What’s wrong with this picture?
Technical issues aside, the problem is with the content: every bit of food depicted in this scene ended up in the rubbish bin after the photo-shoot had ended. It was not edible.
Recently I spent about an hour on a Sunday roasting capsicums (peppers) and making a spicy marinade, intending to blog the recipe. It was late in the afternoon and by the time I had completed the dish the natural light had faded. I resolved to snap some photos the next morning before work, but I ended up running out of time. I returned home that night to find the capsicums sitting on the bench; a casualty of an early morning dash to extract the lunchbox situated behind the hapless capsicums in the fridge.
My carefully prepared dish had sat out for a whole day and it was now inedible. As is typical of my current obsession, my real pain was not for the wasted food, but for the missed photo opportunity. I resolved to reserve the capsicums in the fridge until Friday when I had a day off. I would see then, if the capsicums had survived long enough for me to take an acceptable photo of the plated up dish. Yes that’s right. I deliberately planned to photograph an inedible dish and pass it off to the world as food.
Come Friday, I prepared to assemble the dish: a simple affair of wholegrain toast and feta with the capsicums draped across (my favourite way to eat the, usually fresh, capsicums). However, by Friday the fridge was pretty bare. The bread was beginning to moulder and the feta had tipped from tangy to stinky. To be frank, I barely hesitated – it’s not like I was going to eat it anyway. I picked off the mould and toasted the bread. I held my nose and spread the feta on the toast. I fished out pieces of capsicum without looking at them too closely and laid them over the cheese.
Wanting to depict a cheerful, breakfasty scene, I made coffee to include in the shot, but one whiff of the milk told me that it too was off. I substituted almond milk, only to watch it curdle as it hit the hot liquid. Feeling decidedly unlucky, I abandoned the coffee and fished out a dusty peppermint tea bag to use instead. After a few shots I felt like the scene needed more colour so I added the mandarin, positioned just so, to ensure that a spot of watery rot was obscured from view.
This isn’t about tattering my own reputation for hygiene (which I’ve done rather thoroughly). The point is that this exercise in artifice got me thinking about food blogging and the essential role of the food photo in food posts. We eat with our eyes, in fact there is no other way online, but many of the beautifully styled food photos that make dishes look incredible bear no relation to the food production and consumption that happens in my everyday life. Just where is the evidence that the dish was indeed delicious (let alone edible), as food bloggers claim? Forget mason jars, tree branches and other romanticising props, maybe we should only trust photos where it is clear that the food has been demolished, like the empty bowls scraped clean in this shot perhaps? Such images may not go viral on Pinterest but there’s an honesty about them, isn’t there (or is there)?
At the end of the day, a digital image is a representation of an unknowable truth that I want you to believe in. I want you to make the recipe I share, so I do my best to make it look and sound good. The actor Cesar Romano is credited with the quote: “They say the camera never lies. It lies everyday”, and I like the dialectic of this idea. Some highly respected food bloggers lie very well and it’s quite clear that you can’t trust me. The proof can only be in the eating of the pudding.
As it happened, I was unhappy with the first set of photos, so a couple of weeks later I re-made the dish and photographed it again. This time I ate it afterwards. I did. Honestly.
For more food for thought, see this amusing post on the “vulgar pleasure” of 1970s food photography and this post for a fascinating demonstration of current food photography trends.
Roasted Marinated Capsicums
4 large red and/or yellow capsicums (peppers)
1 large clove garlic
2 small chillies, or to taste
1 Tbsp coriander seeds
4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Roast the capsicums until they are blackened all over and beginning to collapse. I used to do this under the grill in the oven, but lately I’ve been using the barbeque grill plate, turning them regularly to ensure they blacken evenly. Once ready, place the capsicums in a bowl and cover with a plate. The heat will continue to steam the skin from the flesh of the peppers.
While the peppers are steaming, prepare the marinade. Finely chop the garlic and chillies and add to a bowl. Lightly crush the coriander seeds using a mortar and pestle, just enough to crack the seeds open and release their scent. Add these to the bowl along with the oil and vinegar. Mix and season to taste.
After a few minutes, or when the capsicums are cool enough to handle, peel off the blacked skin and remove the seeds. Tear each pepper into several strips and add to the marinade. Stir well to coat evenly. The peppers can be eaten immediately, although I prefer to cover and chill them to eat the next day when the flavours have melded and the garlic has softened. They taste great on toasted bread with feta and they are also excellent with hard boiled eggs and avocado.
I loved this post! I admit, during this time of year it is so difficult to get good photos, which is why I have to now break out my inexpensive studio lights. It’s not as great as natural light, but it will do! Love the idea of a photo of empty bowls after the food has been devoured!
Yes me too, maybe one day I’ll pluck up the courage to post photos of empty plates!
Great post, and I had to laugh, too, at your description of the stinky ingredients 🙂
I often blog about my “dinner tables” – inviting friends, showing pics of what I cooked and the table setups. In spring and summer, when the light is still OK by the time the guests arrive, I close the kitchen door on my guests after plating the dishes and take a picture for the blog. However, in in autumn and winter, it’s usually too dark to do that in natural light, so I tend to cook more than I need, reheat the leftovers the next day, then take the blog pics. So it’s still edible, just sometimes not as pretty warmed up as it is served fresh. I guess for everyone else looking at the pics it still looks like freshly cooked because they don’t know what it looked like on day one, but everything is certainly still edible.
I’ve attended online food photography classes where the instructors picked single ingredients from dishes with tweezers to place them so the dish would look nicer. I could never be bothered with that. When I read about the “tricks of the trade”. to me that’s just cheating; it also makes you look at professional food blogs and wonder what is real and what isn’t.
