How can food be styled and shot? Experts talk about the growing interest in food photography

They are ideal photo models. They come in endless varieties, stay put through the shoots, throw no tantrums, and are happy to pose on tables. Sure, they suffer meltdowns in the heat and excitement, and sometimes wilt. That's okay, say their photographers. There is nothing we can't fix with a little make-up. Too far gone? Replace them! We “prepare our subjects well,” says K.L. Raja Ponsing, founder-director, Ambitions4 Photography Academy. “We make them look good on brochures, cookbooks, restaurant boards, hoardings, menu cards and newspapers.”

Food photography (FP) is huge business now. Raja's Academy has FP in its curriculum. Well-known photographers boast of expertise in FP. Our new-found love for international cuisine has launched a tribe of specialists in food photography.

One of them, Arun Natarajan, says, “In FP you have one goal: create the temptation to grab and eat.”

“Photography is a special aspect in promoting food,” says G. Venket Ram. “The incentive to taste the food is dictated largely by its sight. So make the food visually appealing. I think of the most effective possible lighting to bring out the true character of the dish, without compromising on its authenticity.”

You have to love food (that's bad?) to bring that appetising look, adds Raja. “Subjects such as beverages, ice-cream and steaming hot food demand fast work,” says Arun.

Gather a team, says Raja. Chefs for specialised cooking, food-stylists to enhance colour/shape and arrange food, someone to clean up. “We set-up a kitchen next to a studio or go to a hotel or create a studio and shoot.”

“Quantity of food and presentation are crucial. Get a lot of reference about the food before you start. Decide the final design, collect material props (plate, cutlery, tablecloth/top, bowls, mats, flowers/statues),” suggests Raja. Try different compositions, different angles. He takes five shots of the same food for different ads. “Feels like variety for viewers!”

I've heard about “masking” food for appeal. Shoe polish for roasted effect, mashed potatoes for ice-cream cones… “We do use undercooked food,” agrees Venket Ram. They lose texture, colour, when under harsh lights for a couple of hours. “But we try to stick to the original ingredients. The most we do is brush some oil to make the vegetables or the main ingredients glossy.”

The fresh look

Sprinkle raw carrots, tomatoes, spring onions, curry leaves on rice varieties for colour, says Raja. Start with dummies, bring fresh food later. Veggies/fruits/ leaves/flowers get a coat of glycerine for that “glistening, fresh look. Cold drinks and juices are misted with a spray-gun for the frosting effect. Dry ice or burning joss sticks go behind ‘steaming' tea or coffee. For rice, it's from under the colander. Containers are packed 80 per cent with dough (in plastic wrappers), pulao, sambar, soup fill the rest. Only 20 per cent is real stuff. Cooked meat isn't photogenic, so it's raw meat.”

Mallika Badrinath, whose cookbooks are used by a cross-section of grateful home-makers isn't all gaga about these made-up models. “My pictures show how varieties can be made — of murukku, rice, juices, they match the everyday, practical recipes meant for young first-time kitchen goers,” she says. “My books go to kitchens not drawing rooms/libraries.” For international audiences, maybe she'll get exotic pictures, but “I don't want pictures far removed from real food. What use are they if the food doesn't come out tasty? Both taste and looks must be given equal importance.”

Lesson for you consumers! Photographed food is often inedible. You can't get in restaurants what you see in brochures. You can't get that cook-book “look” at home. Those “artificial elements” are for ads. Appreciate the photograph, and order the real stuff.