Thursday, September 18, 2008

An Insider's Look at a Cookbook Photo Shoot

I have been lucky enough to have participated in photo shoots for some of my books. I say "lucky" because it is very typical for authors not to be involved. Let me explain. First of all, even if an author would like there to be photos in their book, it is not up to them. It is up to the publisher, for which it comes down to money. Does it make sense for this book? Will it aid sales? Is there a photo budget for this title? If it is decided that photos are to be included, what happens next might not be obvious to those outside the industry. Basically, the publisher needs to hire a photographer. They also need a food stylist. This is a person who specializes in making food attractive for photography (or on-camera, as is the case for my TV shoots...more on that another time). Prop stylists choose plates and platters, tablecloths and backdrops. Where does the author fit in? Well, some authors can style their own food, in which case they fill that slot. However, if they are not stylists or stylist-worthy, their presence on a photo-shoot is not usually welcomed. The publisher hired them for their "words" just as they hire a photographer for their ability to take pictures. What does a writer know about producing pretty pictures? Well, I am primarily a writer and I will try to be's the deal: The stylist knows how to make food look great. They know how to work with lighting and work in conjunction with photographers all the time. The photographer knows what perspective they want to show; they have their own aesthetic and point of view. To these professionals, they can easily read over the shot list created by the editor (perhaps done in concert with the author) and prepare the recipes and shoot them. The author is not "needed". Or are they? You might think you know what I think about all this...and most likely you are half right. All of my Field Guide books and Dummies books were shot without me. I truly was not needed. The formats of the books are very straightforward, as is the content. My wedding cake books and birthday cake book were a whole other matter. Wedding cakes, in particular, are very much a personal, visual aesthetic and my editors for all of these books understood this from the get-go; I was welcomed on the sets with open arms. So, the other half of the answer is that I do think the author's input is not only necessary on some shoots, but it can enhance the finished product.

The shot above is from the set of Wedding Cakes You Can Make, which was comprised of all women: photographer Zeva Olebaum, food stylist Karen Tack, prop stylist Cathy Cook, myself and all the assistants. Here you can see Zeva taking a light reading during our one outdoor shot. We were in a fabulous light filled loft in NYC and there was this lovely outdoor roof that we decided to use on-the-spot.

Here is a pic above of the cake from a better perspective. The tiers are arranged off-set and the fresh flowers are cascading to accentuate the fluid shape. I brought the blackberries on-the-vine straight from my friend's garden in Hadley, MA.

The following pics are of the same cake. First we made a "tablecloth" out of leaves. We took an inexpensive cloth and hot-glued the leaves on, one by one, in an overlapping fashion. This took quite a while. It is not difficult, and it is very effective in the end, but you need some time to get the job done. Zeva set up the shot and let us know that we really only needed to cover the cloth about three-quarters of the way around, as that was all that was going to show in the shot. There is never a moment to waste on a photo shoot, so the tablecloth was only completed to the degree that it needed to be. In the next shot you can see Karen making an adjustment after looking through the lens and seeing something out of whack. Notice the background. It is not the background in the following shot. Often a test will be done and if it is not quite right, the prop stylist will come in with a new idea. 

The next shots are of the cover cake. We didn't know it was the cover at the time, but as we got farther along in the process, it became clear that this cake had what we wanted to evoke: it is pretty, yet the vertical lines of the piped buttercream keep it from being too frilly. The fresh flowers are easy to place and the three tiers, in the 6", 10" 14" configuration, are my favorite silhouette. The first photo shows Karen about to hand-place on little sweet pea blossom to fill out the arrangement.

The following two pics show a subtlety of styling. can you tell the difference in my Nutella Cake?



The difference is a very light dusting of cocoa. I thought it added a textural interest. In the end, the photo editor chose to go with a picture without the cocoa and also without the top crown of curls. That might seem plain, but in the book it is very tightly cropped and it works. Still, I am a More is More kinda gal and if I made this cake again, I would dust with cocoa.

This next pic is of the square tiered Marzipan and Orange Essensia Cake. Essensia is a lovely orange muscat wine that is brushed on the cake layers. Placing the sliced blanched almonds one-by-one on the cake is a very effective border. In the background you can see many of the typical photo-shoot needs: iron and ironing board for smoothing out tablecloths, a pile of tablecloths in various colors, paper towels (we use Lots), a Pantone book for looking at colors for ideas, pieces of glass cut to order for the base of the cakes and in the rear left, a round Styrofoam dummy that was used as a stand-in for size approximations. I don't remember what the spray paint was for. Perhaps a background.

I love this next picture of my chocolate-filled Valentine's Day Cake because it shows its true colors. In the book, the pink on the tablecloth is reflecting onto the cake, making it look pink. In fact, I once went to a book signing in Philadelphia and the pastry chef recreated the cake - and it was pink! I couldn't imagine why; I figured it was his/her interpretation. And then I took a long, hard look at my picture in the book and realized she thought it really Was pink!
Here is an actual picture of a slice taken out of that Pink cake, just as an aside.

At the very end of the shoot, after we had cleaned up most of the rented space, my editor Linda Ingroia paused to tango with a partner. A fitting end to a lovely shoot; it is a memory I will always hold dear.


Justin Schwartz said...

Why do I feel like this post was written just for me?

dorie said...

Dede, it's so great to see these pictures and get your on-the-spot story of the shoot. The cakes look so fabulous and I love, love that closing tango picture. Thanks for taking us behind the scenes. It's terrific that you're blogging and I look forward to catching up with you here often.

Groomer Ang said...

Those look AWESOME! How's about a Bull Terrier Cake for Silverwood? I'll be first in line! ;)

Angie, Robert, Feather, Darla & Pappy

ButterYum said...

Absolutely lovely cakes.

I'm happy to have found your blog. I just made your lemon buttermilk cake for a cake tasting... I just loved the texture! The bride-to-be loved the flavor!!! Can't wait to try more of your recipes.