Photographers on Creating, a Pinterest-Worthy Valentine’s Day Feast

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We’ve interviewed dozens of inspiring food photographers for the Shutterstock blog over the years, but with Valentine’s Day on the horizon, we wanted to do something a little extra. This is the time of year when restaurants and home cooks go all-out to create meals with a special wow-factor. And whether you’re spending the holiday in or going to your favorite spot for an expensive treat, you’ll probably want to snap some mouthwatering photos of your food.

We reached out to nine food photographers from across the globe and asked them to share some of their best behind-the-scenes secrets. Here, they spill everything you need to know about going the extra mile when it comes to shooting all sorts of dishes. Of course, most of them are not directly Valentine’s Day-themed, but that doesn’t mean you won’t want to chow down on them this season.

In the case of these artists, the idea of “elaborate food” can mean a bunch of different things. For some, it simply means having a ton of courses and dishes to prepare, while for others, it means a totally over-the-top concept. For a few, it means the whole setup, including props and the overall mood, tells a more detailed story than your typical food photo. You’ll also see that they have different approaches to ambitious projects—whether it’s cooking and styling everything themselves or hiring a team—so whatever your process, you’re sure to find some handy tips here. Read on for more.

1. “When items are cooled, the fats and oils congeal, so it is important to heat them or else they will look bad.”

Joshua Resnick

Photographers on Creating a Pinterest-Worthy Valentine’s Day Feast — Consider the Food's Temperature

Image by Joshua Resnick. Gear: Fuji GFX 50S camera, Fuji GF 63mm f/2.8 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/100 sec; f8; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I absolutely love pho, so doing a pho photo shoot seemed natural. But I did not want to just have another pho image; instead, I wanted something with a personal touch. Everyone has their own style of eating it, so I decided to just do a photo of how I eat my pho and the things I eat with it.

Photographers on Creating a Pinterest-Worthy Valentine’s Day Feast — Organize Ahead of Time

Image by Joshua Resnick

Pro Tip

Preparing a large meal for a photo shoot is not as daunting as it seems—as long as you use proper organization. As with every shoot, always try to get the lighting and composition figured out before shooting. You can use placeholder items to help with this.

Shoots with lots of dishes require even more planning than normal, sometimes days in advance. For shoots like these, make a list of which components must be made fresh and which ones don’t. Most of the time, the majority of the items can be made in advance. Broths and soups are good examples. Still, depending on what it is, I recommend heating it up right before you use it. When items are cooled, the fats and oils congeal, so it is important to heat them or else they will look bad. If it is something like a hamburger or hotdog, I will also brush oil on it to make it look even fresher.

For the items that must be fresh, have backups. Garnishes like mint or basil wilt fast, as well as most leafy greens. You may need to replace them during the shoot several times, so you want to make sure you have extras ready. Avocados are another tricky one. They should be misted with lemon or lime juice to slow browning. These types of things should always be added last after everything else is in place.

2. “I add some decorations to breathe life into my photo.”

its_al_dente (Elena Eryomenko)

Photographers on Creating a Pinterest-Worthy Valentine’s Day Feast — Remember to Decorate

Image by its_al_dente (Elena Eryomenko). Gear: Canon EOS Rebel SL1 camera, Canon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens. Settings: Focal length 26mm; exposure 1/200 sec; f7; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I love Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s so colorful, vivid, abundant, and full of unique flavors. Even the names of the dishes and ingredients sound mesmerizing to me: za’atar and tahini, labne and muhammara, hummus and harissa. Besides, Middle Eastern food can be absolutely stunning from a visual point of view.

This photo features all the typical food from Middle Eastern cuisine. When I was thinking about how to arrange the dishes, I thought about all those beautiful patterns you can see on tiles, ceramics, arabesques, and carpets in a place like Istanbul, for example. I placed the elements more or less symmetrically. Symmetry pleases the viewer’s eye, and, in this case, it helped me to achieve the effect I wanted.

The next trick I’ve used here is the contrast between the background and the food. As you can see, Middle Eastern food has a lot of red, yellow, and orange shades, and these shades look absolutely fantastic in contrast with blues. Here, I used a background with a rich, deep blue color with a rough concrete texture. This texture brings out the striking visual appeal of the dishes and emphasizes the originality and character of Middle Eastern food with all its distinctive, robust, multi-layered flavors.

And lastly, I’ll mention the framing of the shot. In this photo, the viewer can’t see the actual ends of the frame. It’s as if there is something happening behind the visible area of the scene. It’s always a good idea to engage viewers by leaving room for their imaginations.

Pro Tip

It’s fun to style shots with multiple courses, but when you’re dealing with tons of elements, it’s easy to get confused and end up with a messy and chaotic composition. The first thing I do is decide which one or two subjects will be my key “heroes.” I pick out and highlight the main food elements—the ones that catch the viewer’s eye in the first place. Only then will their gaze travel through the rest of a picture. This helps to create a smooth, dynamic image.

Then I start to add and arrange the rest of the dishes and elements. I do it one-by-one, in baby steps, trying to keep everything in balance. The picture shouldn’t be overwhelming, so I try not to load all the large subjects in one corner of my shot; instead, I place them evenly throughout.

