Learning from our mistakes

As photographers, we all know that our mistakes are tools for growth but I think it’s also helpful to learn from OTHER photographer’s mess-ups…which is why I am here today to share some food photography fails from my own work. None of the photos I’m about to share are truly horrible (despite the fact that I cringe and hide my head in shame every time I see them) but they certainly have a LOT (!!!) of room for improvement.

So, let’s dive right in.

With this first image, the subject was challenging to begin with. Fried brown food is not particularly attractive and it can be really hard to shoot. In the original photo, I was very attached to a piece of weathered wood I had recently found and I wanted to include it in the shot. That was my first mistake. I chose the surface before figuring out if it was a good choice for my image. It wasn’t. It doesn’t do anything to enhance the food or make it shine. Second, I chose very cool-toned dishes which make the whole shot look cold and unappetizing. The lighting looks flat and the entire image is unappealing. 

To fix the issue, I started by changing the props. I chose a very neutral backdrop with pops of warm brown, and kept my dishes in the same color palette. Because the color story is very monochromatic and neutral, the brown of my food suddenly stands out as the main color. Also, I lit the fritters from the side, which gives the image much more dimension.

In this next photo of a morel mushroom salad with a fried duck egg, I started by  choosing the wrong dish. The color of that plate is doing nothing for the food. It feels washed out and bland. Also, the duck egg looks enormous and totally draws your eye away from everything else in the shot.The plate also feels overfilled and unintentional with the styling. I don’t see a “hero” in the shot.

In the second image, I went with dark, cool tones to contrast with the light artichokes in the salad. We ended up slicing the morels in a different way so they became the star of the photo, which they are supposed to be, and we put way less food on the plate. Also, I cropped part of the duck egg out of the frame so it takes up less space, and angled it in a way so that the orange yolk wasn’t as distracting. Now, when I look at the image, my eyes go right to that front mushroom with the flaked salt on it and then, secondly, to the egg. It feels cleaner and much more appetizing. 

These next images are from one of the first cookbooks I ever photographed, (over 12 years ago!!);  Good Fish by the incredible Becky Selengut. Seeing as it was so early in my food photography career,  there were a handful of images that I was never happy with— even at the time. Luckily, Good Fish was re-released in 2018, which gave Becky and I the opportunity to go back and re-shoot some recipes that we hated. We are both SO much happier with the new versions!

There are so many things wrong with this shot of black cod— where do I even begin?? The food doesn’t look good; it’s washed out and tired-looking. I don’t like the angle of the photo because it does nothing to really showcase the food. The napkin is a horrible color— it gives the entire image a green-blue cast, which is not appetizing. The fork looks huge and I hate the plate. The photo feels forced, overly stiff and very cold in tone. 

The new image was taken from overhead— a much better angle for this dish. Again, I went with rich, dark neutrals for my props and the food was styled differently so that you can clearly see each component of the recipe. The fish looks beautifully glazed with just the right amount of shine. Because of my lighting, there is a great amount of highlight on the fish and the veggies, but not overly so. I also kept the propping very simple and subtle so there are less distractions from the food.

Next on the list is this recipe photo for Arctic Char. In the first shot, the piece of fish we used was not attractive to start with; the skin looks wrinkly and unappetizing. We also should have used a bigger piece of fish-- after all, it's the star of the recipe! Additionally, the platter I chose was WAY TOO BIG. The photo becomes more about the platter than the food.

In the redo, Becky used 3 pieces of BEAUTIFUL fish and showcased the gorgeous crispy skin that had failed in the first shot. I chose a much more size-appropriate platter, in a complementary color to the char, which makes the orange color of the fish really stand out. For the new release of the book, Becky reworked this recipe so that there was more green and vibrancy in it and we really played up all the colors, textures and ingredients for the photo. Every component is highlighted-- the cauliflower, the green sauce, the cauliflower puree and, of course, the fish-- and the recipe really shines.

Next is this shot of poached tuna. The first shot is, frankly, an embarrassment. It's hard to decipher the individual ingredients because everything is chopped up too small and mashed together. The plate is way too big and it is the wrong color for this recipe. Generally, I am a big fan of using complementary colors (like the blue and orange shown in this image) but it doesn't work here. The blue plate is making the fish look bluish-gray in color and, consequently, not fresh. The angle of the photo feels awkward and, because the plate is so huge, the food looks like it's floating. 

In the re-worked photo, I chose a warmer palette, shot the image from a new angle (overhead) and lit it so that there was some nice highlights on the fish. Becky styled the food in a more successful way, as well: she chose the freshest pieces of arugula to highlight, which adds nice colors and a good variety of shapes on the dish. She also cut the fruit in the salad differently so you can really see the ingredients. Lastly, the chopped pistachios were added last so that they provide beautiful texture on top of the salad, rather than mixing them with everything else like she did in the original.

Finally, we have this image of herring. (Truthfully, the original photo features sardines and the redone photo showcases herring but, other than that, the recipe is the same.)

This first photo still haunts Becky's and my nightmares, mostly because the book editor at the time told us the sardine looked like male genitalia. So that was discouraging. 😂
Seriously, though, the original photo is wrong on so many levels; I despise the plate (too much blank white space around the fish!!) and there are way too many things in the shot. It looks crowded and distracting. I also hate the yellow-y green props in the background-- they do nothing for the food or the overall image. And, again, the angle of the photo is weird. 

The new version is, once again, taken from overhead so we can really see all the components of the dish. The blues in the shot work better visually, and the plate choice feels sort of Mediterranean, which is appropriate for the recipe. Also, the food styling is on-point; the fish is seared beautifully and the fennel, herbs, citrus and pine nuts all stand out and make for a mouth-watering shot.

That's it! I hope my humiliating trip down memory lane has been helpful for you. Hopefully, these food photography fails are a good reminder that we are ALWAYS learning, growing and honing our craft....and that EVERYONE makes crappy work at some point!  😂

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