The Tribune’s Master Class in Being One of Those Annoying People Who Take Pictures of Food

Baconfest co-founder Seth Zurer, multitasking foodie style at Baltic Bakery c. 2006.
Baconfest co-founder Seth Zurer, multitasking foodie style at Baltic Bakery c. 2006. Photo: Sky Full of Bacon

“When did we start taking pictures of our food?” asks Kevin Pang in today’s Trib, as if the answer were shrouded in the mists of time. In fact, we know perfectly well when it was, at least here in Chicago. A few intrepid Chowhounds were already posting pictures of food when we got there in 2002, although the ENIAC-era software then in use at Chowhound could only accommodate a single image per post. The ability to post longer photo essays was a key feature of the LTHForum software when we helped start it in 2004, and we appear to have posted the very first photo there ourselves (prophetically, it’s of lard). Soon all the kids were doing it! Anyway, a decade later making your own food porn is a near-universal habit, at least at Publican Quality Meats around lunchtime. So much so that even taquerias which barely speak English know you’re not an undercover health inspector when you do it (“Por Faisbook?”). And so the Tribune has some tips from its own photographers about how to do it without making your food look like a crime scene.

Two of them, at least, are tips that we’ve given many times and will improve your photos 1000% almost instantly: shoot by a window at lunch, where soft natural light will give a nice sculptural quality to your food, and don’t ever ever ever use a flash, which flattens images, makes the color of most food look like surgery, and besides, is annoying as hell to other people. Others are ingenious ways to rig a photo studio on the fly by, say, using a napkin draped over water glasses as a bounce card.

Having spent enough of our previous life at agonizingly slow and picky advertising food shoots, however, we hesitate to encourage amateur photographers to follow the path of the pros when they’re at dinner. Part of what we like about amateur shots is that they’re not thought-out and microstyled to death, but capture a bit of the feel of actually being at dinner… which is kind of the point, remember. We also think it’s worth remembering that the food may not be the most interesting part of the meal— we like this blog, for instance, not because we need to see more pictures of cheap hamburgers, but because it has a nice feel for the Americana places where such burgers come from. It’s a road trip at our desk.

In a side piece, Pang talks to chefs, who he says view taking food pics as “the new normal.” Johnny Besh of Bistro Bordeaux, who used to work at L2O, says “we strongly encouraged it, because the food was so beautiful.” Which raises another question: are chefs starting to plate with photography in mind? Maybe not consciously, but we certainly feel like the visual side of plating has become much more crucial in recent years, as we become more and more used to seeing dishes everywhere online.

In the end, photographer Abel Uribe has the best advice for being a foodie photographer in moderation: “You have a two-minute window before the luster is gone. Take your pictures, then remember what you came here for — to eat.”

Picture this: The Tribune guide to professional-quality food photography [Tribune]

What chefs think of your food shots [Tribune]

Food photography deconstructed (video) [Tribune]

The Tribune’s Master Class in Being One of Those Annoying People Who Take