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goodfoodgood is a web portal which provides information about food and ingredients to people around the world. We take the dinner conversation online to share knowledge and inspire others to care about what they eat.

The difficulty of food photography

The secret of ice-cream is potatoes. At least, that’s how the story goes. That it is potatoes that makes the stuff look so delectable on glossy advertising images and lustrous food magazine spreads. Potatoes are painted, moulded in the form of scoops, and grazed with a knife to give off those marvellous wrinkles that we associate with perfectly-made ice cream. Real ice cream melts too quickly for the cameras to take the extreme, meticulous close-ups that are required in food photography.

A production company employee brushes up mushrooms for the food footage for television.

Making food look good is a whole different matter from making good food. Indeed, the latter is possibly easier. Good food photography is as difficult as pleasing the palates of tempestuous chefs (or food critics for that matter). I discover this in my week in the studio of a stylish and extremely popular weekly cooking show in Germany. A staggering amount of preparation goes into a 24-minute episode. The studio staff start work at 9 am for a show that is shot at 1:30 pm. In those four and a half hours, they organise the ingredients on the basis of the recipes to be prepared. They also spend a lot of time making the stuff look good. On one of the days I was there, I saw them polishing mushrooms with a small brush for several minutes. Their job is even more difficult because the chef on this show believes in using only real food for images. And no cosmetic additives either. That’s also because there is a studio audience who get to taste the dishes prepared.

What the specialists say

“We never use other products dressed up as food. Ice-cream might be the only exception we make. Because it melts too soon under the camera lights. We use flour and lard, though. But potatoes are a popular stand-in for ice-cream, yes,” says Marcel, a half-German, half-Chinese cook who works at a food magazine brought out by the same company that produces the television show. He temps at the television show for the three or four days a month that the episodes are shot in. He works in the back-up kitchen, and when the chef has finished shooting for the day, Marcel puts on the guy’s clothes and shoots for a separate section for a couple of hours where only the food is filmed. He has to wear the chef’s clothes for reasons of continuity, so that when these shots are incorporated into the episode, it looks like the chef is handling the food.

“You have to get real close to the food to make it come alive,” says Matthias, the specialist food photographer for the show. “This means extreme close-ups to evoke the colours and textures. Movement is also of great help in shooting food. Like milk, for instance, it looks much better when you capture it while being poured. You’ll notice that television cooking shows invariably have the host or chef tossing the pan full of ingredients. It’s great screen drama.”

He knows what he’s talking about. During the exclusive food shoot, I keenly follow the four cameras zooming in on the principal characters: some tomatoes. I notice that even when an average-sized tomato takes up the whole shot, it looks reasonably resistible. But then you cut up the same tomato, and zoom in so close that you can count the golden seeds, and see the soft gel lining the fruit, it looks quite impossible to resist.

A deliciously-photographed burrata platter. Notice that you can see the seeds in the tomato slices, and the olive oil on the bread.

The Glamour of Veggies

Fruit and vegetables are relatively easier to film; they have the colour and the sparkle. Eggs too, with their golden or fiery orange yolks, have good screen presence. Desserts with their chocolate complexion or accessories like fruit and cream, are natural scene stealers. What is decidedly not photogenic is meat, beef especially, with the brownish texture that it acquires after cooking. On one of the shoots, a really tasty Bratwurst (a German sausage) recipe with potatoes looked embarrassingly ordinary on camera (though really not as bad as the television staff made it seem). They tried to shoot it a couple more times, but the sprig of shapely herb on top didn’t help much. (Usually though, nuts and herbs of all manner and form are terrific make-up aids). They went home worrying that a rather splendid recipe might not be followed on account of its unglamourous screen appearance.

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