This special edition of the Politics Hour combined local and national politics live from Slim's Diner in Petworth, Northwest D.C.
With the rise of the smartphone, more Americans are carrying cameras with them than ever before. Many have taken to snapping photos of the meals they eat and sharing them online. But has the rise of a nation of hobbyists hurt professional photography? And is it even polite to take photos in a restaurant? We’ll talk about the difference between professional and amateur food photos, learn some tricks of the trade and talk about the etiquette of it all.
- Rachel Tepper blogger, 'The Pumpernickel Collection'; assistant editor, Huffington Post DC Local edition
- Lisa Cherkasky food stylist; writer
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Food Wednesday. In 1825 a French gourmand proclaimed, tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are. Today we wouldn't have to tell him. A quick flip through a copy of Food and Wine magazine or scroll through the images on a foodies' Flickr page would show him all there is to know.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhether they're part of a professional photo spread, a friend's Instagram stream or attached to a blogger's review, images of food are everywhere. Some people seem to be taking pictures of their every meal. So how do you get the best shots without alienating other diners? Here to guide us along this path is Lisa Cherkasky. She is a DC-based food stylist, writer and cook. She also runs the blog "Lunch Encounter" which is all about sandwiches. Lisa, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. LISA CHERKASKYIt's nice to be here.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Rachel Tepper. She's a journalist, photographer and the blogger behind "The Pumpernickel Collection." She is also the assistant editor of the DC edition of The Huffington Post. Rachel, thank you for joining us.
MS. RACHEL TEPPERThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAll of you who would like to join the conversation, start calling now, 800-433-8850. Do you regularly take photos of your meals? How good are they? 800-433-8850. You could send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversations there. What do you do with the photos you take of your meals? Starting with you, Lisa, the photographs of food we see today tend to look a lot more appealing than shots from my own youth, or even from 20 or 10 years ago. Is the food better, the photography better, or both?
NNAMDIThey're both better, both the food and the photography.
CHERKASKYI think they're both better. From 20 years ago? From 20 years ago, they're both better.
NNAMDITwenty years ago, why?
CHERKASKYFrom 40 years ago -- no, well, or maybe 60 years ago the food was as good or better I think.
CHERKASKYWell, in certain ways...
NNAMDIWe had a lapse?
CHERKASKYWell, their food was less processed. I'm not -- maybe in the 30s and 40s, so it depends how far back you go. But in the 70s then -- that's more than 20 years ago, but...
NNAMDISo why is it so much better now?
CHERKASKYWell food photography is better because food photography -- the food is a lot looser. You know, the styles changed a lot. It was, you know -- it's -- as it has evolved, food photography has become more natural so that food -- photos of food for advertising and packaging and so on have become closer to editorial photos. So it just looks looser and more appetizing and more like you cooked it yourself. And the lighting is looking more natural, and people are doing more things with available light and that kind of thing.
CHERKASKYAnd also digital photography has changed things tremendously. It speeded it up so much that you can catch all kinds of things you couldn't before, which is wonderful. It's great for me.
NNAMDIOK. It is better, the food and the photography. But why have we become, as a society, so enamored with food photography?
CHERKASKYThat's a complicated question. I think there are a lot of reasons. I've all sorts of theories.
NNAMDIWell, share with us some of your theories, please.
CHERKASKYWe want -- some of it -- I mean, I have theories about why we love to look at photographs of just food and nothing around it is because I have these -- one of my theories is that we want to think that our life is like that, that we have three perfect pieces of food on our plate and there's no clutter around it. And we have a beautiful table and just one beautiful table. And we don't have chaos, and we're not over-stimulated. And the counter is not covered with stuff, and we didn't just grab whatever food we could find.
CHERKASKYSo some of that is that. We're looking at it and wishing for something. There's status involved. There's a lot of status involved in food, a lot. It connects us. There's all these good things. You know, food connects us so much, and our culture is so complicated. And people, they define themselves by it, by where they came from, where they're going, where they want to be. Or they're trying to maybe lose who they were and become somebody new, and they're doing that through food.
CHERKASKYOr they are trying to continue a tradition they grew up with or maybe leave behind the food they grew up with and become either more American -- or they grew up with bad food, and now they want good food.
NNAMDIFour theories for the time being are more than enough.
NNAMDII see you really do have a lot of theories. Rachel, almost every cellphone on the market today comes equipped with a camera and the ability to share the photos you take with it online, leading to an explosion of so-called foodtography. But I understand that your love of photography goes back to the days of film. How did you get started?
TEPPERLike so many kids, I took a photography class in the ninth grade, and we were given old Nikons. And that's...
NNAMDII love the old Nikons...
TEPPERThose are wonderful, and I learned how to develop my own film. And I learned how to get the film out of the camera and into, you know, the canister that you used to develop the film. It was a wonderful thing, and it really sparked this passion that has followed me throughout my life. But I no longer shoot on a film camera. It makes it a little difficult if you were to do that. Digital photography, as we were saying, makes things so much easier and makes it a lot more possible to capture amazing images.
NNAMDIBut you started with shots that accompanied your writing.
NNAMDIAnd, just in case, you kind of started to document your life through food, and now it's become all photography.
