The proof is in the pudding - Omid Daghighi and Danella Chalmers
It was said by Apicius, a foodie from first century Ancient Rome, that we first eat with our eyes, and then our mouths. And, centuries later, the quote has never been more accurate.
Today, cookbooks illustrated with page after page of mouth-watering images are always amongst the best sellers, and good food photography is a must for any business keen to draw customers into their kitchens.
For a select group of our finest food photographers, capturing what we eat is a real artform, and Sydney photographer Omid Daghighi knows this better than most. In his more than 25 years as a photographer, he has worked with clients such as David Jones, Guzan Y Gomez and Meat and Livestock Australia. But he’s also wary of being titled something he’s not.
“I am a still life photographer,” he says. “There are hundreds of us. Some specialise in fashion, like shoes and handbags. I do a lot of food. What is a food photographer? In the old days we were still life photographers specialising in food.
When I say ‘food photography’ now people think it’s all about social media. I do a lot of food, and also a lot of advertising of products you buy from the shelf in supermarkets, frozen foods, ice cream, or pasta. But I’m a still life photographer. It’s just the way I feel about my work.”
For photographer Danella Chalmers, who has a portfolio that stretches from advertising images to work for cookbooks and restaurants, the joy of capturing food comes from its unpredictability.
“The beauty of food is that it doesn’t have an ego, but it does have personality,” she says. “Finding the cake’s best side, or knowing what angle will bring out the shine in a melted cheese sandwich, are all things to embrace when shooting food. A single piece of fruit can have its own sense of character. Your job is to let it shine.”
And shine is something great food images do, making them an instrumental part of how we perceive what we eat.
Kitchen to the table
For both photographers, the process typically starts with a brief. For Omid, he’ll work through this with his food stylist and the chef regarding the look, feel and props before the shoot.
“We have to plan the shoot carefully as some dishes take longer [to photograph] than others,” he explains. “In some instances, we have to stack the shots in a way that we don’t have a sudden rush or too much downtime.”
Danella stresses the need to know exactly where and how the images will be used, to help pinpoint the essence of the shoot. But even then, she says, it is never possible to plan for everything.
“Although plans give you a starting point and options to explore, a great deal of what we do is to respond to the plate of food that is put in front of us to photograph. It helps to stay open to new possibilities - that’s where the magic happens.”
This magic occurs in the hustle and bustle of a food shoot with many people to accommodate and please. As Omid explains, on a typical commercial shoot there could be as many as four people from the advertising agency in the studio. And that’s before his photography crew comes in.
Omid works with his own assistant who is tasked with setting up equipment. From there, a food stylist plates the dish in a way that creates the planned effect, which includes organising the props, backgrounds, and surfaces. Then, the chef will prepare the food to be plated on time, in sequence, and in a way that highlights the qualities being promoted.
At the centre of all this is the photographer, whose job, says Omid, is to transform the vision in the minds of the art director and client into a visual reality, while creating an image that stimulates a mouth-water-watering response in the viewer.
But as he explains, you can have all the people and setup in the world, but melting cheese waits for no photographer.
“I try to have the shot pretty much set up with a different plate. Once the hero dish is ready, I just replace it. You have to work fast once the food arrives on set.”
Lighting the scene
Just like the best food needs the perfect amount of seasoning, so to even the most inspired and best planned composition can be undone by poor lighting.
For Danella, keeping things uncomplicated is key.
“I remember once being told that there is only one sun in the sky, and so I usually start each shoot with one main light source,” she explains.
“This is the best way to create shape and texture. Of course, there are times where one light isn’t enough, but I approach lighting with a less-is-more kind of philosophy. I generally use a studio flash head, either with a soft box or a reflector dish, through a scrim. This allows me to adjust the direction and sharpness of my shadows with easily.”
As she explains, lighting creates texture in an image, and texture goes a long way to visually describe how something will taste. Crusty pizza bread, soft basil leaves, and shiny melted cheese, contribute to making a pizza mouth-wateringly delicious. This is achieved by creating just enough contrast in the lighting without losing important detail.
It’s something Omid agrees with. “Lighting makes or breaks an image, and the only way is to practice. You could lay any object down, lock the camera in position and just move the light around and see how different it looks. Generally cross lighting will emphasise texture,” he says.
Colour too is critical in whether food will look delicious, Danella adds.
