Friday, September 23, 2011

Do you cook for your family or your blog?

The arguments about whether or not you should take pictures or notes in a restaurant have been well rehearsed but what about when you eat at home? Should you hold the entire meal up while you style a plate and snap away or should you end up - as I often do (above) - snatching a blurry low light image of your dinner?

If anything it’s a bigger problem because it happens more regularly. My husband has got well used to the routine, sighing wearily as I plate up “I suppose you want to take a picture of that”.

And it’s getting more of a dilemma as the standard of photography goes up. The best blogs, many of which I’ve documented, have photography that wouldn’t look out of place in a glossy magazine and having seen Jaden of Steamy Kitchen and Béatrice of La Tartine Gourmande in action at Food Blogger Connect, probably takes as long to set up. So do you cook, like a professional photographer for the shoot, and expect your nearest and dearest to eat the leftovers? Or, God forbid, cook two meals?

And what about the equipment? What used to be a sideline for many of us becomes an expensive hobby as you invest in the latest flashy digital camera - or two (one for your 'studio' shoots and a pocket sized one for restaurants and food on the go)?

I guess it depends how ambitious you are for your blog and where you see it taking you. If you’re angling for a new career in food writing and photography you’re going to have to behave like a pro with the ensuing waste that involves. I’ve been on shoots where whole meals are discarded in the bin, something I can never quite get used to.

But what about the rest of us with day jobs and partners and families to feed? Are we consigned to a nether world of mediocrity because our photography isn’t up to scratch?

I’d love to hear your views but here's one (heretical) suggestion of my own. Which is to use one of the many wizzy camera apps on your phone to create special effects - or even, if you have a Mac, play around with iphoto as I've done to the rather grotty shot above. OK it’s not going to give your readers the clearest idea of the masterpiece you’ve created but at least it looks a bit edgy.

What do you think? (Not of my photos, obviously - at least I'd rather you didn't tell me - but about the whole issue!)


  1. Have to say this did make me laugh as I fall into the quick snap category. I will admit to stopping proceedings briefly to take a photo, but there is no question of food not being eaten in our house, quite the opposite in fact.

  2. I had to have a think about that. I generally cook for my family, but my blog encourages me to try new things. I do admit that when I am thinking ahead to what I will cook or bake, I am thinking of my blog. My family are also used to me talking a photo first :)

  3. I also take quick snaps. Mostly, though, I forget all about the camera until I've half eaten my delicious meal and think - I really must blog this :-S

  4. When I cook something at home that I want to blog, I absolutely take snapshots, often failing to even get focus, and get on with eating it.

    The exception recently has been the ridiculous number of photos I took during the making of my fruit tart, of which I was inordinately proud, but that was easy as it was a cold tart so assembly took quite a while anyway.

    I love photography and own lots of expensive kit but the vast majority of it is used for wildlife and travel photography, which is where my photography passions lie.

    When it comes to food photography, I absolutely looove good photography, and even know how to achieve it, though my styling wouldn't match the really great blogs you have mentioned.

    But it simply doesn't interest me to spend the time/ effort on it.

    What I'm aiming for is images that show clearly what the dish should look like, sometimes during the cooking stages and then as a finished dish.

    Simple tips to improving images even when taking quick snapshots:

    Look at what's in the background and unclutter. Our house is chaos so we usually have an A3 sheet of white rubberised paper lying around (which we found in a kids craft set) and shove that behind the plate to act as backdrop, and most importantly, to block the actual backdrop of complete chaos.

    Think about composition. Before pressing the button, even for a snapshot, just spend a few seconds visually checking what's in shot and what's out, where you've cropped and also the angle.

    Lighting. Most of us are shooting in the evening and so the food is lit by the harsh kitchen light. I have to remember not to stand between my kitchen light and the food, casting shadows on it. I have occasionally used the flash onboard BUT I leave my camera flash permanently set to underexpose by 1.5 stops, that means it's a very weak flash and doesn't wash out the image. Mostly though, I use the main kitchen light.

    Colour Cast: Indoor lights cast strong orange or yellow tones or sometimes weird bluey green ones. That's OK because most cameras have really good Auto White Balance features if you use them, and can correct colours pretty accurately. But if the don't, probably the single biggest thing you can do to make your pictures look better before uploading to the blog is spend a few moments in a post-processing programme correcting the colours. Most will have a little dropper tool that you can pick up, click on an area of white, and it will correct the colours in the entire image to show that white item as properly white.


  5. Good post. I was thinking about doing a similar one in a few weeks about why the photos on my blog are so limited.

    Truth is, I'd really like to have lots of great pictures on my site. Most of my favourite blogs are big on photography. But I think I love food too much to take the time necessary to get images of real quality.