TEPPERYes. So I -- when I became a journalist, I started writing about food. And when I would go out to restaurants, I would think, oh, this might be useful to accompany something that I will write in the future. And what wound up happening is that I wound up archiving my meals, and I wound up carrying my camera with me everywhere I went and annoying my dining partners thoroughly. It's a sticking point with most of them.
TEPPERBut what wound up happening is that I amassed this amazing collection of photographs, and I thought to myself, blogging isn't -- I don't have time to write my own blog. I'm writing so much on my own. I'm going to stop blogging words and articles and, instead, maybe put together a blog that's just photographs. And it kind of looks like you can see everything I eat in my blog.
NNAMDIWell, you do take a lot of photos. When I returned from my break between shows, you seemed to be taking a rather intimate photo of the microphone that is sitting in front of you. Pray tell, what will you do with that photo?
NNAMDIIt's the photo of a microphone, for crying out loud.
TEPPERBut it's such a -- it's a beautiful microphone. And we have these beautiful colors here, and, you know, it...
NNAMDIIt's only beautiful when I'm behind it.
NNAMDILisa, you had never heard of food styling before becoming a food stylist yourself. What does the job entail, and how did you learn?
CHERKASKYI learned mostly on the job because when I was -- well, first, I'll tell you what it is.
CHERKASKYPeople ask me all the time. Well, actually, a lot of people know what it is now. They didn't used to. But styling food is -- I make food for photos. That's what I tell people. I'm the person that buys the food, brings it to the studio, prepares it, and then I work on the set. And working on the set is a really important piece. And I do it for, oh, you know, magazines, newspapers, books and then also packaging, advertising, web, all that kind of thing. And I was -- I went to cooking school at the CIA a long time ago. And then I was a chef for quite a while, and that...
NNAMDIAnd that would be the Culinary Institute of America, not the Central Intelligence Agency.
CHERKASKYCulinary Institute of America, sorry. That's right. Yeah, Culinary Institute, and then I was cooking in Washington for about 10 years at a number of really good places. And I was looking to make a change. And there was a series being produced at Time Life books, a cooking series, and I wanted to work there 'cause I thought I could learn something new and make a -- it's really hard to switch from restaurant work to something different in the food business. It's hard (unintelligible).
CHERKASKYAnd so when I went there, they hired me for being a creative cook, which I am and was. And so I was hired to do recipes, but styling was part of my job. So I was extremely fortunate 'cause I could learn it there. I wasn't expected to know already, which is a great way to learn.
NNAMDIFood styling, it is now a profession. You can take classes in it. If you'd like to join the conversation, call us, 800-433-8850. Has a picture you have seen in an ad on a website or on a friend's phone ever made you decide to try a restaurant or a location or, for that matter, to stay away from it? Call us at 800-433-8850. Lisa, a lot of savvy customers are on to the tricks that food stylists use. I don't know if I should call them tricks, the techniques food stylists use to help photographers get good shots.
NNAMDIThe milk in many cereal ads is -- my understanding is mixed with glue, and those perfect red strawberries may just be coated in lipstick. What are some of the lesser-known tricks -- I mean, techniques you have up your sleeve?
CHERKASKYI'll have to remember that word technique. You know, sometimes I don't remember because it's -- I've been doing it so long, it is second nature. A lot of what I do -- what I keep in mind with food all the time is that it's basically coming apart as you're watching it because of temperature and gravity and moisture. So a lot of what I'm doing is I'm trying to control temperature and control moisture. So a lot of what I'm doing is keeping it moist with water or a little oil with a brush.
CHERKASKYAnd then I do -- I do funny stuff. I don't realize I'm doing it. I make repairs with super glue. I might fix a crack on a piece of ham with super glue, or I might put a little Armor All on a tortilla to keep it from cracking 'cause it has to sit there. I might enhance the color a little bit on a piece of watermelon, so I do -- I mix colors. I don't think -- I don't notice a lot of the time because I'm just looking at it, thinking, what do I do? What do I do? And then I look in my kit and figure out. I use a torch. I have a jeweler's torch.
NNAMDII was about to say...
CHERKASKYYeah, mm hmm.
NNAMDII look at my kit. I'd be interested to know, what is in your kit?
CHERKASKYWhat's in my kit?
NNAMDIWhat do you take with you when you go on a shoot?
CHERKASKYI take two big things that roll and then a smaller kit that I carry. And sometimes I don't use anything except what's called a styling pick, which is a bamboo skewer that you buy at the grocery store. That's a styling pick to me. And I use forceps -- dental forceps a lot, and I use little brushes. But I also carry a jeweler's torch, and I carry a grill-starter. And I carry a steamer. I melt cheese with a -- a lot of it is portable.
CHERKASKYThey're kind of cooking things, but they're small and portable. And you can use them on a set rather than a stove. So some of that, in my defense, is because it's small and portable, and it produces heat, moist heat or dry heat or something like that. And I carry beautiful acrylic ice cubes and cooking oil and Pam spray, you know, tons of stuff.
NNAMDIWhat are the -- oh, well, the acrylic ice cubes are to look like real ice cubes.
CHERKASKYYeah, they're crystal clear. They're beautiful, but they sink. They don't float. They're kind of strange.
NNAMDISome of these, what I've started calling techniques, what others call tricks of the trade, have been called into question. In the late 60s, it came out that Campbell's Soup used marbles to make the stars in their soup float to the top when they took pictures of it for ads. You say truth in advertising is always near the top of your mind on a shoot. But how fine is the line you have to walk?
