

My name is Ashlyn and I’m in my third semester of the Gastronomy program. Before coming to Boston, I studied journalism at George Washington University. When I’m not in class I work as a graduate assistant in event coordinating for the Food and Wine program and I bartend at Lamplighter Brewing in Cambridge.
My winning piece was my final project from last spring’s Food and Memoir class. Titled “Family,” the piece incorporated four standalone pieces of memoir writing I had written over the semester into a coherent longform piece. I wrote about a number of different relationships in my life, as well as my (ever-evolving) relationship with food. I am so honored to have won this award — I especially want to thank Professor Pepper for nominating me and for encouraging me to challenge myself.

Karl Koch

Karl is in his second year as a Gastronomy student after working as a school garden educator in Tucson, AZ, and is particularly interested in the intersection of food systems and social justice. He was cited for his essay for Dr. Messer’s U.S. Food Policy & Culture course on rights-based approaches to food policy and discussing sometimes-competing narratives of the “food movement.”

Spring 2018 Pepin Lecture Lineup

The Boston University Programs in Food and Wine have announced the following titles in the Spring 2018 Pépin Lecture Series in Food Studies, Gastronomy, and the Culinary Arts.

February 13th: Julie Guthman

UCSC professor Julie Guthman will be giving a lecture on her research on the California strawberry industry. You can read more about her recent talk on New Food Activism at Harvard here.

According to news.ucsc.edu, Guthman is a geographer who has been widely recognized for her study of organic farming and sustainable agriculture in California, as well as for her critical analysis of the obesity epidemic. She is an alumna of UC Santa Cruz (B.A., sociology, 1979) who joined the faculty in 2003.

March 29th: Jonathan Deutsch

James Beard Foundation Impact Fellow and Professor at Drexel Jonathan Deutsch will be giving a lecture on his work repurposing food waste.

According to drexel.edu, Deutsch joined Drexel from Kingsborough Community College-CUNY, where he served as professor and founding director of the culinary arts program as well as deputy chair of the department of tourism and hospitality. He previously worked at CUNY Graduate Center as professor of public health and founding director of the food studies concentration. Deutsch’s research interests include social and cultural aspects of food, recipe and product development and culinary education. He received his doctorate in food studies and food management from New York University.

He is the author of six food studies books, including Barbeque: A Global History, Food Studies: An Introduction to Research Methods, and Jewish American Food Culture.

April 11th: Ken Albala

Ken Albala is Professor of History at the University of the Pacific and Director of the Food Studies MA program in San Francisco. He will be talking about his new book, Noodle Soup: Recipes, Techniques, Obsession.

“Every day, noodle shops around the globe ladle out quick meals that fuel our go-go lives. But Ken Albala has a mission: to get YOU in the kitchen making noodle soup. This primer offers the recipes and techniques for mastering quick-slurper staples and luxurious from-scratch feasts. Albala made a different noodle soup every day for two years. His obsession yielded all you need to know about making stock bases, using dried or fresh noodles, and choosing from a huge variety of garnishes, flavorings, and accompaniments. He lays out innovative techniques for mixing and matching bases and noodles with grains, vegetables, and other ingredients drawn from an international array of cuisines.

In addition to recipes both cutting edge and classic, Alabala describes new soup discoveries he created along the way. There’s advice on utensils, cooking tools, and the oft-overlooked necessity of matching a soup to the proper bowl. Finally, he sprinkles in charming historical details that cover everything from ancient Chinese millet noodles to that off-brand Malaysian ramen at the back of the ethnic grocery store. Filled with more than seventy color photos and one hundred recipes, A World of Noodle Soup is an indispensable guide for cooking, eating, and loving a universal favorite.”

Cookbooks & History: Custard Pudding

Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the twelfth essay in this series, written by Danielle Tarpley.

I selected the Custard Pudding recipe from Lydia Maria Child’s The Frugal Housewife (1830: 65) because the nature of this book appealed to me. In my household, I am the modern, frugal housewife. Much like myself, Child came from a middle-class family with moderate income. Even after she was married, her family relied heavily her income. It was necessary for Child to be frugal. I would describe my role as financial manager and waste monitor. I despise food waste and The Frugal Housewife has many admirable time- and money-saving tips. The author writes, “Time is money” (Child 1830:3). Truer words I have never heard.

The book also appealed to my pastry passion. I love how full fat milk products give body and richness to desserts, especially custards. I was also curious to see how the difference in milk affected the outcome of the dessert. Child suggests using boiled skim milk in this recipe as a substitute for a heavier cream. In the 19th century, it is likely skim milk was similar the whole milk we use today. It is likely 1% milk had significantly less fat that the skim milk used two hundred years ago.

Before moving forward with the project I set up my criteria for picking the recipe:

  • Do not purchase anything for the assignment.
  • Modify recipe as little as possible.
  • Make partner (Aaron) a tasty dessert.