And then, finally, I do the last touches. I add some decorations to breathe life into my photo. These could be anything you like: napkins, cutlery, fresh herbs, or even spices carelessly scattered around the dishes. These little things help to tell a whole story. It is probably the most challenging but also the most interesting part. This is where you can really transform a picture from a zero to a hero.

When it comes to composition, it’s safer to have a plan, but sometimes you get your best shots when you just go with the flow. There are no rules except maintaining a sense of harmony. Just play around with your scene until you’re happy with the result.

3. “First, get the freshest food at your local grocery stores.”

Jag_cz (Jakub Gojda)

Photographers on Creating a Pinterest-Worthy Valentine’s Day Feast — Start with Fresh Ingredients

Image by Jag_cz (Jakub Gojda). Gear: Canon EOS 5DSR camera, Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 50mm; exposure 1/125 sec; f16; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This was one of the first photos from my “flying food” collection. This photomontage is composed of several individual layers, where every single shot of a hamburger ingredient represents one layer. Each ingredient was captured separately in the studio and then folded in Photoshop, composed together, and post-produced to look realistic. It was important to shoot every ingredient with the same light settings so that the final image felt coordinated.

Photographers on Creating a Pinterest-Worthy Valentine’s Day Feast — Try Working with a Food Stylist

Image by Jag_cz (Jakub Gojda)

Pro Tip

First, get the freshest food at your local grocery stores. If you want to make photos of more complex meals and you are not experienced with their preparation, it’s better to hire someone else who can prepare and cook the meal inside the studio.

It’s always better to have a food stylist on your team as well. That way, you will save a lot of time, and you can focus just on the composition of the final shot. Store any fresh fruit and vegetables in the fridge before you capture it. Otherwise, it will not look fresh. If you’re taking photos of meat, refresh it with special oil spray or apply oil to the surface with a small brush. Meats dry up very quickly. Make sure to have plenty of paper towels. You will need them!

4. “When I plan to photograph a dish that I’ve cooked myself, the first thing I do is visualize the final rendering of my dish.”

Alphonsine Sabine

Photographers on Creating a Pinterest-Worthy Valentine’s Day Feast — Visualize Your Finished Dish

Image by Alphonsine Sabine. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, Canon 50mm lens. Settings: F16; ISO 50.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This photo was taken this autumn on a pretty gray and cloudy day. With this photo of butternut squash hummus, I wanted to convey a warm atmosphere, similar to that feeling you get when it’s cold outside and you come home to a nice little comforting dish. I wanted to create a dish that makes you forget the cold outside.

Photographers on Creating a Pinterest-Worthy Valentine’s Day Feast — Prepare Items Ahead of Time

Image by Alphonsine Sabine

Pro Tip

When I plan to photograph a dish that I’ve cooked myself, the first thing I do is visualize the final rendering of my dish. Once I know what my dish is going to look like, the ingredients I’ll need, and how long it will take to cook, I go into the kitchen. If the shoot is set to begin, for example, at 9:00 AM, I arrive in the kitchen at least three hours before so I have time to prepare everything.

Another tip is to shop for the ingredients the day before the shoot. That way, you won’t be in a rush on the day of the shoot. You can be sure to have everything you need, and your products will still remain fresh. Get some duplicate ingredients, like vegetables or fruits, because you’re never safe from mishaps. You can use any extra ingredients to cook other recipes so they don’t go to waste.

Have your recipe, the ingredients, and the necessary equipment all planned out before you start cooking. The better organized you are, the more time you will save. Additionally, prepare your setup in advance. If possible, set up the day before. Once the dish is ready, you will have to start shooting as quickly as possible because the ingredients will start to deteriorate.

If you have ingredients that perish quickly (including aromatic herbs like mint, parsley, and coriander), a little trick is to keep them in a container filled with cold water during your shoot. Pay attention to the cooking time for your ingredients; when you cook vegetables, for example, you need to ensure that they keep their beautiful texture, so my advice is not to cook them for too long.

5. “Your tableware must present each dish beautifully while at the same time creating a coherent presentation of your meal.”

Ariyani Tedjo

Photographers on Creating a Pinterest-Worthy Valentine’s Day Feast — Create a Coherent Presentation

Image by Ariyani Tedjo. Gear: Canon EOS 70D camera, Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens. Settings: Focal length 24mm; exposure 1.0 sec; f8; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I am captivated by the richness of traditional Indonesian snacks. I also notice that these snacks don’t get a lot of attention compared to main course dishes. I created this series in hopes that more people could be familiar with these snacks and also that people who need pictures of Indonesian cuisine would be able to use them.

To make them more appealing, I styled the snacks in the style of an upscale afternoon tea. I used a bouquet of orchids, as the blossoms are abundant in tropical regions like Indonesia. The image was taken in a home studio with natural lighting.

