Food & Drink

What really happens at a food photo shoot

The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Raleigh food photojournalist Juli Leonard’s daughter, Tula, helps during a photo shoot while holding a reflector and keeping their dog Franny from stealing the bacon jam.
Raleigh food photojournalist Juli Leonard’s daughter, Tula, helps during a photo shoot while holding a reflector and keeping their dog Franny from stealing the bacon jam. Raleigh News & Observer

I’m in the business of producing mouth-watering, tummy-grumbling food photos: a steaming plump dumpling, a decadent slice of chocolate cake, a nut-coated cheese ball begging to be smeared on a cracker.

So it fascinates me that the images that get the most traction on my Instagram account (@aweigl) and The Recipe site (@thereciepnc) (which photographer Juli Leonard uses) are not the pretty, pristine food photos.

The most popular images are the ones showing the mess and chaos behind the scenes of a food photo shoot.

One of the most popular, and one of my favorites, is a photograph of me plating a green bean salad with my messy living room on full display: its crammed bookshelves, floor strewn with toys and a chair cushion at an odd angle to keep the dog off the furniture. It also doesn’t hurt that it shows my daughter in full pink footed pajamas taking photos from the back of our lime green couch.

Readers also love any image featuring our dogs. Keeping the dogs – Juli’s Doberman, Willa, and chihuahua terrier, Franny, and my basset hound/beagle mix, Mr. Early – away from the food can be a challenge. As you can see, they are always lurking under a table or angling for a chance to steal a bite. (Mr. Early snagged some Indian-spiced cashews during a recent holiday food photo shoot. I think he couldn’t resist because they looked like Pup-Peroni dog treats.)

I like that those are the most popular images because they show real life. To me, it’s an antidote to the picture-perfect Pinterest existence.

Even though Juli and I pull off those pretty images, what it takes to produce them belies the end result.

Here’s how those shoots usually go down. Juli comes to my house at 9 a.m. Friday, which means I get up at 6 a.m. to start cooking. I cannot count how many times I’ve had to run to the grocery store that morning because I didn’t have an ingredient I thought I had or run to two stores because the first one didn’t have what I need. I’ve even dashed to a housewares store when it opened to get the correct baking pan or sent a panicked email or Facebook plea to borrow a particular piece of cookware from a neighbor.

While I often send Juli a list of the recipes we are planning to shoot the day before, I should phrase my note as dishes I hope we get to shoot. I make the mistake of not fully reading the recipes. I don’t realize something is going to take more time to prepare than I have. And occasionally things go wrong in the kitchen. Chicken burns or custard turns into scrambled eggs, and the food ends up in the trash can instead of on a platter in front of my picture window.

Here’s how you can learn from my mistakes – and advice I should make sure to take myself:

▪ Always read the recipe in full. Don’t assume you know what it says. Don’t just glance at the ingredients. Map out how much time the recipe will take and see if you can do anything the day before.

▪ Make sure you have everything you need. Go through your pantry, fridge and freezer and check on what ingredients you have. Check to make sure you have all the pots, pans and kitchen tools you need to execute the dish. Always write a list of what you need from the grocery store or housewares store.

▪ Don’t forget what you already know. On Christmas Day, I had two kitchen failures. One of them was a grainy crème brûlée. I’ve made crème brûlée before but this recipe didn’t call for baking the custards in a water bath, which is a safer method for producing consistently creamy custard. Instead, it called for making the custard on the stovetop, a much riskier proposition, and the results showed. The lack of a water bath should have been a red flag for me, and I should have looked for a different recipe. Next time, I will be wiser.

▪ Don’t beat yourself up. My other kitchen failure on Christmas Day was cinnamon rolls that didn’t rise, which likely means the yeast was out of date or the kitchen wasn’t warm enough that day. These things happen. We switched gears and served something else delicious for breakfast.

▪ Finally, remember that delicious doesn’t have to look pretty.