    I don't enjoy taking photographs, but I do enjoy cooking and eating. I don't really want to take time out of either to snap away with my camera.

    I also think it takes some of the fun out of food writing. It's easy to be lazy with your words if you've got a great photo there doing all the work for you.

    (Admittedly, I'm a writer by trade, so there's some bias there.)

    I have attempted to get good pictures in the past, but it's always gone wrong somewhere along the line. Once I produced a really good series of photos of the Beef Wellington-making process, but was so excited when it came out of the oven, I forgot to snap the finished product!

    I've pretty much given up trying to do it properly now. I follow your method – when I can remember.

  6. My answer as well as ;-). I like to eat hot meals, in this case I take a picture for my memory, knowing it is not great. But other could do it like this, too. If I have time - for example with bread - I can use daylight and take better pictures.

  7. Great tips, Kavey. I could do with taking some of those on board myself. Especially the one about white balance which I've never really understood. (The added problems of being hopelessly untekky)

    And I tend to agree @foodstotrybeforeyoudie about pix making you lazy about food writing. Though infuriatingly a lot of the best bloggers are brilliant at both - take David Lebovitz.

    And Frances, I have been known to snap a half-eaten plate of food when I suddenly think I could blog the recipe ;-)

  8. We shall get together, I promise you I can explain white balance in very untechy way!

  9. I'm with Kavey (minus the helpful photography tips!)

    I cook for the family first and foremost - which is why I update my blogs so infrequently. The reality is that I often don't have time or inclination to faff around for a 'picture for the blog'. I also like my food too much to want to let it go cold!

    Blogging is a luxury - cooking and eating are the priorities in this household. When the two come together, great, but hungry bellies always come first.

  10. I really don't like lukewarm food (when it's supposed to be hot) so I usually just do a couple of quick snaps; if it comes out then great, but if not it's no great tragedy. I have got a fancy camera but that's more to do with wanting to document my travels properly.

    Also, as nice as those glossy magazine-like pictures are, I like seeing a bit more character in blog photos.

  11. That's what I tell myself Lizzie - that it's more 'real'. But I do admire bloggers who can take great pix.

    And I'd never go so far as to let the food go cold, Helen. I'm greedy too!

    So how to those of you who've cracked it manage? Feed the family promptly AND take great pix?

  12. Loved reading this post...such an interesting topic and something I can never decide on. I love reading blogs with beautiful photos (both home cooked and from restaurants) but always feel a bit funny pulling out my camera when eating out (even if it is just an iPhone point and click). I also love putting beautiful pictures on my blog and think people almost expect it now - although I hate to admit it, people eat with their eyes and often bypass the carefully written words to simply look at the pictures - if they're not up to scratch, they might not come back.
    Desserts are generally easier to snap (except ice cream!) but it's trickier when it comes to hot food. I generally take a couple of pictures, then give up and get on with eating if I can't get it right within a couple of minutes. My boyfriend looks on bemused, but as long as it doesn't go cold he's generally happy. Not sure how I'd cope if I had to factor hungry kids into the equation too though!

  13. I've never photographed food in a restaurant. Somehow, I just cannot bring myself to do it, which I suspect makes me a terrible blogger. If I like the look or taste of something I've eaten in a restaurant, I'm more likely to write down the rough gist of the ingredients so I can recreate it at home than take a photo. However, my blog is mostly home-cooking, so I do try to put a little effort into photographing what I cook.

    I have a "professional"-type camera, but that dates back to my days as a live music & wedding photographer, which is now primarily used for photographing what I cook. I try to plate things up reasonably nicely, but I take no more than about 5 photos in very quick succession - I'm hungry, I like my food hot and my other half is usually eyeing up his portion greedily so it seems cruel to make him wait while I go all food-stylist on him. Equally, my blog is about home-cooking - it should look home-made and as long as the photo is reasonable and looks vaguely appealing, I consider my job done.

  14. I find it extremely difficult to waste anytime trying to shoot an image of the dish before eating it. I'm always so eager to eat that it affects my ability to take a decent photo, because, I'm just salivating and really fighting back strong urges from taking a bite. I try to limit the time it takes to shoot (hoping food isn't too cold) by planning props and set-up. It usually takes me anywhere from a couple of minutes to 10 minutes to get a "decent" shot. If I do not have anything decent, then I just forget it and if I'm so keen to get it on the blog, then I'll make it again specifically with shooting in mind. I do have a lot of dishes that have not made it on the blog because the shots were not good enough. I have to say shooting food is not my passion as much as thinking up of recipes and cooking and therefore I really dread the process, sometimes. I do it and spend time learning how to do it simply because it's important for the whole of the blog. That's not to say I don't appreciate and am not mesmerized infinitely by beautiful photography. The hubby favorite words: can I eat now!