CHERKASKYIt's hard. That's one of the hardest things, and the most interesting things about my job because I'm a cook, and I don't want to do any disservice to anybody who is either buying a product or cooking. I want to -- I don't want to do anything illegal obviously. I want to serve my client. I also want to serve the customer, and I also want to serve myself. I have my own principles. So I think about that a lot, actually. It's a big gray area, and that's a really important part of my job, knowing what it is I'm -- am I selling lifestyle? Am I selling a recipe? Am I selling a product?
CHERKASKYHow much does it -- and we discuss it a lot at shoots, a lot, what we can and can't do, and you never want to over-promise, which is a word that's used all the time.
NNAMDIWhat would be...
CHERKASKYYou want to promise but not -- you want them to want it. If you don't do anything, they won't want it. There's no point. But if it's too much, then it's wrong.
NNAMDIThere's a lot of gray area there. Last spring, a furor erupted when it came out that VegNews, a vegetarian lifestyle magazine and website, regularly used stock images of foods that contained meat and dairy alongside vegan articles and recipes. What is illegal? What -- on one hand, you might simply be crossing an ethical line. On the other hand, what would be considered illegal?
CHERKASKYWell, as I see it -- I don't know the exact terms. But, as I see it, if you're selling -- this is how I look at it. If you're selling ice cream, the ice cream has to be real, if it's a brand, and the topping can be whatever you want, brown gravy or whatever you have on hand. If you're selling topping, then the ice cream can be fake. That's my rule of thumb. But it's a lot -- there's a lot of gray area, and you're answering to -- I serve a lot of masters when I'm at work, you know, and I'm trying to please all of them. It's hard, but interesting.
NNAMDIThe rise of digital photography has really changed the game for everyone who takes pictures, professional or amateur. How has it changed your job?
CHERKASKYIt's wonderful. People say -- when they say, oh, we'll fix that in post, I think, oh, that's so wonderful. Oh, it's made it harder. Now, if I'm working on a plate of food, like a plate of rice, when it comes up on the monitor, a grain of rice might be 4" long. And they'll say go get this speck. And I'll go over there. I can't see the speck. It's too small. But on the other hand, I can see everything on the monitor, which is nice. It's a -- but it's fast. We do -- there's no Polaroid, so you don't wait 'cause it used to be shoot a -- you shoot something. It's a Polaroid...
NNAMDIWait that 60 seconds to get the Polaroid.
CHERKASKYAnd -- right. Then the parsley fell, and you don't know when. You don't know -- but now, once it's on the screen, you've got it. What you're looking at, it's done (unintelligible).
NNAMDIHow has it changed life for you, Rachel? You started out with film also.
NNAMDIHow has digital changed life for you?
TEPPERWell, number one, much of the time that I take a photograph, it's not a shoot. I've just ordered a meal in a restaurant. I may be sitting in a part of the restaurant that doesn't have the best light, that doesn't have -- my -- the thing doesn't look exactly like I want it to look. And digital photography helps me take a picture that is maybe good, not great, and tweak it a little bit so that it's appealing.
TEPPERAnd that doesn't necessarily mean altering the photo so that it's unrecognizable. In my mind, that's cheating, and that's not a good photograph. You know, Photoshop is not an excuse to take bad pictures. It's a tool to help make good pictures better. So I can make something brighter. I can make something pop a little bit more. If there's a speck of dust, I can take it out. And those things really help make my pictures much better than they would otherwise be.
NNAMDIRachel highlighted five photos from her blog for us to talk about. You can find those images at our website, kojoshow.org. We're going to take a short break. When we get back, we will continue our conversation on food photography, inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Does it bother you when people nearby, or in your own party, take pictures when you're out to dinner? Why or why not? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's Food Wednesday. We're talking food photography with Rachel Tepper. She's a journalist, photographer and the blogger behind "The Pumpernickel Collection." She's also the assistant editor of the D.C. edition of the Huffington Post. And Lisa Cherkasky is a D.C.-based food stylist, writer and cook. She also runs the blog "Lunch Encounter" which is all about sandwiches. We go now to the telephones. Here is Pete in Washington, D.C. Pete, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PETEThe main reason I photograph some pictures -- an active member of the Knights of Columbus at Sterling, and we serve dinners. And I took a picture -- one night just to show portion size because sometimes you go into some of these restaurants and the size of the steak that you're getting is so miniscule, you know, (unintelligible) And I just wanted to show that we were going to give them a generous portion for their money.
NNAMDIAnd what was the response you got?
NNAMDIWhat was the response that you got?
PETEI couldn't understand you, Kojo.
NNAMDIWhat response did you get after you used the photos to show portion size? I think Pete is having trouble understanding me. Pete, I'm going to put you on hold and see if we can get clearer reception when I come back to you later. Here is Rhonda in Murphy, Texas. Rhonda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RHONDAYes. I love taking photos of food, whether I cooked it or whether I'm out to eat at a restaurant. And I get the most responses from my Twitter feed or my Facebook page when I post pictures of food. And I am not necessarily a professional photographer. I've taken photos for my newspaper I worked for at one time. But people love seeing pictures of food, so it is a wonderful thing. And I always carry a camera, even if it's just my smartphone with is camera. But I usually have a small Nikon with me. And if I'm really going to be going out somewhere nice, I'll actually take my Canon with me.
