Back when Food52 first started, photoshoots took place in Amanda Hesser's house, with Amanda and Merrill cooking through a stack of recipes from start to finish, all in one day.
Since then, we've moved into an office with a test kitchen, a Test Kitchen Chef (hi, Josh Cohen!), and lots of space (okay, limited space) for photo equipment and props. But we're still a bit scrappy, a bit ragtag—and we still have some tricks up our sleeves. (Plus, we've still got Allison Buford going strong in the kitchen.)
Here are 10 things you might not know about how our photoshoots work, all from yesterday's shoot!
We organize our day's shots on a spreadsheet so that all the various people involved—the photographer, the food stylists, the kitchen team, the editors—can access and edit information about each photo (recipe, filename, deadline, camera angle, surface, background, etc. etc.).
This results in a cramped, double-sided shot list with comically tiny text:
And that's not even counting process shots—cooking, assembling—or when we get more than one final (a composed dish and an eaten plate, for example). Since our photographers rely on natural light, the schedule gets hairier in the winter, when the sun sets at 3 P.M. or so.
To help us focus our work, we search for photographs we admire—be that because of the angle, color, props, general atmosphere, or the way a particular food looks. We print them out and pin them up so we can reference them throughout the day. (Thank you to all who serve as inspiration!)
On Tuesdays, the stylists (who are also editors!) take a break from writing and emailing and instead establish home base near the studio, which is the what we call space between the V-flats (those big boards) and the window—the area where the photos happen! (Sometimes we even get to be in the shots ourselves, which is the only foray into modeling we'll ever know.)
When one stylist/editor is on set, the rest sometimes try to tune out the commotion, often a fruitless effort because there's so much going on: lots of smells and noises from the kitchen, music playing from the photographer's monitor, arts and crafts supplies strewn about. It's fun to embrace the break from email land. Sorry if I'm slow to respond on Tuesdays!
The scenery is variable and eclectic—dish towels next to bunches of glowing flowers always next to mugs of coffee—and it's easy to get silly. (Ali, here, is not wearing shoes—but socks, yes.)
While the kitchen is warming up (that is, unpacking groceries and preheating the oven), Design and Home Editor Amanda Sims, takes the stage.
Here she is, poised and ready to demo DIY hanging planters.
And she often comes prepared with a storyboard—a list of her shots and how she envisions each one—which makes her our photographer Bobbi Lin's dream.
We're big believers in the idea that a little mess can make food look more approachable and more delicious—like something that you could make yourself (you can!) and that you wouldn't be afraid of screwing up.
So first, when a shot is set up, there's a lot of careful placing and calculated touching. Each and every one of Ali's chocolate moves is planned.
But all that hard work is quickly destroyed. Here, that means taking a kitchen torch to the chocolate. (It's actually a more precise way to get melty areas without risking the harsh heat of the broiler.)
And then the best, messiest part: complete obliteration (well, in slow, deliberate stages, each one captured on camera).
Ali took one for the team and dug into the Food52 s'more so that Bobbi could capture what it looks like inside, once the chocolate is melty and the marshmallow broiled.
Later in the day, Ali applied that same "place-then-fuss" technique to steak to make it look just the right degree of messy.
Whether we're looking for just the right shallow, neutral-colored bowl (that is only a half-joke) for a scoop of ice cream or the reddest, most bulbous heirloom tomatoes at the market, the search is half the battle.
Like when you have to pick through a veritable forest of mint to find the ideal garnishes. (Don't worry, all those rejects will go to use, too.)
On set, we work closely with our photographers to trick all of you! That may mean that Amanda Sims rigs a system so that she can hang planters to look like they're hanging from the ceiling...
...or that we construct a fake window by turning a strip of molding perpendicular to the ground and taping up a tablecloth to diffuse some of the nearby light.
Below, you'll see a collection of our invaluable, highly-advanced styling "tools": olive oil (which we apply with a basting brush or our fingers), paper towels (for wiping up messes on and off set), large flake sea salt, and very coarsely ground pepper. That's it!
Maybe that was obvious from the photo above?
Before the gaze of the camera—the lighting, the crop, the angle, the scale (super close-up, very pulled-back), it's hard to predict what a shot will look like on screen, with all its bells and whistles.
If you were to happen upon our studio set without seeing the final image on the computer monitor, it might just look like a rather lonely meal for one.
And a few more before-and-afters to give you the full effect:
Want to know anything else about our photoshoots? Tell us in the comments!