  15. I don't think it's an either/or kind of situation. It just takes a bit of planning. If I know I want to get a picture of dinner, I make sure my photo setup is in place and ready before dinner is. I get my camera and props in place. Use placeholders for the actual dish. Take test shots to determine exposure and focus. Then, when dinner is ready, it's a simple is replacing the dummy with the hero, taking the money shot, and sitting down to eat while the food is still steaming.

  16. I take photos of what I serve up down the hut, it's in situ and sometimes that means not all the food I cook looks professional either in how I serve it up or how it is photographed! But then I am not a professional food photographer nor am I a professional cook and that's what I want to portray in my blog. I want my photos to encapsulate The Beach Hut Cook blog in mood as well as recipes I want to share. I love lots of food blogs from proper well presented blogs from those in publishing to blogs that look amateur (like mine!). I have huge fun blogging and take photos of my plate before I tuck in - I tell friends and family to start without me. I don't take long a quick snap on my iphone and start filtering with Instagram app later when I finished stuffing myself.

  17. This is a brilliant thoughtful post. There are so many issues to consider and my answer is that mostly I cook for me and my family, dishes that I love because let's face it I am a chef/cook and not a journalist nor a food stylist/photographer. I think this is such an interesting issue because I am sure that no two bloggers will have the same answer. My first love was art, then food, then horticulture. But, I feel that all my hobbies are linked thorough the blog.
    If you blog because you love cooking , is that enough? Should my photos be better, do I need a better camera? Tough call. I love blogging because food is what inspires me and my photos are ok ish. The writing means a lot to me too, and sometimes I do feel like the successful bloggers are something that I could never be.
    I am somebody that needs to be creative and blogging is my perfect artistic outlet. Having to look after 3 small children, plus blogging and training to become a cookery tutor not to mention the allotment I have to blog about what I eat.....only so many hours in a day!

  18. Great post, I believe in balance, and as there's no way i'd be able to keep my young family waiting for their meal, I tend to serve theirs first and then squirrel my meal away for some quick shots.
    My prefernce is to shoot in good natural light, and I find that easier to do at this time of year as the golden hour for photography coincides more with family mealtimes.

  19. What a fantastic set of comments and tips and how great to discover so many new (to me) blogs.

    Congratulations on prising the artichoke purée recipe out of the Riding House Café @thelittleloaf btw. I thought that was amazing too.

    I think you strike a good balance, Grania - like your pix and your 'recipes revisited' section. That Turkish soup looks good!

    Bethany - I like 'can we eat now?' If we're sharing a dish I occasionall say 'no, no, hang on a minute while I take a pic'. But it's only ever one or two shots. And I wouldn't have done that to the kids when they were young. I'd have taken my pix before the food came to the table.

    Lindsay, that is obviously the ideal solution but you need to be incredibly well organised to achieve it. Going to try though. Lovely blog btw, folks: Love & Olive Oil.

    See you're a devotée of the Instagram school of photography too, @Beach Hut Cook. Have you tried Hipstamatic? Also good!

    You're right Laura - and others. There's no simple answer - it's a question, like everything with families - of juggling priorities. Like the post on the fire pit - and the 2 of everything marinade. Great idea!

    Agree with you about natural light, Marcus, but most of my cooking these days is done in the evening, even at the weekend. Nice wood-fired oven!

  20. Always a dilemma. I think the thing to do is to cook the actual meal specifically for the photo and then eat it later. I know this means re-heating, but there's nothing worse than everyone waiting around waiting to eat their food. It drives my husband nuts! Either that or I let him eat as I photograph mine, letting mine get cold. So much is expected of us bloggers,recipe developing, photography and good writing....its a big multi-tasking business!

  21. Great discussion-provoking post Fiona. My husband too tires of me pausing to take photos. However, most of all, my neighbours must think I am mad for constantly carrying food outside to photograph it! I'm sure they must wonder what on earth I am doing, as they never see me eating it outside (I take it bak in to eat at the table!) I've developed a system whereby I don't take photos of absolutely everything I cook. Most of the time now I can determine whether a dish will be good enough/interesting enough for a blog post or not and sometimes it is just even nice to not take any photos and to just enjoy the food!

  22. Gosh, that's bliss when that happens, Ren isn't it? A good argument for making some old favourites you've blogged about before. Love the blog makeover too - that looks great.

