“You can shoot food, right?”

I was on an assignment from Carlsbad Magazine (see the article here) to shoot the brand new Green Dragon Tavern & Museum: the building itself, as well as a few dishes on its menu. Bent over my camera, framing up the entryway in my viewfinder and making final adjustments to exposure and white balance, I suddenly found myself having to defend my photography skills. “Real estate and architectural photography is my main gig, but yes I’ve done food photography before.” Sort of.

The senior vice president/general manager of the the Green Dragon, the exterior of which he was watching me photograph, seemed unconvinced.

I didn’t blame him. I’m definitely not one to oversell myself. Though, he also hadn’t seen my work. If I sent him to San Diego Home Photography, I’m sure he’d be satisfied with my real estate photography skills. Food photography, on the other hand, I had peanuts for experience. Honestly, I really didn’t need to convince him; I wasn’t working for him, I was working for the magazine. But then he upped the ante: “If these turn out, we might want to purchase some of the images.”

Oh really? Now I needed to convince both him and myself that I was a food photographer.

~ ~ ~

The next day, the executive chef prepared seven dishes for me. While I set up my equipment, not only did the senior vice president/general manager hover around, but so did the PR director, sous chef and several other kitchen employees.

It was mildly daunting. Besides, I was a bit out of my element.

Photographers are photographers, right? Sure, we all understand the fundamentals of photography. We all know how to operate a camera. But we all shoot different things, using different sets of equipment and individual techniques. That’s why there are sports photographers, wildlife photographers, wedding photographers, fashion photographers, product photographers, food photographers, the list goes on.

Asking a National Geographic wildlife photographer to shoot a Vogue fashion show is akin to asking an NBA player to play in the NFL. Both professional athletes? Yep. Same game? Nope.

I was a real estate photographer shooting food. Besides the unnerving mass of people looking on, I was less than comfortable with my food photography skills. This was my first real (read: paid) food shoot. I couldn’t rely on experience; I had to learn from rapid trial and error on the spot.

To set up, I selected a table bathed in sunlight from a window. I’d use my flash as my main light source and the window for my backlight. Thankfully I had the forethought to bring a prop (a pommegranate) to test my setup before the real food came out.

After the first dish arrived, my remote flash trigger stopped working. I couldn’t figure out what went wrong, nor did I have the time. The food wasn’t the fake kind used in TV commercial shoots. This food came out hot and started dying immediately — dripping sauces, wilting garnishes, disappearing steam — making the food look less attractive by the second.

I propped open a door to allow bounced sunlight to act as my main light source, while the window still provided backlight. After dish number three, I was in a groove: working different angles, swapping lenses when necessary, using my bounce card, climbing a ladder for overhead POVs and calling the sous chef for more buerre blanc.

BurrataSalad

Salmon2

LobsterRoll

MacnCheese

TunaSteak

By the time I finished, I felt good about what I’d shot. I would have loved to have used a different backdrop and some props (drinks, salt & pepper, everything that normally sits on a table) but hey, at least the food itself turned out. The PR director wanted to discuss purchasing the photos after the magazine ran them. The senior vice president/general manager, who had exuded some mild skepticism of my skills, ended up dropping compliments as well as the possibility of inviting me to return for another shoot at the Green Dragon in the future. ☼