Food Photography Props
We have a selection of props around us that we will get to after I talk to you about, through some slides, like we did in a previous section. We're gonna talk about how all of this stuff kinda helps bring all of that together. We'll talk about how I procure my props and the things that you can collect and save and use in your own collection, and then how to go out and get the things that you need for a photo shoot. We're gonna go back to the clicker. Propping and table setting. I put this one right up front because I wanted to talk about the idea that sometimes you are dealt a bad set of cards when it comes to a situation. Here's the assignment. We're shooting this vodka. It's all about the summer solstice in Finland or wherever, up in the northern regions of Europe where it's light for like 19 hours at the end of the year, before the summer. The art director said to me, "Make it look like "it's outdoorsy and whatever and whatever." They put me in a bar with dark wood paneling in the w...
hole bar. It couldn't have been less inviting for this particular set. I looked around and I said, "Well, we gotta do what we gotta do. "We gotta make it work." This railing was a bar railing that was sitting at the window. The window looked out into the street. There was a taxi stand right behind where I was shooting. Nothing says Finland like a taxi stand. (audience laughs) I said, "Okay, well, what do we got? "What can we work with? "What's around me, what environment do I have?" They had bought all of these herbs and different things that we were gonna put in the drinks. I went behind the bar and I took all of these stackable cups, the shakers, and I stacked them up in the gap between the window and that bar. I had this big stack of cups. Then I filled, I flipped the last set of cups over, and I stuffed all of the greenery in the cups. They stacked them in the windowsill, and then put it in like that. I wasn't still happy with the surface, but I had no choice. There was nothing else to do with the surface. Then I realized, okay, I'm gonna use a really, really selective focus. I'm gonna get really down to a really low aperture. I'm gonna use the props that I have available to me to make this look like whatever I need to make it look like. The idea is that set is smaller than this. It really is. It's literally this big. We had to use the props and whatever was in the environment available to me to make it look like the way they wanted it to look. Where that's, it would normally just be a normal shot, we had to make it look like it was either outdoors or had some kind of a feel. I don't know that it was entirely successful, but it was the best we could do at the time. I guess that's the message, is that with the propping that you have and the environment that you have, you have to kinda be creative. The propping on this one was about surfaces and experimentation. That surface that's underneath the cutting board with the salmon on it is a piece of copper that I had made by a metal workshop. The flip side is the one I purchased. The flip side was etched with acid and it was kinda brownish. It didn't have a sheen to it 'cause that's what I told 'em to do. I got it home, and I hated it. I flipped it over myself, and it had a shiny copper background. I took lemons and vinegar. I squeezed it all over it, and I let it sit there for a couple days. The idea was that if you are, and I looked at it, and I was like, well, maybe one day I'll use it. I don't know what I can use it for. Then this particular shot popped up. I said, "Well, let me try it because "it's kinda simple, but it adds something "to the shot." That's the thing about propping. You never know where they're coming from and you never know when you're gonna use them. But anything that catches your eye as interesting, that may fit into your workflow at any point, is something worth keeping and saving. This is where having a warehouse or 500 square foot of storage, this always comes in handy. This, again, is about using the shapes of the props. When I bought these props, I had no idea what I would put on them. Remember what we talked about, a composition within a composition. The scotch eggs are obviously, they kinda go nice with this, with the shapes and the rounds or whatever, but if you think about it, you could have probably put a lot, displayed a lot of things in that particular shot. You could have used anything on those plates because the idea of the swoosh and the mesh behind it. The propping on this was, it's an unusual composition for me, but it's definitely something that when you get to flex a little and play and you see things that you wanna use them in a shot, like I said, it's about doing, sometimes, about the unusual. The other thing you have to be careful with this is also using props like this in a geometric way. You gotta get out the ruler 'cause everything gets really exemplified in the camera. The slightest little twitch of that plate moving or you see the gap between the two of them isn't right, ya have to kinda manage that, too. That's all within that management of the propping. When you wanna get a feel of something, you want it to feel old or you want it to feel fresh or you want it to feel modern or whatever, the idea is that you could tell that story with the props because peach cobbler, to me, isn't modern. It's classic. When I found these cups for a buck at a yard sale, everybody asks that question, I wanted to use them with a food that matched the feel that was with it. The idea of marrying the prop to the food, in terms of feel and time and place and those kinds of things, that always helps. This is an example of one of the things that I talk about in that when you have plates and bowls that are non-reflective, this is the absolute best example of anything I have in my collection. This is called salt-glazed ceramic. Now, salt-glazed ceramic has no shine whatsoever. You could look at it from any angle, and it has no shine. It's super expensive and it's really rare, but the idea is that if you get your hands on any of this stuff, and anything that even looks like it, where it has no shimmer whatsoever, it's so essential in food photography to have some of these things in your collection because it really, really helpful. 