RHONDAAnd I've never had a restaurant or restaurateur, you know, tell me that I couldn't take pictures because, as soon as they find out that I'm going to be taking pictures and talking about their food, they're, hey, take more. Can you put the business card in the photo, too? So it's a great thing.
NNAMDIHave you ever gotten response from other diners in the restaurant about this?
RHONDANo. Only people walk up and want to know basically who am I, you know, in terms of, are you a food blogger? Are you a food reviewer? But I've never had anyone react negatively. But, admittedly, I'm not going out to a five star restaurant and taking my Canon, you know, camera and setting up a tripod. I try to be very discreet because I do respect people's privacy. But I normally just take pictures of my own food.
NNAMDIAnd, Rachel, I suspect that Rhonda is like most of our listeners and a lot of people today. They can't afford to hire a Lisa to style their every meal. But you started giving some tips. What can people, who are just amateurs at this, do to get a better shot of a meal that Rhonda may want, or someone else may just want to keep for posterity?
TEPPERWell, I think that Rhonda's idea of always having a camera around is a really great one. And it's a simple thing that -- you know, just having a camera lets you take a picture. It's pretty straightforward. But when you have a camera -- I -- for example, I have a Canon, and I -- it's a big Canon, but I always wind up lugging it around. That's my personal choice, but you -- a little camera works, too.
TEPPERIf you're in a restaurant, it's good to -- and you want to take pictures, it's better to do it in the daytime. Just make sure that you're near a window. And if you're not near a window, if you're under a spotlight, that's going to make your -- the light in your photo better. And it's going to make the photo better overall. And, also, don't use a flash.
NNAMDIWhy not ever, you say?
TEPPERWhen you -- with food photography, flash just tends to draw the life out of a photo. When you take a photograph of food, you're really trying to capture this sensuous moment. And a flash just sort of -- you know, it washes everything out. It makes it look more like you're in a nightclub than enjoying a very pleasant meal. So I would advise never to use a flash if you're trying to capture a good picture. And then, you know, it just -- when it comes down to just being -- holding the camera steady and make sure that it's not blurry, and that's going to make a very big difference in your photos.
NNAMDIRhonda, thank you for your call. On to Brian in Alexandria, Va. Brian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANGood afternoon, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. It's very interesting listening to this. I'm an art director designer here in Alexandria, so I've worked with -- you know, done a lot of photo shoots. And I actually worked with a food stylist many years ago. I don't recall their name. It was brought in by the photographer. But it was a very fascinating experience for me. Luckily, in our case, the things that we were shooting in the shoot were just kitchen implements, a new line of products, so the food was sort of secondary. It was just there to -- for the shots.
BRIANSo they got to do sort of more of their, as you were -- tricks, as they were saying, that I, again, found very fascinating. There were several cakes in several shots. All the cakes were Styrofoam blocks with frosting on them.
BRIANJust, again, nobody had to eat them. Again, we could get away with more as I understood the -- and since we weren't selling the food, was not the product. It was these other products. They did some others where they cooked some beautiful chicken, but -- and used like soldering irons and other things to make grilled lines on them. The part that I found most sort of disturbing at the end of it all -- throw almost all the food away because most of it was unedible (sic).
BRIANAgain, it looked wonderful for the photo shoot, but most of the food was either barely cooked or almost raw in some cases just to -- again, it was for the looks, not for anything else. And so I learned a lot on that particular shot. Actually, I had a small food photo shoot just late last year for a product. Luckily, there were just some dry wafers that we didn't have to do too much. There was no preparation for them, but it took a while to get them to look right, get the lighting, get every little crumb in its place.
BRIANI can definitely appreciate the work that goes into it, both from the -- my past photo shoot history and then a most recent one, but a very interesting -- to see what was involved.
NNAMDIBrian, I'm glad you talk about the -- I'm glad you talk about the work that goes into it and what was involved because I'm looking at three books in front of me that Lisa Cherkasky serves as the food stylist in all three of these books. The one here at the top, "Delicious by Design: 30 years, 30 recipes with Robert Sugar." You just look at the cover of this book, and you wonder what kinds of composition and time and work had to go into these. Brian mentioned the length of time. Sometimes you can't eat the food afterwards -- talk a little bit about the process that you go through.
CHERKASKYSometimes we have drawings, and sometimes we don't. Sometimes I have a recipe, sometimes I don't. First I shop. Then I show up. And the photographer and I -- I work a lot with Renee Comet. We work well together 'cause we've worked together for a long, long time. So she sets up. She begins setting up on the set, choosing a surface and all that with the art director, if there is one, while I start preparing.
CHERKASKYAnd we talk usually the whole time about what might work. And I can tell, usually by her tone, if she makes a little mm sound, I know she doesn't like the plate I think I might like. Or she'll say, what's the food going to look like? And I can usually describe it from a recipe. Sometimes we've had a pre-production meeting and talked about it ahead of time, which is also really useful, so everyone kind of knows what we're going to do.