“Too yellow or too blue and you risk making the food look sickly and unappetising. Like most professionals, I shoot in RAW file format. This allows me to apply a white balance during the shoot and make adjustments after the shoot is finished.”
Tricks of the trade
As Danella explains, there are generally three main angles in setting up a shot - overhead, 45-degree angle, and front-on.
“There are simple rules. For example, a burger looks better from the front because you can then see all the juicy layers of ingredients, as opposed to an overhead shot where you can only see a bun top.
I like to set up a shot with the camera on a tripod, and once I’ve captured that angle, and if time permits, I find it’s always worth handholding to explore the scene for other alternative angles.
However, don’t discount the importance of using a tripod. The advantage of locking your camera in a single position is that it allows you flexibility when retouching, to include or remove elements from shots you photographed in a sequence.”
Angles, perspectives and depth of field are tools to use in composition to emphasise or distract from parts of an image, says Omid. His style is to get everything finessed and locked up in a frame, and while he will walk about checking angles and views before pressing the shutter, he generally avoids being “footloose” with his camera.
Rustic plate ware and props are Danella’s preference. She will use an uneven number of plates or items because an odd number lends itself to a more dynamic layout. “I like to use cutlery to add lines if there are a lot of round plates.
They help to lead the viewer’s eye from one plate to another. A soft napkin can be a great addition too, although getting the perfect fold can be tricky. Experienced stylists can make folding a soft napkin look effortless. I struggle to get them to behave!”
She adds that loose herbs, pinch pots of sauce and other food items can act as helpful graphic elements to balance out the composition in a shot.
For his part, Omid likes to use props that are relevant to reality. “I just like it to look like it’s someone’s home, a dinner party, or at a restaurant, where you use napkins and cutlery. I don’t like overdoing it. I like to keep it simple, but make it stand out.”
Like comparing apples and oranges, both photographers approach editing in their own way. For work in post-production, Danella prefers Adobe Photoshop.
“I will finesse an image first in Capture One, applying levels, curves, colour balance, saturation, clarity and crops before outputting the image to the correct size and format as requested,” she explains.
“I then take the image into Photoshop for finer retouching to clean any marks, spills, etcetera. I overlay multiple images if need be, or apply any specific adjustments to selective areas that may not apply to the whole image.”
Omid on the other hand uses Capture One software for capture and aims to get everything right in-camera. As he explains, he can’t understand the fix-in-post mentality because more often than not it takes only a few seconds extra to get it right.
“Take a recent image of a burger I shot as an example. The way it was laid out, the actual meat was a bit dark. I could have easily fixed it in Photoshop. But it would have been another five minutes, to open up the Photoshop program. I would have lightened the area, my contrast would have gone a bit flat, so I would have had to add a bit more contrast, add a bit more of that, do a bit of this … No!
What I did was to use some silver foil to reflect just a little light onto the meat. I stood just out of the shot, bouncing light from my flash back into the burger. I lightened it and enriched the tonal value.”
The sweet after-taste
Just like we remember a fine meal for its after-taste, we remember a good food image in the way it lets the food shine and stimulates the taste buds. And, like every great cook does it their way, every photographer should do it their way too. Says Danella, “Every decision in a shoot helps create the style for which you become known. Clients book you for the look you create because of the combination of decisions you make when photographing.” ❂
“You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to start shooting at home. A window with good natural light, a tripod, and a decent DSLR camera is enough to get you started. You learn best by experimenting, so pick an image you like and try to replicate it. By doing so you will begin to understand how it was lit, what camera setting they used and why that particular composition was so affective. Keep practicing, the more you shoot, the easier it is to find your style.
“I usually set up my photo session at the start of a shoot with a few settings I like to begin with. In general I set ISO, aperture and shutter speed, then I start testing placement and power of my light source. But I always come back to checking focus before moving on with any shot. You can fix many things in retouching, but you cannot make something sharp that is blurry. Always double check your focus.
“Don’t forget to adjust your setting throughout the shoot depending on each shot. You cannot rely on the same setting working for every dish throughout the day. Focal length is a great way to push and pull your background in and out of dominance in a shot. Depth of Field is vital for removing unnecessary details and focusing the eye on what’s important. Shutter speed will allow you to capture that sense of movement and urgency when food is being playful like oozing, dripping, steaming, bubbling or sprinkling." - Danella Chalmers
Cover image: Danella Chalmers, Bodhi Summer Yum Cha picnic.