Once I set these parameters, choosing the custard recipe was easy. Not only did I have all of the ingredients in my kitchen, I really love custard. Below is the recipe as it is written in the book:

Custard Puddings.

Custard puddings sufficiently good for common use can be made with five eggs to a quart of milk, sweetened with brown sugar, and spiced with cinnamon or nutmeg, and very little salt. It is well to boil your milk, and set it away till it gets cold. Boiling milk enriches it so much that boiled skim-milk is about as good as new milk. A little cinnamon, or lemon peel or peach leaves, if you do not dislike the taste, boiled in the milk and afterwards strained from it, give a pleasant flavor. Bake fifteen or twenty minutes.

First, I modified the recipe for my home kitchen. I made a half batch because the dessert would only feed two people and I did not want waste. I also did not have brown sugar so I substituted white sugar with a little molasses. Because I used medium-sized eggs, I decided three eggs would be appropriate for the recipe. I then identified the challenges: 1) No oven temperature given; 2) No mix method given; 3) No quantity of sugar given. I bake quite a bit at home, custards included. With my cooking knowledge I created the recipe below.

 

Modified Custard Pudding (1/2x)

Ingredients:

  • 3 eggs (medium)
  • ½ qt. milk (1%)
  • ½ c. white sugar
  • 2 tbls. molasses
  • pinch of salt
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp cinnamon

Procedure:

  1. Boil milk and cool
  2. Mix all ingredients
  3. Bake for 15-20 min at 325 F

After mixing, I noticed immediately that the batter was very thin, even after boiling the milk to “enrich” it.  Typically, baked custards are cooked in a water bath so they do not overcook. I choose a 325 F temperature because I thought it would be hot enough to cook the custard in 15-20 minutes. This did not happen. After 20 minutes, the batter was barely set. At this point, I raised the temperature of the oven to 375 and baked it for an additional 10-12 minutes. I had a feeling it would over cook and it did.

In the mid-19th century, people’s tastes were probably different then they are today. It is likely middle class families didn’t waste money to prepare well-seasoned dishes. Taste buds were accustomed to less seasoned dishes. Modern American cuisine is very high in sugar, fat and salt. Because our taste is accustomed to high fat, sugar and salt content, it is the reason why I gave this dish a C- grade on flavor, texture and body. The flavor wasn’t terrible. It resembled flan but lacked in sweetness and richness. I felt the custard needed more fat, sugar and perhaps a little more salt. It was also overcooked. Water was leaching out of it the moment it came out of the oven. The overcooked bits were a little chewy and eggy. Once the custard cooled, I served it with preserved strawberries in an attempted in improve the dish.

Because I have formal culinary training, I know what a custard base, cooked and uncooked, should look like. I conclude that this book was meant for an audience with knowledge developed through domestic experience, or perhaps some culinary education; this is suggested by the incomplete instructions, measurements, and quantities. However, on a personal note, had I been living during this time, I would have rather gone without dessert than serve this economical version.


Work Cited:

Child, Lydia Maria. 1830. The Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy. Second ed. Boston: Carter and Hendee.

Cookbooks & History: Syrian Khātūnī Rice

Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the eleventh essay in this series, written by Giselle Lord.

Recreating a historical recipe in my own kitchen is about as good as homework gets and I certainly did not intend to squander the opportunity. I cracked open my brand new book, Scents and Flavors – a recently published translation of a very old book containing recipes that represent the cuisine and aroma mania of 13th-century Syrian Ayyubid rulers (Perry 2017, xxix). The table of contents alone is a fantastic curiosity, essentially broken up into sections or categories that are (usually) further broken up into numbered variations. In the “Section on rice dishes – nine recipes,” there is a “Tenth dish – making khātūnī rice, which is wonderful” (Perry 2017, xiv). Aside from the inclusion of a tenth recipe in a section of nine recipes, the snippet of the unknown author’s voice and relatively unusual revelation of his culinary preference caught my attention. Of the dozen or so recipes that feature a nod to deliciousness from the author, this seemingly simple rice dish with pistachios and sugar seemed my most practicable option. Hence, I procured a bag of pistachios fit for the job and took to my kitchen to attempt to recreate the recipe.

All of the recipes in this volume were extracted from the original paragraph-less manuscripts and broken out into one-part recipes. The recipe for “making khātūnī rice” is translated as follows:

*Tenth dish – making khātūnī  rice, which is wonderful Boil water and add tail fat and chicken fat, both melted without salt. Add rice, and when half-done, let the water reduce till nothing is left but the fat. Take pistachios toasted in sesame oil, crush, and add pounded sugar. Put them in the rice – put plenty – spray with rose water and a little musk, and serve. It is outstanding. (Perry 2017, 121).