'Cause I could shoot this plate from any particular angle, and it's gonna work. I have plates, even things like we have under here that I'll show you in a bit, will only work from one particular angle. You'll have something that has a weird bend in it or the shape of it and the way the light hits it, it creates a problem for you in the camera. These plates don't. Again, when you see chicken and biscuits, and you got the kinda old-style serving tureen and the classic-looking spoon and a little bit of that lace edge on the thing, it pulls the whole composition together to tell the story of something that's a classic dish. These two things are not matching. They're things I found in different places. It was one of those things where I looked at it and I was like, I love it, but I have absolutely no idea how I'm gonna use it 'cause it's really crazy. It's really one of those props where you get one shot at it. You use it once, and then that's the end of it. I'm in a position where I have to produce, on a regular basis, I'm producing maybe 40 images a month, maybe more, so I have to take chances like this sometimes. This isn't one of those props I would recommend for anybody who's just starting out because you're gonna use it once, and then you're gonna store it on your shelf and you'll never see it again. But the idea is if you are renting or you're borrowing, and you wanna take a chance and do something really fun and cool with a shape or a pattern, this is kind of that idea. This was a specific art direction. This goes to the question we talked about earlier, when Steve asked about planning out the propping. The art director said to me, "I want "something that looks like this, something that "looks like this and something that looks like this," and he sent me a Pinterest board, which, by the way, is an awesome way to do art direction. I just started using that. When art directors or authors or whoever I'm working with sends me a Pinterest board, it helps me so much as a visual person to see all of things they're thinking about. The terra cotta plate and that stone underside were according to his instructions. He wanted something terra cotta, he wanted something that looked like stone 'cause this was about New Mexico. Well, I couldn't find any of that stuff. Well, I found the terra cotta plate, but I couldn't find the stone anywhere. I met with the prop houses, I looked in my own collection. I looked around, I only had a couple days to find it. Then I was at this big, giant prop house, and I saw a big jug, like a big urn, that they used for maybe a movie prop or whatever. I didn't notice that the top came off of it. I took that, and I went over to the propper, and I said, "Can I have this? "Can I rent this?" She's like, "What about the rest of it?" I'm like, "No, you need to leave that here." (audience laughs) She said, "Sure, take it." She rented it to me. It worked for the shot. I didn't know it was gonna be this tight, but the idea was that unusual things become props. You have to think in terms of outside the box when it comes to propping for food photography because not everything is something you'd wanna eat off of and not everything is something that you wanna display food on at a dinner party or whatever. But the idea of using, I'll show you later, rocks and shells, anything that kinda gives shape and color and time and place and feel, all of those things kinda help when you're propping out a dish, and things that are regionally important. Sometimes regionally important is sand. You might not put sand in the photo, but the color of sand might. You marry those kind of ideas together.
I have a question from Sarah Lynn from Pittsburgh, who asked, in your salmon shot, does it matter that the fork was cut off? I'm just wondering if you were gonna talk a little bit about cropping.
That's a good question. I could go to that right now. No. Okay, let's move on. No. (audience laughs) It doesn't matter because the idea is that sometimes there's even just an element of the prop that's interesting to look at. There's a pattern on the handle of the knife or it's the teeth on the knife or it's something that you just wanna have this suggestion of a prop. If I'm propping out a plate and I put a knife next to it, I don't need to see the whole knife to know it's a knife. I think that's one of the things you fight yourself against when you're working in this kind of medium is that eating is something that's really literal. We do it, we sit down and we do it. But the idea is that the art doesn't have to be so literal. You can be suggestive and give the illusion of something without having to show the whole thing. When the beer in the background, do you even know if it's really beer? Does it matter? No, it doesn't matter. The idea is that you see that there's that knife that's perched just on that edge. When I'm eating, I might put my knife and my fork down. Anything that kinda fits into the natural process or something that is suggestive or even playful on a plate, that could work, that could work. You're propping is how you tell that story, for sure. Yes.
Is most of your propping done in-camera or in post?
Both. I'm of the mindset that I like to get it right in the camera, but I'm also mindful of the fact that sometimes when you get further away, and then you can jump in in post-production and crop a photograph, it gives a different feel. It certainly affects your dropoff because if you're using a macro lens and you're shooting and cropping in the camera, like that was shot the way you see it. That wasn't cropped. You see how dramatic that falloff is. Even at 4.0 or whatever I was shooting at, probably around 4.0, that dropoff, once you get beyond that little cilantro leaf, everything just falls away. That's what I wanted here. But if I was pulled back further away from the table, I'd have a lot more on the plate in focus at four 'cause the distance matters. The idea of doing it, I would recommend doing it both ways, and then making a decision in your editing process because there is no substitution for being right there on top of it, and then letting the natural falloff of the camera happen. Also, outside of your comfort zone with propping. This isn't me. This isn't the way I prop. This isn't really the way I do things. But the idea is that sometimes when we go back to what we talked about earlier, about the bend and don't break thing, you have to find something in your collection or even in the way you wanna shoot something that might be different. This kind of light and bright and feminine kind of approach to this particular shot was something that, I tried it. I wanted to experiment and go outside my comfort zone and see whether or not it would be something I'm good at. Do I like it? Is it something that works for me? Quite honestly, this is okay. It's fine as a food picture. It fits in and it shows range. I think that's important, too, with your propping, especially, is to show that you have a range of interests and understanding of the way things look and feel because not everybody has the same aesthetic sense. When you talk about the propping in food photography, that's aesthetics. Because food is food. You can dress it a certain way and you can put it on a plate a certain way, but the idea is food is still food. Everything else around it is all about your aesthetics. How you serve the hors d'oeuvres at your party says more about you probably than the hors d'oeuvres themselves. The way the plates, the napkins, the things that you wanna present to your guests, to your dinner table. Have a wider range of the things that you collect, and also about the way you present them together. This shot is old. This is a shot I took probably in the first three years of my career, but it lives on and on and on. You tell me why. Do you know why? What event in the world that happens every year does that tell you about? Audience, anyone?
