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How My Cookbook Photo Shoot was Nothing Like My Food Blogging

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For as long as I’ve been a food blogger, this has been my working rhythm: cook, photograph, edit, write. Photos have played as much a role as words in telling a recipe’s story—I can’t imagine doing one and not the other.  

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But in the summer of 2015, when I began working on my cookbook, Bread Toast Crumbs: Recipes for No-Knead Loaves & Meals to Savor Every Slice, I was forced to find a new rhythm. After several weeks of photographing recipes and sending them to my editor, Amanda Englander, she told me I would need to hire a photographer. For five minutes, I admit, the news crushed me. Having seen so many of my favorite bloggers write and shoot their books, I had hoped to do the same. Somehow, I felt, not doing both would be less impressive.

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But after processing the news, more than anything, I felt extreme relief. The weeks I had spent playing cookbook photographer stressed me out, the pressure to make every shot perfect weighing on me. I worked slowly, questioning every detail of every shot—did the napkin look naturally furled? Did the vintage fork look too dingy?  Did the composition of plates, glasses, linens, and silverware look too staged? With the photography off my plate, I could focus on the recipes and the writing. The book, with a professional photographer, would be better for it.

And I soon learned, it wouldn’t just be a photographer who would make this book better. There would be a food stylist, too. And the food stylist wouldn’t just be styling either—he or she would prep and cook the food, too. Both the photographer and the stylist, I learned, would have an assistant. And there would be a prop stylist as well. Prop. Stylist. Who knew? And what, if any, would be my role?

1. Find a photographer.

Well, first, it would be to find the photographer. With the help of my editor, my art director at my publisher, Stephanie Huntwork, and my agent, Berta Treitl, I searched online, looked at portfolios, and discussed locations, logistics, and the timeline. Finally, the stars aligned for Eva Kolenko, a Bay Area photographer, whose work I’d admired for years in the pages of Bon Appétit, Food and Wine, and Fine Cooking.

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2. Create a mood board and shot list.

The next steps would be to create a mood board—in essence, a style guide for the book—and a shot list, which, if you are unfamiliar, is exactly as it sounds: the list of all of the shots that would appear in the book. Because not every recipe would be photographed, we first selected those essential for telling the Bread Toast Crumbs story, followed by those we deemed most photogenic. Each was then categorized as “plated,” “ingredient,” “process,” or “lifestyle.” A balance (though not equal) in these groupings would ensure the shots in the book would be varied, which would keep the book visually interesting.

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3. Shoot the book!

After months of planning, it was time to make a book. So at the end of March last year, my mother, with whom I wrote Bread Toast Crumbs, and I flew to San Francisco. After dropping our bags at our Airbnb in Oakland, we walked to the studio in Emeryville, a small city (home of Pixar) in the East Bay just south of Berkeley. There we met Jeffrey Larsen, the food stylist, who, after welcoming us with hugs, introduced us to the world of cookbook photography.

The first day, the “loading” day, plays out like a time-lapse video in my head. As my mother and I watched the airy, cavernous loft transform into an at-capacity studio space, people buzzed in and out. The prop stylist, Natasha Kolenko (Eva’s sister), and her assistant, hustled up and down the stairs, first unloading the backgrounds—thick, heavy slabs of wood, marble, steel, and metal—then everything else: the silverware, pots, pans, linens, pitchers, pepper mills, glasses, cooling racks, baking dishes, and other props, all of which covered the surface of several large tables and filled every inch of space of two commercial shelving units.

Props on props on props.

Meanwhile, in the teensy studio kitchen, Jeffrey and his assistant began prepping for the days ahead. They filled the fridge with groceries, stirred pots on the stovetop, and lined shelves with many pounds of flour, nuts, seeds, and all the other dry ingredients required to make dozens of loaves of bread. Jeffrey taped the next-day’s recipes to the wall, made lists, watered his herbs, and looked at his 10-day schedule over and over again, all the while keeping my mother and me informed of what would lie ahead.

Jeffrey's recipes and herbs.

When Eva arrived, more hugs followed, music began playing, and, as she set up her space with sawhorses, blackout curtains, tripods, her camera, computer, and printer—the studio came alive. Eva’s assistant, meanwhile, created an inspiration board, pinning clippings—photos I had snipped from magazines and newspapers; images Eva had printed from previous shoots—to large sheets of foam core.  

The inspiration board and the photo studio.

Over the course of the next ten days, this team of artists would crank out 8 to 10 photographs a day. I watched and learned, and instead of photographing the food, I photographed the events. Jeffrey and Eva worked painstakingly on every shot, Jeffrey often crouched low to the floor with his tools—mini pipettes, tweezers, brushes—Eva hovering overhead with her camera, adjusting the height, angle, and settings as needed.

After every shot, Eva would call us (my mother, Stephanie, and me) over to show us the finished photo, which would appear on Eva’s computer. Without fail, my jaw dropped in awe, every shot making me more grateful for this expert team, more excited to see the finished book.

A food stylist at work, and a food stylist's essential tools.

At the end of each day of shooting, Eva not only sent the photos back to my publisher, Clarkson Potter, but also printed them all, pinning each to a large sheet of foam core. Seeing all of the images together ensured Eva, Jeffrey, and Stephanie there would be a variety of angles, colors, and textures all the while ensuring the shots matched the style set in the mood board. At the end of the 10 days, the mini snaps filled two and half boards, the first visual glimpse of Bread Toast Crumbs.

The visual start of Bread Toast Crumbs!
The visual start of Bread Toast Crumbs! Photo by Alexandra Stafford

I had arrived to the shoot worried that not playing a role would make me feel removed from the process. But I left feeling more connected than ever—not only to the book, but to the many people responsible for bringing Bread Toast Crumbs to life. It, as they say, takes a village (not to mention many many pounds of flour.) 

Bread Toast Crumbs comes out April 4! For more stories on photography and styling, head here.