Cookbooks of the past didn’t have photos but nowadays, photos help to set the visual tone for a cookbook. They’re an integral part of the publication. In fact, people often ask me, “Does your cookbook have pictures?” Some have remarked that they won’t buy a cookbook unless there are pictures.
If you took a look at the Asian Dumplings preview pages and are curious about what went into obtaining the shots, this post is for you. It was originally posted on VietWorldKitchen.com in January, but I’ve updated a few things. I learn from every photo shoot I’m on and hope that the information here is useful to you, whether you’re a food professional or not.
Assembling the team and props
My editor Clancy Drake budgeted for a four-day shoot, and after consulting with me and Ten Speed Press’s art department, she put together a great team comprising photographer Penny De Los Santos and food stylist Karen Shinto. Penny is a seasoned photojournalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, the Wall Street Journal, and my favorite food magazine, Saveur. Based in Austin, she flew in for the shoot in Santa Cruz, where I live.
Karen has styled many cookbooks, including my first book, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, for which she took a research trip to Vietnam; she’s hardcore. Based in San Francisco, her food styling regularly appears in Sunset magazine (just check the tiny print for her credit). Karen also was among the team of thirteen recipe testers for Asian Dumplings so she knew the recipe collection well.
Ten Speed Press provided the art direction and the team followed their guidelines. Prop stylist Natalie Hoelen was brought in to gather an amazing array of dishware, flatware, fabrics and surfaces for Karen and Penny to work with. In professional food photos, not all those dishes are laying around someone’s house. The props are bought, borrowed, created, and rented. Since Karen was staying with me, she grabbed a few things from my kitchen. After she unloaded all the props and arranged them in the dining room, it looked like we were having a high-class yard sale. Think of the food like actors and actresses who need special props and styling to make them inspiring to their audience.
Natural light and edible food
My friends Sue and Jerry volunteered their spacious home for the shoot. A week in advance, Karen scouted the location for Penny to ensure that there was sufficient light. Excellent food photography is done with natural light because the food is illuminated with warmth; artificial light tends to make food look unappetizingly hard and cold.
Clancy and I had developed a recipe shot list for the manuscript, and Karen prepped the food with me as her assistant. The first day established the momentum for the rest of the shoot, and Karen and I strategically planned to have most of the first day’s dishes well-prepared or ready to assemble. We started at 8am and finished with clean up around 5pm, just in time for cocktails and dinner. Over the four days, we shot 30 styled food photos and did about 15 pickups (impromptu shots of ingredients, techniques, etc.). That’s a lot and we kept moving forward at a steady speed, cleaning up as we went to ensure that Sue and Jerry’s home was not devastated by the shoot.
Getting the shot just right
Karen composed each shot and worked with Penny to get the best angle. A lot of fine tuning went into getting the final image, and often times, Karen used tweezers to arrange the minutiae. She ironed cloth surfaces and props to crisp perfection too. The finished photos were reviewed and posted so we could make sure that the colors and compositions flowed well through the entire book.
Chasing the day’s best light was part of the work, and Penny moved the shoot table (a lightweight folding table I bought at Costco) around the house and eventually outdoors. January had a limited amount of daylight so we hustled under pressure to capture the best light. We lost light around 4pm.
As a photojournalist, Penny shoots fast and she has the knack for finding just the right sweet spot for each shot. Not all photojournalists can capture action and food but Penny has the unusual ability to do both. She also loves food and couldn’t wait to eat the set as soon as she obtained the shot. In fact, we all joined in to eat our ‘models.’ Everyday Sue and Jerry ate leftover dumplings for dinner. On one of the days, we shot all deep-fried foods: spring rolls, taro puffs, samosas, sardine puffs, and more. They were so all so good but as Penny said in the early afternoon, “Man, I’ve got a carb coma.” We brewed a pot of green tea and got her working again.
Despite what you may have heard about styled food being inedible, that wasn’t the case here. Karen made the recipes as they’re written and artistically presented them. I was her kitchen slave and dumpling robot. When Karen wasn’t satisfied with my work, she let me know it.
That was the Asian Dumplings photo shoot! Lots of fun and hard work for a ton of gorgeous images that help to define the publication.
Feel free to share your food photo shoot experiences or pose questions.