It’s a tough job, but…

As an antidote to London Fashion Week, I thought I’d take you behind the scenes of a food photoshoot, where bellies are rubbed, not sucked in, and where mouths salivate rather than pout.

The rules

Rule one: food can be photogenic or otherwise, much like people. A ripe, rosy plum will be a natural in front of the camera, requiring only a bowl to sit in, some fellow plums for company, and favourable lighting. Life’s plainer ingredients, however, need tarting and gussying up like the mother of the bride in order to shine. The difference, of course, is that food will never writhe, smile more widely, or respond to calls of ‘lovely, that’s great, keep it going, you’re a confident, fierce bratwurst!’ It’s up to the team to sex up those pesky German sausages.

The team

The Photographer: usually a surprisingly skinny man.

How to spot him: the only one not making primitive ‘mmm’ and ‘aah’ noises – he’s not gazing longingly at the food; he’s looking at the light. Like a ripening pear whose flesh melts to mush in the time it takes for you to run to the kitchen and grab a knife, the light will tease your photographer, changing by the minute, every passing cloud or sunbeam frustrating his efforts. The only person in the room who understands the challenge he faces is…

…the Photographer’s Assistant: photographer in waiting, gliding under the radar.

How to spot him/her: well, assistants can’t be typecast. They can be art-school graduates just starting out, semi-established food photographers biding their time in their quest for their own studio and clients, friends (or lovers) of the photographer, frustrated fashion photographers, passionate foodies enlightened by a career change – or non-existent, depending on the budget. They do tend to fall into two camps, though: true artists, immune to gluttony and uninterested in the food; or overly eager helpers, a little too concerned about the fate of the food ‘in front of these hot lights’, a little too willing to whisk it away, never to be seen again, before a startled…

…Home Economist: a true multi-tasker (and naturally, therefore, a woman).

How to spot her: she’s the one whisking a sabayon and perfecting puff pastry while filleting a fish and decorating a Victoria sponge. However much she’s got on her plate, she’ll usually remember to snatch the almonds she’s toasting from the oven before they burn, and if she doesn’t, she’ll know how to rescue the charred remains.  She might be Leith’s-trained, or a graduate of the school of experience, but she can always rectify a dodgy recipe or resuscitate a wilting soufflé, all the while keeping up her end of the conversation with…

…the Client: the ‘prima donna’ of the group, since she (in this case) will approve the images.

How to spot her: she’ll either be getting involved or getting in the way (depending on your point of view), drooling more than is strictly decent, making decisions as to the order of the shoot based on what she wants to eat for lunch, and constantly asking ‘is this finished with?’. Leave her be – she’s enjoying herself, and it’ s better to have her here demolishing everything in sight than to have to work with an absentee client. She can ‘help’…

…the Prop Stylist: a luxury few editorial shoots can afford, she normally replaces the Home Economist rather than working with her.

How to spot her: the glamorous lady surrounded by an impossibly beautiful array of ornate bowls, rich fabrics and vintage cutlery plucked straight from the Aladdin’s Cave of the prop house. Her manner is deft and discreet: she handles the fragile dishes with a quiet and delicate grace, can engineer a random scattering of seeds or crumbs with nothing but a pair of tweezers and a steady hand, and is adept at folding napkins to fall just so. What’s more, she’s endlessly patient when those around her try to make aesthetic suggestions.

Rule two: during the shoot, your subjects will develop personas and human attributes. While the photographer takes ten to fifteen shots of a particularly uncooperative ingredient, you’ll be deciding as a team what’s working and what’s not, and conducting concerned conversations about the feelings and mental well-being of each ingredient. Does the cabbage look like it wants a knife? Does the cheese feel lonely? Is the ham enough of a hero? Is that pear at the back muscling in on him? Soon enough, this behaviour will seem completely normal and you will begin to greet food you find in the fridge or dishes presented to you at restaurants with a cheery and familiar ‘hello!’.

Rule three: stop shooting when you’re no longer seeing the objects in front of the lens as food. Each day is a race against daylight savings time. Not only that, but the clock marks the collective creativity draining from the room. It’s guaranteed that if falling darkness doesn’t beat you to your last shot of the day, you’ll call time when you hear yourself suggest creating a smiley face from the ingredients on the plate.

Rule four: before the shoot, colleagues might make envious comments about the jolly you’re about to embark on. But be warned: you’ll arrive home from a three-day photoshoot wearier than you ever return from the office after a full week. It’s not that it’s arduous work. In fact, your colleagues are right – it is a bit of a jolly. But it’s exhausting nevertheless.

Rule five: despite working through lunch most days, you’ll probably put on a healthy half-stone during your shoot, a result of grazing for two or three days like a cow high on ganja. If you’re greedy like me, this weight-gain is as unavoidable as night-sweats after a heavy cheese session, food hangovers, or chocolate-related self-loathing. Don’t fight it: a full belly and freebies to take away make pay day edge that bit closer.

Rule six: however cutting-edge your images are when you wrap, future generations will look back on them and think them naff and passé. They might even laugh. To hell with them: carpe diem.

Rule seven: ignore rules four, five and six. Really, what do you care if you have to drag your weary bones out of bed and into the office the day after the shoot, wearing clothes that no longer contain your va-va-voom curves, and knowing that your hard work has an aesthetic shelf-life? You had a ball – you were being paid to snap food, ogle food, talk about food, and, most importantly, eat food, and you didn’t go home until you’d filled your boots with the leftovers. 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One response to “It’s a tough job, but…

  1. Hi Nicky, Not sure which description fits me but I think I’d like to be the glamorous one! Fantastic writing, its a pleasure to read.
    Jennifer

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