Getting the shot: Food photography 101

Kirk McKoy's photo shows a chile that is actually on fire.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

So you want to be a food photographer! Well, maybe not exactly. But have you ever wanted to grab a great shot of the cake or cookies you baked? Or felt the urge to take a photo of your dinner at that new restaurant?

We’re introducing a new series of posts to share some of the tips and tricks to food styling and photography we use here at The Times. You’ll hear from professional photographers, stylists and chefs as they relay the back story of a particular photograph we’ve run.

Unlike a lot of professional food photography, we don’t fake the food we shoot at The Times. Because we’re a newspaper, we can’t. No artificial results, no doctoring the photos. What you see is what actually happened.


To start the series, here’s Kirk McKoy, senior photographer at the L.A. Times. He explains how he achieved the flaming chile shot for a recent story on homemade hot sauce. -- Noelle Carter

It takes a village to raise a child, and a team to make a great food photo. The photographer, chef, food editor and page designers put their heads together to create the idea. But it is the photographer’s job to breathe life into the photo with light, a few props for texture and a good knowledge of the camera. I try to emphasize the natural beauty of the food by thinking about what makes a particular dish look delicious. Then I shoot to highlight those qualities.

Let’s talk about a photo I created. I took the term “hot sauce” literally and wanted to show a flaming hot chile. Hot chile -- hot sauce!

The challenge here was creating the right flame coming off the chile. We tried a lot of flammable material to get the shot -- alcohol, oil, lotion, even lighter fluid. But nothing worked; everything gave off a blue flame and/or burned out too quickly. Finally, one of the designers recommended rubber cement. I did a test and it worked like a charm.

For the lighting, I set up one small soft box and a mirror to reflect light back into the scene. I decided on a black background to clearly show the flames. Finally, I spread a thin layer of rubber cement on the backside of the chile, struck a match and, like Human Torch from the Fantastic Four, said, “Flame on!”

McKoy joined The Times as a photographer in 1987. He was born on a family farm in South Carolina and graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in graphic design and photography. McKoy has won several awards from Pictures of the Year International, the National Press Photographers Assn., the Society of News Design and World Press. McKoy was also part of The Times’ Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Los Angeles riots and the Northridge earthquake. For the last 15 years or so, he’s been specializing in food photography.


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Questions or suggestions? Food photography challenge? Comment below or email Noelle Carter at