CHERKASKYAnd then we work -- we just work together. It's this collaborative thing. We talk, and I cook. And the lights are moved, and we try things. And I put down a -- stand in. Or I might just give her a chunk of something, so she has some sense of how big it's going to be or how wet it's going to be. And then we look on the screen, and then we talk about it. Then we make adjustments and on and on and on until we -- and we try to go from biggest to smallest. Like, you start with the surface and work in layers so that you are not going backwards.
CHERKASKYEach decision you make is building, building, building until you have what you think is perfect in a nice loose way so that you love the composition and the color and the food looks like you just put it down and you really want to eat it. And you don't -- it looks beautiful and delicious, and there's nothing that's bothering you. And the balance is correct and all that, so, yeah.
NNAMDIBrian, thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Michael who wrote, "I'm always taking pictures of food that looks good. I find myself taking pictures of my mom's food the most because it looks so good. Thanks, Mom," says Michael. Are you more likely to take a picture of a meal you made yourself or one you eat out? Call us at 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow.
NNAMDIA lot of chefs love the free publicity they get when diners post photos of their meals online. Others are not fans of their work, which has led some to ban the use of cameras in their restaurants. D.C. chef R. J. Cooper of Rogue 24 is among them saying, "Bloggers don't take good pictures." And David Chang of Momofuku fame prohibits photos in his smallest restaurant saying, "It's just food. Eat it." Is banning photography in a restaurant fair or foul, in your view, Rachel?
TEPPERI think that in some instances it's appropriate to leave your camera in your bag. At the same time, I do think that, you know, this negative reaction towards food bloggers and photographers is a tad overblown. There's bad food out there, and there is bad photography out there. And I don't necessarily think that the answer to, you know, keeping bad photos out there is to not allow pictures. I think that's an overreaction. You know, that being said, there's a time and a place.
TEPPERI never take my camera out in a hushed restaurant with -- you know, in a very intimate setting. I feel that that's disrespectful towards the other diners. At the same time, you know, I always take pictures if it's in the daytime, if it's good light, if it's not inappropriate because I think that, at the end of the day, and I'm having a conversation about food. And that's what restaurants are all about.
NNAMDIWell, how do your friends react when you're eating out together, your meals arrive, and the first thing Rachel does is whip out a camera?
TEPPERYou know, especially if I'm sharing a dish with somebody, I have to just say, wait, wait, let me take this picture. And I'm never just satisfied with one picture. I usually snap maybe 15 to 20 pictures very quickly because, you know, I'm just trying to get the exact right angle, the exact right light, making sure everything's in focus. So it's a challenge. The people that I eat out with most often are a little used to it. They're used to the song and dance.
NNAMDIBut it's my understanding that if somebody sees a photo of yours and that they can tell it's been taken on the fly, there's a reason for that. It's because someone not visible in the picture is saying, take the picture already. That happens with you a lot?
TEPPERYes, so often. I often wonder what kind of photographs I would have if I wasn't, you know, being told, you know, to hurry up.
NNAMDIHurry up and take the picture already. We got a tweet from Mazzey (sp?) who says, "This explains the foodtography phenomenon. Food, especially when time is spent on presentation, is delightful to look at and fun to share. A lot of chefs spend time and energy on presentation. So why not show it off and appreciate it?" You've built a whole career on this, Lisa.
CHERKASKYYeah, I have. And I kind of admire people who say you can't take pictures of food in my restaurant. I mean, it's their restaurant. They can do what they want. And I do admire people that don't want any kind of PR, no matter what it is. It's saying something.
NNAMDII'm that good, is what they're saying.
CHERKASKYOr they're just saying that I'm not interested in that. That's not me. And I think it's fine, and it is disruptive. I do it sometimes. I do it 'cause I take pictures for my blog, but not a lot 'cause I'm not a good photographer. It's not what I do. But it can be disruptive. I can see that.
NNAMDIWell, here is Shakria (sp?) in La Plata, Md. Shakria, tell us what you do. Shakria.
NNAMDIAre you there?
SHAKRIAYeah, I'm here. Just a second. Yeah, I'm here.
NNAMDIWhat do you do, Shakria?
SHAKRIAI'm a cook.
NNAMDIOh, okay. Tell us about your photography.
SHAKRIAI just take a picture, you know, with my smartphone, and I try to put it on the, like, Facebook. And I do get a lot of comments, and they ask me the recipe 'cause I'll (word?) you know. The presentation is not usually important.
NNAMDIAnd so you just take pictures of your own meals and post them on Facebook?
SHAKRIAYeah. I mean, I'm a chef. I do sell foods in the local farmer market in the summertime. And a lot of my customers, they come take my food pictures. And I don't know what they do. They save some of them, they put on their, you know, places. I don't know.
NNAMDIOkay. Well, good for you Shakria. And I suspect that a lot more people are doing that also. On now to Dennis in Silver Spring, Md. Like Lisa, Dennis has a theory. Dennis, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DENNISHey, I just wanted to add another theory to why people want to look at pictures of food. You know, you can only eat so much. So, you know, you want to look at pictures. You can enjoy the food by looking at pictures of it. I mean, you sit down with a cookbook, and, you know, you look at all the pictures of the food that somebody spent all this time making. And you can appreciate what it might taste like, and you don't have to eat it.
DENNISAnd while I'm here, I'll say hi to Lisa. We used to work together.
CHERKASKYI have fond memories.
