Visual Appetite Blog

  • Bringing Food to Life

    I don't know about you, but there is so much static imagery of food out there it makes me lose my appetite.  I am always thinking to myself, "How can I as a photographer breathe new life into the food I'm photographing?  How can I help people be excited about food and drinks?"

    Part of how I do that is to go beyond the plated dish and dig deeper into the kitchen or bar and observe how food and drinks are prepped.  You'll find a lot of active things going on.   For a recent shoot at La Mar Cebicheria Peruana in SF we did just that.  General Manager Thomas Medl was tired of the same old static imagery and his direction to me was, "the idea of the photo shoot is the capturing of action/emotions into the pictures. Static shots of dishes is not what I am looking for."  I accepted his suggestion with open arms and we built a shot list that included many of the active things that go on in the kitchen.  Thanks to the team at Wagstaff Worldwide for being so great to work with!

  • The One and Only Top-Down Shot

    You're seeing it all over the food world these days, the top-down shot is hugely popular. 4-5 years ago people said it was "only a way they shoot in editorial". Now, so many of my commercial clients are eating it up. I keep waiting for it to get out of fashion, but my clients keep asking for it.  I think it may be here to stay.

    So what is all the fuss about?  Why do people like these shots so much?  Everyone may have their theories:  It may be an Instagram generation thing or people love the idea of being able to get a bird's-eye view of all the goodies they're about to eat. I know I like it because I would go nuts if all my images were taken from the point of view of standing on the ground. I've been standing on tables and chairs to get a different perspective ever since my beginning photo class ages ago.

    So you might think, "Great, let's shoot a few ourselves." Why not, but here is some advice before taking on the task along with some top-down images from some shoots this month at restaurants Cafe Eugene and La Mar (top two images):

    - Shooting hand-held vs. using a large tripod.  Shooting hand-held has the potential of giving you a serious backache by the end of the shot since you will probably be using a ladder and bending over. But hand-held gives you more flexibility to adjust the shot and change the angle quickly.  

    - Prepare more dishes than you think you'll need.  You might choose not to use some dishes, but you can add the unused food to your hand models' plates. It's nice to have options.

    - Give yourself adequate time on the shot list.  Don't be fooled by what looks like an easy shot. These shots take lot's of patience and attention to details.

    - Think of a certain theme for the food.  Whether it's bar bites, or dinner entrees, brunch food, or 5 different kinds of ceviches, etc.

    Have some stand-ins.  Start arranging plates and/or glassware ahead of time so you can setup without worrying about the food or drinks going bad.  

  • One Step Further: Food, Color, & Design

    Have you seen the Chef's Table series on Neflix?  One of my favorite quotes was from the episode with Chef Magnus Nilsson. He said, "Go and explore the things you're intrigued and interested in.  Actually go investigate them."  I now have the quote as the screensaver on my computer and it inspired me to go outside of my box for this latest series.  

    Color, lines, and shapes are some things I'm constantly thinking about in my imagery and I decided to take it a step further after seeing these images in Gather Journal.  I went to the local salvage yard and found objects like floor tiles, an old rusted doorknob, a glass traffic light cover, etc.  Then juxtaposed them with matching colors of fruits and vegetables.  Quite a fun investigation.  Happy Holidays and have a wonderful New Year!

  • The Importance of Post-Production

    I hope you had a wonderful Summer.  As Fall is in full swing I've already been enjoying a lot of persimmons (one of my favorite fruits).  

    I would like to talk about the subject of Post-Production using one of my latest projects, Oro, a new restaurant by Chef Jason Fox (Commonwealth) and restaurateur Timothy Felkner.  

    Post-Production often gets undervalued in many cases these days, but it can be a significant factor in helping a business define its brand.  I spend a lot of time experimenting with different tones on many of my images.  Some images can look fine without anything being done to them, but it's worth the extra exploration to give images that extra stylistic touch.  

    Below, you can see Oro bartender, Randy Mariani, in 4 different tone examples, with the image at bottom left being the original untouched version.  I ended up liking the top left image the best as it gives it a comfortable cinematic feel.  Which one do you like best?

  • Images Made to Last

    When a new website goes up it's expected the images will last a while.  However, when it comes to restaurants in San Francisco menus change frequently and restaurants want images on a site that won't feel outdated with the change of the seasons.  In the case of working on the website redesign for Boulevard in San Francisco with designer Jon Michaelsen we made images of plated dishes, but also added more timeless shots like a pasta prep image, Mise en Place, and a detail of fresh mushrooms.  Not only did it give us variety in the imagery, but also gave us the opportunity to peak inside the kitchen of one of San Francisco's top restaurants.

  • Black & White Food Inspirations

    I often have so many ideas going through my head of personal projects I want to work on.  One of my latest inspirations is the b&w video titled "Fall In Love" by the band Phantogram.  Besides being blown away by the striking video projections it encouraged me to bring together the worlds of food and black and white.  

    As we all know food and b&w don't necessarily go together, so it proposed a bit of a challenge to figure out what foods would go well in the shot.  The most obvious was that of squid ink pasta, and food stylist Amanda Anselmino proposed a nice variety of foods to go with it including seaweed, olives, cauliflower, sesame seeds, squid ink polenta, & feta cheese.  We had a mixture of props we sourced that ranged from the Black on White Splatterware plate from March to the Eddie Money record from Community Thrift.  We didn't hesitate to add little hints of color, including a necklace from HYBYCOZO.

  • How Many Images in a Day? The question of Quality vs. Quantity

    One key question when working on a shoot is "how many images can we get done in a day?"  What is realistic to deliver the best quality possible and balance the needs of the client?  I'm constantly using the words quality and quantity in my discussions and making sure my clients understand the potential results of spending more time on each shot vs. less time.  