Personally, I’d rather have food that does not look perfect (although I still try to make sure to take technically good pictures) and that normal people (including myself) can recreate at home without thinking they botched the dish just because it doesn’t look as perfect as in the recipe picture.
I guess it’s about what we’re all trying to achieve with our photos and blogging. For some people, displaying perfection will logically extend to using tweezers to create it. I’m more interested in inviting people into my ordinary home and portraying a sense of an ordinary life. It’s fun trying to create very staged photos of food, but there is a huge appeal (for me) in more casual photos that look like a slice out of someone’s life rather than a page out of a cookbook. Thanks for sharing your thoughts (and I especially enjoyed the “dinner table” posts I saw on your blog yesterday!).
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I’ll never feel guilty about having non-stylized food pictures again! Thank you!
I’m reminded of Shirley Conran’s maxim, “life is to short to stuff a mushroom”. Sometimes I style, sometimes I don’t – sometimes life is too short for a photo shoot, or, more than likely, I’m simply too hungry!
It’s a rainy day, I’ve just baked this yummy cake that looks anything but yummy and I’m just feeling frustrated about not being able to take a decent picture of it. But I found your post and it made me smile:)
Hi Marzia, I hear you, it can be so frustrating not being able to get a good photo! There are a couple of food photography books on Amazon that I have my eye on, but nothing will replace practice, practice, practice! Keeping it real and laughing at your mistakes helps 🙂
I always find a major hiccup makes the best story. Later, after you’ve got over it! 🙂
You’re right, it’s usually only in hindsight that we become far enough removed to laugh at ourselves…at the time I was just one big ball of #foodblogfail
Lovely pics there. There’s is a fine line between over styling the food and something that looks honest but edible. Natural light is essential I’ve found.
It’s also about what you are trying to portray as well I think. Food is (or can be) so personal – I hope that my photos of food communicate something personal too. But let’s also be real – I’ve served up cold food more than once because I was trying to get a good photo of it first! Sometimes bellies (and relationships) are more important than pretty pictures 🙂
Thank you for the honesty – it’s nice and refreshing 🙂
You’re welcome and I’m glad you think so 🙂
I love the way that you set up this blog post– I came in looking at the beautifully presented food, and then got the backstory that it was inedible. It was a nice little twist to an overall very enjoyable and informative blog post. 🙂 I always enjoy your style of writing.
In all honesty, I think it’s impossible to take a picture without employing some form of deception. Every photograph is an artificial construction, because the person behind the camera chooses what to photograph and what to exclude. Food photography, apparently, is no exception.
Have you ever viewed any of the videos on food stylists in fast food advertising? It’s incredible to watch a team of people carefully shaping a hamburger, injecting it with ketchup, and using surgeon’s tools, just to make the food appeal to viewers that little bit more.
I haven’t seen videos, but I’ve read about food styling in advertising and how artificial the construction is – like painting the food with glycerin to make it glossy and using toothpicks and other instruments to prop up the food unnaturally. Food for a different kind of consumption indeed! You’re right though, all photography involves some degree of deception, which raises the question of why photographic ‘evidence’ is so powerful when (especially in this digital age) it can be so easily manipulated. Perhaps it should be “the camera always lies”!
That was refreshingly honest!
Thanks Rosie, I appreciate the feedback!
Could never tell, still looks yummy.
Thanks Jose, good to know that I can pull off deception when I need to!
This was fun to read 🙂
And fun to write! It wasn’t amusing at the time when it felt like everything was going wrong – only on reflection.
Great story! I was flicking through an old Delia Smith book from 80s the other day and happened upon a remark along similar lines to your post. Essentially it advised using metal tart tins over ceramic ones, saying that though they look pretty in the magazines the pastry is probably raw underneath! When all we have to judge a recipe or a dish is the appearance, either in print or online, style over substance is probably the best option.
What? Delia said it before me? Astounding 🙂 Thanks for stopping by – I enjoyed your post about spiced peaches today. I have a pear dish using black peppercorns, coriander seeds and thyme as flavourings, which sounds quite similar to yours…there’s nothing new under the sun is there!
Great blog post! I used to worry about my food photos not looking “professional” enough – because I take pictures of the pan out of the oven or of my plate before I eat! You’re right…it may not go viral, but it IS more honest. 🙂
Thanks Rosemarie! Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing beautifully styled and photographed food – the creativity and skill of some people is hugely inspiring. But when I think about the food blogs that I feel an emotional connection to, they are the ones that display food in an everyday setting and where you get a sense of the person behind the camera, and their life. There’s a context around the food, not just some pretty props.
I agree with you. I love pretty food pictures. But I’ve learned to be okay with my “everyday kitchen” kind of pictures. Afterall, it’s me. 🙂
The description of your artful arrangement of the stinky and spoiled food for a pretty photo amused me terribly! Too funny!
Glad that you eventually remade an edible version of the meal, and enjoyed it!
Glad you enjoyed it! I was fishing around for ages in my memory for a story to go with the photos of these peppers, but nothing was working. After about a week of false starts I started writing about what really happened and this is the result – it just felt more authentic I think.
Maybe the photos lie, but they certainly rate! I’ve never really done this “styling” thing, and I’m not a food blogger, but travel and food go hand in hand, and I find that when I snap my dinner in a restaurant while travelling it and post it either on my blog or on Facebook, it gets a huge response. People love food. Simple as that!
We sure do – it feels like our obsession with food just keeps increasing. Food blogs, cooking shows and reality TV, food magazines – it just continues to proliferate. My top ten posts (# of views) are all food posts, and even my husband (not the best cook) can be overheard talking to the MKR contestants on TV (“nooooo, too much pepper!”).