    And maybe the multitasking thing is why fewer men blog, Angela ;-)

  23. Interesting post, something that is on my mind often too. I cook for my family but I also want to take a decent picture to remember the dish/ meal by. As long as it is summer we are lucky to shoot in natural light but when winter comes I only take pictures of my dishes during the weekends. I leave home when it's dark and get home when it's dark. This is for me the most depresssing thing about winter, not having daylight when I get home. I do not alwas take pictures for the blog, sometimes when I see a product or veg, I just have to take a picture of it as I love food like others love art.
    What I do is, while doing the 'mise en place' I also put together a set to take my picture. Usually in the garden and like Fbulicious food said, my neighbours tend to stand at the window looking at me in a strange way. I gave them a link to my blog so now the do understand it a bit and also try to contribute by telling me food things about their holiday and bringing me back a bottle of wine from a small estate they visited.
    So, I take pictures of my empty plates and see how it looks. If I get this right it's only scooping in the food and taking a few shots as the composition is allready there. Its like doing a mise en place for your pictures.
    My plate is mostly cold, my hubby's isn't. He 'll be sitting at the table waiting, hungry while I do my thing but he supports me and mostly helps me by holding up a white sheet or something. In a way we are in this together, he loves it when I am passionate about something and encourages me.
    Sometimes he jokes about getting cold food to other people but I know he is not anoyed. But again, to do this you need time so usually only during the weekend.
    I often take pictures with my iphone during the week when its dark, but don't use those for my blog but for twitter.
    Great to read all these comments and great post Fiona!

  24. Fiona, you might have just found the reason why fewer men blog indeed! I always wondered about that ;-)

  25. Here's my secret: blow the steam away, click the button. Repeat. Eat.

  26. I rarely both taking a snap as often just wanna tuck in, as does Ori. If I do it's usually cos I've used my camera recently for something which isn't fancy but does the job.

    Cooking like art to me has to done first and foremost for oneself with the passion that drives one to cook properly with fresh ingredients instead of using oven or microwave meals. If others and family love your cooking then all the better :D

  27. really interesting. I started a photo diary recently, to keep track of my main meals, and so this is a real issue for me.

    My husband has no patience or understanding of why on earth I want to take pics of my food. But as I plate in the kitchen, I can serve his first and let him start whilst I take a few shots of my own before I join him.

    I have a corner of the table that is kept as clear as clutter behind it as possible, so that I don't have to move all the everyday dining table detritus away each time I click (we are lazy eaters, eating in front of the telly in the front room so dining table is usually a dumping ground for post, and general stuff..)

    I use the camera for my eBay pics as well as my food pictures, so have to remind myself to move the lighting setting over to indoor lighting for evening shots. And I usually set the exposure a couple of stops light as I want to show the food more than my edgy photography (except by accident..)

    I don't do any process photography at all if it is a dinner shot, only if I am cooking specifically with the blog in mind - usually baking or preserves that don't have any time issues.

    My biggest tip is probably make sure you serve onto nice hot plates so that there is a good chance it will all still be hot when you get to eat it. But don't pick the plate up with bare hands!

  28. Fiona, great post! The situation isn't much of a problem for me because I post to my food blog just once a week. I don't know how any food blogger can post daily or even several times a week! I would have NO life!

  29. Great topic, Fiona! I know when I will be cooking something to be featured on my blog, and I'll usually make it during the day - when the light is best (I only use a point-and-shoot, so need all of the ideal conditions I can get!). I'll plate up a dish specifically for the shot, and dish everyone else up before that (if possible). I wait for the "model" dish to cool, as I don't want pesky steam in the picture, and then I'll snap it. That dish then becomes leftovers for later!

  30. What an awesome discussion! I am very much passionate about the photography side of things, and often struggle with the waste issue. I've long decided not to photograph everything we eat - I only publish a post once a week or so, so I often set aside a day in a weekend to do 4 or so dishes and then post them over the course of the next weeks. And weeknights are almost always camera free.

    Sometimes, waste is unavoidable - I buy many of my props and dishes at local flea markets, and there are more than a few pieces I would never eat off simply because of their material and/or lack of history. So if I decide to use one of those plates in a shoot, I am already conceding to wasting whatever is used. And in that case, I do set aside an extra portion specifically for the photo.

    For timing, I have gotten rather efficient at planning. While the food is cooking (or beforehand) I set up the shot with everything but the food to plan out composition, lighting, exposure, etc. By the time the food is ready, it takes only a minute or two to place it on my "set" and photograph it before we eat. Our system works for my husband and I.

  31. Interesting topic and great to read the many experiences shared here by food writers. Personally, while I admire those very beautiful, arty photographs that appear on some blog sites, I tend to spend more time on the words and preparing the food itself for a quick photo or two, as I'm a writer and cook, rather than a photographer. Also, I work full time and write as a hobby, so there's not a huge amount of time to dedicate (yet). Hoping to do more in my retirement.

    Thanks again for a great discussion!