NNAMDIDennis, thank you very much for your call. I'm glad we could bring you and Lisa together again. If you'd like to get together with Lisa or Rachel on this broadcast, you can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. Do you take photos of your meals? What do you do with those photos? Rachel, a lot of newsrooms and magazines have cut their staffs. And in many cases, photographers are among the first to go. Do you think we lose something when publications stop hiring pros?
TEPPERAbsolutely. You know, I'm fortunate that, in addition to being a journalist, I have an interest in photography. And as a result, I'm able to provide, I think, pretty good quality images to accompany my writing. But a lot of places don't have that luxury. And I think that pictures -- you know, when it comes to any kind of journalism, pictures are just so important to telling the story. And that really, at the end of the day, is what I personally feel that food photography achieves. It helps you understand a story in a way that you wouldn't otherwise because, you know, a picture says a thousand words.
NNAMDILisa, some restaurateurs may think that they can save a few bucks and take the photos for their websites or their ads themselves, style it themselves. You say that's a mistake. Why?
CHERKASKYThat's your face. I think it's worth investing in. You know, you do it once. It's better to spend the money and have the job well done. It's -- there's all these little things that you just can't know unless you've done it yourself. I think, after you've put all that money into a restaurant, I don't know why you would shortchange on the photos. It's the first thing people see. I get -- you know, I get that people do have an understanding of what goes into a photograph of food now, way much more than they used to, which is wonderful.
CHERKASKYBut you -- it's worth the investments always. You get what you pay for. That's how I feel about that.
NNAMDIWell, here's John in Silver Spring who might have something to say about that, also. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHi. It's -- I'm actually a professional photographer. I've done a bunch of photography, including working with Lisa several times. Hello.
CHERKASKYHi, John, how are you.
CHERKASKYYeah, I figured.
JOHNGood. How are you? I wanted to also just comment on people doing their own photography and bloggers and chefs and restaurateurs doing their own work, which is, you know, I agree with Lisa's comment that it's a mistake to think that it's just that easy when it's something that is so important, how you present your work to the world. But I also welcome -- and I think Lisa can comment on this.
JOHNIn a way, it kind of raises the bar for us creatively, I think, for professionals who do this because there certainly was a time when just a beautiful plate of food ready to be eaten was the professional's work, and it was good enough for a lot of commercial applications. But now that people can do that themselves, I think that just pushes us to do something that they really can't do and pushes us creatively to bring a different approach.
NNAMDIThat is any interesting take that I didn't think of, Lisa.
CHERKASKYThat's a good point.
NNAMDIThis is pushing you to do better work even.
CHERKASKYI think it's a very good point. It's true. I mean, you feel a little bit like you're being chased. But I try to not think of it in that way. But, no, I think that's a really, really good point. And a lot of work that I used to do that was maybe kind of simple, I don't get anymore. I miss it 'cause it was fun and quick. But the stuff that I do do is more challenging. And, you know, you're tempted when someone's working with you who hasn't worked with you before to pull out the, like, dog and pony show and impress them, so they know, oh, they're getting, you know, a lot for their money.
CHERKASKYBut, really, it doesn't work that well, and they figure it out when they see you work.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, if you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. John, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Has a picture you have seen in an ad on a website or a friend's phone ever made you decide to try a place or to stay away from it, a restaurant? 800-433-8850, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. It's Food Wednesday. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's a Food Wednesday conversation about foodtography, food photography. We're talking with Lisa Cherkasky. She's a D.C.-based food stylist. She's a writer and cook. She also runs the blog "Lunch Encounter" which is all about sandwiches. And Rachel Tepper is a journalist, photographer and the blogger behind the "Pumpernickel Collection." She's also the assistant editor of the D.C. edition of the Huffington Post. We got a couple of tweets that I'd like to share with you.
NNAMDINicole tweets, "While I love food, too, I am not a fan of diners who take photos in restaurants. They are never as discreet as they think they are." And Bill tweets to say, "Recipe blogs with photos of very single step irritate me. Helpful photos are good. Photos of pans, really?"
NNAMDIIt occurred to me, Lisa, I haven't asked you, do you take photos only in restaurants, or do you also take photos of meals you prepare at home?
TEPPERWell, I wound up eating out a lot.
TEPPERSo I don't have so much time to cook. And when I do cook, I usually cook at night when the light is not good. And, honestly, if the light's not good, then it's just not really worth it, taking a picture, for me, personally. You know, so I very rarely take pictures of my own food, and, honestly, I do leave that to the professionals. It just never looks as good. It's not...
NNAMDIHow about you, Lisa?
CHERKASKYI like taking pictures at home 'cause I like pictures of food when it's in process. I'm always fascinated when something really weird is floating in the pot or in the pan and it just looks bizarre and it's not finished. So I take those. They're not very good, but I can't resist taking them.
NNAMDIHere now is Jennifer is Chesapeake Beach, Md. Jennifer, your turn.
JENNIFERHi, Kojo. I'm a history buff, and I wanted to point out that dramatic presentations of food has gone on for centuries. I've read some accounts of the court of Henry VIII and some other monarchs where whole birds, whole fish were put into (unintelligible) on the table. So they couldn't take pictures then, but, you know, presentation has always been very important.
NNAMDITo what extent, as a food stylist, Lisa, do you have to study the history, if you will, of food presentation?