Kentucky Derby. The Kentucky Derby happens every single year, and that is the signature drink in the signature cup with the right garnish. When you can tap into these things, and I did a shoot about Wimbledon and I did a shot about other kind of events that have food attached to them, the idea is if you get it right, it lives forever. The propping is why it lives forever. This shot lives forever. It sells every single year to another newspaper or another magazine or another entity that's writing a story about the Kentucky Derby. That story is told right there in that picture. I borrowed those cups from Florence Fabricant. Of course, Florence has all of that great stuff. She loaned it to me to take this shot. Of course, she wanted them back, which was really sad. (audience laughs) Really sad. The next three images are another story about the idea of creating an environment in that little space, and how propping does all of that for you. This was a story about having drinks at a barbecue at a lake house. It's all about a lake house. In this story, the whole idea of running off the property and jumping in the lake and having a dock and all these things were all part of the story. The propping had to kind of reflect that. It doesn't have to be completely grounded in reality. This is obviously my attempt to make it look like a dock where the grass and the foliage are growing up around it, and we got the drink. Are we setting the drinks up on the dock? Maybe, maybe not. Are we making them like this? Certainly not. But the idea is that it's eliciting a vision. We're reading the story about the weekend at the lake, and we get these images. Immediately, your brain connects them. I got little bit of elements of all of the things that are being talked about in the story. It gives you that overall sense. I think that in food photography, your propping is the thing that jumps you from reality to what I like to call hyper reality, the thing that we imagine, the fantasized reality. This is kinda that idea. In a small space, with just a couple of selective items, that you can tap into. The planking of the tabletop. It could be a picnic table, it could be the dock, it could any of those things that kinda remind you of the outdoors. Just a suggestion of green and the way the light is coming through, all of those things are suggestive of the idea of being at the lake. That one and this one and this one all happened. You see this here in the background, right at the top of the frame on the right-hand corner, you see that kinda white thing that goes across? Yeah, that's the fire escape. (audience laughs) There's no fire escape at the lake, but you don't know that because the environment that we created and the angle that we took and the props that we chose give us the opportunity to put the viewer where we wanna put them, where the author of the article wants them to be. I think that when, the more you understand about how to build up your set and how to use all these elements in really right spaces, you can create anything. Like we talked about earlier, the idea of picking the props that are appropriate, and also using them the right way. Yes.
When you talk about that very specific story, was that an art director who gave you that story, or do you always come up with a story in your head?
No, that's a good question, but no. That was a particular, I had the text. The story was written. I read the story, and then the visions that I'm having in my head as I'm reading it. Now, this isn't always the case. You don't always get the opportunity to read the story ahead of time. More often than not, you don't. But you get a sense of what it's about. But the more information that you can get and put into your own brain, and then kinda let it turn around a little bit, and then it comes out with a picture. We all kinda create these visions in our head about what the picture should look like. If I were at the lake, what would it look like? These are the elements that made me think of that. Of course, you add the photographic elements and the things that make you your style. Then you plug in the props.
If you're working on your own without a text or anything to work from, do you start envisaging a story or a picture?
I do. I kinda create a fiction in my head about what this, if I were doing this, if I was creating this or if I was eating this, where would I be, what would it be like? I think that's important to start to visualize the story that goes with the food. It's not just a plate of food. There's a story that goes with it. It has life. I think that if the life that you imagine is one that speaks to lots of people, and you can translate that in a beautiful way, then you're being really successful in your photography.
Andrew, you talk about you like to evoke a moody feeling. How far do you push that envelope? To the point where it's still appetizing to somebody else, but aesthetically pleasing to you?
