Photography & Styling

What *Actually* Goes on at a Food52 Photoshoot?

July 28, 2016

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!

1. Spreadsheets are our greatest tool.

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.).

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This results in a cramped, double-sided shot list with comically tiny text:

Can't read the text? Neither can we. (Only one side of the shot list pictured.)

2. We squeeze about 15 shots into a day.

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.

3. We pull inspiration from around the web.

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!)

4. Photoshoot days are kind of like camp for the editors.

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.)

this is what detention looks like @food52

A photo posted by Kenzi Wilbur (@kenziwilbur) on

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!

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Top Comment:
“I can check every item off and transport it to the prep kitchen. I've since learned to do that for big dinners. It's really cool to see the process! ”
— aleeda

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.)

5. We don't just shoot food!

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.

6. Sometimes the most important part of a shot is messing it up.

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.)

La, la. La, la. La, la. @itsalislagle @goodcomag

A video posted by sarahjampel (@sarahjampel) on

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.

7. Stylists are also treasure hunters.

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.)

8. And illusionists.

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...

Amanda and Bobbi's handiwork.

...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.

Not a real window (shhh). Photo by Mark Weinberg

9. You probably own every one of our "secret styling tools."

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!

10. Without the lens of the camera, our set-up might look like nothing special.

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.

Womp, womp. A solo meal for a monk, facing a wall.

And a few more before-and-afters to give you the full effect:


From my iPhone.


Jerky on set.


Looks pretty humble here. But see the va-va-voom below!

Want to know anything else about our photoshoots? Tell us in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Jodie Nixon
    Jodie Nixon
  • kendraaronson
  • Kate Valleri
    Kate Valleri
  • Ann Peters
    Ann Peters
  • M
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Jodie N. August 11, 2017
(I know I'm late to the party) but I love, love, love seeing these types of article!! More please!
kendraaronson October 25, 2016
Yaaaas! I love seeing behind-the-scenes workflows :) Thank you very much for sharing this fascinating window into your work world!
Kate V. July 29, 2016
Super fun to see. Love the tutorial videos by your staff, too. Thanks for the glimpse.
Ann P. July 28, 2016
Fascinating! I liked the before and after photos and thanks for sharing your clever tricks on styling and photography too.
M July 28, 2016
Great post.

Though now I have weathered-surface-for-pictures envy!
aleeda July 28, 2016
What a treat, and thanks for sharing! I especially loved hearing that you to use spreadsheets. When I have to prepare 23 ice cream flavors (once a year, I plan an ice cream social) that spreadsheet saves me. I even have it calculate how much whole milk, cream, sugar and half and half I need for each recipe. I can check every item off and transport it to the prep kitchen. I've since learned to do that for big dinners. It's really cool to see the process!
aleeda July 28, 2016
Actually, it calculates how much of these items I need to buy!
GigiB July 28, 2016
I really enjoy behind the scenes posts - it's a lot of work to put together anything for daily content. I think a great series would be food photography you find inspiring. Not what you're using at the moment, necessarily, rather a series like the weekly food bloggers we love. In that series photography is somewhat peripheral. I have little interest in photography, but I know it's a hot topic online.
Allison B. July 28, 2016
Great job capturing our crazy (fun) Tuesdays!
PHIL July 28, 2016
I am available (for a nominal fee) to eat anything left over from the photo shoots