I assumed that tail fat and chicken fat were simply the rendered fat of two animals (sheep and chicken, respectively), and substituted pork fat for them, or more specifically, the clean leaf lard I had rendered from the fat of a pig raised by local farmers. I left out the musk – which is “a glandular secretion of the musk deer and certain other animals, [and] has a strong smell… In appropriately discreet quantity or diluted form, musk was formerly used in the kitchen with rosewater to flavor such things as pies but this practice seems to have died out during the 17th century…” (Davidson 2014, 540). I recently spent some time with a 1798 cookbook by Amelia Simmons titled American Cookery wherein she consistently includes rosewater and orange flower water as interchangeable ingredients, so I substituted orange blossom water for the rosewater, since, without the musk, we would not benefit from the apparently lovely combination of musk and rosewater anyhow. All other ingredients, namely rice, pistachios, sesame oil, and sugar, I already had in my kitchen or was able to procure with an easy visit to a local grocer.

Before I describe the cooking process, I will admit a dire fault in the assumption mentioned earlier. Upon further inspection, regrettably conducted after I had recreated the recipe, I discovered tail fat to be a veritable cornucopia of flavors captured in the process of rendering the fat of a sheep’s tail. The fourth chapter of the cookbook, albeit a one-page chapter, is entirely dedicated to instructing the reader “How to Melt the Several Varieties of Tail Fat,” a process which involves quince, Fathi apple, coriander seeds, fresh dill, raw onion, Chinese cinnamon, and salt (2017, 40). While wondering how a recipe with aromatics but no spice could be quite so ‘wonderful’, I missed the simple fact that the spices were in fact captured and given to the dish by the all-important tail fat.

To recreate the recipe, I began with melting the leaf lard in a large dutch oven – a pot I often use for making large quantities of rice. I added twice the amount of water as rice I had soaked and rinsed, and let the water boil before adding the rice to the pot. I then lowered the water to a simmer, covered the pot, and let the rice cook twenty minutes. While the rice cooked, I toasted the pistachios in sesame oil and tossed them in sugar. After twenty minutes of cooking and five minutes of resting, I fluffed the rice and transferred it to a wooden bowl. I then added the pistachio and orange blossom. As you can see, this description of my process does not differ greatly from the book’s recipe, except that I used my experience of cooking rice to adapt the volume and cooking time. I also added a pinch of salt to the toasted pistachios and, ultimately, to the pistachio and rice dish. Aside from the lack of clarity on ingredient volume and cook time, the instructions were easy to follow and resulted in what seemed like a perfectly good, if not entirely wonderful or a marvelous rice dish [1].

The aromatics were fittingly the most notable and arguably the most enjoyable feature of the dish – I first noticed the tantalizing aroma of sesame-oil-toasted pistachios and then basked in the perfume-like, floral scent of the orange blossom water. The inclusion of recipes for incenses, soaps, perfumes, and hand-washing solutions suggests the prevalence of aromatics in the medieval Syrian world, and Charles Perry poetically endorses this evidence in writing, “The medieval banquet was a feast for the nose” (2017, xxix). Aside from emphasizing the importance of aromatics in the flavor spectrum of thirteenth-century Syria, Perry also points out that “The cuisine of this book is definitely banquet food, special-occasion food. Not only is it highly aromatic, it is thoroughly luxurious” and that the book “is organized roughly in parallel with the stages of a banquet” including the pre- and post-meal washing and scenting in which the diners engaged (2017, xxx). Thus, it seems this relatively simple rice dish would have greatly contributed to the aroma feast of any good banquet and likely been accompanied by a variety of other main dishes.

In an attempt to right my wrong, I decided to infuse some leaf lard with the spices and flavors included in the author’s directions on rendering tail fat. I heated the lard and the spices slowly over low heat and tossed the leftover rice into the righteously seasoned animal fat. The takeaway from this simple mistake, and its redemption, is to never underestimate the complexity of a single ingredient. I might also add that the intuitive distrust of a recipe without spices merits further research. The seasoned-fat version was truly wonderful, and I can only imagine how much of a marvel this dish may be when prepared with expertly rendered medieval tail fat. For the time being, I’m quite delighted that this thirteenth-century recipe may very well be my inspiration for a great number of nut and spice flavored rice dishes in my future, “which is wonderful” (Perry 2017, xiv).


Works Cited

Davidson, A., & Jaine, Tom. 2014. The Oxford Companion to Food (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Perry, Charles. 2017. Scents & Flavors: a Syrian cookbook. New York: New York University Press.

Simmons, Amelia. 1798. American Cookery. Hartford: Simeon Butler.

Zaouali, Lilia. 2007. Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World: A concise history with 174 recipes. Berkeley: University of California Press.


[1] In another translation of the same recipe that appears in Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World, the final sentence is translated as “It is a marvel” (Zaouali 2007, 127).