Interview by Kathryn Gordon with Expert Food Photographer Steve Legato
Kathryn: Steve, I know you did the beautiful photography for my book, Les Petits Macarons! and everybody loves it, too. What is your background?
Steve: I first was interested in being a documentary photographer actually- that was about 16 years ago -but my first opportunity to photograph for magazines was to shoot food for their restaurant reviews. My passion for photography was immediately fueled with a newly found intrigue and passion for food; there is just so much to know and experience and see; tastes, ingredients, techniques, history, culture, trends, philosophies... Food is amazing.
Kathryn: Do you specialize in photography for magazines, books, websites, brochures, packaging, etc. or “do it all?”
Steve: I do all of these, and each requires a certain nuance in the way you shoot it. Editorial, websites and such tend to be more cutting edge and creative, whereas packaging and book photography is very exacting and meticulous. I love and enjoy aspects of each.
Kathryn: We visited your studio in Philadelphia for a week to shoot for my book with Running Press. Are all shoots done in a studio? I know that you travel a lot. Are your shoots ever done on site in restaurants and bakeries?
Steve: I've done food shoots in generator rooms, bathrooms, kitchens, dining rooms, rooftops, on my back porch- as well as my studio and on location at restaurants, bakeries. Where ever there is light (an outlet) and a little room, there is a way!
Kathryn: What are the challenges to food photography, particularly to pastry, baking and confections? Do you cringe when you see bad photos of food?
Steve: The challenge is always to describe the food clearly (even if it’s messy!) I want the viewer to quickly understand the food as if they were also present there and took a bite of it…What is the experience of eating this? How does it feel? Dry, moist, tender, crisp- even sweet, savory, salty, bitter, creamy, acidic, hot, cold... I'm trying to portray the sensuality of food, of the experience of eating, the perceptions...
In a purely photographic sense, there is the challenge of composition; to create a flow to an image, a tension, a sense of poetry or beauty; sometimes that's based on just the food itself, sometimes on how elements are arranged within the frame, the focus, point of view, etc.
I do cringe sometimes but more so if I see an indelicacy or indifference in treatment. That might sound strange, but there are parallels in almost any occupation; music, cooking, writing, etc. That being said, a bad picture of an exquisite meal can be a wonderful reminder of that experience- like a post-it note rather than a poem, and I appreciate that as well.
Kathryn: Your studio had a fridge, basic stove, microwave and a freezer, which helped to shoot the ice cream chapter! What kind of kitchen is required to help shoot food? Do you always have to have kitchen facilities available too?
Steve: It's certainly nice to have the tools to create the food you need for the shoot. Think about it like having tools to fix your car, it's easy to have the 3 or 4 things you need to change the oil, but to change the timing belt, well...
The kitchen is the same way. You can get away with a minimal amount of tools and some creativity, but if you’re photographing 50 dishes this week, it indeed takes a full resource of kitchen and culinary tools, and expertise, to get that done and done well.
Kathryn: Do you ever provide the food styling and props, or do clients typically have to provide their own (or hire food and prop stylists)? On some photo shoots I've been on everyone has an assistant, too! The photographer has theirs, the food stylist theirs, and the prop stylist theirs! It can get crowded.
Steve: I usually work together with the client to hire a prop stylist and a food stylist when applicable (cook books, advertising, packaging, etc.) Their contribution to the final image is invaluable. A great food/prop stylist is behind every great food photo!
Kathryn: What should clients be prepared with before they enter the studio for a shoot? (What's the worst-story you can think of in terms of “bad food photography” you've encountered?)
Steve: I'd say to just be prepared for the process. It takes great ingredients, talented people, tools, organization and time, especially the time to make it all work well. Mostly I think it’s a fun and interesting experience for the client! (I do remember a chef at a diner wanted to draw grill marks on the “grilled” vegetables with a Sharpie...I talked him out of it, luckily :) Especially in editorial shoots, you have to be prepared for anything, really in quite a Zen way, you see how you can find, interpret, adapt, and capture the beauty in most anything.
Kathryn: To establish a time frame, how long in advance do people have to schedule a shoot? How long can it take to receive the finished product, now that there are digital support systems?
Steve: It takes time to plan a shoot, procure the ingredients, and hire the necessary crew. For the major project, you can certainly plan a month in advance (even just to give enough notice to avoid scheduling conflicts). For me, I'd say about two weeks are sufficient, but when more people are involved, the more advance you need.
Finished files can be delivered right away -within hours in some rare cases- but most of the time I'd say a few days a week. It does take time to clean up images, to make adjustments such as color balance. I'd say that it's best to be clear with the photographer what your needs (and timing expectations) are- certainly they should accommodate to the best of their ability- we are, in fact, working for you!
Kathryn: On average, is there an average length of time it takes for a shoot? Is the client usually present?
Steve: The time a shoot takes depends...Editorial shoots are often quite quick—a few hours—even with ~12 dishes (as long as the restaurant can create the dishes quickly enough). For a cookbook or other more meticulous photography project, you have props, a set to create, as well as the actual dishes to be made by the food stylist. Typically, I shoot about 6 dishes a day.
The client is typically present to make certain the pictures are being made to their specs/needs. (Note by Kathryn: given the digital editing software, the client can actually see their shots set up in real-time on the screen and at the end of the day help review the progress made by looking at all the photos on the computer).
Kathryn: We assume someone of your experience level is expensive. Can you provide any general costs or price ranges (only if possible in this format, of course)!
Steve: Prices vary and depend on a few different things including what type of project, how the pics are used and to what extent, the complexity, and finally associated costs of producing the images. Think of shooting a bowl of soup for a major soup company vs. shooting a bowl of soup for a local diner. Within each level of project, there will be a range of prices that you will find most photographers come in at.
Kathryn: If someone who needs photo cannot (yet) afford an experienced food photographer, and they're trying to do their own photo shoots, do you have any words of advice regarding what kind of lighting generally works best? Any tricks of the trade you could share regarding setting up the food?
Steve: The best trick of the trade is to engage yourself and take a lot of photos. Even if the majority of them are failures, there is a lot to learn from each image. Consider what direction the (main) light source is coming from. Consider if it’s harsh or diffused light, a small source like a light bulb or a large source like a window. How dark are the shadows, how moody? (Shadows define the surface/textures as much as light does, so please do not try to take away all the shadows :)
In a very general way, I try to light food side lit or slightly backlit. If, on a clock face, the camera is positioned at 6 o'clock, the plate of food at the center of the clock, then I'd want the light to be coming anywhere from 9 to 3 o'clock, depending. If the light source is coming from the camera, it tends to rob the dish of any volume, flattening out its surface blandly, filling in any and all shadows (the same goes for overhead light in general).
Try setting the dish near a window and shoot facing towards the window. Then move slightly left or right and see the difference it makes. If shadows are too harsh, set up a piece of white paper or foam core to reflect the light back towards the dish. Vary the distance of the reflector to the dish to change the effectiveness. Try under or over exposing just to experiment.
You'll develop an eye for this, sensitivity and a sensibility over time. Just keep shooting!
Kathryn: That is extremely helpful information, thank you for sharing that. Are there any general comments you'd like to share that we didn't ask about?
Steve: Just like a chef would say, “taste!” I would say, “see!” Food photography is a wonderful thing to be a part of and to experience and be effected by, inspired by. I do believe that a good image makes a difference.