I think that that's a challenge, that's a challenge sometimes because I think that you have to let your personality bleed through your photography, but you don't wanna give it all away. I think ya have to retain something that's palatable in a general sense. I'm not here, nobody's hiring me to tell the story of what's going on in my brain. (audience laughs) That's not why they're hiring me. (audience laughs) That's definitely not why they're hiring me. (audience laughs) But the idea is that they trust that my vision of things is something that is appealing to the people who are publishing the photos and their audience. I don't work for certain magazines because I don't think they think that my aesthetic and their aesthetic match up. I think when ya get to this part of your career in this business, you cease to take it personally. I used to take it personally that I didn't work for certain magazines. I'm like, why does that guy get to work for that magazine and I don't? Then I realized it. As I got older and I got a little bit wiser about the business, I realized my pictures don't fit. They don't fit there. It's gonna look weird. Until they're ready to make that aesthetic change, they're not gonna hire a photographer like me. But I don't think it's limiting because I think there's a place for everybody. The other thing that drives me, quite honestly, and I don't think it's an ego thing, but I do think it's a motivational factor, is that I have a huge audience because of the publications I work in. I can drive the industry. I don't have to wait around for the other trends. Because of the huge platform that I'm provided, and I'm lucky enough to have, let me drive the bus. I'll put the trends in place because that way, let other people follow because if ya realize, you realize the audience that you have and you're fortunate enough to be given because of the people that are hiring you, you realize you have a great opportunity. I will obviously always try to make pictures that other people are going to enjoy, but I'm not gonna bend so far that it's not me anymore. I think that's a really long answer to a really short question.
[Woman In Patterned Top] It's a tough balance. (Andrew laughs)
Andrew, George would like to know if you ever worked with temporal elements like steam or condensation, and do you consider those props or do you consider that part of the food?
People just wanna steal my thunder. (audience laughs) You know, George? Yes, I was gonna get to that. The idea of this and this and this being a prop is only part of the equation. Things that are visual elements that are not part of the dish, like the steam that comes off it and the condensation that builds on the glass, are absolutely not just props, but essential props. I think that you have to quite understand that if you're not thinking about those things being part of your overall composition, you're missing opportunities because those things are really beautiful and they have, again, they have that emotional element attached to them. Anything that's air, water, fire or earth is gonna tap into the way we feel. If you can bring that to the image, then you're really doing a great job. A lot of the procurement of props are the things that I find around, yard sales, antique stores, not just regular stores, which, of course, are viable, but even discounts and mix-match stuff that ya get at Home Goods or one of those stores. That's great. But the great thing about this propping and being engaged in props is the conquest, is finding something, getting it cheap and then realizing it's really valuable. That plate and the one next to it I bought for a dollar apiece on 13th Street from an old guy who had a table full of stuff. I said, "Wow, that's really nice. "How much?" "A buck." "I'll take 'em." Got 'em back, used 'em in a shot. All of the sudden, I get an email from the person who made the plates. Hand-blown glass, gold inlay from California. "Thank you so much for using my plates. "I'm so honored. It's so great. "I love the shot. "Can I have a copy of it?" "Absolutely." "Where'd ya get 'em?" (audience laughs) So I told the story. She thought it was funny, obviously, 'cause obviously the person didn't know what they had. She's like, "Well, since you like them so much, "I'll send ya a couple more." She sent me a couple more, which I, again, used in my photos. It was a really nice trade of she really loved the exposure. Then I was able to, I can't credit people in certain magazines or newspaper for props, but I could do it on my blog, which is another reason why I even started my blog in the first place was that it gives the opportunity to credit people and do things that I can't normally do in the regular publications that I work for. That was the great story about this. The second thing I wanna talk about here is that surface. Does it look like anything to you? It was funny because when I came into the studio yesterday, and I don't see it here now, but it's somewhere, there was this big piece of marble that looked like modern marble, granite, not marble, granite like they make countertops of out, really dark and kinda flecked and all this other stuff. I would never use that in a shot because it's too shiny and it's kinda too modern and it doesn't really tell any stories. But if ya flip it over, it's great on the other side. It looks like raw concrete. That's what that is. I got a piece from a friend. They were like, "Hey, you want this?" I'm like, "Eh, not really. "It's not something I'd use." Then I flipped it over. It had this big stain on it and everything else. Sometimes those elements in the shot bring so much to it. It gives it so much, it makes it complete, as a complete composition to use these kind of odd little abnormalities or imperfections. The things that are imperfect about things sometimes are really beautiful in photographs. Pizza's important to me. (audience laughs) When I get these kinda stories about homemade pizza and stuff, it evokes an awful lot of emotion for me. It's something I grew up with and the things that we did as kids. I wanna do it justice. I think that sometimes the simpler, the better, when it comes to things like this. I wanted it to say Italian, but I didn't want it to go crazy. I wanted it to say antique and old and traditional without it saying, without going over the line. The idea of a weathered pan and an older pizza cutter and those kind of towels that basically everybody has in their kitchen was the way to kinda tell that story through the propping because pizza's pretty cool no matter how you shoot it. Everybody loves it. Everybody has some kinda connection to it on some level. Maybe not the Britain in the audience, of course.
I'm 1/2 Italian.
I know, but. (audience laughs) Could you really get good pizza in London?
No. But you don't in New York, either. (laughs) It's not like Naples.
Are we gonna get into the pizza wars now? (audience laughs) Really?
[Woman With Computer] You guys are getting into it.
