In food photography, there is a knack to keeping food true to the recipes you are working with while keeping an eye toward how it looks on the plate.
It begins in the supermarket. You should always buy about three times as much food as you would normally buy to prepare a meal. You often need to weed out things like wilted leaves on lettuce, shriveled green beans or an oddly shaped carrot. Try shopping at farmers’ markets or high-priced groceries for the freshest looking produce.
Having good knife skills when cutting, chopping, slicing and butchering is key. You want to cut your food in a uniform, creative way. For instance, bias cuts sometimes give dimension to an ordinary looking vegetable. Also, having the right tools (even the gadgety ones) to make the food look interesting is really helpful. Devices like mandolines, zesters, fish tweezers, egg slicers, candy thermometers and brush basters can be life savers.
Keeping the ingredients looking fresh is also going to make you picture more vibrant. Soaking fresh vegetables in ice water will help them look crisper, fresher and more colorful. Cooking your pasta and vegetables al dente helps keep them from looking mushy, washed out and dull. Cook red meats to no warmer than medium, preferably medium rare. And cook pork and chicken so they remain juicy. Nobody wants to see a dried up pork chop.
Shooting whole game birds (chicken, turkey, duck) presents an interesting challenge. You walk a fine line with game birds because cooking them to completion usually means a really bad picture. The trick is to photograph the bird when the skin is perfectly browned, regardless of the interior temperature. A fully cooked bird will begin to collapse rather quickly, and you need it to hold up for the whole shoot. Take the bird out of the oven when the skin is perfectly cooked to get your whole bird shot, then return it to the oven to complete the cooking. When it’s done, you can slice it up to create plated shots.
Now that your food is cooked, how you plate it is essential for a good picture. You need to build your plate, not just put the food on and hope for the best. Sometimes your recipe says to toss, mix or blend ingredients together just before serving. Keeping the ingredients separate and adding them to the plate strategically will give you much more control over the image. That perfectly placed tomato or crumb is no accident, it is a result of carefully constructing the image. Keeping tweezers or chopsticks on hand to move small elements of the plate around is also really helpful. Also, shooting the plate in stages gives you the option of showing the dish with less or more ingredients. Sometimes the whole recipe is too messy or busy for a good shot.
The downside for me is that after I have poked, prodded, cut, squeezed, trimmed, plated and finally shot the dish, often the last thing I feel like doing is eating it. Fortunately for my family, friends and neighbors, there are always plenty of pretty leftovers to go around.