CHERKASKYIt doesn't hurt to know. I mean, the more -- I think one of reasons I'm a good food stylist, which I do think I'm a very good food stylist, I think one of the reasons is because I'm a cook first and foremost, so I know about food. And I understand food, and I've been cooking for a long, long, long time since I was a child. So I can think about -- I mean, I understand -- when something's put in front of me, I understand somewhat where it came from, what it should look like, what it might go with and so on.
CHERKASKYAnd I'm also generally interested in culinary history. It's -- you know, it's just interesting. I wish I was the food stylist for "Downton Abbey." I think that'd be a great job. It'd be so much fun.
NNAMDIHave you done any study or looking at the history of food presentation yourself, Rachel?
TEPPEROf food presentation, not necessarily, but looking at the history of food is so fascinating. In another life, I was a history major in college, so I do have such an interest in this. I recently did a post for the Huffington Post where I looked at old menus. And it is just intriguing to see the things that are served, and a lot of these, from the sounds of it, you know, the things that -- the way that they're described, things are in a gelée, odd things that you wouldn't necessarily expect to be there.
TEPPERI can only imagine what the presentation would have been like, and, you know, in some ways what we're doing now is where we're telling a story of what food is like today. And it'll be interesting to look back in time 20 years forward.
NNAMDIHere's Steve in Washington, D.C. Steve, your turn. Go ahead, please.
STEVEOh, hi there. I just wanted to make a comment echoing the -- about a restaurant having good photographs on the website. I'm a web designer. I do restaurant sites. And I tried to take my own pictures, and it just didn't work. And it's amazing, when I work with somebody that had the right equipment and the proper lighting equipment -- it's not just the camera. It's the lighting and other stuff, and I'm really amazed. I just thought nowadays, hey, I've got a digital camera. It's, you know, eight megapixels. I can do it. Not so.
NNAMDILisa, does the ego...
NNAMDIThe ego gets in front of the talent sometimes, does it not?
NNAMDIBut, Steve, at least you had the good sense to realize that you were not the great photographer that you -- great food photographer that you thought you were.
STEVEYeah. Yeah. And it's costs maybe $600 to $1,000 to get the person, from what I've understood.
NNAMDITook $600 to $1,000 to get what?
STEVEYeah, to get a food photographer. That's the rates that I've found. And that's nothing when you think about what a restaurant, you know, the number of visits over years and stuff. You're paying very little for each of them to see that face.
NNAMDIAnd I guess having a professional stylist and a professional photographer makes it all worth it. Steve, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do you take photos of your meals? What do you do with them, and which meals do you take photos of, the meals you fix at home or the meals that you encounter in restaurants? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Ingrid in Takoma Park, who writes, "A group of my friends, mostly neighbors, get together almost every week for dinner. All of us are in our 50s or early 60s, our children grown up. Our dinners, mostly involving each couple or person bringing a dish to share, have been incredibly delicious and aesthetically appealing. And we often photograph our food. I think we do it to document the wonderful food at our gathering and to share with those in our group who have not been able to attend a particular week." Why do you do it, Rachel?
TEPPERYou know, in -- really, when you get down to it, I just love food.
TEPPERIt's my favorite thing, and I like to be able to remember things. You know, just like she said, I like to remember the meals I eat. When I do take pictures in restaurants, I only take pictures of the meals that I myself have eaten. It's a -- photography is my art. And food is the thing that I love, so that's what I'm taking...
NNAMDIIf you look at photos of meals you've taken from five years ago or four years ago and photos of meals you are taking now, what difference do you see?
TEPPERI'm a much better photographer.
TEPPERI have a much better camera. I have much better lenses, you know. It's what happens when you have a hobby, and it's something you're interested in. And you get better over time, but...
NNAMDIIs the presentation of the meals themselves in restaurants now more interesting than it used to be, more, I guess, photo-worthy than they used to be?
TEPPERAbsolutely. You know, certainly in D.C., you know, D.C. has been emerging on the food scene in the last five years. And you get much more creative chefs who are much more interested in presentation. You know, Rogue 24, even though they don't like photographers, they're known for that. And it's just been an amazing thing to watch, and it does make me want to whip out my camera.
NNAMDIWell, Lisa, as a food stylist, you -- well, make things happen. You've baked a fruit tart in the shape of the Pentagon. You've rendered the Washington Monument out of white asparagus. And you've made a giant cookie that looked like the Jefferson Memorial. You also track down off-season, rare and sometimes odd ingredients to make a vision come together. What's the strangest thing you've had to do or to find for a photo shoot?
CHERKASKYThe hardest thing I had to find -- and I only had to find this once in 25 years -- was muskrat. And I found it, and it was -- someone had been hunting -- it was off-season, and it was in Baltimore. And, yeah, I found it. I called (word?) and he -- I heard him shouting, anybody got any rats in their freezer? And someone did. He had a pair of them, and they were in a Ziploc bag that said, rats, with the date on it. And my sister picked them up. She was coming down from Providence, and she stopped in Baltimore and picked them up for me. That's probably the -- and I cooked them.
NNAMDIWhat were you shooting?
CHERKASKYThat was for the Smithsonian Festival of American Folk Life Cookbook, so that makes sense.
NNAMDIAnd you cooked the muskrats yourself?