Honestly, again, the things that touch you about the way you grew up and the foods you ate, and then when you have to put those kinda into some kind of a broader application for people to relate to, it helps to bring some of yourself to it. I think that that's where I was coming from with this. The other thing about this marble underneath, you'll see it in a lot of my photos. Again, it was one of those crazy things. I procured it at this old junkyard. It had this broken-down old dressing table or something. The piece of marble on top of it had to be a couple hundred years old. It was beautiful, but it was beat. It was really beat down. The piece of furniture underneath it was crumbling. I said to the guy, "I want this, but I don't want "that junky furniture. "I just want the top." He was like, "All right, 20 bucks." So I took it home and I honed it by hand, and I got it back to, brought some life back to it. Quite honestly, if I could insure it, I would, because as far as the sheen of it and the fact that it's almost pure white marble without that many veins in it, it's so rare and it's so perfect for photography. It lives on my studio table. I'll put things on top of it, rather than move it around all the time 'cause it actually fell once, and my heart stopped. (audience laughs) I was like, no. This picture in particular is one of those things where if you don't like mussels, it's gonna freak you out. If you're not into shellfish, and there's a lotta people in the world who don't find that appetizing, ya need to be distracted somehow. That little fork with the beautiful elements that it has, it's one of my prized things. I have prop stylist friends who I have to watch when they come into my studio (audience laughs) 'cause they're immediately going in the drawer, going, "Mm, I think I wanna "take that one." Fran, I'm talking to you. (woman laughs) We talked about this earlier where just the suggestion of it or a piece of it or part of it is really the thing that is really interesting about the image. I showed this at a workshop, I think, when Chef John and I were working together. He absolutely loves that fork. He's always talking about that fork. Sometimes if you talk about the mussel picture I took, no one will remember that one, but if you talk about the mussel picture with the fork. (audience laughs) It just goes to show ya the power of the complete image and the things that you're bringing into, the elements that you're bringing into it. Even the subtle lines in the plate that give a little bit of texture, all of that kinda combined together, it pulls the whole image together. 'Cause without the fork, it wouldn't necessarily be the same picture, so if ya think about that. The other thing about that is if you've ever tried to do things like this, like perch a fork or a spoon just perfectly on the edge of your table, I mean on the edge of your bowl, and it slides in or it falls out or it doesn't sit where you want it to, Fun-Tak. Little tiny dot of Fun-Tak on the back of it, and stick it down. It works really well. That one had some Fun-Tak on it. Again, I was talking about this with somebody yesterday when we were talking about how to prop this out. When you're trying to put elements into a photograph, you have to downsize them in a way and kind of fit and squash things together. A lot of the props that we use in food photography are a lot smaller than you might think they are. I alluded to it earlier with the other picture. By using smaller props and downsizing the food and downsizing everything in the image, you can kinda squash it all together, and then get it in a 50 millimeter macro frame. In order to get that beautiful dropoff and to get the visual look that you want with the photography aspect of it, you need to be able to make the set appropriate to the lens that you're shooting. If you're not downsizing your plates, that's like an appetizer plate. It's only about that big. Then using the stemless glasses, which kinda brings it down to the level 'cause otherwise, if I shot that in a horizontal plane, all you would see is a little stem. Also, designing your set and your props according to the orientation of the camera. Certain magazines only shoot vertical. Other ones on the web have to use vertical and horizontal. You need to manage the props in a way where you could say, "All right, I could shoot "this one vertically, but I can't "shoot it horizontally." If I had stemware in this picture, I could shoot it vertically, but horizontally would be impossible because then all I would see is the stems. Building your set around the frame and condensing it down into, more into a smaller space gives you more to shoot at. Obviously, you could just back away and shoot it with a 35 millimeter lens, but then you got no feel. It doesn't feel the same way.
Andrew, I have a quick question. For you from me.
How often do you think about the end use of your photograph, using it for editorial, do you think about where typography might go and that sort of thing?
Only if I know there's type going on it. I'll know that ahead of time. Obviously, there's a resale market for photography in food. If you are thinking about that or shooting for stock, which is something that's completely viable. If you have no clients, but you're a talented food photographer, shoot stock, amass stock, and then get a stock agency because you can make money doing that. You don't ever have to have a client, believe it or not, because there is a big market. You can do it even with your, what do they call it? Not Tumblr, but--
Flickr. You could do it with your Flickr. If you are marketing yourself as a food photographer in social media or wherever, and you've got a Flickr account and you're building all those things, you can shoot that way. I can shoot with a little bit of room and I could think about having banners on top and bottom, or I can think about where text is gonna go. But otherwise, I don't shoot that way because I don't have time to shoot that way at the moment, but if there is a time when I'm not working consistently, I can start shooting for stock, I would shoot that way. Question?
Yes. Can you talk a little bit about when selecting props, if they have some obvious brand recognition, the uses of those images?
Well, quite honestly, I think you should avoid that whenever possible because, first of all, if they're not paying you to put their brand in it, don't give them the recognition because I just think that there's no reason for that. Plus, I think it detracts from the image. It starts to look like a commercial image. I wouldn't shoot things with brands or anything like that unless that's your goal is to build a portfolio about the brand or about shooting brand stuff, like shooting still life for particular items, Henckels knives or this one or that one. It's something good to have in your portfolio, but I wouldn't publish stuff. I wouldn't put it out on social media and I wouldn't put it in public.
