One of the few downsides of eating for a living is that there's nothing to show for my work. If a meal is particularly amazing, a clean plate is all that's left.
Which is why my camera often goes to restaurants with me, and sometimes into my own kitchen. A picture can be worth a thousand descriptions of a dazzling dinner out or party food at home.
A camera is just a visual notebook to me, but I see more and more amateur eaters and serious cooks also using it to preserve their food memories in a digital age, especially on a pull-out-all-the-stops occasion such as Valentine's Day.
Anything you photograph can now be shared with the world with two pushes: on the shutter and the send button. So many snapshooters are trying to emulate Irving Penn that digital camera companies are marketing special models with settings just for food.
Unfortunately, it's too easy to think you're shooting "Like Water for Chocolate" butwind up producing "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Judging by what surfaces in my e-mails and what I've glimpsed on food blogs, the cameras seem to be point-and-hope models.
Dishes that look irresistible in real life -- red sauce, steak, strawberry tarts -- lose a lot in translation to a computer screen. Eating engages all five senses, and photography reduces it to one. Worse, most food seems to be shot from the same angle, straight down as if through a microscope, with nothing left to the romantic imagination.
Tips from a pro
The epidemic of scary pictures got me wondering what a photographer who specializes in food would prescribe, and I knew just whom to e-mail.
Petrina Tinslay is based in Sydney, Australia, but has helped transform how Americans see food through her groundbreaking work in the cookbook series by Donna Hay and Bill Granger, including one just out from Morrow, "Bill's Open Kitchen." Her sharp, clean, gorgeous but approachable style stands out for its focus on the food itself, rather than on Martha Stewart-style propping with flatware and placemats and flowers. (Her signature approach can be seen in this month's Gourmet, in a feature on restaurants in Shanghai, and online at www.petrinatinslay photography.com.au.)
Tinslay's definition of a great food photo matches up with what so many bloggers and e-mailers shoot for: "One where you feel compelled to make/cook the recipe because it looks so scrumptious in the photo. You should almost be able to taste a picture."
To achieve that, the single most important thing an aspiring food photographer can do is turn off the flash on the camera and take the dish to a window. Flash is unforgiving, while the clean, natural light will not only make the food look hyper-fresh, Tinslay says, but will also minimize heavy shadows so that what's on the plates "looks more as you'd see food to your eye."
Her advice is easy enough to follow in a home kitchen, but a little tricky in a restaurant at night. Even there, though, the solution is simple: Use a higher film speed, either literally with 400-speed film or digitally by adjusting the setting on the camera to ISO 400 to approximate high-speed film. In low light, high-speed film records ambience like candlelight, while flash blasts it out.
She always advises against just pointing and shooting. "Have a good look at which side of the dish makes it look most appealing," then shoot from that side, Tinslay says. Sometimes the bright green spinach can be more striking in the forefront than the steak.
Then, "look through the camera at different angles to see which makes the dish look best. Some things look better quite low and others quite high," she says. For instance, shoot a layered cake from quite low, which dramatizes the height. Approaching it from on high flattens it out.
In any case, she adds, "I feel you should always move the camera angle rather than tilt the plate, as this can look like quite a fake and unnatural perspective."
Not all food will photograph well, though. You will always have better luck with anything that has a graphic shape, even round cookies or square brownies, than with an amorphous stew.
But if you're determined to show off the boeuf bourguignon you slaved over, or the restaurant specializes in, come in tight on it so less of it shows, or keep the focus on something else in the frame.
As for whether it's better to show an entire dish or just a serving, Tinslay loves images of whole cakes.
"But sometimes it is important to get the 'yum' factor," she says, "by showing the texture/moistness of the inside of the cake."
In other words, dark chocolate under pale pink frosting begs to be sliced into. For art's sake, of course.
Food professionals usually work with at least two stylists, one to find the props -- the plates, the napkins, the flatware -- and the other to coax the food into the most compromising positions. At home, you can at least choose the most attractive plate and most complementary background. In a restaurant, you have to work with what's there.
But in either situation, Tinslay says, "Anything in the background that doesn't add to the 'story' should be removed so the image is purely about the food."
Behind the camera
With all Tinslay's advice in mind, I headed out to lunch at a sun-streaked restaurant with my consort and his digital camera, which has one advantage over my beloved but geriatric point-and-shoot: I can see exactly what's in the picture before I commit.
We asked for a table near that two-story-high window, and the light from the west was magical around 2 o'clock. I shot three courses while sitting down and standing up to get different angles. I shot with the flash on and the flash off. I cleared clutter out of most frames (although my glasses -- for reading and for wine -- seemed to creep in more than I had expected). And I spun every plate to put its best side forward.
Unfortunately, I made one mistake even Tinslay could not have prevented: I asked the waiter which dishes on the menu were most photogenic. He must have been a closet food blogger, the kind who assumes taste automatically communicates to film, because he recommended a green lentil flan and braised beef cheeks.
Both made me want to pick up my fork and tuck in as soon as they landed. But through the viewfinder, one was the color and texture of cat food and the other could have wandered in from a certain horror movie.
I had better luck with a salad of whole grilled squid garnished with beets and kumquats (dramatic shape plus vivid colors). And I think I hit a home run with dessert, a passion fruit meringue tart with litchi sorbet and mixed fresh berries, all arranged so perfectly they could have passed for a magazine cover.
Best of all, it held up while I fiddled with the camera and it still tasted sensational after I took my best shot.
As Tinslay had advised, it's never worth letting food go cold (or warm) just for the sake of a picture.