CHERKASKYI cooked the muskrats myself in my apartment, mm hmm, and it was kind of -- they were fine. I like all food, and I like weird food. And I especially love maligned food. Now, I don't know if they're maligned necessarily, but if people -- and I love plain food, and I love food that the presentation's really ordinary, actually.
NNAMDIBut wait a minute. You live 30 minutes away from Baltimore.
NNAMDIWhy did your sister, coming all the way from Rhode Island, have to pick up the...
CHERKASKYShe was on her way.
CHERKASKYOh, she was on her way, yeah.
NNAMDICoincidence. All right. Just checking. Here is Bill in California, Md. Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BILLHi. I have a question for Rachel, and then a quick comment. And I guess this would apply to your studio work maybe. But do you have a preferred angle you like to shoot food at? I know the stuff going by on the screen here is pretty much three-quarters. But do you ever use vertical, and what do you determine what angle you might like to use? And the comment is a reminder there is no letter N in the word restaurateur.
NNAMDIThat's true. I keep putting that N in there. Thank you.
BILLYeah. Okay. Sure, thanks.
TEPPERWell, most of my photographs are horizontal, but that's not -- that's a function just of the way the Huffington Post website is built, just horizontal pictures wind up looking better, and the same goes for my own blog. I don't know. I don't like the way it looks. It's vertical and then horizontal and then horizontal and then vertical. It just winds up sort of changing the look of the blog itself. But photographs aside, you know, themselves, look good horizontal or vertical. And...
NNAMDIDo you like taking food-level pictures where you get right down to the level of the food?
NNAMDII noticed that.
TEPPERI love, you know, just getting very close in there. I usually use two lenses. I have a wide angle lens that I usually do for sort of like if I'm trying to capture the feeling in the restaurant and the dining experience. And then I use a macro lens when I'm shooting the food itself. And a lot of times I shoot from just above. A lot of times I like to stand up, and so I'm looking straight down at the food. And sometimes I -- if it's something that has a dish that has height, I like to maybe get a little bit underneath it and give these dishes a sense of scale.
NNAMDIAny preferences on your part, Lisa?
CHERKASKYWhatever makes the food looks best.
NNAMDIHere is Steve. Thank you for your call, Bill. Here is Steve in Potomac, Md. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEHi, Kojo. To Lisa and Rachel, quick question, are there many guys doing food photography and food styling other than guys who obsess over their cooking and take pictures at home and put it on their Facebook? And what do you think the difference in perspectives are in men versus women in your professions?
CHERKASKYWho wants to go?
TEPPERWell, you know, there are a lot of male photographers out there that I know of, professional male photographers, but, for whatever reason, food writers, when -- and the younger generation is dominated by women. It's amazing. Food PR is dominated by women.
TEPPERAnd I don't know exactly why that is because chefs certainly are still mostly men, especially men who run kitchens. And I don't know exactly what it is. I don't know if necessarily there is a difference in the way you -- well, the way you shoot food.
NNAMDIWhat do you think, Lisa?
CHERKASKYI work with, I'd say, 50/50 photographers who shoot food, men and women, stylists, mostly women. There's a stylist I really admire named Nir Adar, who is a man, who is in New York, but mostly all women. Originally, stylists were coming from the home ec arena, and I think that's why. And I also think it's -- all these are supporting roles, PR and all that...
CHERKASKY...and it's not the -- like, the wild ego of a chef.
TEPPERRight. That's true.
CHERKASKYIt's different, more traditional. I mean, I -- you know, or more, you know, stereotypic.
TEPPERYeah. Photography, I don't know necessarily. I know lots of male photographers , and I don't know if they shoot differently 'cause I am not a man.
CHERKASKYThey're more -- oh, they're more rig oriented, I think. The male photographers love rigs, and they love it more -- they like to be more complicated. And they love to, you know, get out tools and all this stuff. And the women, I think, are a little bit more fluid. That's, of course, a gross generalization, but a little bit more approachable, more...
NNAMDIWe're running out of time, but here is Debbie is Alexandria, Va. Debbie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DEBBIEHi, Kojo. I have a quick question. I don't know if you have anything about this. But the videography, with respect to food in cooking shows, they seem to zoom in on things so close that you can't even see what you're looking at. I get cross-eyed. It's kind of irritating. I was wondering if you have any idea what's going on with the camera work on food.
NNAMDIVideography doing food shows. Do you notice anything about how close they get to the food so you don't even know what you're looking at, Debbie says?
TEPPERWell, I do think that, you know, the same way -- the same reason that I shoot with a macro lens is the same reason that I imagine the people making these videos like to get in close because you're sort of creating this like intimate central moment with the food. And so I think that's -- I certainly think more shows do that than others. You know, if you ever watch, like, a Jamie Oliver show, they do that much more. But it's interesting, and it creates a different moment with the food.
NNAMDIThis hour has been so interesting that I did not notice the time passing, but it has passed. Rachel Tepper, thank you for joining us.
TEPPERThanks for having me.
NNAMDIRachel Tepper is a journalist, photographer and the blogger behind the "Pumpernickel Collection." She's also the assistant editor of the D.C. edition of the Huffington Post. Lisa Cherkasky, thank you for joining us.
CHERKASKYWhat a pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDILisa is a D.C.-based food stylist, writer and cook. She also runs the blog "Lunch Encounter" which is all about sandwiches, but I can tell you she makes great cookies. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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