I guess it was not so much that you're trying to feature the brand, but rather it's the prop you have, and then.
That's what Photoshop is for. Right? Quite honestly, you just take it out. That's exactly what I would do. If I had something where it was so obvious, and I loved the shot, but I don't wanna promote whoever, I would just Photoshop it out. Don't tell anyone. (audience laughs) Do you have any more questions?
[Woman With Computer] Well, we always have question.
All right, let's go to a few questions.
All right, let's do a few question. Shroomy had asked, "How do you think about "body parts as props, like hands, fingers, "lips, anything else?"
Have you seen my? (audience laughs) Actually, I'm lucky enough to not have weird looking hands. I've used my own hands in my pictures a lot. I think you need to be really honest with yourself about whether or not you do have weird looking hands (audience laughs) because hands have a tendency to be weird looking. There are professional hand models for a reason, but I think that it is really nice in food photography to be able to use human elements, within reason. You don't wanna get crazy. I tend not to wanna have people putting food in their mouth. I don't like that. I don't think it's appropriate and I don't think it's quite appetizing. When they do it for commercials, it's really contrived. (audience laughs) It doesn't work. I think that when you talk about using people with food together, hands work really nicely. I think sometimes gesturing is really nice, even the suggestion of putting food in your mouth, but not necessarily. You could do some really artistic stuff with lips around the fork and things like that. Then we start talking about art photography. That's really outside of the realm of what we do as food photographers. I think you find people that have nice hands and you put them in your shots. I think that's cool.
Snappy Gourmet asks, "Do you know "of any methods to take the shine and glare "off glazed props like reflective plates?"
That's a tough one. I would experiment if you really wanted to, if you didn't mind destroying a couple of pieces, and using some sandpaper or something like a really fine, and try to take the glaze off of it. It's worth experimenting with. I've done worse things to props to try to figure out how to make them less shiny. For sure, I would just experiment. If you really become good at it, then you're gonna be able to do some really cool stuff. I would use a Dremel tool or something with a gentle sandpaper, and just start to hone it down and see if you can take the shine off of it. If you destroy it, well, hopefully it's not valuable, but I would do it.
[Man With Computer] And if it works, let you know?
Say that again?
And if it works, let you know?
Yeah, for sure, absolutely. I've done it with other things. I've done it with silverware and I've done it with, silverware actually works really well. You could take the shine off silverware pretty easily with sandpaper or some other kind of--
Nail polish remover.
Nail polish remover. One of the things that I use on really tarnished stuff, and I keep it, is toothpaste. The non-brand toothpaste. But toothpaste is really good to take a really heavy tarnish off of things without losing all of it. You still have a little bit of patina on it. That works really well. But that's a cool question.
Andrew, I have a question that's a little bit off topic. I see this picture that you have on the screen here of this mug. Delani from Australia had asked, "Are there specific rules of composition "for food photography? "Most of the subjects seem to be centered, "so is the rule of thirds generally not followed "for food photos?"
It's tough to say. I think that you have to go with your eye when it comes to the particular composition. I don't follow any textbook rules about the way things should be composed. I don't know that traditional structured rules really apply to food photography. I think there's so many elements in food photography that go into making the composition. It's so different than photographing people. If I'm shooting a portrait of somebody, I may light it very much like I light my food, particularly that method with the side lighting, letting it go off to shadow. It's a very popular way to photograph people. But there's so many elements in food photography, including the propping and the food and, like I said, the composition within the composition that to start to try to adhere to traditional photographic rules, you're really limiting yourself. I think you gotta experiment and play and find your style that works the way you do. I hope that answered the question.
[Woman With Computer] That's great, thank you. All right, well, I think we're ready to move on.
All right. Does anyone else have a question? Yes.
Do you ever work with a prop stylist or do you always do your own propping?
No. I work with prop stylists. I like working with prop stylists. I think it's really, it's helpful and we have shared appreciation of things because working with proppers, they do very similar things that I do. Then they come to my studio and they look at my collection. Then they bring some of their stuff. It's sorta like when I traded baseball cards as a kid. (audience laughs) Ya have that appreciation for objects and beautiful objects. I think that when ya have that kind of shared sensibility, it's nice to work and collaborate with people like that, for sure.
Do you ever have a situation where a client, say, brought a prop stylist, and you just don't like what they're doing?
