Monday, June 1, 2009

Playing with my food (and it's playing back)

It’s just the third week of my food styling class, and I already started having nerve-wracking adventures. What an exciting occupation must it be!

It’s a beginner’s class, and this week’s assignment was to style any dinner entrée. The teacher suggested making something simple, like a pasta or a chicken breast, but to play with it for a while in order to practice to keep the food “alive” under the camera. In this ideal grilling weather a grilled chicken breast was my obvious choice.

For my first attempt (see the previous post) I got critique from the teacher for overcrowding the plate. The food in photographs does look very different than on the table, and this is what I’m learning now. For once, the table created all this negative space to offset the food, and in a picture it usually is not included.

I sure could do better, so I decided to give the grilled chicken a second shot.

The search for a perfect blue plate for a summery presentation took several days. All stores have some kind of blue plates, but I wasn’t interested in this dull country-style dark blue on heavy pottery. I needed something ethereal, like a summer breeze, like my dreams. Like Caribbean water. And I got lucky. Crate and Barrel just got these small handmade glass plates in several bright colors, and their blue was the exact color of my dreams.

Now I could create my dish: grilled chicken breast over rice, with grilled pineapple and wilted green onions. Since the cute little onions that I got at the farmers market had a little purple at the roots, chive flowers made a good garnish. Plus a sprinkle of black and white toasted sesame seeds for contrast.

Working on a plate composition takes some time, so for a couple of hours the shapely organic chicken breasts and my prettiest onions had to wait in the refrigerator, while a paper towel was standing in for the rice, a bunch of bruised leftover greens for the onions, and a frozen chicken breast for a grilled one. It didn’t look like food at all, but the shapes and sizes were right, and the colors close enough, and it helped to arrange all the pieces, photograph them, download, and see the results on a computer screen, before beginning to mess with the real food.

We take pictures for this class ourselves, and the work is not judged on the quality of photos. So I use my little point-and-shoot digital camera with a tabletop tripod. The results look disappointing, if you imagine what a good photographer with serious studio equipment could do, but sufficient for the class. So I pointed the camera at my mock-up, got another plate ready, and set out to cook the “hero” food.

Arrange the cool rice in a pile just the right size to support the chicken. Blanch the onions and drop them in the ice water bath before they lose their color. Grill a few slices of pineapple, in case the first one breaks; they are fragile. Put perfect grill marks on the chicken (at least on the top side). Place the chicken and the best pineapple slice on the rice, making sure their grill marks are not parallel or perpendicular, but run at a nice angle. Lightly wipe the onions, tie them in a little bundle, and place on the plate in a graphical line, taking the eye from the center to the upper right corner. Using tweezers carefully place the chive flowers and the sesame seeds in precisely right, “natural”, locations. Dump the stand-in; put your food under the camera.


Now it’s time to take a lot of pictures, at slightly different angles and lighting, making sure that the food doesn’t dry out while you shoot. I took two. And then the camera went dead…

I had just charged it. I tried to take out the memory card, put the camera on the charger, remove and clean the battery, shake it, yell at it. Nothing happened. It was frozen, period. My precious food was sitting there ready to be photographed, loosing it’s beauty every second, and the damn thing choose to break just now.

R., my boyfriend, ran out of the office to check out what all the screams were about. I showed him the food, and the dead camera. "Sorry, girl, this camera doesn't look good. But the food looks great; I can eat it, just to relieve your stress."

And what else could we do? While I would go buy a new camera or borrow one from a friend, the food would die for sure. Normally, one shouldn't eat the food from the photo shot; stylists use all kinds of tricks to keep the food looking fresh, and some of the substances that can enhance the look are either inedible, or not very tasty. Luckily, I didn't have time to put anything nasty on the food. So I heated up the chicken and the onions, replaced the rice, and R. happily ate the dish. Just as he was putting away the plate, we heard a soft buzz from the camera: it suddenly came alive again.


Michael Walsh said...

Interesting little story. It's rare when you can hit the mark on both the food and the photo. I'm glad someone got to enjoy the food at least.

Do you do much editing of you photos. I always run mine through Picasso, start with the "I'm feeling lucky" button which is the auto fixer upper, then hit the "sharpen" button which brings everything into a crisp focus. I've taken some crap photos that come to life after a little fixer upper.

I'm enjoying your blog, photos, and stories. Thanks.

amarillo said...

Thank you, Michael!

I'm not very good at photography and editing, so I usually adjust levels, sometimes the white balance, resize, and make a frame (I use GIMP).

I tryed to interest some of my photographer friends in food photography, to get their help, but so far they are only interested in eating.