This article was mentioned in People & Place (page 9) of the May 2009 issue of Chef Magazine.
The public has fully embraced chefs as celebrity figures. They eat it up--every morning news food demo, every cookbook signing, every cooking class. To say "image is everything" would be an understatement.
The foundation of that image--long after the stage lights are dimmed and the Sharpie markers are capped--is your restaurant's Web site. Intrigued potential customers are visiting your Web site to be further enticed to dine at your restaurant. So, what better way to wow them than with mouthwatering images of your signature dishes?
That's where a professional photographer who specializes in dynamic food shots--for your Web images and beyond--comes in, according to Washington, D.C.-based food photographer Renée Comet (www.cometphoto.com). And Comet would know: She's worked with D.C.'s Art & Soul, Volt in Frederick, Md., and Marriott International's test kitchen. She also took the image of a creamy white, three-tiered wedding cake that was used for this year's United States Postal Service wedding stamp. The 61-cent wedding cake stamp (2-ounce mailing rate) was made available at the beginning of this month.
Here, Chef Magazine speaks with Comet on tips for working with a food photographer so that the images on your restaurant's Web site and other publicity materials can capture the essence of your cuisine--and capture some more customers, too.
(photo courtesy of Renée Comet, www.cometphoto.com)
Chef Magazine: When it comes to photographing food, how do you approach the subject, and what is your philosophy?
Comet: I first think, I want to make something that people will look at and say, "I want to eat that. I want to be there." It's exciting. In this one photo, you're trying to convey this feeling of relaxing, family ... friends, delicious. It's a lot of emotion that's wrapped up into one photo. I think that I have a particular style typically that I do that's pretty simple and calm and refreshing. You want your photo to look like something that you can taste and feel and smell. It's a lot to wrap up into a shot. You can't taste it. You can't smell it. So you have to do it with lighting to bring out all the emotion.
Chef Magazine: Do you find that it's challenging to work with food because it can be changing? If it's something that's hot, as it cools, it may lose some of its natural color and its original shape. What sorts of considerations along those lines do you look at?
Comet: Yes, it does change. And especially with digital, you can see from frame to frame that it's changing. A lot of times, we work with stand-in food to get everything right first. If it's changed so much, you have to start over with it. You have to replate the dish because the last thing you want it for it to look tired or old. That's not very appealing. But a lot of times, once you do all the preliminary [work], it is pretty stable. The thing that really makes it sing is, first off, the lighting. And also, right before we do our final shot, we're adding water and juices or sauces--something that really makes it appealing.
Chef Magazine: How can a restaurant benefit from working with a professional food photographer?
Comet: Just like a chef, I think that a food photographer can take the food to another level. It's kind of like a shared vision. In the long run, it ends up saving time and money. A food photographer brings a certain set of expertise with lighting and angles. I have had a lot of restaurants or chefs do their own photos--and then after a while, they realize they're not that good. Everybody has a digital camera, but they're lacking. I mean, I can't cook like they can.
Chef Magazine: When a chef sits down with a food photographer for the first time, what points should they discuss?
Comet: First, I have them tell me about their business and their philosophy, what their goal is. I have them show me some of the food and dishes. What kind of style do they like? Even if they describe it, sometimes I have them show me different printed pieces they like because people interpret words differently. Then you can get really down to the specifics. I ask them how they're going to use the photos. Something for the Web site, you'd want to keep it simple and light and airy, as opposed to if it is going into a special format in their menu. This might be the first meeting, but always I ask, if I have the job, to set up a "pre-pro"--pre-production--meeting before the shoot, so we can really go over each shot specifically.
(photo courtesy of Renée Comet, www.cometphoto.com)
Chef Magazine: What should a restaurant client do before first meeting with a food photographer?
Comet: I think that they should do their homework. They should look at the photographer's portfolio and the Web site. I think they should ask the photographer, have they worked with a chef before, and do they work with a food stylist? They want to figure out if the food photographer has some styling skills and has a couple of tools in [his or her] tool box. It is a big savings not to work with a food stylist if the chef is capable. ... They should look at the list of clients that the photographer has worked for. If they can, talk to some of the clients to see what the experience was like. If they've never gone to a photo shoot before, ask to sit in on one or come by the studio for an hour. I actually do that a lot with clients because it's a good education for them. Have a pre-pro meeting, and get a precise estimate on the number of shots, the usage for the shots, etc.
Chef Magazine: What is a typical day like on a restaurant job site?
Comet: First off, it depends on the restaurant. Some aren't open for lunch, so if you can go in and shoot all day, that's great. We can always go in and shoot from 9 to 11 [a.m.], take a break [for lunch service], and then go back to shoot at 2 [p.m.]. Sometimes, they have an extra banquet room we can shoot in. We might set up a studio-type setting and bang out a lot of the close-up food shots. Typically, I like to shoot with a larger format camera. If there are some restaurant shots or atmospheric shots or people working or some details they want me to grab, we do that with 35-millimeter [film], and it's much more casual. We might be using natural light or a mixture of natural and some strobe. I like to get in and spend the day there and really feel the rhythm of the restaurant.
Chef Magazine: What camera do you use?
Comet: My main camera that I shoot close-ups of food with is a digital-back Phase One, on a 4-by-5 camera. The reason being, it gives me swings and tilts so you can throw stuff out of focus and have a lot of control.
Chef Magazine: Any closing remarks?
Comet: It's a real special relationship between a food photographer and a chef. It's very different than working with a food stylist. It's sort of like a shared vision: You're really working as a team. It's his or her food, and the photographer is bringing that vision alive. It doesn't get any better than that.