Here's the thing about that. I think this speaks to some of the other questions that somebody had earlier, was that you're gonna get thrown into the mix with different people. If the client likes a particular prop stylist, and they like you as a photographer, but you don't particular like the way they go about doing things, here's the rule of thumb. Whose name goes on the picture? Yours. At the end of the day, you have to be respectful, but you also have to be forceful in the idea that this is my picture and I want it to look a certain way. If I don't like that prop, I want you to change it out. That's their job. They know it. Obviously, it's personal 'cause people, any artists that work together and have to collaborate, it's personal. It behooves you to be amiable and not be a diva because it doesn't help on either end. Whether you're the photographer or the stylist or anyone else in the equation, ya need to work together. But at the end of the day, your name goes on the photo, so you need to be the boss. I think that's the important thing to remember. You do that with a smile on your face, and everybody will appreciate you a little bit more. I wanted to talk about that one 'cause it is quite literal. It's not necessarily the approach I would take all the time, but the prop was so old and so beautiful that it warranted that kind of a treatment. Again, this photo ends up becoming about the prop because at the end of the day, it's just another hot chocolate. The lighting that was available to me in that particular setting wasn't something where I could make something really beautiful. It wasn't dark or luscious or anything like that. It was actually quite boring, this particular dish. That prop happened to be in the selection of things that we could play with. So it was something that when you have the opportunity to rescue an image with a prop, that's how you could do it. You find something that's just, it's a hundred-year-old thing of chocolate. It was found in an antique store. It was great. You always should be prop shopping, always. Whenever you're in the world, outside of your house, shopping, stores, garbage, anything. I live in New York, so you can go garbage shopping every day. I've found so many great things in the garbage it's not. (audience laughs) It's great. All the surfaces, you find so many great surfaces. Like this thing. Do you know what this is? This is a door panel. I have these in my studio. This isn't mine. I have them in my studio, all beat up like this. That's amazing. For a small macro shot, that's a beautiful surface. You can do all of that. This is one of those ugly food situations where I'm looking at this food going, oh, no. That's gonna be really bad. I didn't know what to do. Then I decided that it was gonna be this kinda study in gray, modern whatever. It didn't match the food, but it was something that, again, the prop rescued the food because that bowl, with the way that it's reflecting the fork off to the side, and the gray background, and the way we lit it, it was becoming fine art photography at that point. Because there is no way we were gonna make that look appetizing. If I told you what it tasted like, it was even worse. (audience laughs) It was bad. But the idea is that the props that you choose, sometimes you have a panic button. You have your shelf of panic button ones. You're like, okay, in case of ugly food, push the panic button. There it goes. (audience laughs) The bowl was the panic button. The idea of also matching that, doing a study, like the way you do in art school. I had a study in gray or a study in chrome or whatever it is. That has an application in food photography because sometimes your inner composition isn't something that you can really do anything about. So when you have that opportunity, you can build something that's a little out of the ordinary, and becomes a special image, rather than being something that's just, all right, well, I threw my hands up and I took the shot. This is about the whole idea of food items and other things being props. A monochromatic soup. We have the nice spoon, we have the beautiful edge on the plate, but the pepitas were the way to bring something, more life to the idea of this particular soup because it isn't particularly pretty. The color isn't really nice. It's kinda drab and dull. Your smoothie, which I've kinda photographed about 5 million of at this point. When I shoot for the healthy column that I shoot for, we have to do five of the same type of recipe week in and week out. When ya have five smoothies to shoot and it's the fifth time you've shot smoothies in the last five years, 'cause every year we do a round of smoothies, you run out of ideas. Sometimes it's about just using what's there as a prop. Now, those pieces of cherry wouldn't have been there unless I scooped 'em up from the bottom and brought them up. Sometimes you gotta think of those things to bring new elements to the photograph. Sometimes it's contained within the shot itself. A lot of people who use their blog to teach other people about cooking or about food, you have to also use your propping. My hands, again, by the way, Use your propping and the storytelling aspect of the process, and using the food as props, to go through the idea of what it is you're trying to teach people to do. Then being able to do that, and then show them the finished product at the end, is a nice way to use food as props. This wasn't really the process. We did that after the fact, but the idea of using the food that way, to tell the story and teach, is an effective use of propping. Also, using the elements of the implements that you cook with that happen to maybe have a story or a beauty to them. A well-seasoned wok is something that has stories to tell. By including that in a shot of what was cooked in it, also kinda adds something to it. The use of the diptych is something that I started to use because of the horizontal format on websites. When I first started shooting, almost everything was vertical because most food does look better in the vertical plane. You get more in there, you can fill your long line into a composition that way. I had to relearn how to compose food to shoot horizontally, but there are times when there's certain things that just work so much better that way that you can always, if you have somebody who will publish it that way, or if you're publishing it yourself, it gives you that opportunity. Also, the outdoors as propping. Using the elements of the environment, whether it's this weathered bench, which I didn't bring there. It happened to be there. Just a simple idea of gingham at a picnic. Again, it's sorta that traditional, maybe even cliche, but the idea is that it gives ya that sense of we're outdoors and we're having a picnic. The other thing about this prop is what's beautiful about this is the salad itself. Using a clear prop sometimes is an effective tool to maximize the opportunity to show what's in the plate. Again, the idea of disposable with picnicking and whatever. You wanna be able to do it without being paper plates and whatever, you can still do that. There's still opportunity there if you look hard, or you go to Whole Foods. (audience laughs) Also, the idea of propping. Here's a question that fills with one of the things we had from the audience before, is people as props and the idea of time and place. People and animals as props. (audience laughs) That's my godson, by the way. He was in his glory. This isn't a food picture, but it is about time and place. It's about every parent has had that experience of giving their kid something like that, that blows them away. Or kinda capturing, that's his sister, capturing the moment at a party where, what's gonna happen next here? Yes, that's exactly what's gonna happen next. Sometimes the star of the show isn't the star of the show. The chef is the famous guy, but it's that guy peeking in that makes the difference. In that lifestyle, the aspect of lifestyle food photography, there's a lotta stories in this one picture, but the great part of it is the idea that this guy is so curious about what's happening and the intensity of the guy next to the chef because he's learning. Do we have any more questions that we can go to before I go through some of the stuff we have on set?
