Friday, September 27, 2013

Day Two at IFBC: Photography with the funny, easy on the eyes, demi-god of oozes, Andrew Scrivani

I've said it before, but when I started the journey of writing my cookbook, it never occurred to me that I'd need to become a photographer. You may notice there isn't a single photograph in She-Smoke, which also happens to be the single greatest critique of the book.

I'm learning that when writing about food on the web, the hook is no longer your opening sentence; it's the opening image. This post has little to do with the peppers you see above, but they are pretty eye candy to draw you in.

My range of emotions toward this need, nay, requirement, for me to produce better photos has been like the five stages of grief. I started out in denial (whatever, I'm a writer), to anger (I bet these food photographers can't cook their way out of a box of mac-n-cheese!), to now one of excitement to learn, to stretch out of my comfort zone, and to go shopping. Yeah, that's right. I'm pretty sure shopping is one of the stages of grief. If it's not it really should be.

I'm not blaming the equipment, I swear, but it's time I had some better tools. Sure, I can cook with crappy knives and pans, and even ingredients, but though I may be able to make a fine Tuesday night dinner with saltine crackers and canned tuna, it's not going to knock your socks off. Give me some fresh Ahi, however, and I might get an Oooh out of you. At least an Aaah.

Still, even with saltines and canned tuna (a.k.a. my Droid phone and point and shoot camera with the battery that pops out), the photo session with NY Times photographer Andrew Scrivani took me to a better place, photographically speaking, in less than two hours.

It's doesn't hurt that he's freakin' adorable. If day one of the International Food Blogger Conference had me wanting to kidnap Dorie Greenspan to bake me cookies, day two had me wishing I could be a fly on an everything bagel in Andrew Scrivani's food photography studio.

Thankfully he showed us a window into that studio so no one need go Kafka with poppy seeds.

By window, I mean no metaphor. He showed us an actual window around which he has built a white box on a table where he shoots most of his food. It's a southern facing window that lets in delicious natural light that makes food drip off the plate and into the photograph. The white box captures that light.

I think this week there will be a slight tick in white paint and plywood sales at Home Depots across the country.

That was my first takeaway from his session. The second was a heading in his presentation called, "Drips, Oozes and Pours." He talked about connecting to people's desire of food. I loved his example of a photo of an ice cream cone. Instead of taking the shot right after it was scooped, his photo was taken after the ice cream started to melt with a drip down one side. As he said, it makes you want to lick that drip, and then another. It brings you into the photograph.

He also noted that people are drawn to smoke and flames. That's good news for those of us in the barbecue and grilling world. We're already there.

Desiring to lick the ice cream cone leads to the third aha moment of his talk. There were lots of other great technical tips, trends, light management details which I will go back to in my notes, but he talked about thinking of every photograph with two frames; the main subject of the shot, the "hero", and the story framed around it. A photo of a grill is framed by the face of a well-known Cajun cook concentrating on the coals, a creme brulee is framed by a hand holding a spoon, and so on.

In other words, stepping back from the food to really plan the composition, the statement, or the art of the shot.

I tend to be too literal with food. I want the photograph to be true to what it tastes like, the ingredients, the cooking method, but that's what goes into the writing. The photograph is something else.

Incidentally, right after his talk I had to run to work and cater a wedding. This time, instead of photographing the pulled pork in a chaffing dish, something I've done dozens of times at events with the same completely underwhelming result, I took a photo of the bread with a cool shadow cast on the table from the pickle bowl. I took it with my phone camera, so it's not professional quality, but it's already an improvement in composition. It's not drippy or oozy, being bread, but a start.

I look forward to bringing you lots of drips, oozes and pours in the future.


  1. This is fantastic Julie! I'd be happy to help you with your camera shopping!! I love both your photos above and the fact that after Andrew's talk you are looking at food with different eyes. Yea!!

  2. Thank you, Jane. Please share any favorite cameras or lenses. I don't have a huge budget, I'd like to keep it in the $500-$800 range, if that's doable. I haven't priced out some of the cameras others have told me about.