Stories are the way that we humans connect and remember things, so knowing how to shoot food stories is an essential skill for food photography.
There are three key elements in how to shoot food stories:
How we put these three together can create an emotional response in our viewer. And with that can come action: to buy a cookbook, book a favourite restaurant or cook a recipe.
If you’re finding the idea of how to shoot food stories difficult to imagine, think of a late night bourbon on the rocks with muted, warm lighting, the clear glass and amber liquid glinting in front of a dark background, with echoes of a gentleman’s club and pungent cigars. Now, think of a citrus bourbon cocktail on a hot summer’s day: served on a white linen-covered table in the garden. The glasses have orange peel garnishes and a pineapple and mango fruit salad is just out of focus in the background.
Every detail about those two stories is different even though both photos are of bourbon in a glass with ice.
Time can refer to an era, a time of day or the seasons. Are we present day or somewhere in the past? How about the season: winter, spring, summer or fall? And are we talking early morning, the sun is high in the sky, late afternoon golden hour or night? We can hint at time of day using white balance: early mornings will be cooler/bluer than the middle of the day and late afternoons are much warmer/yellow
Where are we? This is where backgrounds and props help enormously. A homey wooden kitchen with bakeware that has been handed down from mother to daughter or a chic, minimalist dining room? Appropriate cutlery, linens and plating gives clues. It’s also why backgrounds can have such a strong impact: they set the scene, literally.
What happened? Whether in one photo or multiple photos, can you see where the finished dish or plate came from? What raw ingredients went into it? Do we get to see stages of the recipe as ingredients are chopped, beaten and poured?
Are you showing the steam and splatter of a sizzling steak, the whir of beaters in a batter or a stream of milk going into a béchamel sauce?
Food photographers often call this the ‘movement’ shot. A single drop caught on its way through the air to the saucepan or plate shows anticipation. It’s just like Wile E. Coyote peddling in mid-air when chasing Road Runner over the edge of a cliff; we know what happens next and we’re waiting for that moment when he’s going to drop to the ground.
The next step is up to you. What kind of emotional response do you want to draw out of your viewers with your food stories? Do you want them to feel nostalgia for times gone by and pin that recipe of grandma’s buttermilk cookies? How about feeling successful and stylish for knowing how to make a classic martini when colleagues come round to dinner? Or calm because you’ve shown a time-poor parent a month of prep-ahead slow cooker meals?