[Woman With Computer] Yes, sir.
[Man With Computer] Yes, we sure do.
Well, that's good.
[Woman With Computer] I think we have a question in the audience.
I just want to get more into the thought process. For example, with the ugly spaghetti and the all gray fine art picture you ended up with, at what process did you decide the spaghetti was gonna be ugly? Was it before you'd even cooked it? Or had you already cooked it, and then you were playing?
Calling it spaghetti right off the bat is. (woman laughs) You don't even wanna know what it was. (audience laughs) It wasn't spaghetti. I know what ya meant. At what point during the process did I decide that it wasn't gonna work?
Well, I made it and I looked at it, and I said, "Oh, my God, that's awful." I said, "I gotta go do something else" because there's no way, there was nothing I could do with it that was gonna--
Do you have a set set up beforehand, and then you think this isn't gonna work? Or did you then cook the food--
I had it all set up. I was gonna shoot it like a traditional way. I looked at it and I got it out to the table. We started to plate it, and I was like, this isn't gonna work. It's just not gonna work. It's awful. We tried it. We'll try it anyway. Well, we tried it. Sometimes that works. Sometimes you fit the round peg into the square hole, but this wasn't gonna work. That's when ya have the fallback position. Push the panic button. Yep.
Do you cook everything you shoot, or are you working with chefs when you're shooting for a publication?
In the beginning of my career, I did everything myself. Thus, working alone and some of the tips we talked about. Now I have a team, a self-contained team that I hire people to come in and work with me for my regular clients that wanna work that way 'cause I do have clients that wanna work that way. They send me a recipe, I send them pictures. Then I have other clients where I'll be in my studio with their stylists, and then I have other clients where I'll go to their setting or their studio or a studio that's rented or whatever. It's a range, but I would say a good portion of my early work is stuff that I cooked myself.
Do you have people come to you and cook in your kitchen, and then you shoot what they cook?
There have been times that I've done that. I've worked with a couple of chefs and people who wanted to promote a restaurant or something like that. They'll do the cooking. I'm actually shooting a cookbook when I get home with a client who wants to cook the food herself, with my guidance. (audience laughs) It'll be fun to see how it goes. It's not super complicated food, so I think it's gonna work out really well. I want her to feel like part of the process 'cause she's a new author, but it'll be pretty cool.
All right, Andrew, I have three rapid-fire questions for you about props. Snappy Gourmet would like to know where you store all your props. (Andrew laughs) They say, "My prop collection is getting "out of control."
The second question is from Viv P., who said, "How much space do you devote "for your props, and do you provide "all the props or do clients provide the props?" The third question is from Fashion TV in Singapore, who says, "We often run out "of storage space. "How do you decide when it's time "to discard a prop, or do you limit how often "you use a particular prop?"
That's terrific. First question is you need to dedicate a lotta space in your workspace to props. I have a cabinet this big, maybe bigger, that has 12 drawers in it, and they're all filled to the hilt with flatware and other gadgets, weird gadgets and other things that I find. I have floor-to-ceiling shelving around the perimeter of my whole studio. That all is filled up. I have a rack over my kitchen with cookware. The cabinets are filled. Above the refrigerator is filled. The closets are filled. The storage unit is filled. I still have a hard time throwing stuff away, like any collector. But the idea is that I do purge from time to time. I think that it's important to know what works long term and what is a short-term purchase. I also will encourage you to trade props with people. That way, you know other people who are doing this work or ya have a blogger that you are friendly with or whatever, trading is a really good way to recycling some of this stuff 'cause you could definitely overshoot a prop. There have been times when I go to the shelf and I look, and I'm like, I can't shoot that again. You can use props over and over again because shooting them from different perspectives, in different light, gives them different life, but ya do need to be mindful of overshooting the props. I covered, I think, 2/3--
[Woman With Computer] I think you did.
Of what you said.
Viv P.'s question was, "Do you provide "the props or do clients provide the props?"
It depends if I'm producing. If I'm producing, I provide the props or I will procure the props, but if I'm not producing, and they're hiring a prop stylist, then that's their job. I think it's more than not, I'm producing 'cause I think at this point in my career, I probably put producer ahead of everything else. We start with the recipes, and then we go from there. Everything that happens after that is production. But, yeah, I think it's probably like 75/25.
[Woman With Computer] Right.