Photography and Styling

Once I received feedback from the recipe testers, I was able to do some final tweaks to the manuscript and I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.  After two years alternating between behind the stove and behind the keyboard, I almost was at the finish line… Or so I thought!

The production part of the book – photography, design, and printing -  was as laborious as the recipe writing process and involved a much steeper learning curve than I could have imagined.  But when you have a book that you really believe in, you totally embrace the challenge!

I started the production of the actual book by tackling photography. Some cookbook authors photograph each recipe as they develop it.  That way, they are able to move the photography process in parallel to the recipe development.  However, others wait until they have a manuscript completed and then proceed to photograph the book in it is entirety.  I subscribed to the latter for a variety of reasons:

  • It gave me plenty of time to determine the look and feel of the book and ensure the styling of the food was not only aligned with that look and feel but also consistent throughout.

  •  It allowed me to mentally layout the book and to source styling props in a more strategic way.

  • It allowed me to be more efficient with time.  I was able to easily shoot four to seven dishes in one day and I only had to bring in the photographer a total of seven or eight working days.

Once you start the production process, you are going to be vetting all sorts of professionals. Here are my recommendations for vetting a photographer:

Make sure they have experience photographing food.  While any good photographer has the ability to shoot food, understanding food – how it is prepared, how it is served  as well as the kitchen jargon that goes with it – will make the process go smoother.

  • Clarify who will own the copyrights.  If you don’t own the copyrights (as often is the case with cookbooks), make sure you are licensed to use them in marketing materials and your website.

  • Clarify what sort of editing services the photographer will provide.  If there will be no editing, then have the photographer reshoot as many times necessary to get a perfect shot.

  • Ensure they have attention to detail.

  • Find someone who has the ability to understand your vision.  Otherwise you will have quite a few bumps in the road.

  • Finally, while price and availability will probably be two of the most important factors, be sure to take into account all of the above.

While you are choosing a photographer, you will also need to determine who will be doing the food styling.  Many photographers can recommend stylists or work as a team together with a stylist.  In an ideal world, you would hire an accomplished food stylist.  So what does a food stylist do?  They shop for all the ingredients ensuring that all the produce is blemish free and perfect.  When shopping, they typically buy enough for three times the recipe in case something needs to be redone.  They also source all sorts of prop… plates, napkins, flatware, glasses, backgrounds, etc.  Finally, they are the ones preparing the food and making it super appealing and uber sexy for the camera!  A food stylist works super hard and therefore can be very expensive. If you are hiring a food stylist, you will want to review their portfolio to see the quality of their work and to determine if their “style” matches your vision for your book.

I unfortunately could not afford a stylist.  Therefore, I ended up doing all the shopping for food and props and all the preparation of the food.  Before I started, I looked through the Internet as well as my cooking magazines for inspiration as to how to style each dish.  At the time, I was not an Instagram user.  But Instagram is also a great source of inspiration.  As I made decisions how to style each recipe, I created a spreadsheet with all these notes.  With these notes, I then started thinking about props.

I had lots of props at home but they were all very homogenous and didn’t provide the variety I was looking for.  In addition, some of my props had significant wear and tear.  So I had to go shopping for props.  Some recipes were plated individually, while others were arranged family styled.  I also looked for a diversity of materials and colors.   All this adds up so you have to be somewhat strategic and truly think where it makes sense to invest in more expensive pieces and which pieces can be easily returned after the photo shoot.

As for the groceries, you basically become a grocery ninja.  You want to become best friends with the fishmonger, the produce guy and the baker.  I went a few days before I expected to need to buy certain ingredients and would speak with these individuals so they understood what I was looking for.  For instance, my cherries needed to be blemish free and my trout had to have both a head and a tail.  They ensured I would have what I needed by the day I needed it.  I also easily shopped at five different grocery stores and ordered a few ingredients online.  As you can see, this all took quite a bit of planning.

The day before each shoot I tried to prepare as much as possible so on the day of the shoot I was only finishing the dishes.    Depending on the dish, I could have it 95% done.  But sometimes, I could only prepare the mise-en-place for the next day and the food had to be prepared the day of the shoot.  The day of the shoot I would typically be in the kitchen by 7 am finishing dishes off or preparing the props.  Laying out the plates and linens was always incredible helpful in visualizing the end result.

As you can see, having photography in a cookbook really adds an incredible level of complexity.  But we are an in such a visual era, that a cookbook almost has to have photography if it is to appeal to people who may not necessarily feel comfortable in the kitchen or who are just buying the book for aspirational purposes, as is frequently the case among cookbook buyers.