Pro Tip

Choose your dishes carefully. Take into consideration the popularity, flavors, textures, colors, and availability of the ingredients, and also consider the preparation time and total cost needed. Make a detailed written plan and then schedule everything, including when and where you’ll get the food, ingredients, and new tableware if needed. Write down the sequence of the dishes you’ll prepare first, second, and so on.

Pick the best available tableware. Your tableware must present each dish beautifully while at the same time creating a coherent presentation of your meal. When you’re working with certain traditional foods, take into consideration the characteristics of the tableware you choose. Using tableware from the same region as the food will leave a better impression, as both the food and the tableware will have the same cultural vibe.

When styling and arranging your dishes on the table, balance the concepts of “abundance” and “less is more.” For example, when photographing a feast, showing abundance is a must. However, if something seems chaotic, do not hesitate to take out a prop or even the least important dish.

6. “To avoid a chaotic set-up, I decide on my focal point and then place all of the other “stages” around that focal point so that they are only partly in the frame.”

Megan Betteridge

Photographers on Creating a Pinterest-Worthy Valentine’s Day Feast — Decide on a Focal Point

Image by Megan Betteridge. Gear: Canon 6D camera, 35mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f3.5; ISO 640.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This was a new coconut quinoa recipe that I was trying out, and I thought it might be fun to snap a few photos with all of the beautiful veggie colors. I used some old fence posts as the “tabletop,” knowing that I wanted a slightly darker and moody feel so the colors would pop.

Photographers on Creating a Pinterest-Worthy Valentine’s Day Feast — Visualize the Process

Image by Megan Betteridge

Pro Tip

When planning ahead for food photography, I typically either cut the recipe in half or buy double the ingredients at the store so that I have extra whole ingredients to use for styling. I photograph a lot of soups and salads that contain chopped up fruits and veggies, and it always looks better to show my audience what is in the recipe so they aren’t guessing.

It is amazing how much of a story a picture tells when you can visualize the process. I often “set aside” the different stages of the recipe. For example, if I was shooting homemade snickerdoodle cookies, I would want to have a bowl full of dough, some rolled cookie dough balls, some balls sitting in a bowl of sugar and cinnamon, some on the sheet, and then a plate of baked cookies. In this case, this would be easiest and look the best if I doubled the recipe so that I could have a good-sized bowl full of dough. To avoid a chaotic setup, I decide on my focal point and then place all of the other “stages” around that focal point so that they are only partly in the frame.

7. “I nearly always try three angles: an overhead shot, a 45-degree shot, and a 0-degree shot.”

ercan senkaya

Photographers on Creating a Pinterest-Worthy Valentine’s Day Feast — Use Different Angles

Image by ercan senkaya. Gear: Canon 5DSR camera, Canon 100mm macro f 2.8 lens. Settings: Exposure 1 sec; f9; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I wanted to improve my skills when it came to working with dark tones, so I decided to shoot a soup series. My friend Chris, who is also a chef, cooked three to four different kinds of soup for the project.

Photographers on Creating a Pinterest-Worthy Valentine’s Day Feast — Experiment with Backgrounds

Image by ercan senkaya

Pro Tip

I usually work on a topic for two days in advance. Spend that time thinking about your ingredients, your props, and details like what color napkin you’ll use. After that, choose your angle. I nearly always try three angles: an overhead shot, a 45-degree shot, and a 0-degree shot. What story do you want to tell with your ingredients and props? Think carefully about where you put them. Use as few colors as possible to make your image look better and less messy.

8. “I follow trends from different cuisines around the world to get ideas and inspiration.”

Timolina

Photographers on Creating a Pinterest-Worthy Valentine’s Day Feast — Stay Connected to Trends

Image by Timolina. Gear: Nikon 7100 camera, Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G lens. Settings: Exposure 1/200 sec; f5.6; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This photo is from a series dedicated to Valentine’s Day! With this photo, I tried to show how you can make a beautiful and simple breakfast. It can even be prepared by someone who does not know how to cook. I created a warm atmosphere by adding a cup of coffee. The festive mood was achieved through little things in the form of a gift and hearts. It seems to me that photographs with a rustic style will always be relevant.

Pro Tip

In my opinion, to become a talented food photographer, you must be able to cook tasty meals. Personally, I do not resort to any tricks, and my food is always edible. I follow trends from different cuisines around the world to get ideas and inspiration.

9. “The shots I like the most are usually made in collaboration with a cook and a food stylist.”

thefoodgrapher

Photographers on Creating a Pinterest-Worthy Valentine’s Day Feast — Offer to Collaborate

Image by thefoodgrapher. Gear: Olympus em1 camera, Panasonic 42.5mm f1.2 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/500 sec; f5.6; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?

We took this photo on site in a restaurant. It was a bit rushed since this particular dish doesn’t hold its shape for long, but don’t be afraid of shooting on location. You’ll have much more creative freedom once you’re used to it.

Photographers on Creating a Pinterest-Worthy Valentine’s Day Feast — Try Shooting On-Location

Image by thefoodgrapher

Pro Tip

The shots I like the most are usually made in collaboration with a cook and a food stylist. You don’t have to have a professional cook or stylist, but you’ll get the best results if you’re working with specialized teammates.

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