    Some shoots I can produce anywhere between 2-4 shots in a day depending upon how much styling and attention to detail is involved whereas some shoots I can promise 25 images if there is a lot less involved.  Many of my clients like to be provided with as much variety for each shot as possible.  That requires potentially changing the lighting around and shooting from different perspectives like up above, down below, or closer and pulled away.  Other factors include the time it takes to move from set to set, moving props around, and swapping props to see what looks best.

    On a recent shoot for Fiji Water with Fire Station Agency I was asked to shoot their bottles with new labels in different locations of the Mondrian Hotel in Los Angeles.  I had the help of a great team including LA-based prop stylist, Kate Martindale, and digital tech, Running Pixels.  We had a staging room filled with props and gave prop variations on each shot.  Each set had a different lighting setup ranging from soft to moody.  We also photographed different parts of the bottle with different lighting and bracketed focus with a retoucher on-set to consult. When all was said and done we completed 8 shots in two days.  Not bad for a larger production, thanks to our talented crew of 10 people.

  • Tourist In My Own City

    I recently had a fun time working on a series of images for the San Francisco Travel association.  I grew up in the Bay Area and don't do tourism related activities so it was nice to get acquainted again.  It's been a long time since I've been on a cable car or visited Fisherman's Wharf.  I honestly didn't even know the exact routes of the cable cars.  But now I do.  

    SF Travel Creative Director Ron Shapiro, myself, and an assistant spent two days hitting different spots around the city photographing everything from food and drinks at The Slanted Door and Absinthe, shopping in Hayes Valley, Cafe Trieste and Al's Attire in North Beach, cable cars and seafood in Fisherman's Wharf, and bikers and surfers at the Golden Gate Bridge and Ocean Beach.

    When it came to logistics I decided not to rent a car and used Uber to get from place to place as hailing a cab in this town can be quite hard in many parts.  Also, deciding on which locations to shoot at required some scouting as some places didn't have as nice of views or nice lighting indoors.  

    The amount of time you can spend on something like this is endless and SF Travel association has a long wishlist of photography they need.  It was definitely a reminder that there's so much to do and see in our big little city by the Bay.  

  • Communication - OpenTable Shoot

    When I get a call for a job you might think I just show up the day of the shoot, right?  Well, I could do that, but the outcome probably won't reach it's best potential.  When one looks at an image they might not have any idea of the communication and planning it took to get the shot.  I'm going to talk about how I communicate by referencing a shoot I did recently for OpenTable's new website that took place at Foreign Cinema in San Francisco.  Here are my top tips:

    Meet with the ClientIt's part of taking pre-production to the next level and allows us to go more in-depth on many subjects.  Besides having phone conversations we had two meetings at OpenTable's offices before the shoot.  We were able to see and talk about details relating to the different aspect ratios necessary for the new site.  And that led to having the conversation about shooting tethered on-set so we could plug images into layout.  We also looked at different existing imagery and shared what we liked and didn't like about it.  

    Take Notes - Write down thoughts before calling or meeting with the client.  It's a great opportunity to ask questions and think of ideas.  Don't be afraid to write things down even if they sound obvious.  It helps the mind have a steady flow of ideas. When I do this it most often leads to a great phone conversation or meeting.  And when you're in a meeting take notes on your computer or iPad.  It makes it easier to copy and paste things onto your shot list, etc.

    Talk about Direction - Ask clients questions and get an idea of what direction they are going toward and what they want to say with the images.  Make up a mood board or ask them to make one.  In this case OpenTable wanted to show people having a good time, but also pull back a little and shoot it wide so as to make it less personal.  The food couldn't look overly styled or too unique because the image would be seen worldwide.

    As Detailed as Possible - On the shot list spell things out as much as possible.  In the case of shooting in a live restaurant it's crucial to know which tables you want to shoot at and have them reserved.  During the day of scouting decide on which food you want to shoot along with certain dishes and glassware.  Ask the restaurant to swap if necessary.  Make someone responsible for ordering the food and drinks 20-30 minutes before the actual time you're scheduled to shoot it on the shot list.   These things are easily overlooked, but crucial if you want to be prepared.  

  • Luck = Preparation + Opportunity

    I've always loved the saying "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity".  We surely had some great luck on a shoot last month at the Russian River thanks to some good preparation.  I collaborated with stylists James Whitney, Kelsey Furtado, and Whittany Robinson on an "Indian Summer Day at the River" shoot where our goal was to set our models up to have as much as fun as possible.

    James and I went up for a scouting day and discovered a great bridge in Forestville that would make a perfect backdrop for the shoot.  We did extensive mood boarding and planned to give the models as much to do as possible; take a walk across the bridge in Forestville and hang out underneath it, swimming, football, frisbee, food and beverages, guitar, an 80's style boom box, and canoeing.  Our models completely played the part and brought great enthusiasm and wit for many of the activities we had on hand.  Although they had just met, Georgia Smith and Conor Carroll did a great job of making me believe they were boyfriend and girlfriend in some scenes.  Another model, Marco Rodriguez, got so excited he randomly did a backflip during the picnic scene (see second to last image in series).  

    It wasn't all luck though.  I accidentally forgot a number of props and Kelsey had to backtrack in SF to pick them up, we weren't able to connect with one of the models because of terrible phone service, and we weren't able to shoot with canoes because we ran out of time.  Lessons learned.  But, challenges are inevitable.  I always say, "It's not about whether or not things happen to us, it's more about how we deal with things when they do."